This article originally appeared in the September 2007 issue of Los Angeles magazine.
The pale, aging prisoners in the army green windbreaker, navy blue pants, and leg irons exits the U.S. courtroom in Los Angeles doing the chain-gang shuffle with the line of men to whom he’s shackled. Already incarcerated for more than three years, Anthony Pellicano has just learned on this May 2007 day that it will be nine more months before he stands trial on 112 counts of wiretapping, identity theft, racketeering, conspiracy, witness tampering, and destruction of evidence, charges that could land him in prison for a decade or more. Until next February he’ll be forced to sit in a cell in the Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown L.A., jailed without bail as a flight risk.
Once Hollywood’s charismatic, high-flying private eye to the stars, the 63-year-old Pellicano now appears small and stooped, his ample nose made more prominent by a new gauntness. His jowls are loose and hanging, his mouth is sad and downturned—a look, given his receding chin and balding pate, that puts one in mind of Homer Simpson.
Just a handful of reporters have shown up for the hearing, and their articles, if they appear at all, will be consigned to the back pages, the surest sign that the man once thought to be at the center of Hollywood’s own Watergate scandal is fast fading into irrelevance. A story that was supposed to blow the lid off the Industry has instead come to seem about as scandalous as kissing your sister. It’s a remarkable denouement in a prosecution that once promised to suck in some of the Industry’s biggest names.
Pellicano’s troubles began with a November 2002 raid by FBI agents on his detective agency offices in a swank 12-story glass tower on the western end of the Sunset Strip. The raid was triggered by a tip from a jailhouse informant alleging that Pellicano was behind a bizarre incident the previous June, when a rose, a dead fish, and a cardboard sign reading STOP were left on the cracked windshield of an Audi belonging to then-Los Angeles Times reporter Anita Busch. She had been investigating a connection between the actor Steven Seaga—an old client of Pellicano’s—and an organized-crime figure. Pellicano never faced federal charges in the incident (although a single count growing out of the case has been filed by the L.A. County district attorney). Nevertheless, it was enough to set up all that followed.
As the agents fanned out, Pellicano showed them two loaded handguns in a desk drawer and opened two combination floor safes. Inside were two hand grenades, military-grade plastic C-4 explosives, a detonator, jewelry, gold coins and bullion, and $200,000 in cash. In subsequent searches, agents carted off 36 pieces of electronic equipment, including wiretapping software, computer hard drives and storage files, 150,000 pages of documents, encrypted transcripts of phone conversations, and more than 1,300 tape recordings.
About a year later Pellicano pleaded guilty to possessing illegal explosives and was sentenced to 27 to 32 months in federal prison. On the day before he was scheduled for release in February 2006, he was hit with the multicount federal wiretapping indictment. When the indictment came down, Hollywood was awash in speculation about who would be next. Thus far 11 others have been charged or have pleaded guilty, including Pellicano clients Terry Christensen, the attorney to multibillionaire Kirk Kerkorian; Die Hard director John McTiernan; Sandra Carradine, former wife of actor Keith Carradine; three other clients; two police officers; two phone company employees; and a software programmer.
No small potatoes by any means, but hardly the Hollywood kingpins whose names had been bandied about. Chief among them–and named by prosecutors as a “person of interest”–was Bert Fields, il cupo di tutti capi of entertainment attorneys and a man with whom Pellicano had been closely associated for more than a decade. Fields’s clients include Brad Grey, a manager and producer at the time and now the chairman of Paramount Pictures, who was locked in ugly, high-stakes lawsuits with actor-comedian Garry Shandling and screenwriter “Bo” Zenga. Both of them–in addition to four others linked to Fields’s clients–allegedly were wiretapped by Pellicano.
Then there was Michael Ovitz, the former head of Creative Artists Agency. According to summaries of FBI interviews of Ovitz obtained by The New York Times, in early 2002, Ovitz paid Pellicano to gather dirt on 15 to 20 people, including high-level former CAA agents and partners he was at war with, like current Universal Studios head Ron Meyer, Richard Lovett, Kevin Huvane, and Bryan Lourd. New York Times reporter Bernard Weinraub and Busch, who had been writing critical articles about Ovitz’s financial difficulties, were also targeted.
There’s been no shortage of speculation, but it’s unlikely that Fields, Ovitz, or any of those not already indicted ever will be. Federal prosecutors, signaling they were ready to go ahead with their case at the hearing in May, unsuccessfully opposed postponing the trial until February. The statute of limitations has run out on many of the potential crimes.
