Once upon a time, O.J. Simpson was a national sports hero, showered with adulation and endorsement contracts. He was the “Juice,” a Hall of Fame football star, actor, TV commentator and pitchman with a beautiful wife, two children and a Rolls Royce.
But the stabbing death of his ex-wife more than 14 years ago makes those early days seem like a fairy tale for Simpson.
It was a life before allegations of murder, robbery and kidnapping, before the world he knew ended and a new, darker one began.
The next chapter unfolds Monday in a Las Vegas courtroom, where Simpson and co-defendant Clarence “C.J.” Stewart go on trial on armed robbery and kidnapping charges.
A conviction on the kidnapping charge carries a potential life prison term.
Simpson, 61, is accused of leading an odd collection of characters, including three convicted criminals, to a casino hotel room, where they were charged with holding two sports collectibles dealers at gunpoint and taking memorabilia that Simpson maintains belonged to him.
Simpson, who lives in Miami, has said he was trying to retrieve personal belongings and family heirlooms, that he didn’t ask anyone to bring guns and that he didn’t know anyone in the room was armed.
But four of the five men who accompanied him have pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against Simpson.
Michael McClinton testified that Simpson asked him to bring guns and told him to look “menacing” during the confrontation with sports memorabilia dealers Bruce Fromong and Alfred Beardsley.
Hanging over the trial, scheduled to last five weeks, will be the shadow of the 1994 slaying of Simpson’s ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, who was found slashed to death along with her friend, Ronald Goldman.
Stunned TV viewers watched as Simpson led a slow-speed chase in a white Ford Bronco and was charged with the killings.
A year later, after a televised trial watched by millions, he was acquitted.
A civil jury later held him liable for the killings, but he hasn’t paid the $33.5 million in damages, insisting he did not commit the slayings.
Simpson retreated to Florida seemingly intent on living the life of a retiree, playing golf every day and looking after his children.
But things have not been idyllic for Simpson.
He was tried in a road rage case and acquitted. Family disputes went public.
This latest episode resulted from a clash between past and present:
Simpson’s obsession with keeping control of memorabilia from his glory days.
One of those expected to testify against him, Thomas Riccio, a felon and memorabilia dealer who arranged the meeting, said Simpson’s motive was clear when he went to the hotel room at the Palace Station casino a year ago and demanded the return of items he said belonged to him.
“O.J. wanted to be able to pass these things down to his kids,” said Riccio, who wasn’t charged in this case.
The memorabilia dealer, who has known Simpson for many years and got a book published as a result of the Las Vegas case, acknowledged letting Simpson into the hotel room with a key.
Riccio also had a tape recorder running inside the room and later sold an audiotape of the events to a gossip Web site.
The tape will be key evidence against Simpson, along with the testimony of the former co-defendants, Riccio, Beardsley and Fromong.
Prosecutors say Beardsley and Fromong were lured to the room and held against their will at gunpoint.
Defense lawyer Yale Galanter says prosecutors overreached for charges against Simpson.
Galanter called the witnesses against Simpson “a cast of very nefarious characters” with credibility problems and a financial incentive to twist their stories.
Some believe the new trial will be shadowed by the past.
“For the public, it’s justice delayed,” said Jerry Reisman, a Garden City, N.Y., attorney who represented Simpson on business matters before the murder case.
“I think the public is going to see and hear what they want to and hope that he is convicted,” Reisman said. “It’s going to be difficult for O.J. to get a fair trial. A lot of the public believes he was guilty of the crimes he was charged with back then and he got away with it.”
The challenge for Simpson’s attorneys will be to keep the focus on the current charges, he said.
Ian Weinstein, a professor of criminal law at Fordham University who has followed Simpson’s legal travails over the years, said the “celebrity factor” may weigh in favor of Simpson if jurors are old enough to remember his triumphs as well as his downfall.
“Some of us have a longer view of him,” Weinstein said.
“My students in our law school know him only as a celebrity with legal problems. But to me he’s still the guy running through the airport in the Hertz commercials.”