Cashing in

updated 08/08/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/08/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

At times, scandal seems to be our liveliest growth industry; if exportable, it would cut America's balance-of-payments deficit to the bone. Although O.J. is the suspect of the moment, he was preceded by Amy and Joey, Erik and Lyle, Lorena and John—all of them newly minted household names who became fodder for book and movie deals worth millions of dollars. With barely a pause at the nightly TV tabloid shows, stories of disgraceful doings and domestic mayhem leap directly from the front page onto the desks of agents and producers.

But does that mean that notoriety is a ticket to prosperity? Not exactly. Though so-called Son of Sam laws, which decree that criminals cannot profit from their crimes, have been questioned on constitutional grounds in some states, the miscreant du jour is still less likely to profit from his real or supposed crimes than are the cast of peripheral players: the lawyers, promoters, friends, relatives, TV and movie producers—and, yes, journalists—who may see the bloodiest forms of sensation as a chance for a trip to the bank.

Innocent or guilty, O.J. isn't simply the accused—he's a brand name

Last week, as a newly energized O.J. Simpson entered a plea of "absolutely 100 percent not guilty" in the Los Angeles superior court, the streets outside the courthouse were a veritable bazaar. Working a crowd of 200, dozens of vendors hawked a vast array of O.J. merchandise including T-shirts, dolls, key chains and coffee mugs. Although the army of entrepreneurs was cleaning up—the Turn the Juice Loose T-shirts were going for $10—their take represented just a tiny piece of the action generated by the Simpson saga.

From the moment news of the murder of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman broke seven weeks ago, every possible witness has been pursued not only by police investigators but also by the tabloid press brandishing cash. Jill Shivery, a West L.A. housewife who says she saw O.J. driving his Ford Bronco wildly near Nicole's home the night of the murder, pocketed $5,000 from the TV show Hard Copy and $2,600 from the Star—which moved District Attorney Gil Garcetti to announce that Shively would not be called as a witness because her testimony had been "tainted." But the D.A.'s office did call José Camacho, a salesman at Ross Cutlery in downtown L.A. who claims he sold Simpson a 15-inch stiletto last May; on the stand, during the pretrial hearing, he admitted that the National Enquirer had paid $12,500 for his story. (California State Assembly Speaker Willie Brown has now drafted a bill that would make witnesses who sell their stories liable to a six-month prison sentence.)

Despite great temptations, those in Simpson's inner circle have so far refused to sell out. Paula Barbieri, a model who had been dating O.J., and Al Cowlings, his best friend, have each turned down $1 million for tabloid interviews. Brian "Kato" Kaelin, a family friend who had been staying in the guest house at Simpson's estate and was there on the night of the murders, has reportedly refused a $250,000 offer.

Currently, Fox has commissioned the only made-for-TV movie on O.J. But that may well change, given the networks' ratings bonanza covering the preliminary hearing. On the other hand, book publishers have jumped right in. There are already three quickie paperbacks in bookstores, including Marc Cerasini's O.J. Simpson: American Hero, American Tragedy (Pinnacle), which was out just 13 days after the murders and has 750,000 copies in print. And Joe McGinniss, author of Fatal Vision, will reportedly receive $3 million from Crown Books to write about the crime.

Yet O.J. himself is facing financial ruin, regardless of his guilt or innocence. Dropped as a front man for Hertz and unable to work as a football commentator for NBC—which together gave him an annual income of $800,000—it won't be long before he runs through his estimated $10.8 million in assets. Fees for his legal all-star team of Robert Shapiro, Gerald Uelman, F. Lee Bailey, Alan Dershowitz and Johnnie Cochran are running about $56,000 per week. Perhaps O.J.'s one hope of remaining solvent would be to sell the rights to his life story. Publishing sources say that an O.J. autobiography could earn him as much as $5 million—even if he doesn't tell all.

John Bobbitt's severance pay isn't enough to keep him out of debt

Since his celebrated dismemberment in June 1993, trouble just seems to follow John Bobbitt around. Though not yet officially divorced from his knife-wielding wife, Lorena, he was arrested on July 2 near Las Vegas for assaulting his fiancée, former topless dancer Kristina Elliott, 21, marking the second time in two months he has been charged with battering her. Elliott claims he hit her; he insists she was beating him. At his arraignment last week, Bobbitt—perhaps forgetting momentarily that O.J. Simpson once pleaded no contest to a wife-beating charge—invoked the former football star by echoing Simpson's recent declaration in court that he was "absolutely 100 percent not guilty."

