Anthony “the Pelican” Pellicano long ago became a successful Hollywood private investigator by talking tough, and he won’t let a federal indictment tame his tongue now.
“Maybe the government will put me in a cage, but they’re not going to change who I am,” said the man who earned millions working for the likes of Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise and Sylvester Stallone -- and once bragged of softening up his adversaries with a baseball bat. “They’re not going to scare me.... I’m going to fight this.”
Since his November arrest on weapons charges, Pellicano, 59, spends his days at his West Hollywood condo, seething about the authorities and plotting his defense, even as his three-decade career crumbles around him.
“For me to be weak at this point, it’s not going to happen -- never,” he said during lunch at a nearby restaurant. “I’m going to fight this.... I’m going to be a man.”
He leaned forward to ensure that each syllable carried across the table loud and clear, his avian face all beak: “I’ve been in the trenches for 30 years. I’ve seen things you can’t imagine.”
It was vintage Pellicano, the sort of windy bravado that always played well at news conferences, that brought in the business, and that made life as a headline-grabbing gumshoe good. The rewards included the big-name clients, big retainers and a big house in the suburbs.
This is the bad time, however, and Pellicano’s world suddenly seems small.
The celebrity clientele is history. Pellicano said his agency is in ruins, he has no income and he can’t pay his bills. He adds that his arrest and subsequent indictment -- he has pleaded not guilty -- killed his chances to star in a “reality” television show.
“It’s all gone,” he said, stroking a sparse gray beard as he gazed out the restaurant window. “Who in his right mind would hire me now?
He is quitting the trade because the “overzealous” prosecutors and FBI agents who are still rummaging through his affairs have stripped the joy from it.
“You have this beautiful garden -- that’s what I had -- and then some big, fat pig-faced guy tramples on it,” he said, his dark eyes flashing behind glasses. “Are you ever going to look at it the same way? No.”
Pellicano is set for a July trial on charges that he possessed two hand grenades and a batch of plastic explosives, which FBI agents seized from a safe in his Sunset Boulevard office. The raid grew out of an investigation into whether on actor Steven Seagal’s behalf he had orchestrated a threat against a Times reporter who was researching a story about Seagal’s alleged mob ties.
“I would never do that,” Pellicano said, waving a hand as if to dispel a bad odor. “Is there any evidence that I ever physically threatened a journalist?”
Pellicano insists that he had taken the grenades and explosives from a client several years ago, tucked them in back of the safe and forgotten about them. He said the client, whom he would not identify, is dead.
“It is possibly the most stupid thing I have ever done in my life,” he said of storing the grenades and the explosives. “I beat up on myself.”
He contends that the government swooped down on him because his high profile offered a juicy target, a trophy bust. “It was because of who I am,” he said. “But I’m not the kind of person who sits and dwells on it.”
Thirty miles away, in the Ventura County suburb of Oak Park, Pellicano’s ex-wife is dwelling on it.
“Anthony hasn’t paid me any alimony or child support,” said Kat Pellicano, whose 18-year marriage ended in September. The financial terms of the divorce have yet to be settled, in part because of his legal troubles.
“We were wealthy ... and now I’m pretty much almost destitute,” she said, the words spilling out like a shameful secret. “He gave me $100,000 after he was arrested and said, ‘Make it last.’ ... But our expenses are huge. I have four kids to raise.”
Kat Pellicano, a native of Oklahoma, is one of the few people who have been close to Pellicano who spoke about him on the record. She was clearly motivated by anger -- over the criminal case, the money and the uncertainty the future holds for her family.
She paints a picture of Pellicano that he disputes in every detail. She recounts a marriage that soured as he became increasingly work-obsessed, staying weeknights at the condo near his office rather than driving late to their canyon-view home. She said he had no social life, didn’t like her friends, seldom spoke to their neighbors and forbade his children to invite playmates over on weekends because they “bothered him.”
Kat Pellicano also recalls, mockingly, that he enjoyed indulging in “Godfather"-esque mannerisms and gestures, such as granting any request on his daughters’ birthdays.
She also said she solved half his cases.
“He’d come home and tell me, ‘What do you think of this and this?’ ” she said. Like her former husband, she boasts of having a high IQ. “I’d tell him what I thought, and I would be right.”
None of that is true, Pellicano said, especially her statement about child support. “There’s no way in the world my kids are going to suffer, including by my being jailed for the rest of my life,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of friends out there, and my kids will never suffer.”
He has five other children, all adults, from two previous marriages. But Kat Pellicano, he said, “was the love of my life.”
She has similarly fond memories. “He was a tough guy, and isn’t that what every girl wants?” she said. “He was the most incredible man I ever met in my life.... I was there for the rise and fall of Anthony Pellicano.”
The fall came when the FBI descended on his office. They ordered him to open his two floor safes, and found inside one of them the grenades, the C-4 explosives and a detonator. Mixed in with the ordnance were gold coins, bullion, jewelry and $200,000 in cash.