Meanwhile, Pellicano remains in jail, vowing to take his punishment “like a man” and refusing to implicate others in the wide-ranging wiretapping scheme he created. According to the indictment, that scheme was devised to gather and use information to secretly gain “a tactical advantage in litigation by learning [his] opponents’ plans, strategies, and perceived strengths and weaknesses and other personal information of a confidential, embarrassing or incriminating nature.” Among the 63 wiretapping victims were Sylvester Stallone, Keith Carradine, Kevin Nealon, and Donna Dubrow, the former wife of McTiernan.
Pellicano never responded to interview requests left with his lawyer. Whatever the outcome of Pellicano’s trial, he’ll go down in pop history as one of Hollywood’s great characters. He’s the Rudy Giuliani of private eyes: audacious, narcissistic, emotionally immature, and egomaniacal, a guy who sold exactly what Giuliani is now hawking–protection. Working for people who wanted their toilets scrubbed without getting their fingers dirty, for two decades Pellicano played his role of Hollywood factotum to perfection, an all-service provider presenting himself to his clients as their consigliere, operative, and intimidator. He conveyed that he was someone possessing a great cache of knowledge, someone who knew guys who knew guys and could solve any problem–just like Mr. wolf in Pulp Fiction. “I need everything from refinement [to threats with] baseball bats,” the singer Courtney Love once told him in a tape leaked to The New York Times. “And I need them all under one roof … when I have a problem of any stripe–A to Z, I can go to you. That’s what I need.” To which Pellicano replied: “Listen, Courtney, if you come to me, that’s the end of that. I’m an old-style Sicilian. I only go one way. My clients are my family, and that’s it.”
“He took care of people’s problems,” his wife, Kat, told a New York Times reporter. “That’s what he did for a living. And he did it very well.”
But what has been frequently overlooked is that he was also an astonishing self-creation. He came to the land of make-believe and fooled the people whose business it is to spin tales and create lies, fooled them into believing the myth of Anthony Pellicano: the world’s greatest private investigator; the smartest-guy-in-the-room Mensa member; the super expert in the esoteric quasi-science of voice and audio identification technology; the tracer of missing persons extraordinaire. Hiding in plain sight was a prime-time bullshitter and first-rate showman.
His black-bag jobs, dirty tricks, anonymous threatening late-night phone calls, and thug-for-hire intimidations were common knowledge among high-end divorce and paternity lawyers and Hollywood reporters. Rather than obscuring what he did, Pellicano made it his brand, thriving on the notion that he was a mobbed-out guy. The mere chance that you could be exposing yourself or your family to such a man worked wonders for him, and people backed away when he pushed.
He dressed in expensive double-breasted wise-guy suits and leather jackets set off by patent leather shoes, man-with-no-eyes shades, and a pinkie ring. He slicked back his thinning hair, doused himself with cologne, and popped Chiclets the way Kojak used to suck on lollipops. He was, said Kat, “the only man I ever met that could make a silk shirt look like polyester.” In the ’80s, he papered the walls of his office in bordello red velvet, later graduating to a hipper decor, highlighted by black leather furniture. His oak-finished office doors were painted in gold lettering announcing that you were entering the Pellicano Investigative Agency Ltd./Forensic Audio Lab/Syllogistic Research Group. He installed what he claimed was the latest in audio analysis equipment. He had his receptionist talk over the piped-in Puccini and offer cappuccinos to prospective clients. Once visitors were led through the hallways lined with framed magazine articles heralding the magnificence of himself, he played the role of professional goombah. “What can I tell ya,” he would say with a shrug. “I’m Sicilian.”
“He was like a hungry kid looking at a candy store when he talked about the mob,” says novelist Jacquelyn Mitchard, who spent time as a young reporter with Pellicano in the late ’70s. “He loved to play up his connections, making a point of referring to ‘Lucky’ Luciano as ‘Paul’–because that’s what real mob guys did. It was kind of sad. He always reminded me of Butch Cassidy looking back to a time that was over, refusing to believe there was just no place for a gunslinger anymore.” More recently, Sunday night–Sopranos night–had become a sacred rite for Pellicano. He prepared for High Mass on HBO with a massage from Kat and enforced absolute silence throughout the house.
He billed himself as a kung fu master and bragged that he carried a Louisville Slugger in the trunk of his car–just in case. What frightened some intrigued others, who seemed to view Pellicano as an actor in his own amazing movie. In the early ’90s, he worked with producer-director Michael Mann, developing a television series for NBC while also writing a screenplay based on his experiences. Neither the show nor the movie ever materialized, but just before Pellicano’s arrest, his client Brad Grey had been in talks with HBO about developing a similar series.
