Dead or Alive?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ron Levin is dead. Or maybe he's not.

Joe Hunt helped kill him and then buried the body in the Angeles National Forest.

Or maybe he didn't and, like Elvis, Levin keeps turning up: at a funeral, driving a car through Brentwood, even relaxing in a taverna on a trendy Greek island.

Levin's body has never been found.

And therein lies the riddle that has dominated a reprise of the Billionaire Boys Club saga--the drama that riveted Los Angeles in the 1980s and played out again over recent months at the Criminal Courts Building.

Is Levin really dead? Or has Levin, a skilled con artist, staged his own disappearance and pulled the ultimate con?

Hunt, the charismatic leader of the club and himself a man who's been described as a con of some renown, was convicted nine years ago of murder. Since March, he and his lawyers have been back in court, arguing that he deserves a new trial, mostly on grounds that Levin is alive and well.

At the hearing, which wrapped up Monday before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge J. Stephen Czuleger, five witnesses said they'd seen Levin alive after he disappeared June 6, 1984.

"It goes without saying that a murder does not occur if no one is killed," defense attorneys Michael M. Crain and Rowan K. Klein said in a legal brief filed on Hunt's behalf.

Prosecutors countered that Levin is dead, that Hunt killed him, that a jury said so--and that anyone claiming to have seen Levin is mistaken. Considering all the publicity the Billionaire Boys Club generated, including several books and a made-for-TV movie, prosecutors suggested that it seems incredible there haven't been more "sightings" as well as more recent ones--if, in fact, Levin still is running around in public.

"Not one of the sightings has produced a shred of credible evidence of the corporeal evidence of a live Levin," Deputy Dist. Attys. Andrew J. McMullen and Imogene M.N. Katayama said in their legal papers.

In court this week, both sides struggled to come to grips with this latest twist in a tale of greed and betrayal that long ago became legendary as one of the most complicated and bizarre in the history of California jurisprudence.

In 1983, when he was 23, Hunt formed the Billionaire Boys Club, an investment and social fraternity, with other young men he recruited from prominent Los Angeles families.

Members drove high-performance cars. They wore designer suits. They frequented Los Angeles' trendiest nightclubs. They personified the me-first greed that came to symbolize the '80s.

By 1984, however, the group's business ventures were foundering--and its get-rich-quick schemes, according to prosecutors--turned murderous.

Prosecutors argued that Levin, then 42, duped Hunt in a high-stakes commodities swindle.

Levin supposedly had agreed to place $5 million in a brokerage house account and let Hunt trade it. They would split the profits.

Levin, however, had told the brokerage company that he was doing a TV documentary about commodities trading and that none of Hunt's buy or sell orders should be executed. Hunt was not to be let in on the secret--that way, he would think he was making "real" decisions.

Hunt apparently made the right moves. He turned the supposed $5 million into $13 million and then asked for his share of the profits--$4 million.

Only then was he told it had all been a game.

On the night of June 6, 1984, Hunt and his bodyguard, Jim Pittman, met Levin at the latter's Beverly Hills duplex.

According to prosecutors, Pittman pulled a gun on Levin, and Hunt made Levin sign a check for $1.5 million.

Then, prosecutors said, they took Levin into the bedroom, put him face down on his bed and, with a .25-caliber pistol equipped with a silencer, Pittman shot Levin in the back of the head.

Hunt and Pittman took the body to Soledad Canyon and dumped it in a pit, prosecutors said. There, they said, the men blasted it to pieces with a shotgun so it could not be recognized.

The $1.5-million check bounced.

And Hunt was arrested after confiding in several club members, who later said he told them it was the "perfect crime."

*

At the trial, perhaps the key piece of evidence against Hunt was a seven-page list of items the prosecution called "a recipe for murder."

Under the heading, "At Levin's To Do," were notes in Hunt's handwriting that included: "close blinds," "scan for tape recorder," "tape mouth," "handcuff," "put gloves on" and "kill dog."

In April 1987, Hunt was convicted in Santa Monica Superior Court of murder. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Pittman was tried twice for murder; both times the jury deadlocked. In 1987, he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge--being an accessory to murder after the fact--and was sentenced to three years and six months, time he already had served.

In May 1993, Pittman told a TV crew from "A Current Affair" that he was indeed the triggerman. Because of double jeopardy, he boasted, he could not be tried again for murder.

