The ‘Cotton Club’ Killing : Five years after the bullet-riddled body of a flamboyant New York producer was discovered in a remote canyon of Los Angeles County, sheriff’s homicide detectives arrested a woman and four men in the case linked to a squabble over financing the movie, ‘Cotton Club.’
Long just a sleepy town in rural south-central Florida that swelled each winter with the influx of vacationers, Okeechobee in recent years has become a center for the lucrative drug-smuggling trade. Planes loaded with contraband land in isolated fields in the county or on the lake, which is almost 50 miles wide and covers a half-million acres.
Still, it was a shock to learn about Larry Greenberger.
Larry was the scion of an old and respected local family, and few, if any, residents suspected that he was a big-time cocaine dealer.
To all outward appearances, he and his wife, Lanie, were just a well-to-do loving couple living in a fine home with her son, whom Larry reportedly had adopted.
Just Plain Folks
Larry had his real estate and billboard businesses; Lanie ran a plastic surgery referral service. They patronized local stores, sent their 6-year-old son to the local school.
They lived high on the hog, it was true. Their son, Dax, regaled schoolmates about trips to Spain. But they were not otherwise pretentious or ostentatious, and Lanie always had time to chat.
“She was always in here, and just as sweet and nice as she could be,” said Mary Porter, who runs a dry cleaning business. She recalled that Lanie sometimes would stay and have a glass of the sweetened iced tea with lemon that Porter serves to refresh her customers. “She was never in a hurry to go. She was very classy, very feminine, with a soft, little voice and a very Southern drawl. . . . I was never so fooled in my life.”
Porter and the rest of Okeechobee learned some very different truths about Larry and Lanie three weeks ago, when Larry was found shot to death on the front porch of his house.
Lanie reported his death as a suicide. But the sheriff’s department said it just looked that way. They said that Larry had been murdered. And that his death was not Lanie’s first brush with murder.
Dealer in Cocaine
Lanie, they had learned during their investigation, had once been a major cocaine dealer in her own right in Los Angeles, and was wanted by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for the 1983 murder of New York theatrical producer Roy Radin--whose decomposed bullet-riddled body was found in a remote canyon after he declined to cut Lanie in on his deal to finance the movie, “Cotton Club.”
After Lanie’s arrest last week for the Radin murder, kind words in Okeechobee evaporated. People started calling her the “black widow,” the “coke whore,” the “bimbo from hell.”
In Los Angeles, a detailed picture of her earlier life emerged in sheriff’s investigative reports filed in court in the Radin case. These documents tell the story of a woman bent on forging a link between two volatile worlds--illegal drugs and movie making--and determined to let nothing get in her way.
Ironically, they indicate she was engaged in greedy squabble for rights to a picture that turned out to be a critical and box office bomb.
What follows is based on those reports, which recount numerous interviews with witnesses:
Lanie, strikingly elegant at 36, had two residences in Los Angeles--one for movies, one for drugs.
She owned a house on a secluded cul de sac in Sherman Oaks, where her safes contained hundreds of thousands of dollars that she gathered selling cocaine, mainly by the kilogram, to lesser dealers.
She also had an apartment in Beverly Hills that she used to throw parties for a fast-living show business crowd.
One thing about Lanie was that she believed in her own product. She used cocaine herself--a lot of it. And she shared easily--pulling out her compact to snort with friends.
She told casual friends that she was legitimate--that the expensive clothes and the jewelry, the Porsches, the Jaguar, the Cadillac, the cocaine and the rented private jets came from profits she made importing gems. Sometimes she said she was a dress designer--the owner of a successful Las Vegas boutique. Sometimes she said she was an interior decorator. Other times, she said her money came from ex-husbands. There were six of them, she said.
But some of her friends guessed that her money came from drugs--specifically from her connection to a man she apparently met before Greenberger--Milan Bellechesses, a reputed drug runner living in Miami whose own lawyer once likened him to the violent gangster character portrayed by Al Pacino in the movie “Scarface.”