His specialty was unique for a private eye: protecting the image of stars. That’s why Michael Jackson, Roseanne Barr, Kevin Costner, Tom Cruise, John Travolta, James Woods, Farrah Fawcett, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Chris Rock sought him out. Just how much they valued his protection was demonstrated by a phone call from Rock to Pellicano in 2001, asking for help in neutralizing an accusation that he’d had sex with a woman without her consent. “I’m better off getting caught with … needles in my arms,” he told Pellicano in a tape leaked to The New York Times. “Needles with pictures [saying,] ‘Here’s Chris Rock shooting heroin: [That would be] a much [lesser] blow to the career.” No charges were filed.
His reputation enabled him to charge a $25,000 retainer, to live in a million-dollar canyon-view home in suburban Ventura County an hour and a half drive from his work, to take Kat to the best hotels and restaurants, to drive a classic two-seater Mercedes, a jet-black Lexus SUV, and a second Mercedes, and to own a West Hollywood condo in a building a short walk from his high-priced office.
Attorneys, producers, agents, and film executives loved him, too. Ovitz admired Pellicano’s “innovativeness and resourcefulness.” Producer Don Simpson saw him as a fierce protector of his clients, a “lion at the gate” whom you never wanted to be “on the wrong side of.” And attorneys Bert Fields and Howard Weitzman considered Pellicano an invaluable investigator. Weitzman admired his “rock-solid loyalty,” Fields his efficiency. “Time after time,” says Fields, “he comes up with the witness I’m looking for. He gets results.”
How he got them only Pellicano really knew until that life-defining, career-destroying 2002 search of his office. Before then, everybody in Hollywood–including the media–was drinking Pellicano’s Kool-Aid in huge gulps. Only the spin varied: Either he was a Mensa man/techno genius or a bat-wielding Mafia thug. But the truth was much more complex and, therefore, far more interesting.
The grandson of Sicilian immigrants, Anthony Joseph Pellican was born in Chicago in 1944. A grandfather had anglicized the family name; the grandson would later restore it. He was raised by a divorced single mother on the mob-dominated, Italian-immigrant streets of Cicero, a ten-minute ride from Chicago. Cicero was then a place where guys wore wife-beater T-shirts with suspenders and played pinochle on the stoop, where the Irish priests ate their pork chops, peas, and boiled-potato dinners out on Saturday night, and people were happy that their daughter Rose went to novena with the niece of a local gangster. Al Capone set up his headquarters there when Chicago police started busting his speakeasies and gambling operations; by the 1960s, it was billed as “the Walled City of the Syndicate” and was filled with strip clubs, gambling joints, and bars.
His mother, Pellicano once said, was a “working lady who never made more than $150 a week,” and he was forced to “fend for himself at age 14 [working in] a barbershop for a dollar an hour and a lesson cutting hair.” By his own description, he was a “hot-tempered, skinny little kid who lived by [my] wits”; neither of his parents, he said, “gave me any education at all.” Possessing “the attention span of a hyperkinetic six-year-old,” he left high school at 16.
In the early ’60s, he joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps and received his GED while serving as a cryptographer, coding and decoding messages. “When I got out,” he told Playboy magazine, “the majority of people who were doing crypto work were in cosmetics or toy manufacturing…. It wasn’t all that thrilling to me.” Instead he took a job chasing deadbeats for the Spiegel catalog company.
In 1969, he opened his own private-eye firm, focusing on collections and the removal of secretly placed surveillance equipment. He liked to wear huge, amber-tinted aviator glasses and three-piece jeans suits with foot-long collars and huge knotted ties; in repose he was almost handsome, with curly dark hair, large, heavy-lidded, expressive eyes, and full lips–the effect broken only when he smiled and revealed large, uneven buckteeth. On occasion he wore a white lab smock embroidered with an eye surrounded by concentric circles, the symbol of his detective agency, Fortune Enterprises. In 1974, he filed for bankruptcy, a setback he blithely ignored as he hired a press agent and launched an all-out assault on the gullibility of the Chicago press.
Throughout the mid-1970s, he sold the legend of “Tony” Pellicano to anyone who would listen. His message was simple: He was the baddest, sagest practitioner of the “praying mantis style of kung fu.” He had a “100 percent success rate” in tracking down exactly 3,968 missing persons. Most amazingly, they were all “cases other people couldn’t solve.”
