Once, Paul Wasserman was a legendary publicist in Hollywood. The rumpled man everyone knew as "Wasso" handled the media for such musical giants as the Rolling Stones, the Who, U2, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor, and actors such as Jack Nicholson, Lee Marvin and Dennis Hopper. Now, he's in jail.
For nearly 30 years, Wasserman ruled. An old-school strategist who read a dozen newspapers a day, he knew how to defuse the bad press and cultivate the good. While on tour with his bands, he kept journals of their on-the-road antics and mailed them to the nation's top music critics and writers. Once, he stood outside a San Antonio hotel room until 4 a.m. to make sure Mick Jagger didn't miss an important interview.
Wasserman was persuasive and well-connected, and that, perversely, is what got him in trouble. For more than a decade, Wasserman, 66, had been using his connections to the rich and famous to swindle some of his dearest noncelebrity friends. Falsely claiming to be selling shares in investment schemes that he said were backed by clients Nicholson, U2 and Internet powerhouse Yahoo!, Wasserman cajoled friends and acquaintances out of cash, usually in $10,000 and $25,000 chunks. Then, three months ago, his lies took him down.
"I've always liked living on the edge. But I guess I realize I don't have the ability to kill myself, so I'm facing the music," Wasserman said last month in an exclusive interview with The Times at the Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail, his home since August. Looking wan and fragile in his brown jail jumpsuit, the gray-bearded publicist acknowledged swindling more than 20 people, but insisted he repaid a few who badly needed the money.
"I'm benevolent, you know. I'm a good guy. . . . There are two mes. Here, I'm stealing from a friend. Here, I'm a guy that's helping a friend."
Wasserman's descent from first-class hotel suites and private jets to a dank, six-man jail cell is a distinctly Hollywood story about the corrupting power of fame. At its root, it is the tale of a great publicist who resented that he would never shine as brightly as his clients, and who decided to get even.
But Wasso wasn't the only one who was undone by envy and avarice. His scams played on a kind of star-is-born fantasy, clung to by many in Los Angeles, that one's fate can change overnight. Wasserman trafficked in the idea that the right connections could solve life's problems and get you rich quick. And the people he robbed wanted to believe.
"He got to me on the greed factor," admitted Brenda Kershenbaum, who invested $25,000 last year in a sham stock option after Wasserman told her Nicholson had also bought in. "He told me later that he'd figured out that the stock market was just like the movie industry. All you have to do is start a rumor about what's hot. But he messed with the wrong woman."
Last month, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Ronni B. MacLaren accepted Wasserman's guilty plea to one felony count of grand theft. He was sentenced to six months in jail, five years of probation and restitution of nearly $87,000 to be paid to Kershenbaum and two other victims. As for the other people Wasserman admits he duped, most did not file police reports. Many declined to be named for this article, saying they were embarrassed.
"My pain is more emotional than financial--to be taken by somebody who I was so fond of. We used to talk every day. He just put out the carrot and I was willing to bite," said one longtime friend, the husband of one of Dylan's former personal assistants, who was scammed for $40,000 two years ago but did not press charges.
In recent interviews with dozens of Wasserman's business associates and friends, a portrait emerged of an eccentric, lonely man. Fond of making dramatic gestures, he gave thoughtful gifts and liked to pick up the check at dinner. But he also made a habit of stealing silverware from the city's finest restaurants. He represented some of the wealthiest people in entertainment. But instead of defrauding those with really deep pockets, he robbed his friends--seven of whom were interviewed by The Times--of what appears to be hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"You don't ask somebody with $20 million does he want to invest in something," Wasserman explained. "And I guess I wouldn't have gone that far--screwing a client."
Spokesmen for those whose names Wasserman used to lend credibility to his scams reacted with surprise when contacted by The Times. All said they had no knowledge of the supposed investment opportunities Wasserman was peddling, which included Neptune Inc., a nonexistent film production company that he claimed was Nicholson's; a radio-TV network in Ireland that U2 was said to be backing; and stock options in Yahoo! that Wasserman said he was authorized to sell.
Nicholson declined to comment. A spokeswoman for Principle Management, which manages U2, said, "He was a terrific publicist and we are distressed by the situation."
