Proper setting for the O.J. trial? Try a trailer park

LAS VEGAS -- Sitting in the center of a courtroom on the 15th floor of the courthouse in Las Vegas is O.J. Simpson, the most toxic of American celebrities. He watches, he listens, he grimaces. And he smirks as four men who like to call themselves "sports memorabilia dealers" testify, one after another, from a witness chair some 10 feet from him.

These "dealers" view Simpson's disgrace not as a tragedy but as a commercial opportunity. Where others see a pariah, they see a profit.

Simpson and some of these dealers have worked together off and on for 14 years. Some of them came together as far back as June of 1994, when Simpson was arrested for murder and jailed without bond. One of them worked with him to sell O.J.'s autographs from jail during his murder trial. The others stayed with him until last September, when it all fell apart during six minutes of threats, curses and guns in a small room in a down-market hotel, an incident that resulted in the current charges of robbery and kidnapping against Simpson and another man that could send O.J. to jail.

This is a world that involves murder charges, trash memorabilia and funny money, and it all revolves around the man once known as "The Juice."

Working together over the last decade and a half, Simpson and an assortment of these dealers made some money, much of it in unreported cash. But now, Simpson can only watch as each of his four dealers takes the witness chair and testifies against him.

The dealers are a blue-ribbon bunch. Sometimes, it's difficult to believe that anyone would buy anything from any one of them. They offer a look into an underground economy that redefines the term "low-end" and challenges the limits of the word "sleaze."

Welcome to the trailer park of sports.

Consider, for example, the amazing career in petty crime and memorabilia of Thomas Riccio. It started at age 19 in Atlantic City, when he stole a briefcase with $500,000 in valuable coins and trading cards. Caught and sentenced to federal prison, he managed to escape. Caught again, he did more time in another federal prison. And that was only the beginning. Later, he was caught again with stolen property, this time in California, and spent nearly four years in Soledad State Prison.

Since his release from Soledad, Riccio has enjoyed what passes for success in the collectibles business. One of his biggest scores came in an auction of the X-rated diaries of Anna Nicole Smith, the Playboy blonde who married an aged Texas zillionaire, fought his son for his estate after he died, gave birth to her own child, which prompted a fight over paternity and threw the tabloids into a frenzy, saw her other child die shortly after the baby arrived, and then died herself. The diaries offered intimate, minute-by-minute details of her sexual adventures.

How did Riccio obtain her diaries? He says "someone" found them discarded in her trash and kept them until her notoriety made them valuable.

Riccio first worked with Simpson three years ago when they were partners in an effort to sell Simpson autographs. In a typical bit of reasoning for these dealers, Riccio figured Simpson's disgrace and notoriety made his autograph more valuable. Like many of the things these dealers attempt, the enterprise was less successful than Riccio and Simpson had hoped, but they managed to make some money.

Riccio's next venture with Simpson led directly to the robbery and kidnapping charges. Alfred Beardsley, another Simpson "dealer" associate who has spent time in various jails -- including some time in a jail psychiatric ward -- called Riccio to congratulate him after the sale of the X-rated diaries. (That's right: He called to salute Riccio for his success. That's how these guys think.) Asking Riccio not to tell Simpson, Beardsley explained he had access to some of Simpson's personal mementos.

Beardsley asked if Riccio knew of a buyer.

After indicating his interest to Beardsley, Riccio did exactly what he had promised his fellow dealer he would not do: He called Simpson and told him some of his things had become available. They began to hatch a scheme for the recovery of Simpson's items. Knowing what he knew about Simpson, Beardsley and the dealer who had Simpson's items, Riccio covertly recorded everything that everyone said. Those recordings have become critical evidence in the trial.

How was Simpson to pay Riccio for his work? That was easy, Riccio told Simpson. Simpson could sign 200 copies of his notorious book, "If I Did It." When Simpson protested that the Goldmans, the family of one of the 1994 murder victims, had won the right to proceeds from the book in the family's continuing attempt to collect on a $33.6 million wrongful death damages judgment, Riccio -- in another low-end brainstorm -- suggested Simpson could sign the books with the inscription, "This is not my book."

Simpson agreed.

Their scheme for recovering Simpson's stuff was to be a sting, Riccio now insists. They were going to scam two former partners in trash memorabilia, Beardsley and Bruce Fromong, the dealer who had possession of a cache of personal photos, game balls from some of Simpson's record-breaking performances and neckties Simpson had worn at the murder trial. Their idea was to tell Beardsley and Fromong that they had a bona fide purchaser who wanted to meet them and see the items.

Meanwhile, Beardsley and Fromong were looking forward to selling things they knew had been stolen from Simpson.

It was an impressive combination of lies and mutual betrayals, just another day on the hustings for Simpson and the dealers. But, according to Riccio's recordings, when Simpson introduced five of his Las Vegas cronies and two guns into the deal, it became what prosecutors now say is a robbery and a kidnapping.

Riccio and Fromong have already given their version of the events to the jury, and the jurors have heard long segments of Riccio's secret recordings.