Hunt, meanwhile, was accused of murder in a separate case, the kidnapping and killing of Hedayat Eslaminia, 56. The wealthy Iranian businessman suffocated in a trunk in what prosecutors alleged was an extortion plot to salvage the Billionaire Boys Club's fortunes.

In 1988, two other club members--Eslaminia's son, Reza, and Arben [Ben] Dosti--were convicted of murder in that case and sentenced to life in prison. But in 1992, a San Mateo County jury deadlocked, 8-4, for Hunt's acquittal; prosecutors dismissed charges.

In November 1993, the 2nd District Court of Appeal affirmed Hunt's conviction in the Levin case. "Evidence of guilt was overwhelming," it concluded in a 188-page opinion.

Undeterred, defense attorneys sought another chance.

Levin, they argued, had ample motive to disappear: He was facing criminal prosecution for theft and a host of other legal problems.

He'd asked a lawyer friend whether a United States citizen could be extradited from Brazil.

In addition, they said, he was a "brazen liar" who relished the thrill of a con. Once, they said, he posed as a doctor, walked into UCLA Medical Center in medical garb and dissected a body.

And, to top it off, defense attorneys reported that they had evidence that Levin was in fact alive--the five people who said they'd seen him.

The appeals court ordered a hearing. It began before Czuleger in March. The first witnesses took the stand in April.

*

Hunt, once tanned and cocky, is now so pale from years in prison that his skin is translucent and has a greenish tint. Flecks of gray have appeared in his hair. Wearing a blue-and-white County Jail jumpsuit and handcuffs chained around his waist, he took copious notes throughout the hearing--as has been his style in court.

The first witness, 64-year-old Connie Gerard, said she saw Levin in a "hole-in-the-wall, tiny" restaurant on the Greek island of Mykonos on Christmas Day 1987.

She testified that she knew Levin well enough to recognize him, saying she once had visited at his duplex and he once had spent about an hour at her house.

When the man in the restaurant saw her, she testified, his face "got kind of whitish-looking." He left immediately. "I know that I saw Ron Levin," she said.

Her husband, George "Jerry" Gerard, corroborated her account.

Following them to the stand were:

* Nadia Ghaleb, the maitre d' at a Beverly Hills restaurant Levin frequented, who said she saw him getting into a car on San Vicente Boulevard in Brentwood in 1987. Upon seeing him, she testified, she thought: "Oh, my God, there's Ron Levin."

* Robbie Robinson, a former police reporter for City News Service, who said he saw Levin in October 1986, while waiting in line at a Westwood movie theater to see "Crocodile Dundee."

* Ivan Werner, a funeral home director, who testified that he saw Levin among the mourners at a funeral in Westwood in 1985. About two years later, he said, he saw Levin's picture in the newspaper; the mourner, he said, was the same man.

Prosecutors countered that Hunt or his lawyers had known about the Ghaleb, Robinson and Werner "sightings" as the Santa Monica trial was drawing to an end--meaning it was not new evidence and ought to be disregarded.

The hearing Monday also touched, if only briefly, on the fact that the Gerards have a connection to Hunt. Jerry Gerard, a contractor, built a pool for the father of Hunt's former girlfriend. The girlfriend's father bailed Hunt out of jail early in the Levin case and then let Hunt live in his house until the jury came back with its verdict.

Czuleger said from the bench that he was "concerned" with that connection, suggesting it cast doubt on Connie Gerard's motive for testifying on Hunt's behalf. Even so, he said, she was the "best witness" for the defense.

The judge said that if she had seen Levin, then Hunt would be entitled to a new trial--a point even prosecutors conceded.

But, the judge asked, what if she believes she saw him--and it can't be proved that it really was him? Is that enough to overcome what he called the "overwhelming evidence" of Hunt's guilt?

"How much is necessary?" Czuleger asked.

"A lot," prosecutor McMullen said, enough to "shake your confidence in the verdict." And one witness, he said, was not enough.

Defense attorney Crain responded that California's prisons are full of inmates convicted on the strength of one witness' testimony. He insisted that Connie Gerard is believable, and said: "It's a tremendous stretch and tremendous strain to find something sinister here."

Czuleger intends to issue a written opinion. It may be out as soon as today.

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