Glare of publicity irresistible Interview: Recall the guy who supposedly got engaged to O.J. Simpson's housekeeper? He's back, and this time it has something to do with James Earl Ray.

Catching Up With ...

November 17, 1996|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

When we last heard from Mike Gabriel, the Pikesville resident had just broken off a much publicized engagement to Rosa Lopez, O.J. Simpson's housekeeper. Sad to say, Lopez was allergic to cats, precluding a life with Gabriel, an instructor of the ancient art of Cat-Yoga.

The fleeting romance was dutifully reported by everyone from Vanity Fair to Jay Leno. Just another strange footnote in the strange spectacle of the Simpson trial. Except for this: None of it was true.

Gabriel, a part-time candy store clerk and movie extra with a genius for self-promotion, had manufactured the whole thing. And for a wondrous few moments, he managed to make himself a star.

"The hoax succeeded beyond Gabriel's greatest hopes," writes Jeffrey Toobin, who proves the point by mentioning Gabriel in his book "The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson."

He stands out

But Gabriel, 44, is not through messing with our minds. Not by a long shot. He comes to lunch at the tiny Chinese restaurant at the Greenspring Atrium wearing a Popeye tie, a spiffy striped gray suit and gray shirt and a Snapple Watch, a gift from Wendy the Snapple lady. Ponytailed and 6 feet 6 inches tall, he's hard to miss in this sleepy mall.

Gabriel's mother owns a candy store in the mall called the Sweet Life, where he works. He eats steamed vegetables at the Chinese restaurant every day.

Today he's also chatting effusively about the man who is helping him hatch his latest scheme, the man he calls his "adopted father." It's James Earl Ray, the man serving life in prison for assassinating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

Gabriel produces a sheath of letters from Ray with a Nashville, Tenn., postmark. "Who have you ever gotten 70 letters from in your life?" he demands. "I think we're extremely close," he says of his incarcerated pen pal.

So close, that Gabriel says he is considering being legally adopted by Ray so he can visit more often. So close, that Ray has cooperated with Gabriel's plan to raise money for charity by selling lithographs and prepaid phone cards featuring pictures painted by Ray in his maximum-security prison cell.

Skeptical? Look it up in the December issue of Money Card Collector magazine, where Gabriel has placed a full-page ad.

Key witness

Numerous cards in the ad feature reproductions of Ray's primitive depictions of Gabriel's engagement to Lopez, a key defense witness who vouched for Simpson on the night of his wife's murder and then fled to her native El Salvador to escape the media onslaught.

Gabriel had already surfaced in the tabloids as a turbaned instructor of CatYoga who had written a letter to Simpson expressing confidence in his innocence. The letter appeared in the Globe in 1994.

Not long after that, Gabriel sent a note to Lopez in El Salvador via Judge Lance Ito. It contained a $20 money order and an invitation to call collect on his birthday. She did, and then he and his Robin Quivers ventriloquist dummy (put to use in Gabriel's separated-at-birth-from-Howard Stern shtick) visited her at her home in the town of Sensuntepeque. There, he placed the engagement ring in the dummy's hand, and proposed by proxy to the 50-something Lopez.

There's proof: Mike, the dummy, and a stern Rosa staring at the camera, in a photo shot on April 23, 1995.

Lopez didn't accept the proposal, but she went along with the hoax. "I think she has a great sense of humor," Gabriel says.

Why should this tidbit seem any weirder than anything else surrounding the Simpson case, one of the more bizarre events of the 20th century?

The usual talk show/gossip column/freak show brigade gladly bought it. Ken Harrell broke the story in the Globe. Within a week, Gabriel was professing undying love for Lopez on "Geraldo." Geraldo upped the ante by announcing that Simpson would be the best man, Gabriel says.

Uptown journalist Dominick Dunne, who kept Nancy Reagan and Elizabeth Taylor apprised of the Simpson courtroom follies, fell for the hoax, too. Twice.

Mentioned by Dunn

In Vanity Fair last year, Dunne duly reported in his Letter From Los Angeles: "A few months back, I wrote that she had become engaged to a 28-year-old ventriloquist from Baltimore named Mike Gabriel, as he calls himself, who saw Rosa testifying on television, became smitten, and followed her to El Salvador, where she agreed to accept his hand in marriage. That betrothal has bitten the dust. Gabriel, who is primarily a teacher of cat yoga, recently wrote me a long, chatty letter in which he said that Rosa was allergic to cats and that had ended the romance. Not to worry, Gabriel's old girlfriend took him back, and they are 'engaged to be engaged.' Her name is Samantha, and she acts in porn."

Success made Gabriel giddy. Up until his proclamation of love for Lopez, he had tripped briefly through extra parts in "Cry Baby," "Avalon," "Homicide," "Forrest Gump," (in which he played a Black Panther) and other locally shot films.

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