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Amid a Media Crush, Fleiss Pleads Not Guilty

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Mobbed by the media, masked by dark glasses and quaking in her spike-heeled pumps, alleged madam to the stars Heidi Fleiss pleaded not guilty Monday to felony charges stemming from what police say was one of Los Angeles’ most exclusive call girl rings.

In a brief hearing before Municipal Court Commissioner Abraham Khan, Fleiss stood quietly as her lawyer, Anthony Brooklier, entered not guilty pleas on her behalf to five counts of pandering and a single count of possession of cocaine for sale.

Behind her, in row after scribbling row, scores of journalists packed the courtroom gallery for their first live glimpse of Fleiss, offering themselves as an unintentional Exhibit A to the attorney’s argument against an increase in her $100,000 bail.

“My client is a virtual prisoner in her house since the publicity started in this matter,” Brooklier said, referring to the paparazzi who have kept an around-the-clock vigil for the past week outside Fleiss’ Benedict Canyon home. Khan agreed that Fleiss’ bail should not be raised, and ordered her to appear in court Sept. 10 for a preliminary hearing.

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Afterward--dressed in a taupe Norma Kamali mini-dress that she said was the most conservative item in her wardrobe--Fleiss struggled through the gantlet of klieg lights, now mugging, now ducking behind Brooklier’s pin-striped back.

As she slipped down a stairwell and into her lawyer’s black BMW, the pack of reporters turned on two of Fleiss’ friends, chasing actresses Victoria Sellers and Bonita Money, who said they had come to court to offer moral support.

Later, in an interview at her home, Fleiss told The Times that she had been terrified by the media crush, which courthouse employees said was one of the largest in recent memory. Outside the downtown courthouse, TV vans were jammed bumper to bumper for a full block; inside, camera crews clattered into elevators and down stairwells, microphones aloft.

“I was, like, almost trampled to death,” said Fleiss, shaking her head as she and her lawyer watched a big-screen video playback of her court appearance. “There was a motorcycle parked outside, and the cameramen just knocked it over. Cameras were swooping in under my face. Someone was pulling my hair. I was panicked. I thought someone was going to pull my clothes off.”

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The crush was so violent, Brooklier said, that he decided to renege on an earlier promise to make Fleiss available for a hallway news conference.

“I was prepared to make a statement, but they treated my client with no respect,” Brooklier said. “I’m just returning the favor.”

But journalists--many of them equally stunned at the onslaught of media attention--defended the newsworthiness of Fleiss’ story.

“It’s not a natural disaster, but it is a terribly interesting story and I think our viewers would have liked to have known what she looked and sounded like in court,” said Warren Cereghino, news director of KTLA-TV Channel 5, one of two local TV stations that broke into regular programming to broadcast the arraignment live.

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Jerard Evans of the London-based Today News agreed.

“It’s the silly season, you know, the summer months and nothing is happening,” Evans said.

A CBS News reporter, however, was more cynical: “I feel so cheap,” she snapped, jostling for space amid the media crush.

At home sitting on her pillowy living room couch, lounging in a denim work shirt and exercise tights, Fleiss said the experience left her uncertain whether to laugh at the absurdity of the scene or cry about the seriousness of the charges against her.

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Despite her complaints about the media onslaught, Fleiss did not seem to shrink from the attention. Late last week, she had a facial and a manicure, and summoned her hairdresser to her home for a last-minute trim. The accused madam appeared mesmerized as she watched the playback of her moment in the international spotlight.

She, for one, saw no mystery in the hoopla about her case.

“Sex sells,” she said, shrugging with a lopsided smile.

Fleiss, who was arrested June 9 in the wake of a police vice sting, has been accused of operating a prostitution ring that serviced some of the world’s wealthiest and most famous men. Her case, however, attracted little attention until an Aug. 1 story about Fleiss in The Times detailed the attempts by Fleiss’ friends and enemies to leak the names of her high-priced clientele via anonymous tips and tape recordings of her telephone conversations.

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Publicity was heightened when Fleiss lost her temper with a Variety reporter and blurted a threat to tell all for $1 million--an offer she says she did not mean.

Then, just as the story seemed destined to die down, a Columbia Studios executive denied any involvement with her--even though he had never been publicly accused. And the New York Daily News published a page from a so-called black book that was given to them by Fleiss’ ex-lover, Ivan Nagy, immediately upon his arrest on charges that he was running a competing call girl ring.

On Monday, Fleiss downplayed her relationship with Nagy, who last week spoke repeatedly about Fleiss to TV news crews. She said Nagy had “suckered” the media with a “doctored” photocopy of an old calendar, but added that she does not plan to discuss his case publicly because “my battle isn’t going to be in the media--my battle’s in court.”

Brooklier would not elaborate on his strategy for Fleiss’ defense, but he did say he and Fleiss “are looking to win this case” rather than to plea bargain.

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“The tapes are going to be important,” Brooklier said, referring to a tape that was made from an apparent wiretap of Fleiss’ phone and later sold to her by a private detective.

The daughter of a prominent Los Feliz pediatrician and an elementary schoolteacher, Fleiss said she had asked her family to let her handle her court appearance alone. Her parents, she said, “were very supportive and left real nice messages on my (answering) machine, but I just told them to stay away.”

Instead, only a handful of friends showed up in court, including Sellers, who is the daughter of the late actor Peter Sellers, and Money, who made the gossip columns several months ago when she got into a shoving match at a nightclub with actress Shannen Doherty of “Beverly Hills, 90210.”

Times staff writers Steve Herbert, Claudia Eller and Alan Citron contributed to this report.

