Simpson Private Eye Is No Stranger to Big-Name Cases : Investigation: John McNally aided in Patty Hearst defense. He is highly regarded, sometimes controversial.


By the time John E. McNally retired from the New York Police Department in 1971, he had 16 years under his belt and quite a name for himself: It was McNally who collared Jack (Murph the Surf) Murphy, a jewel thief who made off with the Star of India sapphire from New York’s Museum of Natural History.

McNally captured Murphy and his cohorts in 1964 after tracking them across the country and eventually nabbing them in Miami, a case that “made him in the department,” according to a former NYPD colleague.

A decade later, McNally was back in the news, this time as a private investigator working for F. Lee Bailey on the defense of Patty Hearst. Then in the 1980s, McNally worked for Claus von Bulow, the multimillionaire acquitted of attempting to kill his heiress wife.


Now, 30 years after Murph the Surf, McNally is back, plying his low-key, much-admired skills in the service of O.J. Simpson, the most famous man in America ever to be charged with murder.

Simpson attorney Leroy (Skip) Taft, who has advised the ex-athlete for 25 years, announced Wednesday that McNally was hired “to head up a full investigation of the case in an attempt to find the real killer or killers in this case.”

The Simpson case represents the latest of McNally’s many collaborations with Bailey, and it places the renowned private eye at the head of a scrappy crew of Simpson-hired investigators and consultants, all of them entrusted with the job of clearing the former athlete of charges that he killed his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Lyle Goldman.

Those who have worked with McNally say Simpson is in capable hands. The burly, broad-shouldered, 60-year-old former cop is soft-spoken, meticulous and, when he has to be, unyielding, say those who know him.

“John McNally is without doubt one of the finest investigators in the United States today,” said J. Albert Johnson, a Boston criminal defense attorney with long ties to McNally and Bailey. “He’s the best.”

But McNally’s talents, hailed by Taft and others in the Simpson camp, have not always won him fans in the law enforcement community where he once served.


In 1989, federal prosecutors accused McNally and another investigator, John Conroy, of being part of the “security department” of Gene Gotti, the younger brother of notorious mobster John Gotti.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Robert LaRusso said at the opening of Gene Gotti’s 1989 drug trafficking trial that McNally asked Conroy, who was also a former New York police officer, to ensure that no electronic devices were being used by the FBI to eavesdrop on one of Gotti’s partners.

“This drug cartel takes care and concerns to be sure they are not overheard,” the prosecutor said.

Two years later, when McNally was seeking to be appointed by a federal court as an investigator in a criminal case, prosecutors objected, alleging that McNally had assisted mob figures in screening potential employees.

“McNally thus served as a resource for determining the corruptness of potential conspirators,” Assistant U.S. Atty. David W. Shapiro said in a 1991 letter to U.S. District Judge Reena Raggi.

Objecting, McNally wrote his own letter to the judge, saying he had done nothing more than recommend an associate for a “debugging assignment, something we and anyone familiar with the laws of this country know is not illegal.”


McNally added: “At the mention of my name the government develops acute paranoia.”

Although McNally has only been on the Simpson case for a day or two, he is being scrutinized by California officials. McNally is not licensed to work as a private investigator in California, meaning that he cannot legally interview potential witnesses or perform other investigative functions. He can, however, analyze information and advise Simpson’s legal team on its significance.

As long as he confines himself to those responsibilities, he can work as he pleases, said an official from the California Bureau of Security and Investigative Services. But if McNally undertakes more traditional investigative tasks, he could risk sanctions.

Lawyers and other investigators say that no matter what role McNally performs for the defense, he can be expected to pursue it with characteristic diligence and precise attention to detail--as well as with a willingness to court controversy.

“John will operate right on the edge,” said McNally’s former colleague from the New York Police Department.

As he assumes investigative responsibility for Simpson’s defense, McNally will be assisted by a team of consultants.

Former LAPD Officer Zvonko (Bill) Pavelic, himself a controversial figure in police circles, partly for his outspoken criticism of the department where he worked for 19 years, is acting as a consultant. Florida private investigator Pat McKenna, a nationally known investigator who worked for William Kennedy Smith, has emerged as a key player in the Simpson investigative camp.


McKenna and McNally have worked together on many cases and are close friends, associates said.

“It sounds to me like they have the genuine varsity in place,” said one local investigator. “These guys are very good.”

Under McNally’s direction, Simpson’s investigators face the monumental task of conducting a full-scale investigation in as little as two months, when the case could come to trial.

They are aided by a newly created hot line that callers can use to forward information in return for the promise of a $500,000 reward. That hot line only went into operation Wednesday afternoon, and despite some technical problems early Thursday, it produced a deluge of tips in the first 24 hours, said Pavelic, calling it an enormous task just to sift through leads and determine which ones seem worth pursuing and which should be ignored.

“John is up to it,” said attorney Johnson, who shared a room off and on with McNally for three years as they helped develop a defense in the Hearst case. “He comes up with incredibly detailed investigative reports, and his ability to draw conclusions and make judgments about witnesses is uncanny. They have the right guy.”

Times staff writer John Goldman contributed to this report.