There he was on Channel 7 talking about runaway teens, on WBBM radio discussing “the families of missing persons,” flying to New York to appear on To Tell the Truth, and then back to Chicago to do Friday Night with Steve Edwards. Then it was over to the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University to speak as “one of the top debugging experts in the United States” and off to lecture at the Phi Alpha Delta Law Fraternity at Chicago-Kent College. He went to Marquette University Law School to make a presentation on the “psychological stress evaluator,” then to the Maywood Rotary Club, then to the International Association of Bomb Technicians and Investigators.
At the same time, he was playing footsie with seemingly every reporter in Chicago. They gushed over his plush office, with its silver walls, black furniture, and full-length mirrors in the waiting room. They marveled over the mammoth gold zodiac that dominated his office–beneath which hung samurai swords and two nunchaku sticks, which he’d take off the wall to demonstrate how he could kill a reporter, while his pet piranha looked on.
He didn’t carry a gun, he told Oui magazine, “because my hands are lethal weapons.” In fact, he couldn’t legally carry a gun because he’d never been employed by a law enforcement agency. He recounted how he was knifed in a Mexican bar while working on a kidnapping case but “went into my kung fu stance and beat the hell out of him.” He boasted of having $300,000 worth of electronic equipment, an unlikely possibility given that in his bankruptcy he’d listed his assets as $50 in clothes and $28 in cash. Nevertheless, he was good at finding people.
Even his bankruptcy fed the Pellicano myth, for it revealed that he’d received a $30,000 loan from a friend, Paul DeLucia Jr., the son of mobster Felice DeLucia (aka Paul “the Waiter” Ricca). He was also a pallbearer at the eider DeLucia’s 1972 funeral and named DeLucia Jr. the godfather of one of his daughters. He claimed that the younger DeLucia “was just like any guy in the neighborhood.” From then on he both denied and promoted his mob connections as it served his purposes. The governor of Illinois took the loan seriously enough, however, to force Pellicano to resign from a state law enforcement advisory board.
A recent story from the Chicago Sun-Times alleges, with little evidence, that Pellicano was once a member of Chicago gangster Joseph “Joey the Clown” Lombardo’s crew and had done investigative work for Lombardo in 1974, helping clear him as a suspect in a murder case. But as Joe Paolella, a former Secret Service agent from Chicago says, “Pellicano never promoted being connected in Chicago the way he did in L.A.–a place where he could portray himself as some kind of mob guy to an upper-middle-class Hollywood clientele that didn’t know any better, if you’re a real crook in Chicago, you don’t want anybody to know about it.” In any case, there’s no public record of Pellicano being arrested or convicted of a crime before the 2002 FBI raid, of his having his record sealed, or of any significant association with organized crime in L.A. Nor for that matter has there surfaced any public or police complaint against him for using his famous Louisville Slugger in an assault. Stare-downs, threatening phone calls, and intimidation, yes, but actual physical violence, well, the proof is hard to come by.
What’s clearer, however, is that like Johnny Fontane–the Frank Sinatra character in The Godfather–Anthony Pellicano did gain fame with a grotesque assist. In 1977, after 19 years of resting peacefully in a small Jewish cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois, the body of Elizabeth Taylor’s third husband, Hollywood producer Mike Todd, was stolen by grave robbers. They’d moved his tombstone, pried open his bronze coffin, and made off with his remains. Eight local cops searched the graveyard without finding the body. Then the police heard from Pellicano, who told them he’d received “a number of phone calls” revealing Todd’s location. Arriving at the cemetery with a local Channel 2 news anchor and a camera crew, Pellicano found bones and Todd’s old belt buckle in a pile of mud, leaves, and branches about 75 yards from his grave. The robbers, Pellicano later told the police, had hoped to find “a ten-karat diamond ring,” a gift from Taylor they mistakenly thought had been buried with Todd. Accused of orchestrating the incident as a publicity stunt, Pellicano denied it, asking, “Why would I need publicity?”
The incident caught the attention of defense attorney Howard Weitzman, who brought Pellicano to Los Angeles. (He left his wife and five kids in Chicago.) Together they would work on the case that made both their careers: the 1983 drug-entrapment trial of automaker John DeLorean. Desperately trying to raise money to save his company from bankruptcy, DeLorean ran into a government sting fueled by a paid informant and ambitious federal prosecutors. DeLorean was acquitted, and Weitzman gave Pellicano a large share of the credit for tarnishing the informant. That kind of attention had not been showered on a private eye in Hollywood since the days of Fred Otash.
