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Fleiss Convicted on 3 Pandering Charges : Courts: Jury deadlocks on two counts and acquits her of drug allegation. She faces up to nearly nine years in prison.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss, who ran a notorious ring of high-priced, short-skirted prostitutes for Los Angeles glitterati, was convicted Friday on pandering charges that carry a prison sentence of up to nearly nine years.

The seven-man, five-woman jury spent four days deliberating in Los Angeles Superior Court before reaching a verdict in the steamy case that titillated the nation and rekindled the age-old debate about whether prostitution should be considered a crime.

After back-and-forth shifts of opinion--and some misgivings after they delivered their verdicts--the jury convicted Fleiss, 28, the daughter of a prominent pediatrician, on three counts of pandering. It deadlocked on the other two counts and found her not guilty on one count of supplying cocaine to an undercover police officer.

Judge Judith L. Champagne set a preliminary hearing on sentencing for Jan. 20, but no firm sentencing date was set.

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Fleiss dropped her head to the table when the second “guilty” verdict rang through the courtroom and sat slumped for a few moments. Then, as the third and final “guilty” was announced, she raised her head and slammed her hand on the table.

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She sat grim-faced through the rest of the court proceedings, sighing at one point, throwing her head back at another. Her father, Paul Fleiss--with whom she faces a federal court trial in January on related charges of money laundering and tax evasion--hung his head in the first row of the courtroom seats.

A grand jury indicted Heidi Fleiss in September, 1993, after a complex, multi-agency sting operation. Her arrest shook Hollywood, which instantly began to buzz with rumors--never publicly verified--that her clientele included entertainment industry figures.

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The key player in the sting operation was Sammy Lee, a Beverly Hills police officer who posed as Hawaiian millionaire Niko Akai to catch Fleiss supplying prostitutes.

Prosecutor Alan Carter said the verdict “demonstrates how wrong people have been about juries. There’s been a lot of jury bashing,” but this case’s panel came to a reasonable verdict, Carter said.

However, the jury forewoman, Sheila Mitrowski, a 48-year-old phone company clerical worker from Bell Gardens, revealed that there had been a struggle to reach unanimous decisions.

When deliberations began Tuesday after a six-day trial, she said, the jury was split evenly on Fleiss’ guilt. Mitrowski said she, along with three other women and two men, initially believed that Fleiss should be acquitted.

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Eventually, she said, jurors decided that they could not entirely accept the reasoning of Fleiss’ attorney Anthony Brooklier, who contended that his client had been entrapped by police.

But Mitrowski was stunned after the verdict was announced when a reporter told her that Fleiss’ conviction carries mandatory prison time--at least three years.

“Oh no, that’s way too much,” she said. “You’ve got kids out on the streets dealing drugs, for crying out loud, and they get probation.”

The possibility that Fleiss’ clients might be unveiled in her trial thrust the high school dropout into the national spotlight, transforming her virtually overnight into a celebrity, fare for tabloids as well as highbrow magazines. One senior Columbia Pictures executive even issued a statement at the time of her arrest denying that his name was in Fleiss’ black book.

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There are several versions of how Fleiss became a madam.

By her own telling, she established herself after working as an assistant for onetime Beverly Hills madam Elizabeth Adams. Fleiss maintained that she was Adams’ assistant, not a “working girl.” But according to a search warrant affidavit, Fleiss was “Elizabeth Adams’ No. 1 ‘girl’ until she broke off . . . to start her own prostitution business.”

However, Adams (known as Madam Alex) has a different account, as does Fleiss’ ex-beau, Hungarian director Ivan Nagy.

Nagy said he told Madam Alex about his new girlfriend, and was shocked when she replied that Fleiss worked for her.

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Fleiss maintained her own business for two years before running afoul of police, according to police surveillance tapes of her phone conversations. It was hardly a clandestine operation. There were wild parties, including a bash for Mick Jagger that trashed Fleiss’ house. There was almost constant club-hopping arm in arm with one celebrity or another.

It was a time of giddy days and gallivanting nights that abruptly ended when the 1993 undercover sting operation at a lavish Beverly Hills hotel suite resulted in Fleiss’ arrest. There, hidden cameras recorded the activities of four women dispatched by Fleiss to entertain four police officers posing as Japanese businessmen celebrating a deal.

To buttress the case, police also had taped the phone conversations between Fleiss and Beverly Hills Detective Lee that led up to the two fateful assignations with prostitutes on two consecutive evenings. In those conversations, Lee explained to Fleiss that he wanted one woman to arrive June 8, and four women the next evening when his colleagues arrived. He also asked Fleiss to provide a small quantity of cocaine for the second evening--a request that she said would be “no problem,” according to tapes.

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The video as well as the audiotapes were played for the jury. The videotape captured the four women accepting $1,500 in $100 dollar bills, discussing which sexual acts they were prepared to perform and engaging in small talk as the officers pretended to speak Japanese. The four women also partially disrobed as they danced, hummed and clapped--a signal that summoned about 20 officers for the arrest.

The tapes proved to be the cornerstone of the case. “There really is no dispute about what the facts are,” prosecutor Carter told the jury in his closing argument.

But the controversy in court centered on how to interpret those tapes. Carter used them to characterize Fleiss as a shrewd businesswoman, eager to peddle her wares. Defense attorney Brooklier and co-counsel Donald Marks painted a completely different picture.

With the same tapes, they sought to portray Fleiss as the victim of overzealous police who entrapped her, inducing her to commit a crime that she would not have done on her own. They also tried to downplay the gravity of pandering, pointing out that prostitution is legal in Nevada and saying that the male customers are not prosecuted equally for their part in such crimes in Los Angeles.

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Brooklier and Carter had squared off on a similar case three years ago, when Brooklier defended Adams on charges that she used her Sunset Strip house to pimp and pander, and tried to enlist an undercover policewoman into the prostitution ring. Adams received probation instead of jail time because police testified that she was an informant. Carter was the prosecutor in that case.

In the months before Fleiss’ trial for pandering, her problems grew. She was arrested in September after drug tests--a term of her probation--indicated that she had used stimulants and depressants. As a result of those tests, she was assigned to a Pasadena-based drug rehabilitation program, where she spent two months. As a condition of her release from the program, she undergoes drug tests five days a week.

In federal court, Fleiss and her father were charged in August with money laundering, bank fraud and conspiracy to hide her income from her prostitution ring. Daughter and father have pleaded not guilty to those charges. That trial, scheduled for January, may well unveil the identities of Fleiss’ clients because many reportedly wrote checks to her from personal accounts.

After the jury convicted Fleiss, prosecutor Carter said that because of her pending federal trial and a past bail violation, she should be remanded immediately into custody or released on bail as high as $500,000.

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Judge Champagne instead set bail at $75,000, which Fleiss posted.

The district attorney’s office has not made a decision on whether to retry Fleiss on the two deadlocked counts, spokeswoman Suzanne Childs said.

The Verdicts

List of verdicts by count announced Friday in the Heidi Fleiss pandering trial:

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1. Procuring for prostitution Samantha Burdette on the night of June 8, 1993. Deadlocked

2. Procuring for prostitution Samantha Burdette on the night of June 9, 1993. Deadlocked

3. Procuring for prostitution Brandi McClain on the night of June 9, 1993. Guilty

4. Procuring for prostitution Kimberly Burch on the night of June 9, 1993. Guilty

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5. Procuring for prostitution Peggy Schinke on the night of June 9, 1993. Guilty

6. Sale or transportation of a controlled substance, cocaine, on the night of June 9, 1993. Not guilty


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