Diane Hunt, vice president of corporate communications for Yahoo!, said Yahoo! employed Wasserman on a project-by-project basis beginning in 1996 and ending when the company first learned of the scams, in 1999.
Throughout the music and movie industries on both coasts, meanwhile, news that the legendary Wasso was in Los Angeles' Central Jail prompted sadness and confusion. Here was a man who had lived in the shadow of celebrity and wealth for decades, using his mastery of spin both to shield his clients from their foibles and to burnish their reputations. That he had used those same skills to steal money was hard for many to imagine.
"Paul Wasserman has been only honest and upright with me and a friend for over 40 years. I know nothing about these allegations," said actor Dennis Hopper.
"It's so strange to hear those two words together--Wasso and felon," said marketing executive Larry Solters, who represents the Eagles and companies like Ticketmaster. Solters said that when Wasserman was on top of his game, no one could touch him. "Wasso, in terms of rock 'n' roll, was the guy that really built the image. He wasn't a Sammy Glick or a Hollywood smarmy guy with an open shirt and a gold chain. His groups weren't faddish or flashes in the pan, changing their image every six months. They were legends and very image-conscious without looking like they were. And Paul was responsible for that."
Kathy Nelson, who as the newly named president of film music for Universal Studios is one of Hollywood's top music executives, also remembered Wasserman fondly.
"When I heard, I said, 'It's got to be a mistake. It can't be true,' " said Nelson, who worked as Wasserman's secretary when she was just starting out. "He was like a rock star, you know? Incredibly loved. He was an oddball with a sarcastic sense of humor--a dark moody character. But he was not a bad man. I have to believe that if Paul ever did something like that, it was out of desperation--not to hurt somebody else, but to save himself."
Sitting in a jailhouse interview room, Wasserman tried to explain.
"First, let me say I am an alcoholic," he said, his 6-foot-3-inch frame slumped into a plastic chair. "I've been sober 15 years. I'll begin my 16th year Jan. 1. And this so applies to everything. One drink won't do it and 100 drinks is not enough. Everything in my life is not enough."
He paused. "I wasn't as important as I thought I should be," he said. "In the back of my mind, I was going to be famous, whatever that means. I'm this 'legendary' person with this great reputation--so where am I? Where's my $20-million deal?"
In adulthood, Wasserman may have hung out with the hippest crowd, but as a kid growing up in Venice, he was anything but cool. The son of European immigrants--a garment designer and a housewife--Wasserman said his working-class family had no money for toys but bought him sensible things like orthopedic shoes. From childhood, he said, he longed for nice things "to fill the void."
Wasserman's one sibling, a mentally retarded older brother named George, was "hyper--talking all the time. I never knew how to handle it, so I withdrew," he said. Wasserman's weight only magnified his feelings of awkwardness. He topped 180 pounds in fifth grade, and kids called him "Blimpie."
He graduated from Fairfax High School and headed to USC. He completed four quarters at Stanford Law School in 1958 but chose a career in journalism instead. He'd always loved movies, and while working for United Press International, he wrote a story about Bob Hope. Wasserman thought he'd been tough on the actor until he got a call from Hope's publicist offering him a job.
"Again, because of my grandiose feelings, I thought I'd work for him for a year or two and then become a famous Hollywood producer," Wasserman said. Instead, he was hired away by Jim Mahoney, whose fledgling publicity firm represented Peter Lawford, Steve McQueen and Debbie Reynolds.
Mahoney assigned Wasserman to help with his biggest accounts: Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams, the Beach Boys and the Beatles' record label, Apple Records. Wasserman had a knack for working with musicians. When Janis Joplin, the Who and an unknown act called the Jimi Hendrix Experience played the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967, kicking off what would become known as the Summer of Love, Wasserman attended with several clients.
It was a time of sexual and chemical experimentation, but Wasserman was still fairly naive. Friends remember he had a favorite story about walking past Joplin's dressing room in Monterey and seeing her injecting something into her arm. At the time, he told friends, he assumed she was a diabetic, never suspecting the heroin addiction that would later kill her.
