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Gaming Guru

Melissa Arseniuk

Audio recordings highlight first week of O.J. Simpson trial

22 September 2008

The first week of O.J. Simpson's robbery/kidnapping trial started fast and closed strong, squeezing opening statements, 10 witnesses, several voice recordings and a field trip to the scene of the alleged crime into just five days.

Witnesses included one of the alleged victims, two FBI analysts, the first Metro police officer on the scene, crime scene investigators, hotel security personnel, and the controversial character at the center of the case, Thomas Riccio.

Several of Riccio's secret audio recordings were also heard, including the one of the infamous six-minute run-in between Simpson and two memorabilia dealers at the Palace Station Hotel & Casino on Sept. 13, 2007.

During opening statements Monday, prosecutors promised to reveal Simpson's "true face" and demonstrate his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Defense lawyers, on the other hand, assured the jury that court proceedings will show that Simpson and his co-accurse, Clarence "C.J." Stewart, were simply recovering Simpson's own property, and that no robbery took place.

After opening arguments prosecutors were quick out of the gate, calling Bruce Fromong as their first witness. He is one of the two men who allege the former NFL star and six others robbed him at gunpoint last year.

Fromong provided an emotional and at times contradictory performance.

He choked back tears as he described the close relationship he once had with Simpson, who he called his "best friend."

The collectibles dealer also testified that one of the two alleged gunmen, Michael McClinton, entered the room with his gun drawn. He said the weapon was pointed straight at him - but told Stewart's lawyer, Robert Lucherini, that he wasn't scared.

Later in the week, however, one of the state's other witnesses, Riccio, said that no guns were drawn until the raid was nearly over.

Fromong also told the court that someone loudly said, "put the gun down, put the gun down," during the confrontation, but he couldn't say who.

This was a new claim; Fromong failed to mention hearing the instructions to police, prosecutors, or the court during the preliminary hearing.

The demand isn't audible on Riccio's recording of the run-in and is not reflected in the LVPD-generated transcript, either.

Simpson has said that he was not aware that any guns had been used, while Stewart's lawyers have said their client wasn't aware any weapons would be used during the reconnaissance mission. The issue of weapons is crucial, as nine of the charges he and his co-accused face involve the use of a deadly weapon.

As Simpson's lawyer, Gabriel Grasso, quizzed Fromong about his new recollection on Monday, the collectibles dealer testimony was suddenly interrupted when he told the judge he was experiencing chest pains and felt dizzy and lightheaded. Judge Jackie Glass excused him for the day.

After Fromong's unexpectedly early departure the court heard from former Palace Station bellman, Ismael Flores. He told the court how he helped Riccio, Fromong and Alfred Beardsley move memorabilia from the parking lot into a hotel room.

Fromong returned to the stand Tuesday and Grasso picked up where he left off the day before, drilling him about inconsistencies in his testimony.

Before the trial began, Fromong previously said both of the alleged gunmen, Michael McClinton and Walter Alexander, drew their weapons during the confrontation. During the trial, however, he testified only one of the two guns was ever used.

A visibly-annoyed Fromong defended his contradictions, saying he was on edge after the run-in with Simpson and his crew. "I was very nervous and upset," Fromong said. "Some of my statements that evening were inconsistent."

He also said all of the items allegedly stolen from the hotel room that day had been purchased legally and only 12 or 13 of the items ever belonged to Simpson.

Simpson's lawyers, meanwhile, said the items had been stolen from Simpson's home years previous and were therefore rightfully his. They detailed more than 13 items that had been given to the All-Star running back, including game presentation balls, plaques and awards and personal family photos.

"This was a recovery, it was not a robbery," Simpson's lawyer, Yale Galanter, asserted.

After Fromong the court heard from the director of security at the Palms, Frank Sciulla, and later, Alan Morris, who was a surveillance shift supervisor at Palace Station last year.

The two men reviewed standard video surveillance tapes and explained their roles, but offered little in regards to groundbreaking testimony.

The court then heard from a duo of technical experts.

Jason Abramowitz, a Quantico, Va.-based forensic examiner and electric engineer with the FBI, explained how he removed nine audio files from Riccio's recorder and forwarded the files on to his colleague, Kenneth Marr, for analysis.

In his videotaped deposition, Marr testified that he was not able to authenticate the recordings on Riccio's digital recorder.

The second half of his testimony was watched Wednesday morning. He said "the bottom line" of his analysis was inconclusive. "I cannot say whether or not the files were altered," he said.

He also reported that he found "over-recording" in several areas of the audio and noted that "it might" mean the files were manipulated.

