COLUMN ONE : Streetwise Gumshoe to the Stars : When Hollywood's A-list wants protection from gossip and lawsuits, they put Anthony Pellicano on the case. Some see him as a pushy showoff, but he says he likes to play hardball.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Tinseltown is a nasty little neighborhood, full of rumors and secrets and tattletales. Just when you think you've made it, someone pops up to soak you or soil you or sic the cops on your tail.

Somebody has to look out for all those big names and big checkbooks. Somebody has to be gumshoe to the stars. And this year's Beverly Hills 911 is Anthony J. Pellicano Jr., the least private private eye in town.

Here he is on "Larry King Live," sticking up for Michael Jackson. There he is battling gossip linking a Columbia Pictures executive to accused madam Heidi Fleiss. Magazines report that a coterie of stars pooled $2 million each to pay Pellicano for protection from the tabloids. He even made the big screen as a technical adviser on "The Firm."

To those closest to him, Pellicano is a devoted family man, a onetime punk who was raised by a divorced single mom and who has vowed that his own children will never experience his hard knocks. "Family is sacred to me," he said, his office walls overflowing with photos of his second wife and nine children. His voice grows thick when he recalls the day his 5-year-old autistic son learned to kiss.

But to those on the business end of his $25,000 retainer fee, Pellicano is part hard-boiled detective and part hardball PR man, a tough talker in a thousand-dollar suit who does not carry a gun but whose telephone Muzak is the Sicilian opera used in "The Godfather, Part III."

"You always want to be on the right side of Anthony Pellicano," warned "Top Gun" producer Don Simpson, whom Pellicano helped shield when an ex-secretary took Simpson to court.

His critics--whom he calls "wimps" and "babies" and worse--agree, in harsher terms.

"He goes in like a junkyard dog to find dirt," said Charles Theodore Mathews, lawyer for the plaintiff in the Simpson suit.

Pellicano, meanwhile, is proud of what he does. "Anybody who wants to malign one of my clients, I dig into their pasts," he said. "So they gotta take the same heat that they dish out."

*

Behind the wheel of his jet-black Lexus, the one with the Louisville Slugger in the trunk, the dark-eyed man in the crisp, white shirt glared at a traffic jam. Somewhere, a roomful of sweating, cursing reporters awaited the latest damage control in the Michael Jackson child molestation investigation. It was his job to deliver. And here he was, stuck in a construction zone.

"What is this? What, are we goin' crazy here? What is this, no left turn? "

So the "ultimate problem-solver," as he calls himself, did what ultimate problem-solvers do--he turned left anyway. Moments later, Anthony (the Pelican) Pellicano was standing at a microphone in Century City, a trim, balding man popping Chiclets and handing out audiotapes that he said would discredit Jackson's accusers once and for all.

From high school dropout to spin doctor for the King of Pop--not bad for a guy from the mean streets of Cicero, Ill.

"I have had no luck, but everything I have in life, I have made for myself. I am self-made," Pellicano said in an interview.

His beginnings were inauspicious. Kicked out of high school because he was "too interested in being a tough guy," he acquired discipline and a diploma in the Army Signal Corps.

In those days, he was Tony Pellican--his grandfather had dropped the O when the family left Sicily. By the time he finished his stint as an Army cryptographer, he had changed his surname to Pellicano, in honor of his heritage, he said.

Back in Chicago, he became a bill collector for the Spiegel catalogue. Working under the pseudonym Tony Fortune, he traced people who had skipped out on debts. One day he was scanning the Yellow Pages when he noticed how many ads there were for detective agencies.

"So I called the biggest ad in there and I said, 'Listen, I'm the best skip tracer there is, I wanna do all your work, give me your hardest case,' " Pellicano said. "They had been looking for this (missing) little girl for six weeks and I found her in two days. How? With intelligence, logic, common sense, a tremendous amount of imagination and an acute perception."

He cracked a smile.

"Actually, I just worked my ass off, that's all."

By 1969, he had hung out his own shingle. Chicago investigators still talk about the twin Lincoln Continentals he drove, the samurai swords on his office walls and the way he sealed his letters with wax.

Key to his practice was the Psychological Stress Evaluator, a controversial contraption that purported to measure stress--and thus, signs of deception--in the voice.

But what really set Pellicano apart, colleagues said, was his hyperbole. A copy of his resume, circa 1975, describes his company as an agency "whose services are as diverse as its director's talents" and claims a "perfect score" in locating 3,964 missing persons.

