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Collectibles dealer called to testify in O.J. Simpson case

Dealer’s audio recording a key to prosecution’s robbery/kidnapping case against Simpson

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Steve Marcus

Collectibles dealer Thomas Riccio holds up an audio recorder as he testifies Thursday afternoon, Sept. 18, 2008, during O.J. Simpson’s trial at the Clark County Regional Justice Center in Las Vegas. Simpson faces charges that include burglary, robbery and assault following an alleged robbery at the Palace Station Hotel & Casino in September 2007.

Updated Thursday, Sept. 18, 2008 | 10:35 p.m.

O.J. Simpson trial, Day 4

O.J. Simpson smiles as he arrives for his trial Thursday, Sept. 18, 2008, at the Clark County Regional Justice Center in Las Vegas. Launch slideshow »

Sun coverage

The colorful collectibles dealer at the center of O.J. Simpson's robbery/kidnapping case was called to testify at the former football star's criminal trial Thursday.

Thomas Riccio is the alleged "middle man" who arranged the meeting between two other memorabilia dealers, Bruce Fromong and Alfred Beardsley, and Simpson in a Palace Station hotel room last year.

Riccio used the audio recorder he bought at a Las Vegas Radio Shack to secretly record the six-minute confrontation in the hotel room, as well as several other conversations he had before and after the run-in occurred.

The device also captured audio of Metro Police crime scene analysts as they processed evidence they found in the hotel room.

Along with one of the six men who accompanied Simpson on Sept. 13, 2007, Clarence "C.J." Stewart, the former NFL star now faces a dozen robbery, weapons and kidnapping-related offenses.

Rather than turning the recording over to police after the alleged robbery, Riccio turned around and sold it to the gossip Web site, TMZ, for more than $100,000.

He never mentioned the recording to police. Investigators learned about the recording only after the lead detective was told it was available online.

The recorder and the files it contained have been contested by the defense. FBI analysts have inspected the device and the files, but FBI analyst Kenneth Marr on Wednesday testified, in a video deposition, that he could not say whether or not the audio had been manipulated.

While Simpson's attorneys do not object to Riccio's recordings, the defense objects to the transcripts that were provided by police. Lawyers for both defendants called the accounts inaccurate.

"The jurors, since they're the ultimate finders of fact, should be the ones who determine who said what, not the state of Nevada," Simpson's lawyer, Yale Galanter, said.

He suggested the names should be removed from the transcripts so dialogue is not attributed to specific individuals.

Riccio said there are errors in the transcripts.

"There were many of them where the transcripts were wrong," he said. He later softened his criticism and said the inaccuracies were "nothing major."

Stewart's lawyers, meanwhile, object to both the audio files and the transcripts in any form.

"How is it that we can have this detective identify sources if we can't make sure that these recordings aren't inherently trustworthy?" Stewart's attorney, E. Brent Bryson, asked. "You can't," he said.

The LVPD-generated play-by-play credits verbiage in one of the recordings to Stewart, but Bryson said his client wasn't present for the discussion.

That transcript, which was given to jurors to use in court but will not be available during their deliberations in the jury room, state Stewart mentioned a gun as the men talk about scenarios and their plan of attack.

The audio record reads, "Stewart: You ain't playin' my gun ... you just want to see the sh*t."

Stewart's lawyers have said their client wasn't aware any weapons would be used during the reconnaissance mission. Simpson, meanwhile, said no guns were ever involved.

Judge Jackie Glass decided to allow the disputed recordings as evidence and allow jurors access to the transcripts while in court.

"The detective (has said) that ... he believes that he could identify other voices of the folks who were involved," she said.

The judge instructed the jury to use the transcripts "as a guide."

"The tapes are the actual evidence in this case, the transcripts are not the evidence," Glass said. "You will be guided by the tapes and not the transcript."

The first of two recordings played in court was taken as Simpson, Riccio and others talked by the Palms pool. During the conversation, the men develop a plan to recapture the items from Fromong and Beardsley that Simpson said had been taken from his home.

"It's my stuff. They stole it," Simpson states on the recording.

"I just want my private pictures," Simpson says. "The rest of it I don't give a sh*t about."

At one point Riccio proposes the men record audio of the confrontation.

"You know what we can do is this, we tape the whole thing," he suggests. Simpson doesn't appear to like the idea and replies, "Yeah, you keep sayin' that but ... that ain't good."

Simpson and the others were unaware that Riccio was taping their discussion, or that the device would be recording them later that night, either.

The second recording played Thursday was also taken at the Palms, while Riccio and a friend visited Simpson in his hotel room later that afternoon.

In that recording, Simpson says how his sister and former agent, Mike Gilbert, moved several of his belongings from his house and into a storage warehouse in northern California.

Simpson also explains on the tape how when, years later, he moved from Los Angeles to Miami, he hired Gilbert to help him move. When Gilbert helped him move, however, Simpson says Gilbert failed to bring all of the storage locker's contents with him.

Simpson was assured many of those items, including game presentation balls, personal photographs and NFL plaques, would be among the items he and his entourage would recover later that night.

Riccio's testimony on Thursday mainly focused on what was said, done and agreed upon during the hours leading up to the altercation in his hotel room.

He explained how he and Simpson and the others worked to develop the plan and agreed that one of the other men, Charles Ehrlich, would pose as a wealthy Simpson memorabilia aficionado interested in expanding his collection.