A rogue ex-LAPD vice detective, Otash was also a pimp, wire-tapper, friend to Mickey Cohen, and informant to the FBI on Cohen and fellow L.A. mobster Johnny Roselli. Otash always wanted to be “Hollywood’s most spectacular private eye,” newspaper columnist Paul Coates wrote in 1959, “and had made it a special point to cultivate the right people. Attorneys, the movie set, the TV crowd.” After which he made it a point to exploit them. There are unconfirmed reports that Otash, who died in L.A. in 1992, mentored Pellicano, who arrived in the early ’80s.
Born in Massachusetts in 1922, Otash worked as a lifeguard at the Miami Biltmore Hotel before enlisting in the Marine Corps in 1942. Discharged in 1945, he joined the LAPD and operated undercover out of the Palladium nightclub, where he met both lowlifes and stars. He allegedly ran a prostitution ring with the bartender. Forced to resign from the department in 1955, he was hired as a private eye by Confidential magazine, the fountainhead for much that’s cheap and tawdry in the media today.
Confidential‘s 1950s heyday synchronized perfectly with the final days of the Hollywood star system. For decades the studios had maintained their own security forces to shield their stars from unfavorable publicity and had worked hand in glove with the Los Angeles, Culver City, and Beverly Hills police departments. They would receive a call from the cops about a star they’d arrested but not booked, send a studio rep to get him, cover things up, and take him home and put him to bed.
Using what an FBI report called “a seemingly inexhaustible list of call girls” who brought information to him, Otash cultivated sources for Confidential. Otash and Confidential spied on Rock Hudson talking about his homosexuality, and then played the tape for Columbia studio boss Harry Cohn–who agreed to become an informant in return for the magazine’s not outing Hudson. Operating a sound truck stocked with surveillance and wiretapping equipment, Otash broke into the homes of Marilyn Monroe and Peter Lawford to get information on the Kennedys. At 3 a.m. on the night Monroe died of a drug overdose, Lawford, as Otash later told it, called him to sweep the house of bugs before calling an ambulance.
Eventually Otash had his PI’s license revoked, and the stars and studios banded together with a California senate investigating committee to sue Confidential for criminal libel.
The case ended in a mistrial, but the magazine went broke defending itself and folded, bringing the era to a close.
Pellicano brought to Los Angeles several personal traits that would serve him well: an adoration of old-school Mafia values that resonated deeply among people who found it difficult to differentiate between the movie fictions they created and reality, and an easy, soothing intimacy, it was all “buddy” and “pal” and “honey” on the phone to both women and men.
He was also “a very charismatic, eccentric, entertaining personality with an entrepreneurial spirit that allowed him to make phone calls and ask for work,” says Howard Weitzman. “People were impressed by that and by his ability to [subsequently] follow up and deliver information.”
Others were less impressed with the cold calls. Phoning Century City defense attorney Harland W. Braun, Pellicano hinted in an answering machine message that he was connected to the Chicago mob, as a kind of recommendation. Braun’s reaction was, “Why would I ever want to hire a guy like that?” and he never called back. But others did.
As his profile rose, so did the profile of the celebrities he worked for–or against. They included Heidi Fleiss, “Beverly Hills Madam” Elizabeth Adams, Sylvester Stallone, and Kevin Costner. He investigated the OD death of John Belushi and found the daughter Roseanne Barr had given up for adoption (and then leaked the story to the tabs).
Working with Weitzman and Fields in the early ’90s, he helped beat back allegations that Michael Jackson molested a 12-year-old boy by producing evidence of extortion by the boy’s father and damaging information about the family–a job for which he later claimed to have received $2 million. During the case, according to Diane Dimond, then a senior correspondent at Hard Copy, Pellicano tried to intimidate her and discourage her coverage critical of Jackson. She became convinced that Pellicano was tapping her phone.
Meanwhile, Pellicano was building relationships with law enforcement, reaping payments for appearing as an expert audiotape witness, and collecting numerous letters of praise. Commendations rolled in from federal prosecutors across the country, from district attorneys throughout Southern California, from two California attorneys general, from the U.S. Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps, the Arizona State Senate, and the mayor of Houston.
Among the raves, hard questions rarely came up. Just how good an audio-video expert was he? How many of the letters came from law enforcement clients who were happy because they got the analysis they wanted? What is clear is that he had no formal linguistic, mathematical, or scientific education in a complex field.