Bellechesses, who is now awaiting trial on drug smuggling charges in Ft. Lauderdale, was the father of Lanie’s son, she told intimates.
Lanie, who was known in those days as Lanie Jacobs, moved to Los Angeles to distribute drugs for Bellechesses in late 1982.
Bellechesses got his drugs from Colombians in Miami, according to a man who said he drove them west for him and handed them to her.
That man, Talmadge Rogers, who is now in prison in Louisiana for child molestation, told sheriff’s investigators that his role was to take ten kilos west at a time. Jacobs could sell that much in six weeks, he said, at $60,000 a kilo. Then he would make another run.
The drug business was good. But Rogers said that Jacobs had other ambitions. He said she told him she wanted to invest in films.
Hit Film Producer She had made an important contact, Robert Evans, producer of hit films such as “Chinatown” and “The Godfather,” who had fallen on hard times since his own conviction for cocaine possession in 1981.
Evans wanted to make a movie about the Cotton Club, the famous Harlem nightspot that was home to Duke Ellington in its heyday in the late 1920s. But he was having trouble raising money.
They met through a chauffeur she used regularly. He worked for a limousine service that Evans partly owned.
The chauffeur knew that Evans was looking for investors for “Cotton Club” and asked Jacobs if she would be interested in investing.
She was. And a match was made.
Evans told an associate that he slept with Jacobs and partied with her.
He also told an associate that he learned Jacobs was a major drug dealer and the mistress of an even bigger drug dealer--Bellechesses.
Exactly when he learned that Jacobs was a big drug dealer is not clear. But Rogers, the drug runner, indicated it was right away.
He said Jacobs told him that Evans was interested in obtaining narcotics money to produce movies, and that eight or ten other movie people--unidentified--were also interested.
Evans was a big cocaine user himself, associates told detectives.
But Evans told investigators another story. He said he did not use cocaine.
And he portrayed his relationship with Jacobs as businesslike. He said Jacobs told him she had a friend who wanted to invest as much as $50 million in a production company, and that she had $5 million that she wanted to invest herself.
Evans said he tried to tell her the movie business was not for her--that she should consider investing in his limousine company instead. But she was not interested in that.
She began trying to put together a movie deal on three fronts. She tried unsuccessfully to raise money from Arabs through an attorney who spoke Arabic. She tried unsuccessfully to persuade the American Express company to branch out into financing motion pictures. (Bellechesses helped her apply for those funds.) And she introduced Evans to Roy Radin.
Radin was the scion of a Broadway show business family. At 33, he was a promoter of vaudeville revivals--a man obsessed by an ambition to make movies, and, he claimed, a man with access to big bucks. A millionaire by the time he was 20, he lived regally in a 66-room Long Island, N.Y., mansion.
His wild, lavish parties drew unwelcome media attention in 1980 when a 23-year-old television actress who had attended one was found bruised, bleeding and barely conscious, draped over a seat on the Long Island Railroad car as it cruised toward New York City. The actress, Melanie Haller, who played a “sweathog” in the television series, “Welcome Back Kotter,” said she had been raped and beaten at the party, then deposited on the train.
Her date, a New Jersey businessman, later pleaded guilty to assaulting her, and Radin was charged with menacing her, illegally possessing LSD and cocaine and illegally possessing a handgun.
Nine months later, Radin pleaded guilty to the gun charge.
Bad Turn in Career
Thereafter, Radin’s career foundered and he was said to be running out of cash.
Radin, however, was not one to be anything but publicly optimistic. In early 1983, he sold his mansion to get cash, moved to a penthouse apartment on Central Park West in Manhattan, and divorced his second wife--throwing himself a divorce party at a New York City disco.
While all that was going on, he got acquainted with Lanie Jacobs.
They met at a dinner party during one of Radin’s trips to Los Angeles and hit it off. On their first date, they went to another party. It lasted three days.
Radin’s secretary, Jonathan Lawson, told sheriff’s detectives that his boss was a heavy user of cocaine, who, during his trips to Los Angeles, purchased drugs from Jacobs, writing her checks for thousands of dollars at a time.
