Billionaire Boys Club leader Joe Hunt was convicted Wednesday of murdering a Beverly Hills entrepreneur and con man--whose body has not been found--to avenge a high-stakes investment hoax and raise funds for his foundering business fraternity.
The boyish Hunt, 27, blanched and appeared dazed as the clerk in Santa Monica Superior Court read the verdict--guilty of first-degree murder and robbery--reached after only two days of deliberations. The jury, which listened for 2 1/2 months to a saga of rich kids, big money and murder, found that Ron Levin was slain in the course of the robbery, a special circumstance that could result in a death sentence.
Penalty arguments are scheduled May 11. After that, Hunt and three young associates face a second murder trial in Northern California.
Moments after the verdict was announced, Hunt hugged his attorney and wiped his eyes. Regaining his composure, he began scribbling notes on a yellow legal pad, much as he has done throughout the trial. The prosecution's key evidence against him had been seven pages of similar legal pad notes left behind at the murder scene.
"This is a tragedy because Ron Levin is alive, and I think he'll be found in the next couple of years. . . . At least he did not die by my hands on that particular night," Hunt said, after turning to face a horde of spectators and cameras.
Hunt, who did not testify, called the jury "conscientious" but said their logic does not match his memory. "My only responsibility now is to keep my chin up," he said calmly. "That's what I do best."
Sitting in the front row, Levin's elderly stepfather, Martin Levin, sneered. "Joe Hunt's never at a loss for words. . . . The evidence was overwhelming. He's guilty as hell. Now he gets his just deserts."
The victim's mother, Carol Levin, said she had been praying at her son's memorial plaque at a local synagogue for the guilty verdict. Asked about recent reports that her son might still be alive, she said, "If he were alive anywhere, he would have called me."
Disappeared in 1984
Levin, 42, disappeared June 6, 1984. According to the government's key witness, Hunt boasted that he and his bodyguard handcuffed Levin in the latter's Beverly Hills duplex and put him face down on a bed where the guard then shot him in the back of the head with a silencer-equipped pistol. Levin's body, wrapped in a comforter from his bed, was allegedly dumped in Soledad Canyon in the Angeles National Forest.
Hunt's lead defense attorney, Arthur Barens, told reporters that he was "extremely disappointed" by the verdict and is still weighing what to do next. An appeal is expected.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Fred Wapner, who prosecuted the case, said he was relieved and pleased and called it a "just verdict."
Both sides declined further comment, citing a gag order imposed by Judge Laurence Rittenband. He also ordered jurors not to discuss their decision.
Before being remanded to custody, Hunt hugged his attorneys and patted friends' hands. He pulled a chair close to where his girlfriend, Brooke Roberts, and her mother, Lynne Roberts, were seated, bent over the railing and pulled their hands to his lips. He then stripped off his striped tie, watch and other valuables to give them for safekeeping. After Brooke Roberts bolted from the courthouse, sobbing, "Oh my God, oh my God," Hunt was escorted through a rear door by four bailiffs for transport to Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail, where he will be held without bail.
Arrested 2 Years Ago
Hunt was arrested more than two years ago after other BBC members told police that he had bragged of committing "the perfect crime" in killing Levin. His bodyguard, Jim Pittman, was arrested while trying to impersonate Ron Levin in New York, using bad credit cards.
The charismatic Hunt, often described as a boy genius and Svengali, had linked up with former classmates at the exclusive private Harvard School and other young men from prominent Los Angeles families to form a business and social group called BBC Consolidated of North America.
Dubbed the "Billionaire Boys Club," they drove high-performance cars, wore designer suits and frequented Los Angeles' trendiest night spots--and dreamed of becoming richer and more successful than their parents. But the group's investments failed and its business ventures foundered, culminating in a money-making scheme that involved millions of dollars and two mysterious deaths.
By early 1984, after the BBC, which at times had up to 30 members, had lost nearly $1 million in bad investments and high living, along came Levin, who agreed to place $5 million in a brokerage house account and to let Hunt trade it. They would split the profits 50-50.
Deal a Hoax
It turned out to be a hoax. Levin persuaded the brokerage company that he was doing a television documentary about commodities trading and that none of Hunt's buy or sell orders should be acted upon. Hunt was not to be let in on the secret so that he would make "real" decisions.
Hunt apparently made the right decisions. He turned the supposed $5 million into $13 million and then asked for his share of the profit--$4 million. Only then was he told it had all been a game.
A few months later, when Levin disappeared, Hunt boasted that he had killed him after forcing him to sign a Swiss bank check for $1.5 million, which later bounced, several BBC members testified.
Despite alleged threats from Hunt that anyone who informed authorities would end up as "fish bait in the outer Adirondacks," several members, fearing that they might be prosecuted, went to the police. Dean Karny, Hunt's best friend who became the government's star witness, admitted that he had helped plan Levin's murder and participated in the Northern California murder, and was granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony.
The government maintained that Hunt killed Levin to avenge the commodities trading swindle. Its chief evidence against Hunt was a chilling seven-page list of items, which the prosecution called "a recipe for murder." On the first sheet of yellow legal pad pages, under the heading, "At Levin's TO DO," were listed 15 numbered items, including: "close blinds, scan for tape recorder, tape mouth, handcuff, put gloves on, explain situation, kill dog."
However, the defense insisted that Levin had pulled off "the ultimate con" by disappearing because he was facing criminal and civil prosecution for grand theft and fraud. Defense attorney Barens suggested that Hunt may simply have been trying to hold the group together by seeming to let them in on an awful secret and persuade them that money was on the way.
At least five people claimed to have seen Levin alive since his disappearance. A 23-year-old Arizona woman testified that she saw a sketch of Levin in a magazine and recognized him as the man who had flirted with her boyfriend in a Tucson gas station last September.
A Chicago law firm secretary who knew Levin also claimed to have seen him recently, but never testified. And City News Service police reporter Robbie Robinson stepped forward only last week to say he had chatted with Levin last June while waiting in a Westwood movie theater line.
Face Second Trial
When the verdict came in, the defense was still evaluating whether to seek to reopen the case.
Hunt and Pittman now face trial next fall in a second 1984 murder, that of wealthy Iranian Hedayat Eslaminia in Belmont, Calif. Fellow BBC members Ben Dosti, son of a Los Angeles Times food writer, and Reza Eslaminia, the victim's son, are co-defendants in that case.
Pittman's first trial here ended with a hung jury, and he will be retried next month.
Inevitably, the story of greed and betrayal among some of Southern California's most privileged children has also attracted the attention of Hollywood and the New York publishing world. At least two books, a television miniseries and two movies are in the works, and Hunt has hired two agents to hawk his life story for $1 million.
Times staff writer Jack Jones contributed to this article.