Tuesday, October 26, 2010

After the fact - the man who took down O.J.

The Nevada Supreme Court has rejected the O.J. Simpson defense team’s latest effort to overturn his conviction on kidnapping and robbery charges after a “bust” to retrieve allegedly stolen personal items from a memorabilia dealer in a Las Vegas hotel in 2007. The court did rule that Simpson’s notoriety did unfairly influence the trial jury’s verdict on his co-defendant, Clarence Stewart, although curiously did not consider the effect that notoriety might have had on Simpson himself. I am not going to rehash the did-he-or-didn’t-he debate (he probably did), or the effect that the guilty-until-proven-innocent white media barrage had on black jurors, or the fact that blacks were excluded from the jury in the trial in the Nevada case, or all the sleazy characters who tried to profit monetarily from their connection to both cases. I’m not even talking about the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink counts in the Nevada trial, of which Simpson was convicted of every one by an all-white jury:

Count 1: Conspiracy to commit a crime (GM - Gross Misdemeanor)
Count 2: Conspiracy to commit kidnapping (F - Felony)
Count 3: Conspiracy to commit burglary (F)
Count 4: Burglary while in possession of a deadly weapon (F)
Count 5: First degree kidnapping with use of a deadly weapon (F)
Count 6: First degree kidnapping with use of a deadly weapon (F)
Count 7: Robbery with use of a deadly weapon (F)
Count 8: Robbery with use of a deadly weapon (F)
Count 9: Assault with a deadly weapon (F)
Count 10: Assault with a deadly weapon (F)
Count 11: Coercion with use of a deadly weapon (F)
Count 12: Coercion with use of a deadly weapon (F)

It seems by their very redundancy that prosecutors were taking no chances that Simpson would escape punishment, this time.

What fascinates me the case is the story of The Man Who Took Down Simpson for all those who wanted to see him taken down. I’m not talking about the police or the prosecutor or even the judge (who was a woman). The Machiavelli of this story is one Thomas Riccio, who despite the fact concocted and orchestrated the incident for which Simpson was convicted, was never charged with a crime, but given immunity by prosecutors. Who was this man?

For a man like Simpson in need of “friends” who still believed his story that his mission in life was to find his ex-wife’s “real killer,” Thomas Riccio fit the bill. This so-called dealer in collectibles was in no position to be choosy in picking friends himself, being a multiple convicted felon. He was convicted in New Jersey federal court in 1984 of acquiring items he knew to be stolen. Three months later he was an escapee from a federal penitentiary, and was apprehended five months later, and obliged to serve out almost five years in prison. Four years out of prison, Riccio was arrested and convicted in California for intent to commit arson, and served two more years in prison. Riccio wasn’t of out of jail for that conviction long before he was in trouble again; this time he was arrested and convicted for possessing a half-million dollars worth of stolen gold and silver coins discovered in his home. After a short period in jail, Riccio was released but then rearrested on a parole violation.

After he was released from prison (again), we are supposed to assume that in the intervening years until the time of the Simpson robbery in 2007, he led a blameless life as a “dealer” in memorabilia. Or at least he wasn’t caught doing anything nefarious. Meanwhile, during his 16 month stay in prison in the course of his murder trial, Simpson developed a cottage industry signing numberless items, doubtless in the hope of recouping some of his financial losses. Shady memorabilia dealers like Riccio, Alfred Beardsley and Bruce Fromong became “friends” of O.J. in this way. In 2007, Riccio informed his “friend” that his other “friends,” Beardsley and Fromong, had stolen some valued personal items with the intent to sell them, including the so-called “acquittal suit” Simpson wore at the murder trial, and his NFL Hall of Fame certificate: “Beardsley called me and said he had some unbelievable O.J. Simpson stuff. He came right out and said the stuff was stolen,” Riccio later frothed. Riccio informed his friend O.J., and helped concoct a scheme to retrieve the items. Simpson assembled a motley crew which was led by Riccio to a Las Vegas hotel room, where Riccio had persuaded Beardsley and Fromong to lay out the items on a bed for an unnamed “buyer.” After some heated “discussion” which included a couple of guns, Fromong and Beardsley were involuntarily relieved of the merchandise that Simpson believed were his. During the adventure, Riccio—without Simpson’s apparent knowledge—made an audio recording of the event, which he later claimed he needed to “prove” that Beardsley had indeed stolen items from Simpson. It didn’t occur to him, it seems, that audio is a poor substitute for visuals of allegedly stolen items. Fromong reported the event to police (after he could be heard on tape observing that he could “make some money” from this), and by the next day Simpson and crew were all in police custody.