By the late '60s, Wasserman had so distinguished himself that Mahoney made him a financial partner and renamed the company Mahoney/Wasserman Public Relations. "He was a very talented young guy, and it just got to the point where I thought it would only enhance the company to put him in that position," said Mahoney. "And it did. Soon, we had the music world all wrapped up."
Paul Simon. Carly Simon. Robbie Robertson of the Band. Clients kept coming. And in a business where stars often changed publicists as often as hairstyles, Wasserman inspired an unusual degree of loyalty, Mahoney said.
"The bottom line is he was honest. He was honest with the press, his clients and himself," Mahoney said. "The people we took on, we believed in and we sold them as best we could. And he was as good as anyone at selling. There's no question about it: He was the best there was."
Times rock critic Robert Hilburn once flew to San Antonio to interview Mick Jagger, for example, only to find that the mercurial lead singer of the Rolling Stones wasn't in the mood to talk. But Wasserman wouldn't take no for an answer, positioning Hilburn outside Jagger's hotel room and waiting with him for several hours. When the door opened at 4 a.m., Wasserman did something many publicists would be afraid to do: He pushed Hilburn inside.
"No one else would have had the nerve to do that with a client," said Hilburn, who ended up interviewing an exhausted Jagger as he lay in bed. "But it was typical of Paul. He wasn't intimidated by any of his acts."
Indeed, Wasserman--irascible and always ready with a joke--was friends with his clients. He was godfather, for example, to Joan Collins' daughter Katyana. But while many of his rock 'n' roll clients were deep into drugs, at first he didn't join in. A longtime alcoholic, he said, he had tried drugs and found them boring. But he can name the exact date that changed: April 15, 1972.
Barbra Streisand and two of Wasserman's clients, Carole King and James Taylor, were singing that night at the Inglewood Forum to raise money for Sen. George McGovern's presidential bid. Wasserman had worked hard on the event, which was produced by Nicholson, Warren Beatty and record producer Lou Adler, and at a celebration afterward, a woman approached him and told him he needed to relax.
"She said, 'Wasso, you make people nervous. You're so uptight.' She took out some cocaine. I said, 'I've tried it. It doesn't work,' " he recalled. But this time, it did work: They stayed up partying for 28 hours. "And because of my addictive personality, I find something and I want more and more. By the end of my first week, I was doing 3 grams a day."
His new habit, freebasing cocaine, was expensive. But it made him feel more gregarious, he said, and he lost 50 pounds in six months. Life was heady in those days. While on tour with Dylan in the late '70s in Washington, D.C., Wasserman visited a journalist he knew who had become a speech writer for President Jimmy Carter at the White House.
"He said, 'Do you want to go up to the Oval Office?' They had a private elevator. We went up, and Carter and some staffers came in. They were going to a press conference," Wasserman recalled, repeating a story that he'd told friends for years. "Carter said, 'Do you want to come with us, or would you like to just hang out here?' I said, 'I'll just hang out here.' "
The president left, Wasserman said, and he was left alone with one other person (not the speech writer) whom he will not name. He whipped out his stash, laid a few lines of cocaine down on the commander in chief's desk and snorted them, just for the kick of it.
To be sure, all this hard living made the workaholic Wasserman a little flakier. Mahoney remembers taking his partner to meetings during this period, "and I'd look over at him and he was asleep, totally not paying attention. It aggravated me, and I spoke to him about it at the time. But as crazy as it sounds, I don't think it cost us any business."
Still, the kicks were not to last.
In December 1981, Wasserman was on tour with the Stones in New Orleans. He'd been on a two-week, sleepless drug binge when he developed a bleeding ulcer, and lost so much blood he slipped into a coma and nearly died.
Mahoney was in Las Vegas when he heard, and he immediately caught a plane. When he arrived in Louisiana, three people were keeping a vigil in the hallway outside the intensive care ward: bassist Bill Wyman's longtime girlfriend, Astrid Lundstrom; Adler, the record producer; and Nicholson.
The publicist, then 47 years old, was in a coma for a month and spent four months in rehab at Los Angeles' Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Having suffered a stroke, he needed help walking. But three months into treatment, he said, "I was scoring drugs--in a walker!"
