High-Life ‘Club’ Leads Rich Boys Down a Dark Path : Leader’s Murder Trial Will Reveal Dramatic Tale of Big-Money Deals

Times Staff Writer

They were hardly errand lists, the yellow legal pad pages that turned up in Ron Levin’s Beverly Hills duplex two months after his disappearance.

On the top sheet, below the heading, “At Levin’s TO DO,” were listed 15 numbered items: “close blinds, scan for tape recorder, tape mouth, handcuff, put gloves on, explain situation, kill dog.”

The lists puzzled Levin’s stepfather, who found and gave them to Beverly Hills detectives during a search of the apartment, he would later testify.


And they would soon emerge as crucial evidence in a Byzantine murder case involving their author, Joe Hunt, and a Los Angeles investment group and social fraternity known as the “Billionaire Boys Club.”

BBC Consolidated was made up mainly of well-educated young men from affluent, well-known Westside families. Its leader was Hunt, a charismatic youth who had prepped with some of the group’s members at the prestigious Harvard School in Studio City and gone on to become a trader in the Chicago commodities market--a very successful one, he told them.

But as “the boys” came to accept Hunt’s brand of situational ethics and entrusted him with increasing control over their lives and family money, the BBC’s activities grew shady and cult-like, court documents show, allegedly culminating in a money-making scheme that involved millions of dollars and two mysterious deaths.

Hunt, now 27, and his bodyguard, Jim Pittman, 33, are charged with robbing and killing Levin in June of 1984--”for financial gain.” The two men, along with BBC members Ben Dosti and Reza Eslaminia, are also accused of murdering Reza’s father, a wealthy Iranian named Hedayat Eslaminia, shortly afterward in Northern California.

Hunt, who is free on bail after his girlfriend’s father put up $2 million in property, is scheduled to go to trial Tuesday in Santa Monica before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Laurence J. Rittenband. If convicted, he could face the gas chamber.

Pittman (also known as James Graham), whose first trial ended in a hung jury, will be retried. The Eslaminia case is scheduled to go to trial in Redwood City early next year. Several former BBC members are expected to testify that Hunt boasted of having “knocked off” Levin and brandished a check for $1.5 million he said he had forced the victim to sign before his death. The check bounced; some members talked--to each other, to their parents, to some of Los Angeles’ top defense attorneys and eventually to the Beverly Hills police. The district attorney and attorney general filed criminal charges.


The defense does not deny that Hunt planned to kill Levin, 42, a well-connected free-lance journalist and admitted con man, or that he had told friends that he had done so. But it will argue that Levin’s body has never been found, that he had good reason for disappearing and that Hunt’s former colleagues have a motive for testifying against him.

The saga of rich kids, big money and murder--set against a backdrop of “in” spots like the Hard Rock Cafe, a penthouse condo in Westwood, New York’s Plaza Hotel, respected Beverly Hills brokerage houses and Swiss banks--that has unfolded so far in preliminary hearings and Pittman’s first trial has not escaped the attention of Hollywood and the New York publishing world. There are book, movie and television miniseries deals in the making, defendants and witnesses alike are hustling rights to their life stories, and speculation abounds as to who will play the unflappable, Armani-clad, Jeep-driving lead.

Indeed, Hunt is in residence at the Bel-Air home of film and music producer Bobby Roberts, who bailed him out of jail and hired noted defense attorney Arthur Barens to handle his case. Barens unsuccessfully defended Marvin Pancoast, convicted in 1984 of the murder of Alfred Bloomingdale’s mistress, Vicki Morgan.

Hunt will take the stand in his own defense, Barens promises. “He is brilliant, a genius. And he must testify.”

Deputy Dist. Atty. Fred Wapner, who is prosecuting both defendants in the Santa Monica trials, agrees up to a point.

“Joe Hunt was a Svengali or Manson-like type of personality,” Wapner said in Pittman’s trial. “He was very persuasive. He was able to convince people not only to invest money, but he was able to convince people who had invested large sums of money and lost it, to invest more money. And he was very charismatic.”