Now, what are we to make of this? The average person looking at the given “facts” would draw the “obvious” conclusion that here was the devious, violent, paranoid Simpson going off the deep end, traveling down a path where only people of volcanic, ungovernable temperament tread—proof that he was entirely capable of murder. He needed to spend to the rest of his unworthy life in prison, and here was the perfect opportunity to make it so. But a professional historian cannot accurately account for an event without looking beyond the given facts. So let’s take a look again at some of the facts, some old, some new:

Riccio had a felony record for theft, knowingly receiving stolen goods, and arson (probably for an insurance swindle).

Riccio had obtained the rights to sell the diary of former Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith, who had died from an overdose of prescription drugs. Riccio gained minor notoriety making the rounds on tabloid TV, where his prior activities were not discussed.

Riccio regarded Beardsley and Fromong as “rivals” in the memorabilia business.

Riccio claimed that Beardsley once swindled him in deal involving Simpson merchandise.

Riccio claimed that Beardsley boasted that he could sell allegedly stolen Simpson items for at least $100,000.

Being a convicted conman, Riccio was surely aware of Simpson’s susceptibility to paranoia about people “out to get him”—especially from “friends” like Fromong and Beardsley who it was suggested “betrayed” him—and how to exploit this to his advantage.

Riccio informed the FBI of the plan three weeks before it occurred. They did not alert Las Vegas police or take action themselves.

Riccio faxed Simpson a “list” of the alleged stolen items, which included family photos and the “acquittal suit.” But other than three ties and Simpson's All-American football, most of the items were incidentals or not related to Simpson at all.

Riccio had placed a hidden audio recording device in the hotel room, which he did not retrieve until after Beardsley, Fromong and then later the police had left.

During the alleged robbery, Beardsley tells Simpson that they had bought the items from Simpson's former agent, Mike Gilbert, implying that he had stolen them.

Media outlets reported that Riccio sold the audio tapes a few days after the incident to TMZ, reportedly for $165,000.

Prosecutors gave Riccio immunity for his “testimony.”

The jury at the subsequent trial included no racial minorities.