Radin knew only one way to think: big.
When she introduced him to Evans in early March, Radin told the producer he could raise $50 million Evans said he needed; no problem.
Evans told investigators that Radin called him back the next day. There was still no problem, the flamboyant Radin reportedly said. He simply had to get hold of the Rothschilds.
Early the next month, Evans said, Radin contacted him again, with good news: The Rothschilds were out. But the Puerto Rican government was in.
Radin had made a friend at his divorce party--an influential Puerto Rican banker who said he could raise $35 million.
Papers were signed. It was to be a three-picture deal. “Cotton Club” would be made, and preproduction costs would be paid for two other Evans pictures, “The Sicilian” and a sequel to “Chinatown.”
Jose Alegria, the Puerto Rican banker, was to own 10% of the production company. Evans and Radin were to get 45% each.
A Promise Not Kept
Then a seemingly unrelated problem developed. It was between Jacobs and her cocaine-runner. But it was to haunt them all.
The runner, Talmadge Rogers, told authorities years later that Bellechesses had promised him $30,000 for a single trip across the country, but that Jacobs was paying him only $20,000.
Angered, he said, he ripped her off.
While she was in Las Vegas, he broke into her safes and stole ten kilograms of cocaine and $270,000 in cash.
Rogers then did the only prudent thing. He went into hiding.
He said he learned later that Jacobs put a $50,000 price on his head and hired people to look for him--including two of the three men she is accused of hiring to have Radin killed.
Jacobs apparently suspected that Radin might also be involved in the theft. She knew that Rogers and Radin had been friends, and Jacobs asked Radin if he knew where Rogers was.
At a later meeting, Jacobs told Radin she held him responsible for the theft, according to Radin’s private secretary.
At the same meeting, Radin said she made it clear that she wanted more than a finder’s fee for the “Cotton Club” deal. She wanted part ownership of the production company.
According to Evans, she wanted half of Radin’s share.
Evans said he had no problem with that.
But Radin rebuffed her demand and, Evans and others recalled, Jacobs cried.
She then fought back. She tried to cut Radin entirely out of the deal.
First, lawyers who said they were representing her and Evans attempted to negotiate directly with the Puerto Rican government to cut out Alegria, too.
When they were rebuffed there, Alegria told detectives, a lawyer and Evans himself called him to ask, Could they just cut Radin out?
Alegria said no.
Then the lawyers called Radin.
They offered him at least $2 million to bow out of “Cotton Club.”
Alegria advised Radin to take the money.
But Radin wanted to make movies.
He said no.
Radin, who was back in New York, decided to make a trip to Los Angeles to try to patch things up with Jacobs.
When he arrived, she asked him to dinner.
Radin had stopped seeing her socially, but was dating a friend of hers, Ana Montenegro, who also transported drugs for Jacobs, according to detectives.
Montenegro warned Radin not to go to the dinner with Jacobs, Radin’s secretary recalled, saying, “Don’t go near Elaine. She’s dangerous.”
Montenegro later explained to John O’Grady, a celebrated Hollywood private investigator hired by Radin’s family, that she was afraid for Radin because she believed Jacobs thought that Radin had engineered the theft of drugs and cash from her Sherman Oaks home.
But Radin ignored Montenegro’s advice.
He took only one precaution. Jacobs had said she would pick him up in a limousine to take him to dinner at La Scala restaurant in Beverly Hills. He arranged to have a friend follow them.
The friend was actor Demond Wilson, best known for his role in the television series, “Sanford and Son.” Radin managed Wilson’s career.
Wilson recruited his secretary for company, brought along his gun, and according to the secretary, some cocaine to pass the time.
Parked outside Radin’s Hollywood hotel, the Plaza Suite, Wilson and the secretary watched as Radin got into a black stretch limousine with darkened windows along with a lady in a silver dress.
As the limousine headed west on Sunset Boulevard, another large car pulled in behind it.
Wilson told authorities he lost the limousine in traffic.