Veracity in Doubt

It appears that Hunt also exaggerated. He botched most of his investments, didn’t graduate from college at USC and had been expelled from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

According to Wapner, Hunt murdered Levin for revenge and profit.

By early 1984, the BBC had lost $900,000--much of it in money from its members’ parents--and Levin had played an unforgiveable hoax on Hunt:

Levin agreed to put $5 million in a brokerage house account and to let Hunt, a supposed whiz at commodities, trade it. They would split whatever profit Hunt made.

But, unknown to Hunt, Levin convinced the brokerage company that he was preparing a documentary about commodities trading for his company, Independent News Network, and that while none of the orders would actually be executed, the financial adviser he was bringing in should be kept in the dark so that he would make “real” decisions.

Surprisingly, Hunt parlayed the $5 million into $13 million. But when he asked for his share--$4 million--he was told there had never been any $5 million to start with, that it had all been a game. Hunt was not amused.

Known as Sore Loser

In fact, it is said that Hunt was a sore loser even as a gangly debating star at the Harvard School in the 1970s, where he met some of the boys who would later join the BBC--the May (as in May Co.) twins, Tom and Dave, and Dean Karny, now the prosecution’s star witness.

In those days, Hunt’s name was Joseph Henry Gamsky, the son of a San Fernando Valley small businessman then attending the exclusive prep school on a scholarship.

When he met up with his old schoolmates here a few years later, Gamsky had changed his name to Hunt, gone into commodities trading and developed a visionary plan for a new kind of company--an organization that would combine business and pleasure, run by young men who shared ideas, profits and even living quarters.

It would be governed not by the strictures of conventional corporations, but by something Hunt called “paradox philosophy,” in which good and evil are interchangeable realities depending on the circumstances and one’s perspective, and people are classified as either “shadings” or “normies.”

As prosecutor Wapner summed it up: “There is no good. There is no bad. Bad can be good. White can be black, and black can be white.”

Meaning of Initials

The resulting company took its initials from the Bombay Bicycle Club in Chicago, a bar frequented by Hunt, but its members jokingly referred to it as the Brass Balls Club or, more frequently, as the Billionaire Boys Club. Over time, about 30 young men joined the group.

Operating out of swank offices on 3rd Street in West Hollywood, the BBC empire included a host of subsidiaries; among them were Microgenesis (milling machines), Westcars (car importing), Financial Futures and International Marketing (trading funds), and Fire Safety Assn. of North America (fire retardant). Hunt’s father worked for Fire Safety.

But the BBC lived high, and increasingly found itself using fresh money from new investors to pay off old ones, a procedure known as the Ponzi scheme. It was running out of money in June of 1984, when Levin disappeared.

The prosecution contends that Hunt viewed Levin as the solution to his money problems.

The defense position is that Levin, who at the time of his disappearance was facing grand theft charges for receiving $1 million in stolen computer goods, skipped town before Hunt could carry out any plan he might have concocted.

“I’ll stipulate that Joe Hunt’s got a big mouth,” says Barens. “He’s not the all-American boy next door. I’ll stipulate to that. But the issue before the jury is, did he kill Ron Levin?”

‘My Man Will Walk’

Barens insists that there is no evidence against Hunt other than what he allegedly told his associates and wrote on his legal pads, and that in the absence of corroboration “my man will walk.”

“There is not one scintilla of forensic evidence to demonstrate that Levin is dead, nor to suggest that he was killed--no bone, blood traces, fingernails, gunshot, signs of struggle or ransacking,” says Barens, who drops hints about a courtroom “surprise.”

As for the detailed testimony of former BBC members, Barens says their families’ financial losses with Hunt provide an ample motive for revenge.

And the chilling lists found at Levin’s home may have been stolen from Hunt’s office and given to Levin’s father or planted in the apartment, Barens says. Martin Levin brought them to authorities’ attention two months after his son disappeared, saying he had found them near a waste basket a month earlier.

