Simpson Bought a Knife Weeks Before Slayings, Court Is Told : Testimony: Witnesses at opening of preliminary hearing say the defendant made the purchase in May. In Brentwood, police scour lot in a renewed search for the weapon.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Seventeen days after O.J. Simpson's ex-wife and a friend were found brutally murdered, prosecutors Thursday debuted their case in court, presenting as their first witnesses two cutlery store workers who said they sold Simpson a 15-inch Stiletto knife six weeks before the killings.

"I guess something attracted him about the knife. It's a nice-looking knife. And he just, he liked it," said Jose Camacho, an employee of a Ross Cutlery store in Downtown Los Angeles, who acknowledged under oath that he had sold an interview to a supermarket tabloid.

Neither Camacho nor other witnesses who took the stand Thursday placed Simpson at the crime scene. But their appearances may help lay the groundwork for the prosecution case, establishing that Simpson had access to a weapon such as the one that detectives believe was used to kill Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman, whose bloody bodies were found outside Nicole Simpson's Brentwood townhouse early June 13.

Still, legal experts noted that there is a tremendous difference between showing that Simpson owned a knife similar to the possible murder weapon and producing the weapon. Harland W. Braun, a noted Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer, said prosecutors will need to present more evidence tying Simpson to the crime, but also noted that the testimony Thursday will force Simpson's camp to produce an explanation at some point: If Simpson did indeed buy the knife, can he produce it now, or is it missing?

That question has occupied detectives from the start as they have hunted in Los Angeles and Chicago, where Simpson flew via American Airlines the night of the killings, for the missing weapon.

On Thursday night, American Airlines contacted Chicago police to alert them that a handle and part of a knife blade were found in a pit where lavatory waste from airliners is deposited.

0'Hare Airport spokeswoman Lisa Howard said the knife, which had a curved handle and a fixed blade, was turned over to police and will be sent to Los Angeles. In testimony Thursday, Ross Cutlery co-owner Allen Wattenberg said Simpson had purchased a retractable blade knife with a straight handle.

As Wattenberg and Camacho were taking the stand Downtown, Los Angeles police detectives were scouring a vacant lot in Brentwood for the knife. Police Department officials declined to comment on the results of that search, which lasted more than three hours and featured police armed with metal detectors sweeping the lot.

Other detectives were tooling through the tony neighborhood where Simpson lives, asking residents for permission to review video surveillance tapes from cameras that some homeowners have installed for security purposes. According to police sources, investigators are eager to see whether any of those cameras might include shots of Simpson returning to his home late that night and might pinpoint the exact time he returned.

In court, the much-awaited preliminary hearing was delayed for hours by long wrangling over an evidentiary motion, but finally began Thursday afternoon when prosecutors put Camacho and his boss at Ross Cutlery on the witness stand. The hearing resumes at 8:30 this morning.

Tabloid Interview

Camacho and Wattenberg, one of the store owners, each gave detailed descriptions of the knife that they said Simpson bought in early May--a bone-handled implement with a six-inch blade that sells for $74.98. Prosecutors displayed photographs of an identical knife, which Wattenberg and Camacho said the former football star chose after looking at a number of knives and after Wattenberg sharpened the blade for him.

In an effort to head off any damaging disclosures during cross-examination by Simpson's lawyers, prosecutor William Hodgman elicited from Camacho that he had sold his story to the National Enquirer. Wattenberg, under prosecution questioning, said he too expected to profit from the interview, although he said he had not been in town when Camacho agreed to the sale. The two men, along with Wattenberg's brother, said they expect to split $12,500 that the magazine offered.

Robert L. Shapiro, Simpson's lead attorney, hammered on the payment in his cross-examination, accusing Camacho of selling his story to the highest bidder and reminding the witness that he had been warned, after testifying before the grand jury, not to speak publicly about the case.

Soon after, Camacho said, he was approached by various news outlets, including the National Enquirer. He said he refused interviews with some, and he told others that Simpson had browsed in the store but had not purchased a knife. Camacho testified that he decided to be honest with the Enquirer after the tabloid said it had another source and offered him money for the story.

In defending his actions, Camacho said an employee of the Los Angeles County district attorney's office named "Patti" had told him that he could talk.

