For Simpson's pals, opportunity knocks

July 25, 1994|By Jane Meredith Adams | Jane Meredith Adams,Contributing Writer

SAN FRANCISCO -- The friends O. J. Simpson left behind in a scarred housing project in Potrero Hill haven't fared as well, financially, as the multimillionaire ex-football star now charged with double murder. The guys from the old neighborhood are not wealthy. Many of them say they are lucky to be alive.

So when television satellite trucks began lumbering down the steep streets of the Hill to record scenes from Mr. Simpson's early life, three of Mr. Simpson's childhood friends saw an opportunity.

At last, they had something somebody wanted: stories about Mr. Simpson stealing the girl who later became his first wife from his best friend, Al Cowlings, and tales of Mr. Simpson flying his pals to Los Angeles for a week's vacation and driving them around in his Corvette. For $2,500 each, they'd talk and even throw in a tour of the projects.

"We don't have anything," said Calvin Tennyson, a laundry worker at San Francisco General Hospital who went to high school and junior college with Mr. Simpson. "We work eight hours a day and struggle to try to make it from one payday to the next and here comes this opportunity, so why not take it?"

Mr. Tennyson has acted as a broker for himself and his two friends, Ray Hawkins, a bus driver, and Joe Bell, the owner of a thrift shop.

"We're the closest guys you can find to O. J.," Mr. Tennyson promised a reporter. "I can tell you stories about O. J., good and bad stories. You won't be disappointed."

So far, he said, he's had two buyers: a tabloid television show (twice) and a tabloid magazine. He talked to the Los Angeles Times free, before he realized that there was money to be made. He has appeared with Mr. Hawkins at least once, he said, but most of the time Mr. Tennyson has appeared alone, even though the three have a pact to give interviews only together.

"We have to be flexible," he said.

Indeed, Mr. Bell has his own representative in his daughter, Christa, who says her father gave 22 interviews free before asking for money.

"He's tired," she said. "He's not going to do anything he's not going to be compensated for."

Acknowledging that most newspapers have policies of not paying sources for information, Christa Bell said she had a way to get around that restriction. Snapshots are available of Joe Bell and O. J. Simpson posing with others. The use of a snapshot costs $500. No snapshot purchase, no interview.

Television shows pay more. Reached by telephone, Mr. Bell said he was busy talking to a television reporter and referred a request for comment to his daughter.

Mr. Tennyson said the National Enquirer offered Mr. Bell $50,000 to set up an interview with Mr. Cowlings, the man who drove the white Ford Bronco while Mr. Simpson sat in the back, holding a gun to his own head, as police circled in to arrest him last month for the murder of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald L. Goldman.

The Enquirer, Mr. Tennyson said, offered to pay Mr. Cowlings $1 million for his story. "Joe felt the same way I do," said Mr. Tennyson. "Why take a measly $50,000 to arrange an interview when they're going to pay Cowlings $1 million? He wanted at least $150,000."

Jerry George, the Enquirer's bureau chief in Los Angeles, said the tabloid had made an offer to Mr. Cowlings but said he didn't know the details of it.

The practice of paying people to tell their stories has been widely criticized by newspaper and magazine editors who claim that people whotalk for money have an incentive to make their story more interesting and, therefore, more lucrative.

Such payments are routine for television tabloid shows such as "Inside Edition" and "Hard Copy." People who appear on those shows sign agreements not to talk to other media for a certain period of time.

"How can newspaper reporters go about their jobs on tight deadlines if information is embargoed and held up by the marketplace?" said Tom Leonard, acting dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. "That does trouble me."

It doesn't trouble Mr. Tennyson.

"I'm talking about a multimillionaire to a multimillion dollar corporation and I don't get anything?" he said. "That doesn't make sense. A few thousand dollars isn't asking much at all."

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