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* THE BIZ: Columnists Alan Citron and Claudia Eller say Columbia Pictures executives have been told to close ranks amid the Heidi Fleiss hubbub. D4

The Heidi Playbill

The cast of characters surrounding the case of accused madam to the stars Heidi Fleiss is worthy of a classic Hollywood melodrama. Here are some of the supporting cast.

THE EX-BOYFRIEND: Ivan Nagy, television and movie producer and former boyfriend of Fleiss, arrested last Wednesday on pandering charges. Nagy has had modest success in Hollywood, directing episodes of “Starsky and Hutch” and “The Powers of Matthew Star.” He also has a criminal record, having pleaded no contest to a 1991 bookmaking charge. Nagy and Fleiss had a brief romance and a long, acrimonious breakup, and he spoke openly against her in TV interviews before his own arrest. Police allege that Nagy ran a Westside prostitution ring involving 15 to 20 call girls.

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THE ROCK STAR: Billy Idol, the platinum-maned rock star, acknowledges meeting Fleiss on the party circuit, but says he did not pay for sex. The British-born Idol, whose real name is William Michael Broad, enjoyed his greatest success in the 1980s, with hits such as “Rebel Yell” and “White Wedding.” He has just released an album. Idol suffered serious injuries in a 1990 motorcycle accident. In 1991, he pleaded guilty to a pair of misdemeanor battery counts for punching a woman he met in a West Hollywood restaurant.

THE PAL: Victoria Sellers is an old friend of Fleiss and a companion of hers in the club scene. Sellers is the daughter of the late actor Peter Sellers. She has had small parts in movies and has modeled, appearing in Playboy in 1986. That same year, she was arrested as a participant in a Hollywood-based cocaine trafficking ring. She pleaded guilty to a reduced charge and served as chief prosecution witness against the main enforcer for the drug operation.

THE VICE COP: Los Angeles Police Capt. Glenn Ackerman, head of the Admnistrative Vice Division, said “Heidi became one of my priorities” when he took over the vice division in December because Fleiss was conspicuous in a business he calls “dirty, degrading, coercive.” The LAPD joined the Beverly Hills Police Department, the state attorney general’s office and the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to bust Fleiss. The Fleiss and Nagy arrests are part of an assault on upscale Westside prostitution, Ackerman says.

THE STUDIO EXEC: Michael Nathanson of Columbia Pictures issued a statement denying any connection to Fleiss after a barrage of rumors that an unnamed studio executive spent studio funds to procure prostitutes. Nathanson is widely respected in Hollywood, but has been put on the defensive by stories linking him socially to Ivan Nagy. Production chief at the studio for a number of years, Nathanson was promoted this weekend to executive vice president, a move that studio management stressed had been planned before the Fleiss story broke.

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THE STUDIO EXEC’S LAWYER: Howard Weitzman, prominent Hollywood attorney, is Nathanson’s lawyer. Weitzman first gained broad recognition in the mid-1980s, when he successfully defended auto executive John Z. DeLorean against drug charges. His other clients have included actress Kim Basinger in the recent “Boxing Helena” case and former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson.

GUMSHOE TO THE STARS: Anthony J. (The Pelican) Pellicano, a private investigator, was hired by Nathanson to track down rumors about the studio executive. Pellicano had a screen credit in the recent hit “The Firm.” Pellicano has appeared as an expert witness analyzing audiotape recordings. He testified for the heavy metal group Judas Priest in a suit alleging that one of its albums contained subliminal messages.

THE LAWYER: Anthony Brooklier is defending Fleiss against pimping, pandering and drug charges. He is one of Los Angeles’ most successful criminal lawyers and is known for meticulous preparation. Brooklier has represented accused gangsters, and has counted among his clients Elizabeth Adams, a former Beverly Hills madam who knows Fleiss and Nagy. Brooklier’s father was the late Dominic Brooklier, Southern California’s Mafia chieftain in the 1970s, who was imprisoned after being fingered by mob stool pigeon Aladena (Jimmy the Weasel) Frattiano.

THE MOVIE PRODUCER: Robert Evans says he was a family friend of Fleiss but did not buy sexual services from her alleged employees. Evans is a veteran of Hollywood, who enjoyed his greatest success in the 1970s when he supervised films such as “The Godfather” and “Love Story” at Paramount. He is trying to make a comeback now, after a 1980s cocaine conviction, but stumbled with his most recent effort, the controversial “Sliver.”

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THE MAN WITH THE TAPE: Dan Hanks is a private investigator who had possession of a mysterious tape recording of some of Fleiss’ telephone conversations after her arrest in June. The portly Hanks, a onetime police undercover operative, says he monitored transmissions from an apparent telephone bug placed by somebody else in hopes of selling the recordings to a television tabloid show. Instead, he sold them to Fleiss, who says she hopes to use them in her defense.

BEVERLY HILLS MADAM: Elizabeth Adams, known as “the Beverly Hills Madam” or “Madam Alex” in the 1980s, is said to be retired after 20 years in the business. Adams says the watchword of her profession is “discretion, discretion, discretion.” She has recently written her memoirs, entitled “Madam 90210,” in which she reportedly does not name names.

THE INFORMANT: Police say an informant or informants close to Fleiss played a key role in events leading to her arrest. The inside source was developed by detectives in the Beverly Hills Police Department, who then joined Los Angeles police in a sting operation in which LAPD Detective Sammy Lee posed as a Honolulu businessman looking for action. The identity of the informant remains a mystery.

Sources: Los Angeles Times, Times wire services

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