Bryson also challenged the chain of custody of Riccio's audio recordings. Police did not become aware of the recordings until more than a week after the alleged crime took place, after Riccio sold one of the recordings to the gossip Web site, TMZ.

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

One of the transcripts, taken at the Palms during the afternoon the alleged robbery took place, credits dialogue to Stewart. Stewart's lawyers, meanwhile, said their client was not present at the poolside planning session.

The transcripts were highly contested by the defense.

"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.

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."

Despite the objections, Glass ruled to provide jurors with transcripts to use in court, not make them available during deliberations in the jury room.

Riccio said there are errors in the transcripts.

"There were many of them where the transcripts were wrong," he said. The state's witness later softened his criticism and said the inaccuracies were "nothing major."

The next witness called was Andy Caldwell, one of the two Metro Police officers who responded to Beardsley's 9-1-1 call.

He said that because of Simpson's notoriety, he wanted to cross all the 'T's and dot all the 'I's during his investigation.

He explained how he was "frustrated" to learn of Riccio's recordings from a colleague, despite personally interviewing the witness. He also explained the process that he took to obtain copies of the recordings, then the recorder itself.

He explained the scene inside the hotel room that day, mentioned several items that remained the room after the alleged robbery, including Mohammad Ali's boxing gloves and checks signed by Marilyn Monroe.

Earlier in the week, Fromong said, "They took everything except two baseball bats."

Caldwell completed his testimony Thursday morning.

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.

Stewart's lawyers made several unsuccessful attempts to have their client's trial severed from Simpson's, alleging that the former NFL star's notoriety is tainting Stewart's right to a fair trial.

Galanter had Caldwell read a transcript, which the detective personally produced, 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.

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

When the defense asked the detective why investigators didn't follow up on allegations that the merchandise taken from the room was rightfully that of Simpson, Caldwell told the court rightful ownership wasn't a concern for investigators.

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

He later conceded that some items allegedly stolen from the hotel room had been taken from Simpson's den, and "might have" been stolen 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.

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

The first female witness, LVPD sr. crime scene analyst, Jessie Sams, took the stand after Caldwell. Her account was followed by a second crime scene analyst, fingerprint examiner David LeMaster.

After lunch, the court heard from the colorful character at the center of the case, Thomas Riccio.

In his highly-anticipated testimony, Riccio told the court how he met with Simpson two times on Sept. 13 to plan the reconnaissance mission. He said guns were never part of the plan.

He said Beardsley contacted him weeks before the meeting in Las Vegas to tell him about a collection of rare O.J. Simpson memorabilia he had to sell.

The courtroom erupted in laughter at several points during Riccio's testimony, including his account of how he contacted Simpson and started scheming as to how to reclaim the items Simpson insisted were his immediately after Beardsley asked him not to tell Simpson about the items.

He also explained how he secretly taped conversations before, during and after the alleged robbery and the court listened in on a few of them, including the tapes of alleged plenary sessions at the Palms.

The second portion of Riccio's testimony was delayed Friday, as the jury was taken that morning on a top-secret field trip to the Palace Station Hotel & Casino. That morning they were given, in pairs of two, the opportunity to visit room 1203 where the alleged robbery took place.

After they returned to the courthouse, Riccio returned to the stand and prosecutors resumed playing audio tapes for the jury.

The highlight of the day was the audio of the confrontation.

While there is no mention of the word "gun" on the transcript during the six-minute run-in, Riccio testified that Michael McClinton, who has cut a deal with prosecutors and will testify against the defendants later in the trial, pulled out a gun and was, "hopping around with the gun in his hands, barking orders."

"You mother (expletive) (are) lucky you ain't in L.A. or you're a** would be laying on the floor ... I wouldn't even be talking to you mother (expletive) right now, I'm tellin' ya," McClinton shouts.

After Simpson and the six others left the room, Beardsley is heard calling 9-1-1 and tells the operator, "We were just robbed at gunpoint, man. We were just robbed by O.J. Simpson."

The court also heard audio of a conversation Riccio had with Simpson after the altercation took place.

In that telephone conversation, which was made the next day, Riccio and Simpson talk about McClinton's firearm.

Simpson tells Riccio he was "shocked" when he heard people saying there was a gun involved during the raid. "I didn't see it," he says.

"I know you didn't see it," Riccio replies.

"You need to stay straight," Simpson later tells Riccio. "I'm stayin' straight. Tell the cops the truth." He was arrested and charged the next day.

He and Stewart, face a dozen robbery, weapons and kidnapping-related offenses. Their trial is expected to last another four weeks.

Riccio, who has been given immunity in exchange for his testimony, will return to the witness stand on Monday.