"He was a hotdog," laughed Richard Fries, a Chicago private eye who is a member of the state licensing board. "How did he get ahead? I'll tell ya--by bein' pushy. By telling reporters about his deeds, going to affairs. What can I say? It works."

The Chicago papers ate up his successes--typically, cases involving reunited families and kidnapings. He once found the body of a wealthy executive's daughter, who had been sought by six other detectives for five years.

But not all his publicity was the kind he liked. In 1976, he resigned under pressure from the Illinois Law Enforcement Commission after news reports that he accepted a $30,000 loan from the son of underworld figure Paul de Lucia, also known as Paul (the Waiter) Ricca.

Then-Gov. Dan Walker said Pellicano did not mention the loan on an ethics statement he was required to file. Walker told reporters that if Pellicano had done so, he would never have been appointed to the panel, which is responsible for awarding federal crime funds.

Pellicano said that Ricca's son, Paul de Lucia Jr., was a childhood friend and that he borrowed the money because the cost of starting his agency had driven him into bankruptcy. He denied having underworld connections, and said he did not believe the younger Lucia had them either.

"Paul de Lucia is my daughter's godfather," Pellicano said. "He's just like any other guy in the neighborhood."

Then there was the matter of producer Michael Todd's bones, which disappeared in 1977 from a Forest Park, Ill., cemetery. Todd had been married to actress Elizabeth Taylor when he died in a 1958 plane crash.

The grave robbery made headlines. Police scoured the cemetery in vain. Then a phone rang in the detective division. Pellicano said he had an informant; he knew where the bones were buried. Police met him at the graveyard. Pellicano had an anchorman in tow.

Todd's remains--a few bones and a melted belt buckle--were right on the cemetery grounds, under a pile of leaves and dirt about 75 yards from the grave. The grave robbers, Pellicano told police, had been after a 10-carat diamond ring, a gift from Taylor that they mistakenly had believed was inside Todd's casket.

A 1983 government sentencing report maintains that a mobster-turned-informant told authorities that two mob figures were the ones who exhumed Todd. But the story making the rounds in Chicago even today is that Pellicano orchestrated the event to gain publicity in hopes of being hired to help find Chicago candy heiress Helen Brach, who disappeared in 1977.

"I've been hearing that story for years. It's a great story, but there's no way I would know if it's true. The guy is a legend here," said lawyer Glen Crick, former director of enforcement for the state agency governing private investigators.

But Pellicano's critics--Chicago archrival Ernie Rizzo among them--gleefully refer to him as "the grave robber." And police say the story has become part of the city's detective lore although there is no evidence linking Pellicano to the disappearance.

Pellicano--along with his defenders in Chicago--says the tale is fueled by professional jealousy.

"Ernie Rizzo is a fruit fly," Pellicano said in one of his more printable comments about the man.

In 1983, Pellicano moved to L.A. His first assignment was helping the John Z. DeLorean defense. Pellicano was hired by attorney Howard Weitzman to help the former auto executive beat drug selling charges. Pellicano dissected key government tapes and dug up information that helped undermine prosecution witnesses.

Weitzman said Pellicano's work was "in large part responsible for my ability to win that case." It was also the start of a profitable friendship. Pellicano will not say how much his Sunset Boulevard firm takes in each year or how much he personally makes. But Pellicano acknowledges that through Weitzman and entertainment lawyer Bertram Fields, he gained entree into the Hollywood A-list. Soon, his clientele included Kevin Costner, Roseanne Arnold, Jackson, Simpson and other celebrities.

Working with Costner's lawyer, Pellicano tried to undercut the credibility of a woman who was paid $30,000 by a London tabloid for details of her alleged secret 11-year friendship with the married actor. Although the woman was not charged with any wrongdoing, Pellicano said, "she was trying to extort Kevin Costner. We exposed her for what she was."

For Arnold, Pellicano set up a 1989 reunion with the 17-year-old daughter the comedienne put up for adoption at birth--a meeting made pressing by an impending National Enquirer article about the girl.

Later, Arnold and her husband, Tom, publicly accused Pellicano of finding the daughter by paying off a couple of Enquirer reporters. Pellicano hotly denied the allegation. Since then, the Arnolds have made up with him, according to a spokeswoman for the TV stars.