Pellicano solidified his reputation as an audio-video expert during the DeLorean trial. Weitzman recalls his doing “a very good job” in his tape analysis. But according to Roger Shuy, a professor emeritus of linguistics at Georgetown University who also worked on the DeLorean defense team, Pellicano’s work was sloppy. “I reviewed the transcripts of the tapes that Pellicano made against the actual tapes,” says Shuy. “And I found dozens and dozens of places where Pellicano was in error–where the transcripts didn’t show what was on the tape. I had to go through and correct them all. It was weird, because most of the mistakes weakened the defense case and helped the prosecution.”
Shuy is hardly alone in his criticism. “I was representing one of Hollywood’s biggest agents who was in criminal trouble,” says Century City defense attorney William Graysen, “and he asked me to hire Pellicano as an expert witness. I called him, and he said, ‘I’ll cross any river and climb any mountain to do what I have to do to win the case.’ I took that to mean falsifying evidence. I went back to my client and said, ‘This guy is bad news.’ And we didn’t use him.”
During a late 1990s case in Tampa, Florida, investigated by the L.A. Times, the U.S. Attorney’s office was prosecuting a couple for the disappearance of their child based on remarks allegedly made on a secretly recorded audiotape. When the FBI failed to detect the remarks on the tape, prosecutors hired Pellicano, who declared that the alleged incriminating utterances existed and that he could clearly hear them. To which the judge replied, when they were played in court, “The government hears what no reasonably prudent listener can. It interprets what can be heard as no prudent listener would.” Federal authorities dropped the case, and the defendants were awarded $2.9 million for wrongful prosecution.
In 1990, then-freelance journalist Rod Lurie acquired a list of paid sources used by the National Enquirer and contracted to do a story about it for Los Angeles magazine. Pellicano was allegedly paid $500,000 by the Enquirer to have the story killed. The huge amount of money was an indication of how desperate the tabloid was. The Enquirer couldn’t continue to exist if its sources were burned. Moreover, the company was in the process of going public on Wall Street, and this was a terrible time to have the kind of embarrassing revelations they themselves made their living generating.
Pellicano’s way of dealing with recalcitrant reporters involved perseverance–he’d start with “I’m a tough guy, don’t fuck with me,” and when that didn’t work, he’d try “I’m getting a lot of money. If you don’t think I’m going to get paid, you’re out of your mind.” He’d follow that with “You’re an intelligent guy. I really like you. I’ve checked you out” and finally graduate to bribery: “You shouldn’t write this story. I can get you six figures elsewhere.”
By the late ’80s, Pellicano had become involved in a far more complex dance with the tabloids. In 1997, Jim Mitteager, a reporter for the National Enquirer and the Globe, died of cancer. Shortly before his death, he gave hundreds of tapes he had secretly recorded to Paul Barresi, an informant and sometime investigator for Pellicano. The tapes capture little people fighting over crumbs tossed around as celebrities try to protect their images. Transcripts of the tapes provided by Barresi, a former porn star and producer currently working as an unlicensed investigator, show Pellicano trading gossip and planting stories with Mitteager and Globe reporter Cliff Dunn while paying to have other stories killed.
During a 1994 conversation, Mitteager, Dunn, and Pellicano agree to get together the following Tuesday, and Pellicano, who was working for Michael Jackson, promises to find out for them what’s happening with the L.A. grand jury looking into child molestation accusations against the star. The reporters then inform Pellicano that actress Whoopi Goldberg, a friend and client of his, went to Saint John’s Hospital for a mammogram and that Dunn was tipped off by a hospital source that she had breast cancer (a rumor unconfirmed by Los Angeles). “I want that source,” Pellicano tells Dunn. “For how much?” replies Dunn. “What the fuck kind of question is that?” Pellicano shoots back. “You can’t say, ‘How much?’ to me. You have to give me a price and say, ‘This is what I want!'” Dunn answers, “I want five grand. Then you blow him out of the water [i.e., expose him as a source], and he’s used on every celebrity story [at the hospital].”
They next turn to Elizabeth Taylor.
Pellicano: Now let me ask you a question on Liz Taylor. You say that they are going after her?Mitteager: Well, of course. She’s in the hospital. Liz Taylor sells goddamn books.
Pellicano: Because I don’t care what you do with her. As a matter of fact, if I can help you with her, I will…. What do you want to know on her?
Mitteager: Any story that would make the front page.
Pellicano: I know that she is fucking drinking again. That’s a fact.
Dunn: That’s something. If we can confirm that.
Pellicano: I just told you!
Dunn: I can’t say to [the Globe] lawyers that my source is Anthony Pellicano.
Mitteager: We need to work together to get some sort of network of people.
