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THE O.J. SIMPSON MURDER TRIAL : Sidewalk Sales Hit a Slump : Vendors Pin Hopes on O.J. Air Freshener, Bronco Chase Watches--or a Hung Jury--as Appetite for Trial Memorabilia Wanes

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a marketplace saturated with “Free the Juice” T-shirts, “No sidebar” buttons and amateur rap tapes about the O.J. Simpson murder trial, business for street vendors outside the Criminal Courts Building has hit a slump.

Eddie Dee, who has been selling T-shirts, pennants and buttons at sporting events and political conventions all over the country for 40 years, laments that his $1,000-a-day Simpson profits have shrunk to about $200.

He has had to cut his work force of four in half as he struggles to get rid of about $7,000 worth of T-shirts and buttons, including one reading “Did You Do It, O.J.?”

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Dee attributes the sales plunge to waning public interest in the case and efforts by police to keep the streets around the courthouse free of unlicensed vendors.

“If we had more tourists, it would be better,” he said, suggesting that local demand for Simpson souvenirs may be tapped out.

Some imaginative vendors, hoping to get their share of the shrinking trade, have turned to ever more novel items.

Orange-scented “O.J.” air freshener, Judge Ito Jell-O molds, and chocolate “Camp O.J.” suckers compete with bank checks bearing images of Simpson in three poses, wristwatches with little police cars chasing a Bronco around a clock face, and a limited edition, non-negotiable O.J. Simpson defense attorney “credit card” with a limit of $25 million.

Jamie De Matoff, owner of Disaster Wear, a Sherman Oaks business that specializes in T-shirts and other items that commemorate everything from the 1992 riots to the Northridge earthquake, said he has sold “thousands” of his Bronco chase watches over the last three months.

The watches, which are made by a Hong Kong company, are so popular that knockoffs have popped up with a tiny gold-tone knife replacing the minute hand.

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Still, De Matoff agrees with Dee that things are not what they used to be in the O.J. marketplace.

He made money hand over fist in the days before Simpson was arrested and charged with the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, when he rushed to Simpson’s Brentwood estate with a hastily printed batch of “We Love You OJ” T-shirts to sell to looky-loos.

He happily recalls the early days of the case last summer, when so many souvenir-hungry gawkers crowded the sidewalk that lawyers and court employees had to battle their way into the courthouse.

His fondest memory is of the day of opening statements in January when vendors couldn’t sell their goods fast enough.

De Matoff had hoped that things would pick up Monday, when the defense opened its case, but the crowds did not materialize.

“It’s a half-hour before lunch when the lawyers come out and there’s nobody here,” he said, shaking his head as he looked out the window of the courthouse cafeteria this week. “It seems people are really starting to burn out.”

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It is a sign of the depressed market that De Matoff now says he probably won’t print a T-shirt with a new design--he has 15 designs already--until the end of the trial.

A fellow vendor, Ivan Briceno, who sells framed drawings of the players in the case, is not waiting for the end of the trial.

Three weeks ago, the Chile-born caricaturist added to his inventory a $15 book of his drawings.

What makes it stand out is the packaging: It comes in a plain brown envelope marked “mysterious,” a reference to the mystery package that so captured imaginations in the early days of the case.

Other vendors who weren’t in on the gravy train when the Simpson trial souvenir business was booming are making up for lost time by going for the wacky.

One of the more unusual is the brainchild of Jack Defaalah, whose O.J. Simpson bank checks were unveiled Monday.

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You can’t buy the checks on the street, but Defaalah has hired someone to stand in front of the courthouse and pass out mail order forms. The cost: about $20 for 100 checks.

Defaalah, who lives in Fullerton, said he conceived of the checks while in the process of creating a series of bank checks bearing the images of African American historical figures.

Defaalah said he would not be unhappy if there is a hung jury, a sentiment that is prevalent among the vendors, including Dee.

“Then they’ll have another trial and I’d get rid of all this stock,” he said.

De Matoff agrees--without a trace of guilt.

“It’s a business, first off,” he said of his Simpson souvenirs. “I am capitalizing on the situation, but it’s basically just business.”

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