He went to La Scala and waited for Radin to arrive.
Radin never did.
A month later, Radin was still missing. Then a beekeeper found his body in a remote canyon in northern Los Angeles County. He had been shot numerous times in the head.
By the time Radin’s body was found, Jacobs was long gone.
She had begun making her arrangements to leave just before he disappeared. The day before Radin’s last limousine ride, she had listed her Sherman Oaks house with a real estate agent.
That evening, she had used Evans’ limousine service to send her infant son and his nanny to the airport.
The next day, when Radin’s panicked secretary called to ask what had become of Roy, she said they had had a fight in the limousine and she had gotten out.
Later, she changed that story to say that he had gotten out.
In either case, she had kept a date with another man.
Then she left town.
She lived for a couple of months in a house in Palm Springs with William Mentzer--a sometime bodyguard and debt collector, who is one of those now accused of executing Radin at Jacobs’ behest.
Mentzer was not very successful, his ex-wife said, until he met Jacobs. Then he started swimming in nice cars and jewelry. But in Palm Springs, Mentzer grumbled to associates that Jacobs was consuming so much drugs he couldn’t stand her. He wanted out.
Threats on Tape
When they vacated the house, one of the house’s owners reported finding a telephone answering machine tape with a man’s voice that indicated Jacobs was under a lot of pressure from someone.
“I know you’re there,” the voice said. “You’re hanging up on me. I know you’re there because my people saw you arriving at the airport. Daddy will have to send for you and you’re not going to like it.”
Evans, too, was having his problems. According to a woman he dated, he was paranoid--worried that every phone call she got was someone talking about him.
Evans apparently thought he had good reason to worry.
Even before Radin’s body was discovered, an associate said, the producer told him that Radin was dead.
“Believe me, he’s dead,” the associate remembered Evans saying. “The bitch had him killed and I’m next.”
Some law enforcement officers believe that, after Palm Springs, Jacobs rejoined Bellechesses and they traveled to Colombia.
She did not surface again until the next year when she turned up married to an even bigger cocaine dealer than Bellechesses.
Started Out Small
Larry Greenberger, who was one year her junior, had started out small, as a hustling, drug-selling student at Florida State University in the late 1960s and early 1970s, according to federal investigators.
But he had wound up the 1970s as the No. 2 man to the legendary Carlos Lehder.
It was Lehder who revolutionized the transporting of cocaine to this country by a simple device--talking growers around his home town of Medellin, Colombia, into pooling their harvests and letting him fly their cocaine into the United States in bulk. This allowed for the first mass distribution network for cocaine in the United States. Before Lehder came along, the trade was fragmented, with each grower arranging for his own aircraft.
Lehder’s transportation fee, according to federal Drug Enforcement Administration agent Doug Driver, who investigated him, was one kilogram for every four he smuggled in. In addition, he sometimes helped sell the other three kilograms for a percentage.
Greenberger and Lehder became associated in late 1977 when Lehder split up with his first American partner in a dispute over whether to reclaim a plane that had been forced down in Aruba. Lehder wanted to forget about the plane and buy another. The American partner had a subordinate--Greenberger--who had $10,000 to invest in another plane. And that, according to federal investigators, was how Greenberger became a multimillionaire.
Lehder, headquartered in the Bahamas, put Greenberger in charge of distribution operations in the United States, according to testimony at Lehder’s recent trial in federal court in Jacksonville. That trial ended with him being sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.
Across the Continent
Greenberger, associates testified, operated Lehder’s cocaine cutting house in Ft. Lauderdale, shipped the drugs for sale on the West Coast, and shipped the profits back to Lehder in the Bahamas.
Greenberger himself was never prosecuted. He had been secretly indicted by federal prosecutors in Los Angeles, but, a prosecutor said, he was prematurely arrested in Hawaii before prosecutors in Los Angeles were prepared to unseal their indictment against him and several other defendants.
Charges against him were dismissed because the prosecutors’ refusal to unseal the indictment meant that he would not get the speedy trial to which he was constitutionally entitled.
