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MANNIX DEPRESSIVE

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Uncovering the identity of the Friends of Nicole has been made even more difficult by media reports in which Peterson has been quoted as numbering the group that hired him at anywhere from two to four people. He's also put the number of Nicole Simpson's "close friends" in the group at different times as one or two.

Even Lou Brown, Nicole Simpson's father, says he doubts Peterson's claims that he's working for someone who was close to Nicole. "He's not legitimate as far as we're concerned," Lou Brown told Westword in a phone interview from California. "Who are those `friends'? I think he's just a person who's exploiting the name and making money on the side."

Peterson dismisses Brown's skepticism. Nicole Simpson's friends don't trust Lou Brown or, for that matter, anyone in the Brown family, he says. "All of them were on O.J.'s dole." (Many members of the Brown family did receive jobs and/or money from O.J. prior to Nicole Simpson's murder.)

And that Peterson has been investigating the case is not really in doubt. He has surveillance tapes of Kato Kaelin and A.C. Cowlings, though they consist of such mundane scenes as Kaelin giving an unidentified woman a quick kiss and Cowlings getting into his car outside his chiropractor's office and talking to a friend at a yogurt shop. Peterson has provided the press with regular updates on his findings, and he's gone to the L.A. district attorney's office with some of what he's found.

"Like thousands of other people who've tried to give us information, [Peterson has] done the same," says D.A.'s investigator Mike Stevens. "We did have a meeting with him. He said he had a witness who might have observed O.J. Simpson stalking [murder victim] Ron Goldman. It turned out that the information was of no benefit to us."

Peterson, says Stevens, had "sugarcoated" the information he'd presented to investigators, laying out a scenario that wasn't entirely backed up by the man's statements. But Stevens says he's reluctant to say more about Peterson's witness, just in case a higher-up changes direction and decides to put the man on the stand.

If Nicole Simpson's friends should choose to forgo his services, Peterson says, he'll probably still go forward with his investigation, even if it means working for free. "I want to crack the O.J. case," he says with a laugh. "That would be a real claim to fame."

In April 1995, more than a year after the Masek trial, Judge Hufnagel finally issued her findings in that case. She came down hard on Peterson and his cohorts, finding that the evidence showed they had trespassed at Masek's business and indulged in "wanton conduct." The judge added that Peterson had displayed "utter disregard for the truth" in his testimony. Hufnagel ordered Peterson's firm to pay Masek's company in excess of $120,000 and may yet force the private eye to cough up Masek's attorney's fees. The judge says she can't comment on the case. Peterson says he plans to appeal.

The following month, Peterson lost another civil case. He and Stymiest were named as defendants, along with a podiatrist named Stephen Albert, in a suit filed by Denver doctor Gerit Mulder, who has since left town. Although the court files have been sealed at Mulder's request, the doctor's attorney, Phil Pearson, says the action was a slander-and-defamation case.

The court fight began when Mulder sued Albert for allegedly telling people that Mulder had AIDS and abused cocaine. Peterson and Stymiest were added as defendants only after Albert hired them to assist in his defense. According to Pearson, a witness said that Stymiest, posing as an investigative reporter, told her Mulder was "on drugs." Peterson denies ever slandering Mulder and says he only asked potential witnesses questions about Mulder's personal habits.

The jury found for Mulder but decided that Peterson, Stymiest and Albert should pay just $1 each in damages. The panel, however, awarded Mulder $28,000 in attorney's fees. According to attorney Pearson, Mulder has since requested a new trial in an attempt to recover financial losses he says he suffered as a result of the slander.

Peterson was angry about the judgments in both cases, and he responded in typically blunt fashion. First, he requested that Hufnagel recuse herself from the Masek case, even though she'd already rendered her decision. The basis for his request: Hufnagel had a conflict of interest in that before she'd ruled, Peterson had begun the Yellow Cab investigation of her and Karen Mathis. Hufnagel refused to step down.

Next Peterson accused Hufnagel of turning Judge Markson against him in the Mulder case. Then he set up what he calls the Committee to Unseat Hufnagel. To build ammunition, he took out advertisements in local newspapers seeking other dissatisfied defendants. To date, he says, only a few people have climbed aboard. The reason for the lukewarm response, he says, is that people are afraid of Hufnagel.

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Karen Bowers