For about a year, Mahoney recalls, Wasserman "didn't do much." And he had significant expenses. Cocaine cost him thousands each month, and he was supporting his brother, who was institutionalized, and his mother. At one point, short of cash, he sold his partnership interest in the firm back to Mahoney. Though Wasserman disputes this, a source close to the firm says his price was $20,000--a pittance for such a thriving business.
Wasserman had never been good with money. Unlike managers and agents, who get a cut of their clients' income, publicists are paid by the month or by the job, and Wasserman was rarely diligent about collecting what he was worth. He had no investments. He never bought a house, living instead in an apartment in Park La Brea. He leased a car. But he spent every penny he had, eating every meal out, buying tchotchkes, Mexican artwork, clothes. "There was never enough," he said. "I'd go buy three sweaters and never wear them. Just spending money made me happy."
In 1984, after going on the road with Michael Jackson on the Jacksons' reunion tour, Wasserman began "auditing" Alcoholics Anonymous. On Jan. 1, 1985, he says he went straight for good. Early on, a well-known entertainment attorney he knew came up and welcomed him to a meeting.
"He was so glad to see me because, he said, 'you were by far the most bizarre and erratic person I'd ever known.' And when he said that, I took it as a compliment," Wasserman recalled. "It gave me some sort of personality. I wasn't this drudgy nerd that I had pictured myself as. I was bizarre."
Staying straight was a struggle. But once he committed to it, he was what one friend described as an AA addict. He sometimes attended several meetings a day and quickly became known within the AA community as an inspirational speaker. Soon, he offered to host a regular AA panel at the Weingart Center in downtown's skid row. He would lead the group for the next 14 years.
"Whatever I do, I do to excess--the few good things and the bad things," said Wasserman. "I don't know any way to do it other than all the way."
Two things happened in 1987 that hastened the unraveling of Paul Wasserman. First, his older brother--whom Wasserman felt he'd only begun to know after he joined AA--died of colon cancer. Then, the Los Angeles Times Magazine published "An Insider's Guide to the Royal Court," a list of the city's movers and shakers in the world of rock 'n' roll. Wasserman, who had landed U2 on the cover of Time earlier that year, was on the list. It made him sad.
"I think maybe the L.A. Times was to blame," Wasserman said wryly when asked what made him start swindling his friends. "The Sunday magazine referred to me as legendary. And that depressed me. Sure, I'm 'the best in the business.' But I don't have a million dollars. I'm unsuccessful."
The urge to get even first struck in the late '80s, when Wasserman was out to dinner with a woman with whom he'd been fixed up. "She had just sued somebody and gotten $400,000. I told her, 'I know how you can make some easy money,' " he recalled. And then he told her about Neptune Inc.
It was an investment opportunity, Wasserman lied, that Nicholson (who actually was born in Neptune, N.J.) had created for his closest friends. You bought shares in Nicholson's success for the coming year. But if Nicholson had a bad year, your stake rolled over into the next. It was a no-lose gambit, Wasserman said, and as Nicholson's publicist, he had the juice to get her in.
The woman bought in, though Wasserman doesn't recall for how much. Eventually, he paid her back, he says. But to do so, he had to scam someone else. Wasserman had begun to build the pyramid that would eventually topple him.
He'd been at Mahoney/Wasserman Public Relations for 27 years when, in late 1989, he suddenly resigned his position as vice chairman. "He just wrote me a memo one day and said, 'I've had it. I want to do my own thing,' " said Mahoney.
A month later, he joined the advertising agency D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, heading up a new entertainment publicity division. The idea was to offer his PR acumen to DMB&B;'s entertainment clients, which included NBC. And Wasserman brought several longtime clients with him, including Keith Richards, Nicholson, Ronstadt, Taylor and U2.
Wasserman was busy but still made time for what he refers to now as his "little deals." In 1991, when his accountant died and Wasserman discovered he owed taxes for the previous three years, he looked for another victim. When a friend told him he'd just lost his job, Wasserman commiserated and said he had an investment opportunity that might help the friend out: Nicholson's Neptune Inc.
