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Simpson knew cohort was armed, witness testifies

Times Staff Writers

A man who accompanied O.J. Simpson in a confrontation with two memorabilia dealers last year testified Monday that the former NFL star knew that at least one of their cohorts was armed, contradicting Simpson’s contention that he was unaware weapons were used.

“Put the gun away,” Charles B. Ehrlich quoted Simpson as saying to one of their associates during the Sept. 13, 2007, confrontation.

Shortly after the incident, Ehrlich said Simpson muttered to himself: “Why did I tell those guys to come along?”

Clark County Dist. Atty. David Roger asked whether Simpson said anything more about the guns after they had taken the memorabilia.

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“He was in denial,” said Ehrlich, whose gruff, stilted account was the first in the robbery-kidnap trial to directly contradict Simpson’s version of events.

A friend of Simpson’s for eight years, Ehrlich has pleaded guilty to lesser charges in exchange for his testimony.

Ehrlich said he was to pose as a buyer in a ruse to retrieve some of Simpson’s mementos from the dealers.

Simpson -- who faces a dozen charges -- maintains he was getting back plaques and family pictures stolen from his trophy room.

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He could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted of the most serious charge, kidnapping.

“I [screwed] up,” Simpson said after the confrontation, according to Ehrlich. “I’m going to need a bail bondsman.”

Another key witness, auctioneer Thomas Riccio, set up the encounter between Simpson and the dealers and secretly recorded it. He gave a murkier account Monday of what happened in Room 1203 of the Palace Station Hotel & Casino.

Riccio said he never heard anyone say, “Put the gun down.”

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But the auctioneer -- who grew testy as questioning stretched into a third day -- waffled as to whether Simpson might have seen a weapon.

Though Simpson looked in the direction of the gunman at least once, “I didn’t see him staring at a gun,” Riccio testified.

Riccio recalled a string of phone calls after the incident in which Simpson told him “over and over again” that he never saw a gun.

“It seemed like he was trying to persuade me there were no guns,” Riccio said.

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Under questioning, Riccio acknowledged that he received more than $200,000 from news outlets interested in his story, including $15,000 from ABC News.

Riccio said the gossip site TMZ.com paid $150,000 for an audio recording of the incident and “Entertainment Tonight” gave him $25,000. Howard Stern’s radio show paid him $20,000 through a sponsor, he said.

Riccio said ABC initially balked when he demanded money, citing rules against paying for interviews.

But, he said, when he refused to go forward, network employees told him, “We have ways around it.”

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He said the employee asked if he had any photos of him with Simpson. When Riccio said he did, the employees replied, “OK, we’ll pay you for that.”

An ABC News spokesman confirmed the amount paid but said Riccio was “a little confused” about the network’s purpose. Jeffrey Schneider said the payment was recommended by network attorneys to secure broadcast rights to an audiotape Riccio made of the hotel incident as well as the photo.

“Good Morning America” aired a segment on Simpson that included portions of the tape, the photo and an interview with Riccio.

“Our interest was in the audiotapes, not in an interview, frankly,” Schneider said.

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Most mainstream news companies have ethical standards prohibiting them from paying for information or interviews, but as competition with tabloid outlets has intensified, some have started remunerating subjects by licensing videos or photographs.

In June 2007, after Paris Hilton had completed her 23-day jail sentence in Los Angeles County, a bidding war erupted for her first interview.

NBC reportedly offered the heiress a licensing fee of $750,000 to $1 million to use personal videos and photos, trumping ABC’s $100,000 offer.

After the negotiations were made public, the networks retreated and Hilton did her first sit-down with CNN’s Larry King.

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The network said it did not compensate Hilton, who drew 3.2 million viewers -- three times King’s average audience that year.

Riccio has said he feels justified in trying to profit from the case because his association with Simpson damaged his memorabilia business.

He also wrote a book, “Busted: The Inside Story of the World of Sports Memorabilia, O.J. Simpson and the Vegas Arrests,” about his involvement.

After he finished testifying Monday, Riccio told reporters that Simpson had signed a copy for him: “Tom -- don’t squeeze the Juice.”

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ashley.powers@latimes.com

harriet.ryan@latimes.com


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