Federal investigators in Florida said they believe that Greenberger continued his association with Lehder through 1981. Then they split. These investigators said they do not know what, if any, illegal activities Greenberger had been up to since then.
But “I would not believe it’s possible for a guy like Greenberger to retire,” said former U.S. Atty. Robert Merkle, who successfully prosecuted Lehder. “All he ever knew was hustling. He had very expensive tastes and very expensive habits . . . I know he liked cocaine a lot.”
Living in Splendor
Greenberger took his new bride to Okeechobee in 1985 and set up housekeeping in isolated splendor. He and Lanie bought an old two-story home just outside the city limits and remodeled it extensively, turning it into a jewel with a huge entry gate, flanked by red-brick pillars topped by stone lions, and bordered by a very high fence.
The interior was furnished with costly antiques and expensive paintings--not bad for a boy whose father and grandfather before him ran a Western-style clothing store in a small town.
Larry and Lanie lived quietly until last year when Lanie opened a plastic surgery referral business and got a lot of attention.
Lanie was her own best advertisement. Mary Porter, who owns the dry cleaning shop that Lanie patronized, recalled how Lanie would brag about having had every kind of plastic surgery you could have. “She had her eyes done, implants in her cheeks, implants in her breasts, a tummy tuck, the fat sucked off her thighs--everything,” Porter recalled.
A young woman who, along with her mother, had surgery done, recalled that Larry and Lanie picked them up in a curtained Mercedes sedan and drove them to the Miami airport for a trip to Mexico City, where the surgery was performed.
Lanie accompanied them on the plane to Mexico City and stayed for most of the visit, but had to return early because her son was in a school play.
A Pleased Customer
The young woman said she was so pleased she wanted to go back for more surgery. What she liked most was the cost: $5,100 compared with more than $13,000 if she had the same surgery in the United States.
Lanie told friends she was setting up a string of these referral clinics in Florida and Colorado, where she and Larry sometimes vacationed.
They seemed a happy couple until the end, townspeople said.
The young woman who went to Mexico City said they invited her to spend a week with them on a skiing vacation last Christmas. She noted that whenever they were driving in the car together, they did not turn the radio on to entertain themselves, but were always talking to each other.
“It was amazing,” she said. “And I got in on the conversations, too. I was intrigued by Lanie, because she dressed nicely and was so charming. But they never made you feel you were any less of a person because you didn’t have what they had. They always made me feel like I belonged with them. I blended in, I guess. And certainly without them, I never would have had the opportunity to do some of the things I did. I learned to ski, and they took me to some very nice restaurants. I’ve never been anywhere like that. It was real exciting to me.”
She said she was shocked when she heard that Lanie had called the sheriff’s office to say that Larry had killed himself with a bullet to the head.
It was doubly shocking when the coroner’s report showed Larry had been using cocaine and alcohol.
And it was shocking beyond belief when the county medical examiner said, “It now turns out that we have a homicide rigged to look like a suicide . . . We’re projecting that he was shot by another person and the gun was placed in his hand.”
Agrees to Meeting
Lanie had taken her son and left the county after the shooting, but finally agreed to meet sheriff’s investigators in Orlando with her lawyer.
These investigators, who had learned of the “Cotton Club” case in their inquiry, alerted Los Angeles County sheriff’s detectives, who arrested Lanie for Radin’s slaying.
Lanie, who is now in the Orange County Jail in Orlando and fighting extradition to California, declined a reporter’s request for an interview. She has not been charged with her husband’s death. But her attorney in the Radin case, Edward Shohat, said she is “innocent and can’t imagine how she’s even been accused.”
Shohat, who also defended Carlos Lehder, said he had known Lanie in 1973 and 1974 when she worked as a secretary for his law firm and was “one hell of a nice person.”
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department had all but ended its probe into the Radin killing in 1983, but took up the case again last year for reasons that are not yet clear.
Investigators this time made numerous breakthroughs, including locating the drug runner who ripped off Lanie Jacobs.