"A couple of months ago, Tom called me and said: 'We were wrong, I want to go on and be your friend.' I said: 'Let bygones be bygones,' " Pellicano said. "Tom is a different guy than the guy I knew before. He has really matured."

For Simpson, the detective helped derail a wrongful-dismissal lawsuit filed by Monica Harmon, a former receptionist for Simpson's production company. The litigation gained media attention after Harmon charged that Simpson snorted cocaine in the office, ordered her to line up dates with prostitutes, exposed her to pornographic materials and cussed her out.

Simpson's lawyer hired Pellicano to investigate the receptionist's allegations. With fodder from Pellicano, Fields got Harmon to concede in a sworn deposition that she had used cocaine during her time with Simpson, used obscenities when writing in her private diary, had rented sexually explicit videos and helped find a male stripper for a staff party.

Harmon declined to comment for this article. Mathews, her lawyer, said Pellicano "tries to . . . skew witnesses' testimony." Pellicano dismisses those assertions as sour grapes. Eventually, a court threw out the lawsuit.

For Jackson, Pellicano investigated his sister La Toya's husband and manager, Jack Gordon, shortly before the release of her tell-all bestseller, "La Toya: Growing Up in the Jackson Family." As the book debuted, the Chicago papers reported that Gordon was a convicted panderer who had owned massage parlors and changed his name twice.

"I was trying to get the truth out, so people could hear the other side of things," Pellicano said.

But Rod Lurie, a Los Angeles free-lance writer, vividly recalls what it was like to be the target of Pellicano's brand of damage control. In 1990, Lurie was working on an expose about the National Enquirer's reporting methods. The newspaper hired an old nemesis, Pellicano, to act as its advocate.

In an attempt to kill the story, Lurie alleged, Pellicano tailed him, bad-mouthed him to his sources, dug into his credit record, called him on his unlisted telephone and threatened to sue.

"He told me . . . that he has killed hundreds and hundreds of stories," Lurie said. "For those who don't know better, he's an intimidating character. He's a classic movie goon. But those stories he doesn't kill become much bigger because he becomes a central character in them."

Lurie offered his story as a case in point: It ran in Los Angeles magazine anyway, along with an account of Pellicano's attempts to have it quashed.

Pellicano said that he has killed numerous stories but in Lurie's case did nothing more than run a background check and call the writer to question the premise of his piece. "I wanted him to lay off my clients and act appropriately," Pellicano said.

His detractors have questioned Pellicano's renegade style, most recently his decision to issue on behalf of Columbia Pictures executive Michael Nathanson a public denial of involvement with Fleiss.

The preemptive denial--which even surprised Nathanson's lawyer and later earned a "PR Boner Award" from a Variety columnist--was an attempt to put a stop to widespread gossip about Nathanson even though he had not been publicly accused of wrongdoing. The result was that it put the names of Nathanson and Columbia Pictures into play in the Fleiss affair.

Pellicano's satisfied customers say he is a loyal, resourceful--and generally nonviolent--enforcer of a celebrity's right to privacy and safety. Although he often promises clients that he will make their tormentors "remember why they're afraid of the dark," he describes himself as "an aging black belt" who does not carry a gun.

However, attorney Fields said, Pellicano still can take care of himself. Once, Fields recalled, he sent the detective out to confront an armed man. If the man drew his gun, Pellicano told Fields, he would "drive a pencil through the guy's heart."

"I always wondered," Fields laughed, "if it would be the eraser side first."

Times staff writer David Ferrell in Los Angeles and researcher Tracy Shryer in Chicago contributed to this article.

Profile: Anthony J. Pellicano Jr.

* Born: March 22, 1944.

* Residence: Agoura.

* Education: Dropped out of high school in Illinois at 17. Earned a GED in the Army Signal Corps.

* Career highlights: Started as a debt collector for Spiegel catalogue in Illinois, locating people who had skipped out on their bills. Opened Chicago private detective agency in 1969, moved to Los Angeles in 1983. Clients have included John Z. DeLorean, Kevin Costner, Roseanne Arnold, the National Enquirer and former Beverly Hills madam Elizabeth Adams. Gained attention this summer with his representation of pop idol Michael Jackson and Columbia Pictures executive Michael Nathanson.

* Interests: Electronics and detective novels.

* Family: Five grown children from his first marriage, four small children with his wife Kat.

* Quote: "Anyone who wants to malign my clients, I dig into their pasts. So they gotta take the same heat they dish out."

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