Pellicano: We’ll go further on that. But you guys are guaranteed the three grand on Tuesday.
Barresi says he worked with Pellicano on cases involving Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Jackson, Barry Bonds, and Tom Cruise. Pellicano, he says, “worked mostly with entertainment attorneys–they were his favorite clients–to keep salacious information about their clients away from the public. It was a great way for them to make big money.”
“If you find dirt on a celebrity, then you go to the attorney, or directly to the client, and say, ‘Hey, there’s a story brewing with the tabs, we need to quash it: Most celebrities are not gonna hesitate, because a celebrity is the most naive, infantile person in the world. They get preferential treatment, but if boulders fall on their head in real life, they don’t know what to do, other than dig deep into their pockets,” says Barresi. “Pellicano was the master of getting them to do that–the celebrity never knew how simple it was to put a fire out, or that sometimes there was never really a fire in the first place. There would be a story brewing, but the reporter couldn’t nail it down. So Pellicano would light the fire. He was the arsonist–and then he’d come back and put the fire out.”
Often, says private investigator Bill Pavelic, who worked for the defense on the O.J. Simpson, Robert Blake, and Phil Spector cases, “Pellicano would have the source in his hip pocket and be able to pay him right off the bat to kill the story or rumor. But he wouldn’t tell his clients that. He’d simply say, ‘I can make the problem go away.'” That fed right into the Pellicano mystique. If you’re a magician, you don’t tell the audience how you do your tricks.
Thus it’s entirely plausible that attorneys like Bert Fields were never informed about Pellicano’s illegal activities, his connections with the police, or his association with the tabloids–because he didn’t want them to know. During one phone conversation, for example, Mitteager asks if Fields knows Pellicano is getting information from tabloid reporters. “I’m not telling anybody anything,” Pellicano replies. “When Cliff [Dunn] comes to my office, I go to meet him in the fucking parking lot…. I don’t tell them [his attorney and other clients] these things. I have a cash slush fund that I use. And that’s what you guys have been getting [paid from].”
The last case Barresi says he worked on for Pellicano involved Tom Cruise. A male hustler, as Barresi tells it, asked for help in landing a book deal about a sexual relationship he’d allegedly had with Cruise, and Barresi mentioned it to Pellicano. The guy’s story, Pellicano told Mitteager in a taped phone conversation, “was so far off the wall, it was pathetic.” Well then why, asks Mitteager, “has Bert Fields jumped all over it?” (On November 20, 2002, Fields sent a letter to the accuser threatening legal action.) “Because,” replies Pellicano, Cruise “is a new client, and he has to do that shit.” The bottom line, says Barresi, was that it quickly became apparent that the accuser had made the story up. “I brought him into Pellicano’s office to be interrogated,” says Barresi, “and after it was over, it was clear his story was falling apart. But Pellicano said, ‘You know, this guy sounds credible to me.’ I know now that he wanted to create a credible case, because he couldn’t go to Bert Fields and say, ‘I got this guy who’s a kook.'” Instead, according to Barresi, “he made the guy more legit. Because that was where the money was.”
It’s a rare good moment for Anthony Pellicano–his March wedding day, a last hurrah before his trial next February. When he spots his three daughters in federal court, all holding bridesmaid’s bouquets of red roses, he raises his wrists, points to the shackles that wind around his waist, and jokes about his “new jewelry.” Standing by is Kat Jane Pellicano, a blond, animated woman of 50, draped in a white sleeveless dress. In her hands is a white shirt she’s brought for Pellicano to wear during their remarriage ceremony.
The scene is pure Pellicano, as he had invited AP reporter Linda Deutsch, the doyenne of the L.A. courthouse press corps, along with Chuck Phillips of the Los Angeles Times, People magazine’s veteran celebrity profile writer, Frank Swertlow, and the New York Times entertainment industry reporting team of David M. Halbfinger and Allison Hope Weiner (who are themselves under investigation for printing leaked grand jury tapes of conversations between Pellicano and various clients and stars).
Sitting together after the ceremony, Kat and Pellicano kiss and hold hands as they watch the vows of two other couples. Kat, a native Oklahoman and mother of four of Pellicano’s nine children, had first met her husband in 1984 while working in the Luckman Plaza tower where his offices were. She’d found him macho, which for Kat translated into attractive. By 2002, however, Pellicano’s life was falling apart. Weary of the 60-mile round-trip from his office to their Ventura County home, Pellicano took to staying overnight at their West Hollywood condo. Stressed, consumed with anger, and unable to find release, he became explosive in the office. In the mid-’90s, the Internet was making information more accessible, but private investigators had lost legal access to voter registration addresses and DMV information as resources for tracking people down. Despite his success, Pellicano was still a small businessman, still hustling for customers after 30 years on the job. He was approaching 60. “When I was representing Robert Blake during his murder case, Pellicano would call me,” says Harland Braun, “and say, ‘Robert’s friends are asking me to help out on the case: But I knew he just wanted to get his name back in the paper and get some publicity, and I told him no thanks.”