"That's what I was told," said Camacho, who grew hesitant and fidgeted in his chair during Shapiro's cross-examination. "What else can I say?"

Prosecutor Marcia Clark said after the hearing that "Patti" is Patti Jo Fairbanks, senior secretary in the special trials division. Clark, however, denied that Fairbanks gave Camacho approval to talk. "I was there," Clark said. "I can tell you that she did not tell him that he could talk to the press. I can guarantee you that 200%, absolutely."

Still, Clark said she did not believe that the tabloid payments would seriously hamper the case. "People are human," she said.

Peter Arenella, a UCLA law professor, said the payments could undermine the credibility of those witnesses, but also noted that the accounts given by the two men corroborate each other. That may diminish the negative effect of the payments, he said, though adding that it could come back to haunt the prosecution if the Simpson case goes to trial, where the standard of proof is higher than at a preliminary hearing.

"It hurts the prosecution," Arenella said. "But it helps that they tell basically the same story."

The next witness was John DeBello, general manager of the restaurant where Goldman worked and where Nicole Simpson dined on the last night of her life. DeBello shed little new light on what was known about the case, but helped establish the time that Goldman left the restaurant, a fact that could prove significant as both sides try to determine exactly when the killings occurred and whether Simpson could have had time to commit the crimes and meet a limousine at his home that night.

Simpson gave little hint at his reaction to the testimony Thursday, despite the swirl of emotions that his lawyers say he has battled. For the first time since his nationally televised arrest, he came to court wearing a tie--a wardrobe change made possible because deputies have removed the suicide watch on him--and he appeared more animated than in previous court appearances. He jotted notes during some of the testimony and occasionally leaned over to consult with Shapiro.

Just a few feet away, family members of Goldman and Nicole Simpson listened intently as the case against the superstar athlete began to unfold in court. Nicole Simpson's sisters were in the audience, wearing angel brooches similar to one that Nicole Simpson once wore. Their mother wore a similar piece of jewelry; one sister said it was the original on which the others were modeled.

Goldman's father and stepmother sat side by side, her arm often draped over his shoulder as the two impassively listened to the day's testimony, which lasted more than four hours, interrupted by a long lunch break so Shapiro could attend a funeral.

For most of the day, neither the courtroom audience nor the millions of viewers tuned into live broadcasts worldwide saw much of the prosecution case. A long debate over blood and hair occupied the entire morning and much of the afternoon.

Prosecutors prevailed on those issues, winning the right to conduct any tests they want on the blood samples as long as defense experts are allowed to attend the tests. Shapiro had asked that samples be split so that defense experts could conduct their own tests, but prosecutors, bolstered by the testimony of a police scientific analyst, argued that some of the samples are too small to divide.

Shapiro also resisted efforts by prosecutors to secure as many as 100 of Simpson's hairs, which they said were needed for comparison to hairs recovered from a blue knit cap found at the foot of one of the bodies. Although Shapiro proposed taking one hair from his client, Municipal Judge Kathleen Kennedy-Powell ruled that prosecutors may have 40 to 100 hairs to conduct those tests.

Scientific experts said those hairs may help investigators determine whether Simpson wore the hat.

"There is considerable variation across different parts of the scalp," said Dr. William C. Thompson, a criminology expert at UC Irvine. Hairs along the neckline, for example, are much finer than hairs from the top of the head. A larger number of hairs collected from his head would increase the likelihood of a match if, in fact, the hair found in the cap is Simpson's.

Legal Wrangling

Issues such as scientific testing and obtaining hair samples are matters usually worked out informally between lawyers outside of court. But Shapiro and his legal team have mounted a concentrated attack on every aspect of the prosecution case, and legal experts saw the wrangling Thursday as an indication of how hard prosecutors will have to fight in their effort to put Simpson behind bars.

With their case barely under way, prosecutors were granted a short delay in a battle that could deprive them of several dozen possible pieces of evidence--including a bloody glove found outside Simpson's mansion. That dark brown work glove matches another one found at the murder scene, they said. Prosecutors hope to introduce the pair to show that Simpson was at the scene of the crime and then rushed home to meet a limousine, carelessly dropping the glove.