Given these particular facts, we can perhaps deduce an alternative version of history. In his book “Busted,” Riccio tries to pass himself off as a harmless guy who was mildly deficient in ethics but who looks after the interests of his “friends.” Riccio admitted, however, that it was much easier making money in the memorabilia business through illegal means (like theft) than legal means, and his criminal record speaks to his preference. We know that he had a grudge against Beardsley, even though it is odd that Beardsley would feel comfortable about telling Riccio that he had stolen items; either Riccio is lying about the conversation, or people in the business had the general impression that Riccio was still not entirely aboveboard in his own dealings. In any case, it was clear that Riccio wanted to get even with a competitor he thought had defrauded him. Knowing how hot-tempered and paranoid Simpson was, Riccio knew that he would be the perfect instrument of revenge. In order to insure Simpson’s unknowing “cooperation,” Riccio sent him a list of valued personal items allegedly up for sale, which he knew would enrage Simpson further. Although it would be questioned why the police were not contacted, with the Goldman’s still hounding him for settlement money, Simpson obviously preferred the retrieval to be a “private” matter. Since the alleged thieves were not going to admit to Simpson himself that they had stolen items, Riccio concocted the idea of luring Beardsley (and Fromong, whose initial involvement was to “verify” the authenticity of the items) and the loot into a hotel room, on the pretext of that he had a buyer who was interested in Simpson memorabilia. Although Simpson predictably put more resources into the retrieval operation than necessary, it was disingenuous for Riccio to claim that he was unaware of Simpson’s input. The fact that Riccio contacted the FBI before the plan was carried out makes plain that he wanted to cover his fundament in case something went awry; the FBI, perhaps predictably, did not take him seriously. But if Simpson had known of Riccio’s betrayal, it is not only likely he would have second thoughts about conducting the operation, but he would have questioned Riccio’s motives and veracity. We also have only Riccio’s explanation as to why he secretly recorded the subsequent operation; but the ex-wife of one of Simpson’s storm troopers admitted that people who hung-out with Simpson had a habit of making secret recordings in the hope of selling them to tabloid “news” outlets. When the “bust” actually took place, it quickly got out-of-control, not in small part due to the fact that Riccio had lied about the quantity and quality of items allegedly belonging to Simpson, let alone stolen. Having to beat a hasty retreat, Riccio was unable to retrieve his audio recordings until later; the fact that he did not inform police of the recording until after he sold a copy to TMZ strongly suggests that making money from the "bust" was his undercover plan all along, notwithstanding his “friendship” with Simpson. Fromong’s own outrage at the suggestion that he would steal from his “friend” Simpson when he had helped him off-shore some of his assets (to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Goldmans) is off-set by the fact that during the “bust” both he and Beardsley admitted to Simpson that the items they did have were probably stolen by Simpson’s former agent Mike Gilbert (after the two had a falling out), and was, under the circumstance, prepared to give them back so long as the items not belonging to Simpson were left behind.

All involved were on the low-end of the morality and ethics scale, but out of all of them, Riccio was the only one who emerged not only unscathed, but made a handsome profit from it. Why did prosecutors give immunity to the man without whose involvement this incident would not have occurred? Who claimed he was told by another party that there were stolen Simpson items on the market? Riccio. Who told Simpson about the alleged thefts? Riccio. Who provided Simpson with the list of items alleged to be stolen? Riccio. Who had an ax to grind with the alleged thief? Riccio. Who concocted the plan to set-up the “bust?” Riccio. Who sought to profit personally from it? Riccio. It is clear, of course, that given Simpson’s notoriety there was some self-promotion involved with prosecutors in “getting” Simpson, and with Riccio—who was from first-to-last the provocateur in the entire operation and had knowledge of all the “inside” dope—it was necessary to shield him, as the “star witness,” from the reality that he was perhaps even more guilty than Simpson. In jury selection, the prosecution successfully excluded minorities from sitting; a minority juror—particularly a black juror—would have been more receptive to a defense argument that Simpson had been set-up by Riccio for his own personal revenge and monetary gain. The fact that the all-white jury, doubtless seeking “justice” for the murder case despite admonitions from the bench not to take their personal feelings into account during deliberations--apparently decided to overlook Riccio’s massive culpability. And as did the tabloid media, where Riccio once again made the rounds painting himself as a “good guy” just trying to help his “friend.”

It is a matter of course that many people, mainly those outraged at the verdict of the Brown/Goldman murder trial, believe that justice was ultimately served. The question is at what price? The facts suggest that Simpson in this case was the victim of a small-time hood who thought nothing of using him for his own nefarious purposes. The price, at least for this observer, is a jaundiced eye toward the system of justice in this country. This is a country where black defendants cannot expect justice from all-white local juries, or if it is found at all, justice in a racially-motivated murder such as that which occurred in Shenandoah, PA can only be found in federal court; two men acquitted in the original trial were recently convicted of hate crimes in the murder of Luis Ramirez; the trial of the police chief and two officers who conspired to cover-up the crime still awaits.

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