His life now: With friends like these . . .

Times Staff Writers

When he's not on trial, O.J. Simpson wakes up at 5 a.m. and is driving to a golf course in Miami by 6:30. He takes an afternoon nap and goes to bed early. In between, the football great is beset by requests.

Strangers want to take his picture. Fans want to buy him a drink. And, according to audio recordings played in his Las Vegas robbery-kidnap trial, men who call themselves his friends try to cash in on his infamy.

The hours of recordings -- made surreptitiously by a Simpson business partner on Sept. 13, 2007 -- provide an unfiltered look at the Hall of Famer's life since his 1995 acquittal in the killings of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman.

Once, O.J. Simpson dated models and posed on Hollywood red carpets. The tapes portray him now as an aging but still charismatic man who draws crowds of adoring strangers in bars but counts few trustworthy friends.

His $400,000 annual pension and $1-million house seem at odds with the low-rent tactics of those who surround him. In the recordings, he complains about one confidant who tried to persuade him to film a sex tape and to pose for the National Enquirer with a mound of cocaine.

Another associate is heard hitting him up for autographs only to call him a killer as soon as he's out of earshot.

"I know my friends," Simpson says on one tape, just hours before he and five associates allegedly robbed a pair of memorabilia dealers. "I know better than anybody."

The prosecution's witness list belies his assessment. All but one of the eight other men at the Palace Station Hotel & Casino confrontation are testifying against Simpson. Several said that he was the scheme's ringleader and that at least one of his associates was armed. The 61-year-old faces a dozen counts, including kidnapping, which carries a potential life sentence.

Grayer and more weary-looking than at his Los Angeles trial, Simpson nonetheless arrives at Courtroom 15A each day smiling. His hearty laugh rumbles down the hall as he signs autographs and backslaps well-wishers.

"It gets old," he conceded after signing a book on a recent afternoon. But, he added, "I'm a public person. I love people."

His private life, however, is fraught with schemes and betrayals, according to the recordings, interviews and court testimony.

Consider Mike Gilbert, his former agent. Once the closest of friends -- the Gilbert children knew Simpson as "Uncle O.J." -- the men collaborated on a number of business ventures, including a planned auction of the suit Simpson wore the day of his acquittal.

In 1997, after a civil jury found Simpson liable for the pair of murders, Gilbert helped Simpson hide his assets, associates say on the recordings.

But a decade ago, the men had a bitter falling-out and no longer speak. Prosecutors say Simpson's anger toward his old friend -- he maintains that Gilbert stole valuable mementos from him -- led the NFL standout to mastermind the robbery.

On the recordings, Simpson rants about the agent's purported deceit to anyone who will listen. Gilbert, he tells one gathering, once paid a woman to seduce him in a hotel room in hopes of selling the tape to the Enquirer. The setup, which Simpson says he was unaware of, went belly up after he accidentally moved the hidden cameras.

The tabloid schemes Gilbert cooked up with Simpson's knowledge -- selling a staged photo of him with a pile of drugs and filming a porn video -- were just as unflattering.

"He used to tell me, 'Juice, man, let's make up some stories. . . . We can sell the [stuff],' " Simpson says.

Simpson's girlfriend, Christie Prody -- whom he has dated on and off for a dozen years -- remembers Gilbert promising her $1 million to install video cameras in her bedroom. "This is your friend?" she recalls asking Simpson incredulously.

In May, Gilbert published a memoir, "How I Helped O.J. Get Away With Murder," in which he claims a drug-addled Simpson confessed to killing his ex-wife and Goldman years after the crimes. An attorney for Simpson dismissed the book as the rantings of a "delusional drug addict" who needed money to clear up a tax debt.

Gilbert -- not among the men at the hotel confrontation -- was called as a prosecution witness last week, but the judge prohibited lawyers from asking him much. Outside the courtroom, his lawyer waved off other questions but said Gilbert was always available to talk about his book.

Gilbert was just one of the characters who relied on Simpson -- or at least his signature -- for income. Bruce Fromong, one of the alleged robbery victims, admits owning about 2,000 items autographed by Simpson. The other alleged victim, Alfred Beardsley, Simpson says on one tape, desperately wanted to buy his leather overcoat.

In conversation, those who deal in Simpson memorabilia bounce between obsessive devotion and derision, boasting of their close relationship with him in one breath and ridiculing him the next.

"How was he when you were around him? Wasn't it a blast?" Beardsley gushes at one point in the recordings.

Minutes later, he jokes that Simpson is so broke he would sell his own underwear and suggests that the retired athlete has a drinking problem.

The man who made the recordings, Thomas Riccio, has been called a "hero" by Simpson for alerting him that Beardsley was trying to sell his merchandise. But after leaving a meeting at which Simpson agreed to sign 200 copies of "If I Did It," the "hypothetical confessional" book about the slayings, Riccio tells a friend that Simpson began dating Prody "not long after he killed Nicole."

Days later, after Simpson's arrest, Riccio made more than $200,000 by selling copies of the recordings and snagging a book deal.

Simpson, however, is not always the opportunists' victim. Beardsley recounts how Simpson walloped Gilbert on the head -- reducing the agent to tears -- as they watched coverage of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s 1999 plane crash. It was to demonstrate that, for a change, the media glare was not focused on Simpson. "I can do whatever I want this week," Beardsley quoted him as saying.

In one poignant moment, Simpson is flipping channels when he lands on a talk show appearance by reality TV star Kim Kardashian, whose late father was one of Simpson's oldest and most steadfast friends and a member of his murder trial's "Dream Team" defense.

"My goddaughter is being interviewed," Simpson announces. As Kardashian chats about being young and rich in Hollywood, Riccio and a man seeking a photo with Simpson make salacious comments about her exotic beauty. The former NFL star ignores them.

"I was in the hospital when she was born," he says softly.

Staring at a television set seems as close as Simpson can get to Tinseltown glamour and the loyal, well-connected friends of his pre-acquittal life. On the tapes, he talks about grasping at the remnants of his once-considerable fame.

He seems to have time for everyone who recognizes him -- even Riccio's friend, a limo driver who boasts to an uninterested Simpson about getting into strip clubs for free. When another man can't remember Simpson's movie roles, he gamely lists the "Naked Gun" movies.

After the televised saga of his murder trial, Simpson said recently, he was bitter. But his mother urged him not to let the experience darken his lighthearted personality. Since he arrived in Las Vegas for this trial, Simpson said, strangers had repeatedly treated him to dinner. He spends Sunday afternoons in a sports bar where people buy him drinks.

The experience mirrors a story Simpson tells in one recording about a wealthy nightclub patron treating him to a $75 shot. "Hey," he says, "they might as well spend it on me."

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harriet.ryan@latimes.com

ashley.powers@latimes.com

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