"Wasso claimed he had made as much as $80,000 from [1989's] 'Batman' and as much as $250,000 over the years. He touted it as a special inside thing. You couldn't lose," recalled this man, a lawyer, who asked that his name not be used. "It rang true. Nicholson has this reputation for helping people he was with early on who didn't do as well as he has. So I invested $25,000."
In fact, Wasserman had benefited very little from the enormous success of "Batman," in which Nicholson played the Joker. According to someone who knows Wasserman well, "That movie was a huge payday for Nicholson. But because of the way publicity is structured, managers and agents may have gotten a percentage, but Paul got the same [expletive] fee."
Wasserman signed a few new clients at DMB&B;, including Jon Bon Jovi, Depeche Mode and INXS. He worked on the reunion of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. But in 1992, DMB&B; decided the publicity division wasn't paying its own freight.
Wasserman and his assistant, Brian O'Neal, moved into an office in the same building as DMB&B;, 6500 Wilshire Blvd. at San Vicente, and set up the Wasserman Group Inc. Wasserman had branched out into home video publicity, working for Columbia TriStar and Fox Video.
But he also kept scamming people, swearing each of his marks to secrecy. "Don't even tell Brian," he would warn, adding that if others found out about the insider deal, they would want in too.
Around this time, Wasserman took $25,000 from Maxine Dewhurst, a woman he'd known through the Who. Dewhurst was an intimate friend--he had introduced her to her husband and was the godfather to her son. Nevertheless, he sold her on the Neptune scam. Now, it wasn't just cash shortages that drove Wasserman to steal, he said. Now, the condition that would lead him to seduce another victim was simple: "If I thought the person was screwable."
But while he recalls always feeling relief when a con was successful, he also felt "half-guilty." In November 1993, he sat down at the rickety manual typewriter on which he typed his famous pitch letters and wrote a confession that doubled as a suicide note.
"Neptune Investment never existed. I made the whole thing up," he wrote to Dewhurst. "How could I do it to you after our nearly two-decades-long friendship? Painting the best picture . . . I'd like to think I did it because I'm nuts (morally if not medically). . . . I was hoping that I could pull off some major coup and pay you the bucks that you (and others) are expecting. But there's nothing; so I'm checking out."
But if he did try to kill himself, the attempt failed. In April 1994, Dewhurst received a second letter that explained he'd taken poison but survived. "I'm too inept to even do that right," he wrote. He reiterated that Neptune "was a figment of my criminal imagination. . . . In the back of my mind--then--was the idea . . . the fantasy . . . that I would eventually make a big killing (no pun intended) and would pay you (and others) back in spades."
Wasserman eventually got the money to pay Dewhurst back from Richards, the Stones' guitarist, who thought he was helping Wasserman pay his tax debt. Dewhurst confirms that she got her money back, though like some other Wasserman friends, she remains protective of him and was reluctant to be interviewed.
"The only way you can use my name is if you say he paid me back," Dewhurst said. "I obviously was the first round. I couldn't imagine him doing it to anybody else."
But he did, though this time he used a new ploy. Susan Anderson was an art dealer and close friend who he knew was usually short of money. Nevertheless, in 1995 he convinced her to invest $10,000 in a U2 venture that he said was guaranteed to double her money in four years. U2 was opening a radio-TV network in Ireland and letting friends of the band buy in, Wasserman lied.
Around this time, Wasserman took the former personal assistant to Dylan and her husband for $10,000 on the same U2 deal. "He said that being the guilty rich rockers they were, they were trying to get their friends to buy in, and they would guarantee they'd make money," the husband recalls of the way Wasserman hooked him. "He was very smart, because these things do exist. There's enough of a possibility for the average greedy person to go for it."
As the number of scams and victims grew, the more complicated it became for Wasserman to manage them all. When one Neptune investor, having waited five years without a penny of return, got antsy, Wasserman urged patience: "I didn't realize that you had nothing on paper that your investment for $25,000 in HOFFA/MAN TROUBLE rolled over to A FEW GOOD MEN. As you know, AFGM made money. How much is the issue to be agreed on. But whatever that amount is . . . interest (going rate at the time it began) will be tacked on to the amount."