At home he was tense and moody, craving solitude, demanding that the kids not have friends over on weekends. Kat filed for a divorce that became final in September 2002. Pellicano–a man who needed the structure of a family and the support of a wife even as he ignored them–was cast adrift. Two months later, the FBI raided his office.
Alex Proctor, the small-time hood whose conversation with a government informant triggered the search of Pellicano’s office, told the informant he saw a change. “Anthony is losing it. He’s getting to an age, quite frankly, that there’s deterioration. I see it,” he said.
Pellicano’s remarriage received almost no coverage, and only Deutsch noted how happy Kat Pellicano seemed. “It’s not often,” Kat said, “that you get to marry the love of your life twice.” All had been forgiven–her driving him out of their house and divorcing him, his flying to Las Vegas on his last weekend before going to prison to marry Teresa Ann DeLucio, a 42-year-old former dancer and bartender, in a Bellagio hotel chapel. They subsequently divorced.
Before their remarriage, Kat had been unable to visit Pellicano because of detention rules limiting visits to immediate family and legal counsel. Now that would change. Cynics saw the reunion as a way to prevent Hat from having to testify against her husband. Hat had helped make the cynics’ point after Pellicano’s Vegas marriage by boasting that she’d been pressured by FBI agents but had told them nothing, even though she’d discussed her husband’s cases with him and had helped “solve half of them.” But with Pellicano in jail she was broke. As she put it to The New York Times, “What is the benefit to me of talking to them? It’s more benefit to me for Anthony to be out of jail than in jail.”
Pellicano had initially turned down the assistance of a public defender, declaring that he intended to defend himself. Cooler heads prevailed, and two respected defense attorneys volunteered to represent Pellicano pro bono. They will make the argument that the search warrant was based on the false premise that Pellicano had been involved in the threats and vandalizing of Anita Busch’s car, and that what they were really after was evidence about an entirely different case, in which Pellicano illegally wiretapped an FBI agent speaking to an Israeli businessman Pellicano was surveilling.
As a result, the defense will ask the judge to declare the original search warrant invalid, thereby negating the entire case. The chances of that happening are slim. A better shot at an acquittal will probably rest on the government’s having to prove most of its case circumstantially. Thus far prosecutors have produced only one wiretap, that of the wife and brother of Los Angeles billionaire Alec E. Gores discussing their extramarital affair. According to the government, Pellicano was hired by Gores to investigate the two lovers. Gores has already admitted that Pellicano played the tapes of their conversations for him.
A guilty verdict will probably cost Pellicano ten years in prison. Barring an acquittal, his only hope is to roll over and implicate some of the Hollywood moguls and attorneys who employed him. But as Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson, a former U.S. attorney, points out, “Any prosecutor would be out of his mind to try and make a case against Bert Fields based on the testimony of Pellicano–who would have zero credibility. Every word he said would have to have corroboration. They’d be fighting the best lawyers money can buy and have to convince a jury that a man of Fields’s stature would stoop to such cheap tricks.”
Consequently, assistant U.S. attorney Daniel Saunders, the lead prosecutor, appears unwilling to take a chance on any high-profile losses and has decided to focus on Pellicano, the lowest-hanging fruit. “He’s got Pellicano and Terry Christensen,” says Levenson. “When you take down a major partner in a major law firm in a city like Los Angeles, you’re making a statement and issuing a warning that lawyer abuse of the system won’t be tolerated.”
Limiting the prosecutions also means that the most compelling aspects of the case won’t be resolved: How much did Fields, Ovitz, Grey, Kerkorian, and all the rest know? How did Pellicano stay off law enforcement’s radar for so long? Was it because he was an informant, like Fred Otash? How many dirty tricks did Pellicano and his clients perpetrate? What would have been revealed if Hollywood had had its Watergate hearings?
At least Pellicano will have achieved what he’s always craved: pop immortality. Back in the early ’90s, Sylvester Stallone described Pellicano’s life as “the kind of script that can only get better as his experiences grow.” What has turned out to be so good for the script, has, however, been a disaster for the man.