But they didn’t quite have a case until they met William Rider, the brother-in-law and one-time security chief of Hustler Magazine publisher Larry Flynt. He had once supervised Mentzer, the man who lived with Lanie in Palm Springs after Radin’s death.
Rider told the detectives that, during a poker game, Mentzer and another bodyguard he once supervised, Alex Marti, admitted shooting Radin to death.
Rider also said that Mentzer told him that Lanie alone did not order the hit. He said the producer, Evans, was also involved.
Evans, through his attorney, has denied any involvement. He has neither been charged nor eliminated as a suspect, according to the deputy district attorney handling the case.
Rider agreed with detectives’ request that he secretly tape conversations with Mentzer.
To get Mentzer’s confidence, he offered him a job--providing security for a supposed narcotics dealer who was really an undercover Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy. Mentzer agreed and earned $300.
Then Rider suggested that the supposed dealer might want Mentzer to do a contract killing. Mentzer said that would be no problem, as long as the price was right, according to detectives’ reports.
He then said he already had one contract killing set to go. He said a drug dealer named Vinnie De Angelo wanted Mentzer to kill a husband and wife in Miami in two or three months and had offered $100,000.
Mentzer said that De Angelo had also hired him to go to Miami in two or three weeks to bomb a house that De Angelo and his wife had leased to an old man, who had trashed it.
De Angelo wanted to collect the insurance money, rather than remodel, so Mentzer said he had to make it look as though the fire was accidental.
Mentzer introduced Rider to De Angelo and told him that De Angelo was big--that he had once been a partner of Carlos Lehder.
The detectives showed Rider some photographs.
Vinnie De Angelo was in one of them, Rider said. But the detectives knew De Angelo by another name. They knew him as Larry Greenberger.
Less than a week later, Greenberger was dead--shot in the head--on the front porch of his stately home.
Rohrlich reported from Los Angeles and Treadwell from Okeechobee.
FIGURES IN THE ‘COTTON CLUB’ MURDER CASE
He was brash and ambitious. As a young man, he made big money booking vaudeville revivals and staging benefits for police unions. He lived in a 66-room mansion in Southampton and threw lavish parties. But he became fed up with handling small-time acts and set his sights on Hollywood. On a visit to the West Coast in 1982, he met Lanie Jacobs, a reputed cocaine trafficker, at a dinner party. She knew lots of important people, among them producer Robert Evans, who happened to be looking for fresh money to finance “Cotton Club.” Radin was eager to oblige, but the deal went sour, according to witnesses, when Jacobs tried to elbow Radin out of the picture. Driving in the fast lane may have cost Radin his life.
Lanie Jacobs is being representated by the same Miami lawyer who defended Lehder, the Colombian cocaine kingpin sentenced this year to life without parole. Jacobs is also the widow of Larry Greenberger, identified in court testimony as Lehder’s numero dos --his No.2 distributor in Florida. Greenberger was fatally shot in the head last month at home in Florida.
A reputed drug lord in Miami, supplier to Lanie Jacobs and father of her child. Homicide investigators want to talk to him about the Radin case, but his attorneys have demurred. He is facing a federal drug charge in Ft. Lauderdale.
Central figure in the case. A suspected West Coast cocaine dealer with links to the Latin American drug underworld and the Hollywood community, she introduced Roy Radin to Robert Evans. Charged with ordering Radin’s assassination, she is in jail in Florida while fighting extradition to Los Angeles.
After Radin’s murder, the former Paramount production chief worried that he would be next to die, according to some acquaintances, but one of the accused killers says Evans helped pay for the “contract hit” on Radin, an allegation Evans’ lawyer vehemently denies. Meantime, the district attorney’s office says Evans has not been ruled out as a suspect.
Fearing for his life, Radin asked his friend and onetime star of TV’s “Sanford and Son” to pack a gun and follow him and Lanie Jacobs to La Scala. Wilson lost the limo carrying Radin and Jacobs in traffic. Radin never arrived at the Beverly Hills restaurant. His body was found a month later.