Then, in 1996, Wasserman snagged the client that would be his undoing: Yahoo! Inc. Though he still hunted and pecked on his manual typewriter, Wasserman saw potential in the communications revolution. A woman he'd known at Fox Video had become a multimillionaire by getting in on the ground floor at Yahoo! Now he was connected with them too, and not a moment too soon: As he put his elderly mother into a private nursing home that year, Wasserman knew he needed more cash.
It was time to invent his final scam: Imaginary Yahoo! stock options. The deal worked much like the other two: Wasserman claimed to have access, through his business relationship with Yahoo!, to stock at a fixed price. He typed up contracts guaranteeing the purchases, and numerous friends bought in. The former personal assistant to Dylan and her husband put in $30,000. Another victim, a local club owner named Sidney Schwartz, invested a total of $50,000 in 1997 and 1998, thinking he was paying from $11 to $20 a share.
"He'd tried to get me on the Nicholson deal. I took a pass on that one. But he got me on the greatest one of all time: Yahoo!" Schwartz, a friend for 25 years, would say later. "He might have gotten away with it, if it wasn't a stock that kept on going up and up."
On May 18, 1998, Wasserman's mother died. Things were about to go from bad to worse. Yahoo! stock had gone from $44 a share to $116 a share in less than a year. Schwartz was watching, and in September 1998, he amended his written agreement with Wasserman to assure he'd be paid $92 per share on April 15, 1999.
Wasserman had bought himself a little time with Schwartz. But Anderson, the art dealer, was hounding Wasserman for the U2 money she'd given in 1995, and one of the original Neptune investors--who had been strung along with excuses about how Nicholson's profits had been held back by the movie studios--was nagging Wasserman as well.
Wasserman needed another victim, and he chose Kershenbaum. A transplant from Michigan, Kershenbaum spent her days managing her investment portfolio. He'd met her through Anderson, and once he learned she had money, he wouldn't leave her alone. He faxed and called daily, she recalls, trying to get her to invest $100,000 in Yahoo! stock. When she balked and said she already had Yahoo! in her portfolio, he offered shares of Softbank, which owns more than 21% of Yahoo! stock and is a partner in Yahoo! Japan.
Meanwhile, he sent Kershenbaum funny gifts, befriended her boyfriend (offering help with a screenplay he was writing) and even began advising her son about a business venture. In March 1999, he faxed Kershenbaum on stationery from U2's 1997 PopMart tour. The memo was headlined, "offer-u-can't-turn-down."
"So eye am getting angry at u," he wrote. "You say u have to review my offer and figure out how to get the quotes. Why--eye ask? . . . Brenda--don't review it. Brenda--don't lose sleep over it. We're not negotiating an unfriendly 3-billion-dollar take-over. Brenda--jump in the water naked. Gamble as well as gambol. Do it!!! Damn it!!!"
Kershenbaum drew up a contract and had it approved by a lawyer. But neither she nor her lawyer asked to see proof that Wasserman had access to the stock he claimed to be selling. She gave Wasserman $25,000. But she, unlike almost all his previous victims, insisted on a short turnaround. Her shares were due on Aug. 1, 1999.
In April 1999, Wasserman attempted to set one relationship right. He met Anderson, his art dealer friend, at the Beverly Hills restaurant Kate Mantilini and gave her a check for $20,000--making good on his promise to double her money. At the end of dinner, she remained unaware that the U2 deal had been a scam. She also had no idea Wasserman had taken money from her friend Kershenbaum.
"Susan made money," Wasserman explained. "I wanted to help her because she was poor. I tried to pay back people who really needed the money."
But now, the pyramid was crumbling. In April, when Schwartz's money was due, Yahoo! stock was trading at $195 a share. Wasserman's "investors" were getting impatient. Schwartz filed a police report in June 1999 after Wasserman failed to pay up. Kershenbaum told her friend Anderson that she believed she'd been duped. Horrified, Anderson confronted Wasserman.
"He said, 'Well, Susan, you wouldn't have gotten your money, would you, if I hadn't gotten it from Brenda? How dare you accuse me?' And he hung up," Anderson recalled.
