L.A. settles with hundreds of victims of LAPD officer who snooped for celebrity private eye Anthony Pellicano

It started with a cryptic threat: a dead fish and a rose left inside a Los Angeles Times reporter’s car, and a note that simply read “Stop” on the fractured windshield.

An FBI investigation into the threat would uncover a criminal scheme in which celebrity private eye Anthony Pellicano was illegally gathering information for his star-studded list of clients.

The scandal ensnared Hollywood powerhouses, executives and celebrities as well as a Los Angeles Police Department detective, Sgt. Mark Arneson, whom Pellicano paid to provide him with confidential law enforcement records on hundreds of people.

Fifteen years later, the city of Los Angeles is about to compensate victims of the scheme as part of a class action lawsuit settlement.

The City Council on Wednesday approved a deal that will pay a total of $285,600 to be divided among the 345 people identified by the FBI investigation as victims of Arneson’s record checks, according to court records.

The victims will divide the funds according to how many times Arneson accessed their records on Pellicano’s behalf. An additional amount of up to $575,000 will be paid to the lawyers representing the class.

A spokesman for the Los Angeles city attorney's office said he could not discuss the settlement until it is finalized by the court.

The class action suit was one of several delayed for years as Pellicano, Arneson, a prominent entertainment attorney and a phone company engineer were tried and convicted of federal crimes connected to the work of the private investigator.

Lawyers for the class action suit argued that the city was liable for the invasion of privacy against the victims and negligent supervision of the detective.

Among the named plaintiffs was Monika Zsibrita, who had demanded money from comedian Chris Rock, saying he was the father of her child. (He wasn't.) Rock hired Pellicano to investigate.

The city attorney argued that the lawsuit should be thrown out, saying Arneson’s actions in accessing confidential law enforcement information did not further police business. But a judge rejected the argument.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys did not return messages for comment.

The investigation into Pellicano began in 2002, when reporter Anita Busch’s car was vandalized and the threat left on her windshield. FBI agents followed the trail to Pellicano’s offices, where they found explosives and evidence leading them to discover numerous illegally wiretapped phone conversations and tapes of Pellicano talking with his clients about wiretaps.

Pellicano was accused of bribing police officers to search law enforcement databases and bribing phone company workers to wiretap his clients’ opponents, allowing him to listen to their most intimate conversations.

Pellicano was sentenced to 15 years in prison for illegal wiretaps and running a criminal enterprise. Arneson, who also was convicted of running a criminal enterprise, was sentenced to about 10 years.

richard.winton@latimes.com

Twitter: @lacrimes

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