But Simpson's attorneys argued that the glove and 33 other items recovered from Simpson's home the day after the killings should be excluded because police improperly obtained the warrant allowing them to search his home, property and car.

In the affidavit used to secure that warrant, LAPD Detective Philip L. Vannatter said that he and his partner, Tom Lange, were assigned to investigate the killings at 4:30 a.m. June 13. Vannatter said that after the officers learned that one of the victims was Simpson's ex-wife, they went to his house on North Rockingham Avenue in Brentwood "in an attempt to make a notification."

The detective said that officers initially "were unable to arouse anyone at the residence."

He said the detectives observed a white Ford Bronco "parked at the west side of the residence" and that they "observed what appeared to be human blood . . . on the driver's door handle of the vehicle."

The affidavit says the detectives "aroused Simpson's daughter Arnell Simpson at the residence" and learned that he was not home.

Although police officers are allowed to make notification and are permitted to enter property without permission under certain circumstances, generally a warrant is required. According to defense lawyers, the officers did not have a warrant when they first went onto Simpson's property, and the football Hall of Famer's attorneys argue that the officers' initial observations of blood on the driveway and elsewhere were thus improper.

In addition, his lawyers maintain that the request for the warrant includes a false statement because Vannatter stated that Simpson took an "unexpected flight to Chicago" shortly after the killings. Simpson's lawyers say officers, who had contacted the athlete in Chicago, knew that Simpson was on a planned business trip and argue that the warrant and any evidence seized under it are invalid.

Judge Kennedy-Powell initially indicated that she would rule on the motion Thursday, but agreed to postpone her decision after prosecutors said they had a number of witnesses prepared to testify who would be inconvenienced if they had to be recalled. The motion instead will be discussed Tuesday.

As the eagerly anticipated hearing got under way Thursday morning, Shapiro and lead prosecutor Clark sparred aggressively, sometimes resorting to sarcasm and accusing one another of playing to the vast television audience tuned in nationwide. Both sides in the case have been publicly outspoken as they seek to shape opinion in their favor.

At one point, Clark was handed an envelope and sought to share its contents with Shapiro. She did so in open court, handing it to Shapiro with a flourish though not revealing its contents to the audience. The gesture prompted him to remark: "It seems like a little bit of grandstanding."

Clark, her voice sharp with sarcasm, retorted: "Excuse me, I can't believe I heard Mr. Shapiro say that."

Simpson was not heard from at Thursday's hearing, but he appeared more attentive than he has been at some of the previous court sessions. He glanced around the room as the legal arguments unfolded, and nodded gently as Shapiro insisted on proceeding carefully with the case.

Painstaking Questions

"I am representing a man charged with two murders where the people may be asking for the death penalty," Shapiro said gravely at one point. "If it takes two hours to determine whether or not there will be enough of a sample for an independent evaluation, where we believe samples can be contaminated, where false positives are possible, and where errors can take place in laboratory procedure, I don't think that's excessive at all."

Given permission by the judge to explore the issue of the samples in detail, Shapiro painstakingly questioned the assistant director of the Los Angeles Police Department's crime lab.

That witness, Michele Kestler, reviewed many of the government's 113 pieces of physical evidence and said a battery of tests are being performed on many of the items as investigators try to determine whether Simpson's blood and hair were found at the murder scene or whether the blood and hair of the victims might have been found at his house.

Sources have said that a blood type matching Simpson's was found at the scene, but prosecutors have not officially confirmed that. They are expected to present an array of blood test results as the preliminary hearing continues, however, and they said after Thursday's hearing that much more evidence will be forthcoming.

"Tune in next week," Deputy Dist. Atty. Hodgman told reporters at the courthouse. "It will make more sense when we conclude it."

Times staff writers Nieson Himmel and Richard Lee Colvin contributed to this story.

More on Simpson

* STRONG-WILLED JURIST--Judge Kathleen Kennedy-Powell, who will rule on whether O.J. Simpson must stand trial, is known as an independent jurist. A4

* A HOT TICKET--Only 10 members of the public were allowed into what court watchers call the hottest ticket in town. A4

* INFLUENCING OPINION--Images, not just the facts, are an important aspect of the defense and prosecution strategies. A6

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