Thomas Riccio knew O.J. Simpson would be leading a hotel room raid to reclaim his treasured sports mementos. He knew Simpson had recruited five other men to help. And he knew the two memorabilia collectors inside Room 1203 had no idea what was coming.
But Riccio didn't know there would be guns, he testified Thursday.
"There was no reason for a gun," Riccio said. "They were getting their stuff back without a gun."
Riccio's testimony capped the first day of the preliminary hearing for Simpson, 60, Clarence Stewart and Charles Ehrlich, both 53, who each are charged with 12 counts including robbery with a deadly weapon, kidnapping and conspiracy. Three other men who took part in the Sept. 13 incident at Palace Station have agreed to plead guilty and testify against the others.
At the end of the hearing, which could run into next week, Justice of the Peace Joe M. Bonaventure will decide whether to send the case to District Court for trial.
Riccio said Simpson and he had planned the sting for weeks, ever since memorabilia dealer Alfred Beardsley told him in early August about a collector who had thousands of Simpson's stolen personal items. The items included a plaque signed by former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, one-of-a-kind game footballs and family photos, Riccio said.
He said he helped plan the sting because he believed the items were Simpson's. He thought Simpson and his men would enter the room to identify what they believed was Simpson's stolen property, and if the collectors did not hand over the property, the police would be called, Riccio said.
Yet Simpson didn't seem to want any authorities involved. When Riccio suggested they have a hotel security guard on standby, Simpson declined.
"'I have my boys here. We're going to take care of it,'" Riccio said Simpson told him.
Prosecutors allege Simpson and the others burst into the room and robbed Beardsley and memorabilia dealer Bruce Fromong at gunpoint. Las Vegas police arrested Simpson three days later.
The Heisman Trophy winner's appearance inside the Regional Justice Center on Thursday attracted the anticipated collection of news reporters and regular irregulars outside.
Between occasional smoke breaks, a man dressed as a chicken carried signs that read "O.J. is guilty" and "If I Did It" with the word "If" crossed out.
Meanwhile, a man in a bunny suit with "stop police brutality" spray painted on it circled the building on roller skates, carrying a sign proclaiming "O.J. didn't do it." As the day heated up, the man shed the bunny suit but kept the skates and could be seen hanging out with a guy whose sign declared "War on the police."
Simpson arrived at the courthouse about 30 minutes before the hearing, rolling up in a dark-colored Hummer owned by his bail bondsman, Miguel Pereira. A throng of people surrounded the vehicle as it rolled to a stop, and Simpson emerged.
Simpson and his entourage walked past a line of photographers and through a courthouse metal detector. As Simpson removed his belt to walk through the checkpoint, people waiting in the security line scrambled to find cameras and cell phone cameras, and court marshals tried to control the growing mob surrounding the NFL hall of famer.
"O.J. I love you," Erica Smallbear, 28, shouted as Simpson put his belt back on.
He gave her a wave, put his sunglasses on and headed for the courtroom.
"I talked to him!" Smallbear said.
"I believe God will set him free, and that's what we're praying for," she said of her and her friends at the Salvation Army program for mental illness and drug addiction.
Simpson kept his sunglasses on until he sat at the defense table.
The hearing started with testimony from Fromong, a North Las Vegas resident who used to work with Simpson on sports memorabilia deals. Fromong said Beardsley told him a buyer was interested in some of his Simpson collectibles.
Fromong loaded the collection into his truck and drove to Palace Station, where he met Beardsley and Riccio. After they took the items to the room and laid them on the bed, Riccio left to meet the buyer, Fromong said. He returned with Simpson and five other men, two of whom had pistols, he said.
"I remember Mr. Simpson say, 'Don't let anybody out of this room. Nobody leaves,'" Fromong said. He said the men burst into the room in "military invasion fashion."
Fromong said one of the men shoved him into a chair, and another stuck a gun in his face while the men made off with the memorabilia, which included footballs, Joe Montana lithographs and Pete Rose-signed baseballs.
"O.J. was screaming, 'This is all ... my (expletive). You guys stole this from me,'" said Fromong. He said he told Simpson he bought it legally from former Simpson business associate Mike Gilbert.
During nearly two hours of cross examination, Simpson lawyer Gabriel Grasso questioned Fromong about whether the memorabilia had been stolen by Gilbert.
Fromong's answers varied, from Simpson gave it to Gilbert to Gilbert took it from Simpson.
"Mike took it from O.J. I didn't say steal. He took it," Fromong said.
Fromong denied that the memorabilia was stolen.
Fromong said that as the men left the hotel room with the memorabilia, he told Simpson he would give him Gilbert's number, but Simpson just took the cell phone and left. Fromong said Simpson told him he would leave the phone at the front desk but didn't.
About five weeks before the incident, Riccio and Simpson started planning what they called a sting to retrieve what they thought was Simpson's property. Riccio called Los Angeles police and the FBI looking for help.
"They made it sound like it was a civil thing, and they didn't want nothing to do with it," Riccio said.
The plan evolved to include some sort of sting in a hotel room, but they did not settle on a Las Vegas location until late in the planning, Riccio said.
Riccio said he thought Las Vegas was a good place because Simpson was going to be in town for a wedding, the memorabilia was in North Las Vegas and Riccio could make an easy stopover on his flight back to Los Angeles from New York.
For setting up the meeting, Simpson agreed to sign 200 copies of the new book "If I Did It" for him, Riccio said.
Hours before the hotel room raid, Riccio met Simpson, Ehrlich and others at the Palms pool and discussed the plan. Simpson's sister and another man who said he was a lawyer tried to talk Simpson out of it, but he ranted about having his stuff stolen and was determined to get it back, Riccio said.
After Fromong and Beardsley laid out the memorabilia in the Palace Station room that evening, Riccio met Simpson and the other men in the hotel lobby.
Riccio said he was not worried about Simpson and his group getting out of control.
"I was afraid of Beardsley and whoever he might bring," Riccio said. "Not O.J."
But moments later they were rushing into the room and screaming at Fromong and Beardsley. The six-minute episode was captured on a digital audio recorder that Riccio had hidden in the room. Riccio said he bought the recorder at a Radio Shack the day before to have a record of his dealings with Simpson to protect himself.
One man who sounded like Simpson shouted, "(Expletive), you think you can steal my (expletive) and sell it?"
After the men cleared out, a man who sounded like Beardsley said, "We were just robbed at gunpoint, man. We were just robbed at gunpoint by O.J. Simpson."
Riccio gave the recorder to authorities after prosecutors granted him immunity.
His lawyer, Stanley Lieber, said he thought his client would not have been charged anyway because prosecutors told him Riccio did not do anything wrong.
Riccio provided other recordings, including a voice mail left shortly after the incident in which Simpson said they did not use any guns.
Riccio testified that Simpson called him again a couple days later.
"O.J. told me, 'This is all going to blow over in a couple of days. Nothing's going to come of it,'" Riccio said. "The next day he got arrested."
Review-Journal staff writers Henry Brean and K.C. Howard contributed to this report.
Contact reporter Brian Haynes at email@example.com or (702) 383-0281.