Two decades ago, a fast-talking former bill collector from Chicago blew into Los Angeles to help unravel the U.S. government's drug case against carmaker John DeLorean.
Part salesman, part sleuth, Anthony J. Pellicano quickly made a name for himself as the kind of bare-knuckles fighter that celebrities and entertainment moguls wanted in their corner. Someone who could make problems — including lawsuits — go away.
At the same time, Pellicano was forging relationships with law enforcement officers that helped back up his reputation as Hollywood's ultimate fixer.
"These relationships were vital to Anthony," said a former associate, who requested anonymity because of the ongoing FBI investigation. "As a P.I., you can only go so far getting information. And he had cop friends everywhere."
Detectives. Prosecutors. Federal agents. He helped them. And as a still-unfolding FBI investigation suggests, some returned the favor by providing him with the kind of information that only someone in law enforcement can access.
This week, a federal indictment charged Pellicano and former LAPD Sgt. Mark Arneson with running a vast racketeering enterprise that wiretapped, blackmailed and intimidated the private eye's investigative targets.
Pellicano pleaded not guilty and Arneson will enter his plea Monday. Their attorneys could not be reached for comment.
The indictment followed a guilty plea last month by veteran Beverly Hills Police Officer Craig Stevens to charges of illegally accessing government computers to dig up dirt for Pellicano.
Both police departments describe the charges as aberrations. But sources close to the investigation say other law enforcement officials have come under scrutiny. And the former Pellicano associate told The Times how he regularly had contact with about a dozen law enforcement officers throughout the region.
Pellicano's legitimate ties to law enforcement may have emboldened him to think he was "cloaked in some sort of quasi-judicial role with law enforcement," said veteran Los Angeles defense attorney Mark Werksman, who has tried a number of high-profile cases.
And those connections, Werksman said, could not help but be used by Pellicano to drum up new clients. "I have no doubt that he would sell his services by promoting his special relationship with the government," said the former federal prosecutor.
An audio forensics expert, Pellicano's specialty was enhancing or authenticating garbled or faint tapes.
Dozens of times, authorities across the country turned to Pellicano to apply his expertise to problem cases. In an especially high-profile prosecution, Pellicano testified against Thomas Blanton Jr., a former Ku Klux Klansman accused in a 1963 church bombing in Alabama that killed four African American girls.
Pellicano was able to enhance nearly 40-year-old tape recordings on which Blanton can be heard telling his wife about a meeting to plan the bombing of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church, bolstering the government's case. Blanton was convicted in 2001 of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
"Through your tireless efforts we were able to produce to the jury an audible recording of a critical conversation in which the defendant clearly admitted his involvement in this horrible crime," G. Douglas Jones, the prosecuting U.S. attorney, wrote Pellicano after the trial.
The letter, one of many written on Pellicano's behalf over the years by law enforcement officials, could only bolster his reputation. And as time passed, he found more work as both a government witness and a high-priced private eye.
"He tried to play both sides against the middle," Werksman said. "He would allegedly try to obtain things clients were not entitled to get. And on the other hand, he had the government hiring him because of his professed ability to analyze audiotapes as a result of his years of dealing with electronic surveillance."
Of all the relationships with law enforcement officers that have so far surfaced, none seems to have been tighter than his alleged connections with Arneson, the former Los Angeles Police Department detective.
A decorated 29-year veteran who spent a large part of his career as a homicide detective in South Los Angeles, Arneson could be seen in Pellicano's offices as often as three times a week, according to the former Pellicano associate.
Colleagues considered Arneson a whiz at mining state and federal databases for information.
"He was the guy people would go to to help them get information on someone for their case," said one of his former police supervisors. "He knew better than anyone how to negotiate the database."
One former colleague described the ex-LAPD officer as charismatic but arrogant.
He was "a prima donna," said retired LAPD Det. Zvonko "Bill" Pavelic, who said he was in Arneson's Police Academy class in 1974.
"You could tell he had the absolute police personality, the kind they look for: He was cocky, masculine, a tough dude," said Pavelic, a private investigator who worked for O.J. Simpson and John Gordon Jones, who was acquitted of multiple rape charges in 2001.
(A former Pellicano client, Jones was allegedly wiretapped by Pellicano, the indictment said. Federal authorities also charged this week that Arneson accessed confidential police records for eight of Jones' alleged victims.)
When Arneson filed for bankruptcy in 1998, he described himself as a self-employed private investor, with an income of about $8,000 a month. He made no mention that he was a police officer or received income from the LAPD, according to court records.
From 1997 to 2002, the indictment said, Pellicano paid Arneson nearly $189,000 in checks and an unknown amount of additional cash to dig up dirt and help bug celebrities and business leaders.
But in 2003, Pellicano was convicted of explosives charges and went to prison, and Arneson retired from the LAPD. At the time, Arneson was facing disciplinary action for allegedly tapping into department databases for Pellicano.
Less is known about Pellicano's connections to former Beverly Hills cop Stevens.
The two lived two miles apart in Oak Park, a Ventura County bedroom community, where their children went to the same schools and played soccer together.
Much of Stevens' work focused on residential burglaries, said lawyers who worked with him. Robert Savitt, a retired prosecutor who knew Stevens in Beverly Hills, said Stevens was well-respected in the courthouse.
"I was very surprised to read about the indictment," Savitt said. "He came across as very strait-laced."
Since Stevens pleaded guilty to lying about his knowledge of Pellicano's activities, neither he nor his attorney have been available for comment.
Merrick Bobb, who monitors the Sheriff's Department for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, said the Pellicano case shows the challenges for law enforcement.
"The Pellicano case, if the facts are proven, will be an example of the difficulties that prosecutors face in all criminal cases regarding the credibility of witnesses they put forward. That goes for police witnesses as well as expert witnesses," Bobb said.
John Nazarian, a private investigator from Beverly Hills, put it more bluntly, saying:
"Cops should avoid private eyes like poison ivy."
Times staff writers Peter Hong and Richard Winton contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times