Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt allegedly paid a flamboyant soldier of fortune $1 million to kill singer Frank Sinatra, Playboy founder Hugh M. Hefner and two other celebrities, authorities disclosed Wednesday.
The November, 1983, plot was immediately canceled, however, when Flynt's business manager stopped payment on the check Flynt had written to the proposed hit man, who had once worked for him as a security guard, Los Angeles County sheriff's investigators said.
The hit man, identified as Mitchell Livingston WerBell III, 65, died of a heart attack in Los Angeles a month after the check was written.
Capt. Robert Grimm, head of the sheriff's Homicide Bureau, said he was unsure of the motives in Flynt's alleged plot to murder Sinatra, Hefner and Penthouse magazine publisher Bob Guccione. Grimm declined to name the fourth target of Flynt's alleged plot, but other authorities identified him as Walter H. Annenberg, former publisher of TV Guide.
At a Wednesday evening press conference, sheriff's officials displayed a copy of a canceled $1 million check that they said Flynt made out to WerBell to kill the four targeted men.
"This period in Mr. Flynt's life was described as a painful period when he was using narcotics," Grimm noted.
Flynt was himself struck down 10 years ago by high-powered rifle shots fired from close range by an unknown attacker. He is confined to a wheelchair.
The captain said investigators have not yet interviewed Flynt. The case, he said, has not yet been presented to the district attorney's office for possible prosecution. He said he does not believe that Hefner and the others are currently in any danger.
Flynt, 46, who lives in Doheny Estates, could not be reached for comment. But James Kohls, the president of Flynt's publications company based in Beverly Hills, branded the sheriff's disclosure as "totally ridiculous."
"It's not even worth commenting on," he said.
Grimm said details of the alleged plot only recently came to light when detectives "monitored" conversations between a suspect and an informant in the on-going investigation of the May, 1983, murder-for-hire of theatrical promoter Roy A. Radin.
Four suspects were arrested last month in the Radin case, including the alleged triggerman, William Mentzer, a former Flynt security guard.
Mentzer has been charged with Radin's gangland-style slaying largely on statements that authorities said he made to an informant, whom they identified as William Rider, Mentzer's former supervisor and Flynt's brother-in-law.
Rider, according to sources, told the Sheriff's Department that Mentzer and another former Flynt security guard, Alex L. Marti, bragged that they had killed Radin and that Mentzer talked about having killed others.
Marti and Robert U. Lowe, yet another former Flynt security guard, have also been charged with the Radin murder.
Prosecutors have alleged that Radin was killed because he refused to share an investment he had made in the movie, "The Cotton Club."
Balked at Demands
Radin had been introduced to the producer of the film, Robert Evans, by a friend, Elaine Jacobs. Prosecutors have alleged that Jacobs, a reputed big-time cocaine dealer, wanted a financial stake in the picture for having made Radin's introduction to Evans and hired Mentzer and the others to kill Radin when he balked at her demands.
It was not immediately known how WerBell, who wore a handlebar mustache and went by the self-appointed title of "general," came to be associated with Flynt.
Records show that during the same month in which Flynt was alleged to have paid WerBell to commit murder, WerBell was arrested in Los Angeles Federal Court and charged with carrying a weapon--a gold-headed walking stick with a sharp point--onto federal property as he accompanied Flynt into the court where the publisher was facing contempt charges.
An agent of the Office of Strategic Services (forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency) during World War II, WerBell set up an arms dealership in Georgia and served as a military adviser to the government of the Dominican Republic before fighting broke out there in 1965.
According to federal officials, WerBell, in 1967, was involved in a plot to overthrow the late Haitian dictator Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier. He was indicted by a federal grand jury on conspiracy charges but they were later dropped.
In the mid-1970s WerBell's son, who helped him in his arms business, was indicted on charges of conspiring to sell machine guns to fugitive financier Robert Vesco.
The son was acquitted, and the elder WerBell, under pressure from federal authorities, agreed to disband the arms company. He later operated a counterterrorist school known as "The Farm" near Atlanta, where he developed a silencer- and scope-equipped machine gun that he publicly boasted was "so lethally and even beautifully efficient that it made (James Bond author) Ian Fleming's paraphernalia obsolete."
"I thought it was a kind of sick joke," Hefner said of his reaction when informed by sheriff's deputies of the alleged plot. "I was frankly sort of surprised that they were making any kind of announcement about it."
The Playboy publisher said he had met Flynt only twice, both times in the mid-1970s.
"I think the important thing to understand is it has nothing to do with business; it has nothing to do with any kind of interrelationship between Flynt and me, because there was no connection," Hefner said. "It just has to do with some form of self-aggrandizement or a kooky attempt to get attention."
"I think Flynt is deranged--he has to be in these circumstances," Guccione said in an interview with Fox Television.
He added that Flynt apparently saw him and Hefner as "some kind of competition."
Susan Reynolds, publicist for Sinatra, said the entertainer had no comment about the case.
Annenberg, a close friend of President Reagan and a former ambassador to Britain, could not be reached for comment.
Times staff writers Robert W. Stewart and Ted Rohrlich contributed to this article.