“The defense absolutely challenges that those seven pages verify whatsoever that Hunt acted (on a murder plan) or have any meaning whatsoever,” Barens said. They are in Hunt’s handwriting and bear his fingerprints, and the defense does not dispute that he made them.

A Binding Effect

Although his client may have claimed credit for Levin’s disappearance in a meeting of the BBC’s inner circle, Barens suggests he may have been manipulating them: such an awful secret would have a binding effect on a group that was spinning out of control and it would reassure the members that big money was on its way.

Dean Karny, who has been given immunity in exchange for his testimony and is now in the California Witness Protection Program, described the events in preliminary hearings:

“He (Hunt) said that . . . he was going to use the opportunity provided by the fact that Mr. Levin was planning to leave for New York in order to kill him. And when I was in his office with him he was working on the original of the list that I’m holding, and he said that he and Jim were planning to force Mr. Levin at gunpoint to sign certain papers, including a check for a large sum of money, if possible, and anything else that they thought might work at the time in order to get him to transfer as much money as possible to the BBC group or to Joe or to whomever . . . and that after that they were going to kill him.”

On June 7, 1984, Karny testified, Hunt came into his bedroom at the Wilshire-Manning condo they shared, waving a check for $1.5 million drawn on Levin’s Swiss bank account as part of a a contract with one of BBC’s subsidiaries.

Then “he told me that he had killed Ron Levin,” Karny testified.

Slaying Described

Karny told authorities Hunt had said the two handcuffed Levin and laid him face down on his bed; Pittman then shot him in the back of the head with a silenced handgun. The body was allegedly disposed of in a deserted canyon.

Two weeks later, after several discussions among the BBC’s inner circle about whether the other members should be told, Hunt called a Sunday afternoon meeting at his apartment. He took center stage, sitting on an ottoman in the living room, surrounded by nine trusted members.

Karny testified: “The first thing Joe said was, ‘There is going to be some sensitive things discussed which would bring the people present there to a higher level of knowledge as to things that had been going on.’ And he said that anyone that wanted to leave then and there could leave because there was a certain responsibility that went along with hearing these things.”

No one stirred.

“And then Joe said that he and Jim had knocked off Ron Levin,” Karny testified.

Several others present at the meeting gave similar versions on the witness stand.

Another Plan Told

A month later, inner circle members decided another drastic measure would be necessary.

The plan, according to preliminary hearing testimony, was to kidnap and torture Hedayat Eslaminia, the father of BBC member Reza Eslaminia, to force him to transfer his assets--estimated at more than $30 million--to his son or to BBC businesses, then kill him.

The 56-year-old Eslaminia, formerly a high-ranking Iranian official under the Shah, had settled in the San Francisco area in 1979.

Karny testified that he, Hunt, Dosti, Pittman and Eslaminia met in San Francisco and, dressed as deliverymen, delivered a trunk to the Belmont estate. After administering chloroform and beating the elder Eslaminia into submission, he testified, they placed him in the footlocker for the trip back to Los Angeles, where he was to be kept in the basement of a rented house in Beverly Glen until he signed the appropriate papers.

But something went wrong.

Karny testified that after sounds stopped coming from the trunk, he opened it to check on Eslaminia. He was dead.

Skeleton Is Found

After discussions about what to do, Karny said the body was dumped in Soledad Canyon in the Angeles National Forest. He later led authorities to the spot, and Eslaminia’s skeletal remains were identified through dental records. Levin’s remains are thought to be in the same area.

The BBC prepared conservatorship papers for Eslaminia’s son, and two members were dispatched to Europe in search of the assets.

Hunt was arrested and released for lack of evidence in September of 1984, then rearrested with Pittman in October in Levin’s death. They were charged with Eslaminia’s death in December. Eslaminia and Dosti, reported to have been hiding out in Europe, were arrested last year when they returned to the United States and attempted to pick up false passports.