The weapons charges carry a maximum sentence of 21 years in prison. And Pellicano’s woes could mount in the weeks ahead.
He is under investigation for allegedly using illegal wiretaps and intimidating witnesses in cases he worked, the U.S. attorney’s office said. Federal and local authorities also continue to investigate whether he arranged to have an ex-convict threaten Times reporter Anita Busch last summer. Alexander Proctor has been charged with leaving a fish, a rose and a sign saying “Stop” on Busch’s car, and puncturing the windshield.
Busch and another Times reporter were researching a story on Seagal’s business dispute with a former film-production partner, Julius Nasso, who federal officials say is an associate of the Gambino crime family. Nasso has been indicted in connection with a scheme to extort money from Seagal. He has pleaded not guilty.
In secretly taped conversations with an FBI informant, Proctor said that Pellicano hired him to scare off Busch on Seagal’s behalf, according to court documents. Attorneys for Pellicano and Seagal have denied the allegations. Pellicano’s lawyer, Donald Re, declined to be interviewed.
At one point on the FBI tapes, Proctor wonders aloud whether Pellicano has lost his bare-knuckled touch, the transcripts show:
“He’s getting to an age, quite frankly, that I think he just ... there’s deterioration. I see it.”
Pellicano would not discuss his relationship with Proctor, but he denied hiring him. “I don’t hire people to do anything,” he said. “I do it myself.”
He started doing things for himself on the streets of Cicero, Ill., as a high school dropout from a broken home. It’s an oft-told story: There was the hitch in the Army Signal Corps, the stint as a debt collector for the Spiegel catalog, when he went by the name Tony Fortune, the launching of his own PI firm, and the move to Los Angeles, where a real fortune awaited.
In 1977, he wowed the tabloids by finding the stolen bones of movie producer Michael Todd, who had left Elizabeth Taylor a widow when he died in a 1958 plane crash. Someone had robbed his Illinois grave.
Pellicano shrugged off rumors -- never substantiated -- that the whole episode, from theft to discovery, was a publicity stunt.
In L.A., he made his own bones as a self-taught expert in analyzing surveillance tapes. Pellicano’s withering dissection of prosecution tapes in the 1980s cocaine-trafficking trial of John DeLorean helped the jet-setting automaker win an acquittal.
That star turn brought Tinseltown to Pellicano’s door. Michael Jackson engaged him to fend off allegations that the pop singer had sexually molested a boy in the early 1990s. Other A-listers sicced him on stalkers, extortionists, paternity-suit litigants and nosy journalists.
Pellicano was a consultant to numerous law enforcement agencies, which tapped his skills for enhancing the quality of surreptitious recordings.
He charged $25,000 and up for his services. Over time, Jackson paid him more than $2 million, he said.
The fees bought the Oak Park home, valued at more than $1 million, along with the family’s current fleet of two Mercedes-Benzes and a Lexus SUV. It paid for the condo and the office in the swanky Luckman Plaza building.
Kat Pellicano remembered that the office walls were lined with magazine stories that chronicled his exploits.
“Anthony wanted to be a movie star,” she said. “He always wanted to be famous.”
The office is now empty, and Pellicano has laid off his five employees.
He had to ask a friend -- Sandra Will, the ex-wife of actor Keith Carradine -- for bail money. Will signed over her Carpinteria house to cover the $400,000 bond. She could not be reached for comment.
His petition for bail, which the government opposed, was stuffed with character-reference letters. Many were from prosecutors and defense attorneys who had worked with him. Others were tendered by the likes of Freddy DeMann, a talent manager who has represented Jackson and Madonna.
In an interview, DeMann praised Pellicano as an “upstanding man,” and questioned the principles of the clients who have abandoned him.
“It’s a shame people run away from a guy when he’s down,” he said.
Howard Weitzman, who along with Re defended DeLorean, said he “only had good experiences” with Pellicano, a friend. “I choose to believe that what I read [about him] is not true,” Weitzman said.
Pellicano’s detractors in the PI business -- there are lots of them -- are gleeful about his predicament. They say he has been a black mark on their workaday profession for years.
“He finally got on the feds’ radar,” Jan Tucker, an L.A. private investigator, said with satisfaction. “Pellicano’s got the kind of reputation real PIs don’t want to get unless they want to get on somebody’s radar screen.... He’s got an ego the size of Asia.”
“Jealousy,” Pellicano said of the critics. “They’re fruit flies. I brush them away.”
If he manages to avoid prison, he said, writing will be his next occupation. He is drafting two screenplays and a book, the subjects of which he won’t disclose. After his arrest, NBC pulled out of the deal for a “reality” program featuring him solving mysteries on the air, he said.
“It’s going to take a long time to repair the damage,” he said. “But I’m going to do whatever I’ve got to do.... I’m going to be a man.”