Meanwhile, Bobbitt has done everything short of exposing his reattached penis to cash in on his notoriety following his acquittal on a marital sexual assault charge last November. On a 40-city Love Hurts tour that ended in March, he participated in several Stump the Bobbitt radio joke fests and shows that were punctuated with the sound of cleaver-wielding Benihana-style chefs chopping meat. He was the featured guest on Howard Stern's pay-per-view New Year's Eve special, during which $260,000 was pledged to Bobbitt by viewers—most of whom ended up not paying. He signed a licensing agreement with the Klimax Corporation to market a Bobbitt penis protector. And he is slated to emcee a John Wayne Bobbitt Sleep on Your Stomach Tour, featuring various stand-up comedians, which is expected to begin on Labor Day.

Yet the crudest joke of all is that Bobbitt is broke. Though he has grossed about $250,000 from his various scandal spinoffs, Bobbitt claims that most of the money was eaten up in expenses and fees to Paul Erickson, his former media adviser, and Robert Abramoff, an entertainment lawyer. Bobbitt does have about $20,000 in a trust fund but is unlikely to ever have a chance to spend it, because his former attorney, Gregory Murphy, has a claim against him for $280,000 in outstanding legal fees. Last June, in Buffalo, Bobbitt pleaded with a judge to appoint a legal guardian to sort out his finances and undo some of the last year's bad deals. State Supreme Court Justice Mario Rossetti agreed that Bobbitt's finances were a mess but ruled that it was not the court's responsibility to sort them out.

Now Bobbitt has signed up with Elliott's manager, Aaron Gordon, son of LaToya Jackson's husband, Jack. According to Gordon, Bobbitt and Elliott have put their plans for marriage on hold. Also in limbo is a near six-figure deal that was reportedly in the works with Playboy for a photo shoot in which Bobbitt keeps his clothes on but Elliott bares all.

For her part, Lorena, who has a $300,000 legal bill of her own, received about $50,000 for television appearances that aired in her native South America. Otherwise she has kept a low profile, perhaps because she was more mindful from the beginning of a simple maxim her ex-husband repeated during a break in his recent courtroom appearance in Buffalo. "I've learned," he said, "you can't trust anyone."

Big surprise: Heidi Fleiss's friends are for sale

Heidi Fleiss, who is under federal investigation for tax evasion and is still awaiting trial on charges that she ran a ring of $l,500-a-night prostitutes who catered to Hollywood's elite, insists that no amount of money could persuade her to tell all she knows. "I have no story to sell," she says through her publicist, Richard Pollmann. "And I never will." But that hasn't stopped people Fleiss once called friends from cashing in. Last fall, Victoria Sellers, daughter of the late comedian Peter Sellers, was reportedly paid $100,000 by London's Sunday Mirror for a confessional story about working as a call girl for Fleiss. L'Hua Reid, the woman to whom Fleiss gave her date book for safekeeping last fall, turned around and gave it to Hard Copy—though both she and the show's producers insist no money changed hands. Heidi retrieved the book by agreeing to make a personal appearance on the show and later said, "Now I feel like a whore."

Meanwhile, Heidi's former boyfriend TV director Ivan Nagy sold the rights to the story of his romance with the alleged Hollywood madam to producer Larry Thompson for $100,000. In addition, Nagy has released a CD-ROM disc for home computers that includes seminude pictures of models he hired and is entitled Heidi's Girls. "There will soon be a Heidi's Girls II," says Nagy proudly.

Though she has turned down numerous book and movie offers and is relying on relatives to help cover her mounting legal expenses, Fleiss has not been totally averse to cashing in on her notoriety. Last September she announced on Joan Rivers' TV show that she had launched a mail-order clothing business featuring a new line of pajamas. Then in July she opened a boutique in Pasadena for an expanded collection of HeidiWear. The most popular items are cotton unisex boxer shorts, which sell for $24.99 and feature a button fly and a pocket for a spare condom.

Jeffrey Dahmer's father has not yet kept his word

Jeffrey Dahmer is deeply in debt. Shortly after Dahmer began a 999-year prison sentence in 1992 for murdering 17 men and boys, a Wisconsin court ruled that he owed $80 million in restitution to the families of eight of his victims. Dahmer's father, Lionel, however, owed nothing and chose to capitalize on his son's bloody crimes by writing an account of life with Jeffrey: A Father's Story (William Morrow). In the book, Lionel promised that some of the profits would go to "victims' families." So far the families have not received a penny, though the senior Dahmer was paid a $150,000 advance. "He wants people to believe he is atoning for his son's misdeeds," says Thomas Jacobson, an attorney for the victims' families. "In fact he is pocketing the money." (Lionel declines to comment.)

Ironically, Jacobson has decided that the only way he will get any restitution money for his clients is by exploiting public fascination with the Dahmer case. Last February he tried to convince Jeffrey Dahmer that he should pay off part of his huge debt to the victims' families by accepting a deal worth about $1 million for the rights to his life story. Dahmer refused. Now Jacobson is planning to sell off some of the furniture and housewares police confiscated from the one-bedroom Milwaukee apartment where Dahmer dismembered and cannibalized his victims. Herman Darvick, a New York auctioneer who sold Jack Ruby's gun ($220,000), Lee Harvey Oswald's toe tag ($8,800) and an Amy Fisher love letter ($550), says Dahmer's plates and cutlery are likely to be the biggest sellers. "It's gory," says Darvick. "But these are real conversation pieces."

