O.J. Simpson returns to Florida, and center of media storm, after judge sets bail at $125,000



By The Associated Press

MIAMI – O.J. Simpson slipped back into familiar territory early Thursday _ not just the humidity of South Florida, but into the center of a media cavalcade fixated on a robbery case that could imprison him for life.

In the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood airport, he refused to answer reporters’ questions about the case, though girlfriend Christine Prody answered a question about how Simpson was doing with: “He’s fine.”

The former football star left in an SUV, tailed by a pack of cameras and reporters. Hours later, he still hadn’t returned to his suburban Miami home, where reporters and a television helicopter disturbed the quiet in the normally tranquil neighborhood.

Police allege the Heisman Trophy winner led an armed holdup of sports memorabilia collectors. Simpson has insisted he was merely retrieving items that had been stolen from him.

Legal experts say the prosecution’s case could be clouded by issues including who had rightful ownership of the goods and the reputation of witnesses in the sometimes less-than-reputable world of memorabilia trading.

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At his arraignment Thursday, Simpson furrowed his brow as the judge read the list of charges against him. Gone was the slight smirk he flashed when arrested.

He answered quietly in a hoarse voice and nodded as the judge laid out restrictions for his release, including surrendering his passport to his attorney and having no contact with co-defendants or potential witnesses.

Simpson did not enter a plea. His attorney, Yale Galanter, said after the hearing that the $125,000 bond was reasonable.

As Simpson flew home to the Miami area, US Airways emptied a plane so he could board first with Galanter and Prody.

Simpson sat in an aisle seat in economy class. Passengers who boarded behind him took pictures with cell phones and cameras. He nodded and smiled as they passed.

With his attorney across the aisle and his girlfriend against his shoulder, Simpson slept from Las Vegas to South Florida. When the plane touched down, he hugged Galanter.

Simpson had still not returned to his suburban Miami home by 2 a.m, hours after authorities arrested a fifth suspect in the case.

Simpson was arrested Sunday after a collector reported a group of armed men charged into a hotel room at the Palace Station casino and took several items. He spent three nights in jail after being charged with kidnapping, robbery with use of a deadly weapon, burglary while in possession of a deadly weapon, coercion with use of a deadly weapon, assault with a deadly weapon, conspiracy to commit kidnapping, conspiracy to commit robbery and conspiracy to commit a crime.

Four other men have been arrested on many of the same charges, and police were still looking for another suspect.

Charles Howard Cashmore, 40, surrendered to police Wednesday and was scheduled to appear in court Thursday morning. Cashmore brought in items that are believed to have been taken, police said without elaborating.

Authorities allege that the men went to the room Sept. 13 on the pretext of brokering a deal with two longtime collectors, Alfred Beardsley and Bruce Fromong. The meeting was set up by memorabilia dealer Tom Riccio.

According to police reports, the collectors were ordered at gunpoint to hand over several items valued at as much as $100,000, including football game balls signed by Simpson, Joe Montana lithographs, baseballs autographed by Pete Rose and Duke Snider and framed awards and plaques.

Beardsley told police he had expected that the collection would earn $35,000 at the meeting from a “client” he had never met. Instead, he said, one of the men with Simpson brandished a pistol, frisked him and impersonated a police officer, and another man pointed a gun at Fromong.

Authorities said Beardsley, of Burbank, Calif., was paroled in March 2006 after serving 11 months of a two-year sentence for stalking a woman in Riverside County.

He was arrested at his room at the Luxor hotel Wednesday for violating parole. A California corrections spokesman said Beardsley was required to get written approval before traveling more than 50 miles from home or leaving home for more than 24 hours.

Beardsley was held without bail pending an extradition hearing Thursday.

Riccio also has a criminal record, including grand larceny in Florida in 1984, when he received three years of probation; and felony arson in 1995, in California, for which he was sentenced to two years.

Riccio, who recorded an audiotape of the confrontation later released by the celebrity Web site TMZ, said he was not concerned with how his past might affect his credibility “because everything’s on tape. That’s why it’s on tape.”

But Beardsley told NBC’s “Today” show before Simpson’s hearing that he didn’t think the audiotape was accurate.

Riccio also said he had been promised some form of immunity by prosecutors.

Two other defendants, Walter Alexander, 46, and Clarence Stewart, 53, were arrested and released pending court appearances. Stewart turned in some of the missing goods and Alexander agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, authorities said. Suspect Michael McClinton, 49, of Las Vegas, surrendered to police Tuesday. Jailers were unable to say whether Cashmore or McClinton had retained a lawyer.

Police have not identified the remaining suspect they are seeking.

Associated Press writers Ryan Nakashima, Ken Ritter, Kathleen Hennessey and Chelsea J. Carter in Las Vegas, and APTN videographer Richard Matthews in Miami contributed to this report.