Riccio told Fromong and Beardsley that they had found a buyer who once spent $100,000 on a manuscript Simpson autographed in order to build interest.

He said the scheme changed from having the memorabilia dealers come to Simpson's hotel room, to renting two adjoining rooms at Palace Station, to carrying out the entire mission in his room.

"They wanted to do it in my room," Riccio said, noting Simpson called him 45 minutes after Riccio left the Palms to tell him the latest change in plans.

As Simpson gathered his "boys," Riccio convinced Fromong and Beardsley to move the memorabilia from their vehicle and into his hotel room.

The men mused over how surprised Beardsley was going to be when he saw Simpson enter the room.

Riccio said everything went as planned until Fromong refused to hand over his cell phone and someone pulled a gun. When that happened, he said the generally cooperative mood changed and things got ugly.

He said guns were never part of the original plan, though two of Simpson's co-conspirators, Walter Alexander and Michael McClinton, said Simpson asked them to bring firearms. Both men have signed plea bargains with prosecutors and will testify against the accused.

Riccio has been given immunity from prosecution in return for his testimony but has been criticized for his ongoing efforts to capitalize on the controversy, including offering to alter his testimony for money.

The collectibles dealer released a book earlier this year, "Busted," about his controversial past and dealings with Simpson.

Since the incident, Riccio has sold his share of Universal Rarities, the Corona, Calif.-based auction house he helped run. He explained his involvement in the case was bad for business.

Riccio said he used to believe the saying "There's no such thing as bad publicity," but has since changed his opinion.

"If it involves O.J. Simpson, it's not good publicity," he said.

Detective: Police weren't out to 'get' O.J. Simpson

Before Riccio took to the stand, the court heard from one of the first two Las Vegas police officers on the scene following the alleged robbery.

Caldwell first took the stand Wednesday, but had to return Thursday morning to complete his testimony.

Andy Caldwell insisted police weren't trying to "get" Simpson.

As Galanter resumed his cross-examination, he challenged the way LVPD officers handled the investigation and suggested investigators were determined to "get" Simpson because of his previous legal history.

Simpson was acquitted in 1995 of the double-murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. A subsequent civil suit later found the former NFL star liable for the deaths and laid a $33.5-million dollar judgment against him.

Caldwell previously testified he wanted, because of Simpson's notoriety, to cross all the T's and dot all the I's during the investigation.

Riccio's audio recorder captured dialogue of officers discussing Simpson as they conducted their investigation.

The detective said he didn't think "anything inappropriate was said."

Galanter asked Caldwell to read a transcript, which the detective produced during the investigation, of what officers said as they processed the scene.

The transcript said: "California can't get him, now we'll be (inaudible) got him."

Caldwell attributed the comments to a civilian Metro Police employee, who also commented, "This is great."

The audio transcript notes the remarks were followed by group laughter.

The defense believes officers were determined to arrest Simpson because of his past.

"This tape recorded law enforcement personnel ... doing a quote-unquote, what's supposed to be unbiased fair investigation, in the Palace Station room, isn't that correct?" Galanter asked Caldwell. The detective confirmed the attorney's observation.

"They're prejudging this," Galanter shot back. "They want to get Mr. Simpson."

"We would argue that that's a code word for ... 'We have to do everything right so we can get this guy ... to arrest O.J. Simpson'," Simpson's lawyer, Gabriel Grasso, said.

Caldwell also admitted Metro put Simpson under surveillance and delayed his arrest because of his celebrity. The Heisman Trophy winner wasn't arrested until three days after the incident, on Sept. 15.

"Had it been anybody else ... they would have been taken into custody that moment," Caldwell said. "Because of the nature of the case, understanding that there's somebody high-profile involved, we decided that we would have a unit surveil him until we made the determination whether or not we were going to place him in custody."

Prior to his arrest, Simpson made two attempts to contact law enforcement, including one that was successful. He also invited officers into his hotel room at the Palms, where investigators interviewed him for about 30 minutes.

The defense also drilled Caldwell about the ownership of the items the defendants and their colleagues removed from the hotel room that day.

Simpson has maintained that the items he and the others took were rightfully his. The defense has said the items - which included several NFL game presentation footballs, Simpson's 1969 NFL All-Star plaque, and numerous personal and family photos - had been stolen from Simpson's home years ago.

Fromong testified earlier this weekthat the items had not been stolen and that he purchased them through legal means from Simpson's former agent. Fromong also said the entourage stole several items that never belonged to Simpson, including two dozen baseballs autographed by Major League Baseball legends Pete Rose and Duke Snider, and 30 to 50 lithographs of National Football League quarterback Joe Montana.

Caldwell told the court rightful ownership wasn't a concern for investigators.

"Ownership is not an issue with robbery," he said.

During cross-examination, Caldwell conceded that some items in the hotel room that day had been taken from Simpson's den, and "might have" been taken from Gilbert, "but it was not a concern."

He later said, "I don't believe the property was stolen."

Riccio later testified that he and Beardsley were fully-aware that many of the items had been stolen.

The defense, meanwhile, suggested investigators were too focused on building the case against Simpson to give due diligence to who was the rightful owner of the property.

The court will hear more from Riccio on Friday, when court will resume at 8 a.m.

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