Amy Fisher's Investors' left her with nothing

The Amy Fisher saga spawned so many media spinoffs—two books, three TV movies, a comic book, an off-Broadway play and countless talk show segments—that many people assumed she was wallowing in ill-gotten profits. Not so. The only money Fisher received as a direct result of shooting Mary Jo Buttafuoco was $8,000 for a first-person piece in the spring 1994 issue of Mouth 2 Mouth magazine about what she had learned since the attack. "It was written for her own catharsis, not for the money," says Fisher's lawyer, Eric Naiburg.

Early in the scandal, Naiburg sold the rights to Amy's life story to KLM, a small group of investors who put up $60,000 to help cover her $2 million bail and paid $20,000 to Fisher's parents, who used it for legal expenses. KLM eventually got the $60,000 back. In the meantime, they sold movie rights to NBC for $150,000, book rights to Pocket Books for $60,000, and rights to an exclusive interview with Amy to Inside Edition for $80,000. None of this money went to Amy or her family.

The Buttafuocos, on the other hand, did very well indeed in the notoriety sweepstakes. Together, Mary Jo and her black-sheep husband, Joey—who eventually pleaded guilty to having sexual relations with the underage Amy—received $200,000 for the CBS movie Casualties of Love and another $500,000 from TV's A Current Affair. Since Amy was convicted of reckless assault rather than attempted murder, the shooting was covered as an accident under the Fisher's homeowner's insurance policy, and the Buttafuocos pocketed $450,000 to help cover Mary Jo's medical bills.

The biggest winners of all were the TV networks. NBC's Amy Fisher: My Story won a 30 percent share of the TV audience when it aired on Dec. 28, 1992, and generated $3.36 million in ad revenues. Six days later, CBS's Casualties of Love: The "Long Island Lolita" Story earned a 22 percent audience share and $3.64 million in revenues but lost a head-to-head ratings battle that evening with ABC's Beyond Control: The Amy Fisher Story, which won a 30 percent audience share and $4.2 million in revenues. The total network take for the three dueling docudramas: more than $11 million.

John Wayne Gacy's legacy in kitsch is put to the torch

Before he was executed on May 10 for the murders of 33 young men and boys, John Wayne Gacy spent much of his time on Illinois's death row creating macabre art. In the early '80s he began sketching and painting an eclectic array of subjects—clowns, pop icons (Elvis Presley, Roger Rabbit), notorious criminals (Charles Manson, Al Capone, John Dillinger) and skulls pierced with daggers—and sold the pictures by mail for an average price of $60. But last year, when it was revealed that Gacy had made about $100,000 in 14 years from his art, embarrassed prison authorities declared that Gacy's business was a "burden on the mail room" and made him stop. After spending nearly half of the $100,000 on art and mailing supplies and paying medical and funeral costs for his mother, Marion, who died in 1989, Gacy was left with about $1,200 in his prison account at the time of his execution.

Meanwhile art speculators have been scrambling to capitalize on Gacy's infamy. Chicago attorney James Jorzak, who acquired 70 paintings and 30 sketches from Gacy as payment in kind for giving him legal and financial advice, claims he sold seven of the works to unnamed collectors at a Beverly Hills exhibit in March for prices ranging from $3,500 to $10,000.

Such profiteering has made some people mad as hell. At a public auction in Naperville, Ill, a week after Gacy's execution, Joe Roth, a local truck-parts supplier, drew jeers from horrified onlookers as he bought 21 of Gacy's paintings for about $7,300. But the jeers quickly turned to cheers when Roth announced that he and Walter Knoebel, a local contractor, had teamed up to buy the art so they could destroy it.

On June 18 more than 150 people gathered at the auction-house parking lot for the promised bonfire. The crowd included several relatives of Gacy's young victims. At Roth's invitation, each relative was allowed to place a work of art on the fire. "It's such a relief to do this," said Harold Piest, whose son Robert, 15, had been murdered by Gacy in 1978, as he added a painting of a clown in a bathtub to the inferno. Sherry Marino, whose son Michael had also been killed, experienced a similar catharsis. "Burning this art," she said, "is like putting Gacy in hell."

DAVID GROGAN
JOYCE WAGNER in Los Angeles, MARGIE BONNETT SELLINGER in Washington, MARIA EFTIMIADES in Buffalo, F.X. FEENEY in Pasadena, BRYAN ALEXANDER and BONNIE BELL in Chicago

Share this story:

Your reaction:

advertisement

From Our Partners

From Our Partners