In his testimony, Fromong described Simpson as his "best friend" and broke down in tears as he described their "friendship." Although he said he was stunned when Simpson and his crew, rather than a bona fide purchaser, showed up in the hotel room, Fromong said, "We could have made an arrangement." He would have been willing, he said, to return Simpson's stolen items to Simpson if Simpson autographed 200 or 300 things for him in exchange.

Along the way, these dealers apparently were always looking for other ways to profit beyond finding buyers for this kind of memorabilia. In everything they did with Simpson, they were on the alert for opportunities to cash in on tabloid TV, tabloid magazines and book deals.

Two have already managed to publish books describing their experiences with Simpson. Mike Gilbert, who insists he heard Simpson confess to the 1994 murders of his former wife, Nicole, and her friend Ron Goldman, wrote "How I Helped O.J. Get Away with Murder: The Shocking Inside Story of Violence, Loyalty, Regret, and Revenge." Riccio wrote "Busted: The Inside Story of the World of Sports Memorabilia, O.J. Simpson, and the Vegas Arrests," which features mug shots of Riccio and Simpson on the cover.

But the books are only a small part of the sordid market that flourished around Simpson. In a series of interviews with the National Enquirer, Gilbert asserts that he helped Simpson earn $2 million selling autographs while O.J. was in jail during the murder trial. The money, Gilbert says, went to pay Simpson's "dream team" of attorneys, led by the late Johnnie Cochran.

Gilbert continued to work for Simpson after the acquittal, transporting and hiding Simpson's property as Goldman's family obtained the wrongful death damages judgment against Simpson and began to try to collect. Gathering valuables from Simpson's house on Rockingham Drive in Los Angeles, his house in Laguna Beach and his apartment in New York City, Gilbert hid everything in a dozen storage lockers. For several years, he helped Simpson sell his memorabilia, he says, for cash.

When the IRS came calling on Gilbert for explanations on cash earned at autograph shows and memorabilia sales, he went to Simpson for help. Simpson refused. Gilbert, incredibly, was surprised that Simpson would not help him. There may be honor among some thieves, but there is little honor apparent among Simpson and his dealers.

Feeling betrayed and angry, Gilbert, in 2005, knew exactly what to do. He began talking to the IRS, hoping to produce a tax fraud charge against Simpson. He told his story in installments to the Enquirer, and he wrote his book. In extraordinary and persuasive detail, he has described Simpson's efforts to defy the legal system by hiding pricey art, expensive furniture, Persian rugs, sports memorabilia and other valuables from the Goldmans.

Most important, in his continuing attempt to get even with Simpson, Gilbert grabbed as much of Simpson's stuff as he could and began to introduce it to the dark side of the memorabilia market.

Then it was Simpson's turn to feel betrayed and angry. When he learned that Gilbert had taken some of his things from the storage lockers, he went into an enduring rage, according to Riccio and Gilbert, which led directly to the robbery charges and the current Las Vegas trial.

The other dealers picked up where Gilbert left off. Fromong and Beardsley were involved in the sales of the memorabilia that came from the Simpson storage lockers, according to the Enquirer and numerous police reports. Then they began to invent new things to sell. Fromong printed hundreds of copies of a photo of Simpson at his last game for USC, had Simpson autograph them, and sold them wherever he could.

Fromong, a former clerk in a prison commissary in California, thrived for a time on the dark side of the memorabilia business. When Pete Rose finally admitted he had bet on baseball after years of lying about it, Fromong had dozens of baseballs laser-embossed with the words "I'm Sorry I Bet on Baseball," had Rose autograph them, and sold them. Like the other dealers, Fromong somehow is able to find customers for this stuff.

As the Simpson situation developed, Fromong became fond of calling "Inside Edition." After Simpson and four others, two of them with guns, took the merchandise and other valuables from the Vegas hotel room, Fromong's first call, in fact, was to "Inside Edition." Only later did he call 911 to report the robbery.

Riccio ultimately made 10 hours of recordings, and knew exactly what to do with them. As the police began their investigation of the guns and Simpson's crew, he sold the recordings to TMZ.com for $150,000, he testified Monday. He testified also that he was paid $25,000 by "Entertainment Tonight," $20,000 by a sponsor of Howard Stern's radio show and $15,000 by ABC.

Riccio never mentioned his recordings to the police when they interrogated him. The Las Vegas detectives learned about them when TMZ began to broadcast them on the Internet.

In a final measure of what happens in this world of toxic celebrity and trash memorabilia, Fromong testified that he was offering items on eBay under the headline, "The Same Things that Were Stolen in the Robbery in Las Vegas."

One can only hope that this trailer park of sports is in its final days. It might be. Only one or two fans greet Simpson now as he walks into the courthouse each day. And as he sits at the trial listening to his former dealers and other of his Las Vegas associates describe their guns and what they did, "The Juice" occasionally allows himself to look around the half-empty courtroom.

He seems surprised that so few are interested in his plight.

Lester Munson, a Chicago lawyer and journalist who reports on investigative and legal issues in the sports industry, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.