Meanwhile, the Neptune investor and lawyer whom Wasserman had duped way back in 1991 was getting more insistent. In July 1999, after this man demanded repayment, Wasserman again threatened to do himself in.
"I'm checking out," he typed in a letter to his assistant, O'Neal. In the note, headlined "Swan Song," Wasserman said he was killing himself because friends were upset "about the money I owed them in the long ago Nicholdon [sic] fraud. . . . I'm sorry to [do] this to you and to myself! But it's all over."
But again, Wasserman didn't kill himself. Instead, he disappeared for a few days. When he returned, his trusted assistant--appalled by Wasserman's admissions of fraud--told him he was quitting.
Kershenbaum filed a police report in August 1999. Then, she began looking for other victims. Wasserman's ex-assistant gave her Schwartz's name, but she had no phone number. So, in an ironic twist, she plugged his name into Yahoo!'s People Search feature, got a fax number and faxed him. The victims, so long sworn to secrecy, were about to unite.
Schwartz and Kershenbaum joined with one of the Neptune investors and, as the months passed and Wasserman was not arrested, they started pestering the police.
"This Wasserman has been of great harm to people's private lives," Schwartz wrote in a letter to the LAPD in December 1999. "This man is continuing in his fraudulent ways with impunity. The people that have filed charges want to see this man charged!"
Two months later, the Neptune victim wrote the same LAPD sergeant: "We're madder than hell at being blown off and aren't going to take it anymore. The three of us--none of whom knew of the others' existence before this fraud broke--are united in our resolve to see justice done."
They also wanted their money. A person close to one of the victims offered to sell the story to the National Enquirer, but the magazine didn't bite. Schwartz, meanwhile, sued Wasserman in civil court, and on July 17 of this year, he won a civil judgment of $938,808.
Through all of this, Wasserman could be found each morning drinking coffee at his favorite spot, the Farmers Market on Fairfax and 3rd, reading his usual stack of newspapers.
But his was a surreal, sometimes dreadful existence. Wasserman, who had stopped paying his rent, kept in touch with some of the people he'd defrauded, calling and faxing them. When Kershenbaum went into the hospital for minor surgery, Wasserman sent a get-well card and signed it "El Ladron," Spanish for the Thief.
On June 28, in what friends believe was another suicide attempt, Wasserman crashed his car on Mulholland Drive, dislocating his shoulder and suffering other injuries that have left him unable to stand without the support of a walker. After his release from the hospital, he checked himself into the Wilshire Palms, a board-and-care home for the elderly on Crenshaw Boulevard. He had no one left to care for him.
On Aug. 28, police arrested Wasserman. The Hollywood Reporter printed a small item, and that article prompted two new victims to come forward: Mark and Stephanie Reif, who had given Wasserman $10,000. They'd fallen for the Yahoo! scam, Wasserman said later, and the U2 swindle before that (though that time, he says, he paid them back).
Today, living in the hospital module of the men's jail with five other inmates, he says he's glad the cycle of deception is over.
"My bed is too small here and I fall out of it, but I'm sort of glad I'm away from everything. It's a relief to have the whole thing done. It was very complicated," he said. "But there's also: What happens now?"
At his sentencing Nov. 13, Wasserman stood before Judge MacLaren with the aid of a walker. Other than a lawyer, an acquaintance who took his case pro bono, he had not a single friend in the courtroom. From the bench, MacLaren vowed to personally monitor his restitution to Kershenbaum, Schwartz and the Reifs. With time served, he will be out of jail in January.
But Wasserman has no home to return to. On Sept. 18, as he sat in jail, Park La Brea evicted him from the cluttered townhouse he'd occupied for 16 years. A friend grabbed just a few clothes before Wasserman's belongings, including cherished collections of Mexican paintings and movie memorabilia, were thrown in the trash.
His friends are baffled. His clients, not one of whom has visited him in jail, are gone.
"I'll have to start all over again at this ripe old age. I hope I can find a job that's interesting. I'm looking, if anybody's interested," he said. "A few journalists have egged me on [over the years] to write a book. But I never really pursued it. What am I going to do? Tell interesting stories about clients? That doesn't seem right."
He paused, adding in a voice as dry as a martini, "You see how moral I am?"