Friend of actor Seagal criticizes the FBI

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

A former Navy Seal who is a friend of action star Steven Seagal has lambasted the FBI for suggesting he was involved in an effort to intimidate a magazine writer working on an unflattering story about Seagal.

John Rottger faulted the FBI for suggesting in an affidavit that he resembled the man who threatened Vanity Fair writer Ned Zeman with a gun in August 2002.

"I don't even remotely resemble the suspect," Rottger, who has not been charged in the incident, said in an interview. "He was supposed to be 5 inches shorter and 20 years younger. It's unconscionable."

The Federal Bureau of Investigation declined to comment.

The alleged threat against Zeman is a footnote to the Anthony Pellicano scandal. Pellicano is the Hollywood private detective who stands accused of conspiring to wiretap celebrities and business executives to give his clients an edge in litigation.

Those charges grew out of an investigation into efforts in 2002 to intimidate Zeman and Anita M. Busch, then a Los Angeles Times reporter. Both were working on articles about Seagal's business ties to Julius R. Nasso, who had been charged with conspiring to extort millions of dollars from the actor.

In June 2002, Busch found a dead fish and a red rose on the punctured windshield of her car below a note that read, "Stop!" Soon after, a career criminal was captured on tape saying that Pellicano had hired him to vandalize the car on Seagal's behalf.

In August of that year, Zeman called police to report that he had been threatened while driving on Laurel Canyon Boulevard. Zeman said a dark Mercedes pulled alongside his car and a passenger pointed a handgun at him and said, "Stop!"

FBI agent Stanley E. Ornellas, who was leading the investigation, began looking into Rottger after receiving a tip that he resembled the gun-wielding man described by Zeman and that he was a friend of Seagal's, court records show.

Rottger, 54, who once dated Seagal's sister, served as a technical advisor and stuntman and played small roles in a dozen Seagal films. Rottger, who lived in the Los Angeles area for years, now runs a security firm in Alabama.

The tip that he might have threatened Zeman came from a private detective employed by Nasso, court records show. Nasso and Seagal, once business partners, were bitter adversaries by then. Nasso ultimately pleaded guilty to extortion conspiracy and was sentenced to a year and a day in jail.

Rottger said that Ornellas contacted him in early October 2002, and that the two met soon after at the FBI office in Westwood.

Zeman had described the gunman as a white man in his early 30s, about 5-foot-10 with a thin build, dark complexion and short brown hair, according to a police report.

"His jaw dropped when I walked in," said Rottger, who stands 6-foot-3, has blond hair and was then 49. "He told me I didn't fit the description of the man they were looking for. We talked a while. I told him I had a son that lived out of state, who didn't fit the description either. But I offered to bring him in."

Rottger said Ornellas told him that would not be necessary, but asked him to provide photos of himself and his son, John Jr. The elder Rottger said he dropped the photos off two days later and Ornellas "assured me that my son and I had been eliminated as suspects."

In November 2002, Ornellas filed an affidavit in federal court in support of an application for a warrant to search Pellicano's Sunset Boulevard office. The affidavit said agents had probable cause to believe they would find evidence that Pellicano, Seagal, Rottger and others had conspired to intimidate the two journalists.

Ornellas wrote that Zeman had tentatively identified Rottger from a photo as the man who had threatened him.

The warrant was granted, and during the search FBI agents found plastic explosives and other evidence that led to a first round of criminal charges against Pellicano. A subsequent search of the detective's office found evidence of the alleged wiretapping and extortion scheme for which Pellicano is now awaiting trial.

There is no indication that authorities found any evidence of wrongdoing by Seagal or Rottger. Both men have nursed a bitter grievance against the FBI because it has refused to clear them and because the affidavit received widespread publicity.

Rottger's anger is focused on a four-paragraph passage in which Ornellas described how he checked out the tip regarding Rottger, whom he described as "a former Navy Seal and a very good friend of Seagal's."

Ornellas wrote that he showed Zeman "a photo display of six individuals with similar appearances, including a DMV photograph of John Rottger Jr. in position No. 1."

According to the affidavit, Zeman said "photograph No. 1 looked like the man who had pointed the gun at him," although he could not be certain.

The government has never offered an explanation for the affidavit's reference to Rottger Jr. The younger Rottger, then 24, was never a Navy Seal and has had no contact with Seagal since childhood, his father said. Rottger said Ornellas has never contacted his son.

FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said that neither Ornellas nor his superiors could comment because the issue concerns an "ongoing investigation."

Pellicano's lawyers, seeking to exclude evidence collected during the search, contend that the warrant is invalid because Ornellas misled the court by suggesting that Zeman had tentatively identified the elder Rottger.

Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles, declined to comment. Courts have rejected previous defense attempts to challenge the search.

In the interview, Rottger said he was furious about what he described as the affidavit's twisting of the facts. He said he did not know Pellicano and was speaking out reluctantly to clear his own name.

"This FBI agent not only deceived me," Rottger said, "he misled the court."

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