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A Risky Road to Stardom

Times Staff Writer

The day after Valentine’s Day last year, Kristi Johnson drove her white Mazda Miata to the top of Wonderland Park Avenue in the Hollywood Hills. Lost and running late, she asked a man for directions.

Douglas Kirkland, a celebrity photographer, knew the look. The hopeful, eager face. He’d seen it more times than he could count. Another aspiring actress, he thought.

Less than a week later, Kirkland saw Johnson again, this time in a news report. She had been missing since the day he saw her. She was last heard from as she headed to an audition.

Johnson’s blond hair, flawless figure and broad smile turned heads. But her aspirations to an entertainment career and her naivete made her vulnerable. Her Hollywood story struck a nerve with Kirkland and hundreds of others. Throngs of volunteers prayed at vigils for Johnson’s safe return and posted notices, with her picture, that she was missing.

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On March 3, nearly three weeks after the 21-year-old disappeared, hikers discovered her body in a ravine not far from where she had stopped for directions. Her hands and ankles were bound. She had been strangled.

The glamour of Hollywood has long lured young women, who still arrive with resumes in their purses, ambition in their hearts and stars in their eyes. So when their dreams seem within reach, many take risks.

Kristi Johnson did just that. She may have sensed something strange about the persuasive, well-dressed man who approached her at a shopping mall and invited her to audition for a new James Bond movie. She told her roommate that she was apprehensive but didn’t want to pass up the opportunity.

Police now allege that the man was Victor Paleologus, 41, who had been released from a state prison in San Luis Obispo less than a month before Johnson’s death. He had been serving time in an assault case in which he had falsely promised a woman a chance to act in a James Bond film.

Prosecutors contend that he promised Johnson a $100,000 paycheck, convinced her of his legitimacy with charm and intellect and then murdered her. He is now in Los Angeles County Jail, awaiting trial this summer on first-degree murder charges. Prosecutors said they would seek the death penalty.

Paleologus’ lawyer, Andrew Flier, said his client is innocent. He said that no direct evidence -- no DNA, no hair samples, no eyewitnesses -- ties Paleologus to the slaying. To convict Paleologus, a jury would have to believe that he had committed a perfect crime, Flier said. “There is not any way that anybody could have been this clean,” he said.

However the case is resolved, Johnson’s death is the latest cautionary tale about the dangers facing actresses and models in Hollywood.

“There is a great disparity of power between people who are agents or producers and those who are trying to get their break,” said Santa Monica Police Chief James T. Butts Jr. “Because that dynamic exists, women tend to be more vulnerable to these kinds of people.”

Johnson’s mother, Terry Hall, said she still cannot grasp the way her daughter’s dreams blinded her to danger. The offer must have been convincing and her decision spontaneous.

“To this day,” she said, “I’ve accepted that it is beyond my understanding why anybody would murder a beautiful young woman on the threshold of her life.” Kristine Louise Johnson didn’t grow up wanting to be a celebrity. But people kept urging the 5-foot-9, 125-pound beauty to model and act. Her family said she would never turn down a chance to be on either side of the camera.

“She was a knockout,” said her grandmother, Katie Johnson, who tried to discourage her from working in entertainment. “She looked like Ms. Sweden.”

She spent most of her youth in Michigan but dreamed of returning to California, where she was born. So after high school and one year of college, she moved west. While living with her grandmother in Santa Maria, she got a job as an assistant on the Sandra Bullock movie “Murder by Numbers.”

Sweet-Natured, Naive

That was enough to get her to move to Hollywood. Whenever Katie Johnson warned her sweet-natured granddaughter about Los Angeles and told her never to go anywhere alone, Kristi hugged her and told her to not worry so much. “She thought she was worldly,” said her grandmother, “but she was very naive and very trusting.”

Johnson enrolled in a makeup and design school in Burbank, and then worked as a makeup artist. She e-mailed her father, Kirk Johnson, with cheerful tales of her busy life in Los Angeles. In July 2002, she started a note with “Hey daddio!” and told him how excited she was to get work on a music video.

“I was so nervous when I first got down here, but I knew this is what I wanted ... so I stuck with it,” she wrote. “And now I’m on my way.”

She was back in school and working at a cellphone company to make ends meet when she drove to the Century City shopping center on Saturday, Feb. 15. Police allege that’s where Paleologus approached her while posing as a filmmaker, told her he was looking for a fresh new face and offered her a chance at a role as a Bond girl.

Back at her Santa Monica apartment, she could barely contain her excitement. She showed her roommate the clothes she was to wear: a miniskirt, dress shirt, nylons and stiletto heels. Other actresses also would be there that afternoon, Johnson said, but the filmmaker had assured her that the role was hers.

When Johnson didn’t show up for work Monday morning, her mother reported her missing. Detectives tried to retrace her steps. They set up a tip line. They appealed to the public for help. Among the hundreds who responded were three women.

Susan Murphy told police that she had been at the Century City mall on Jan. 24 when a man, whom she later identified as Paleologus, invited her to appear in a Bond film and instructed her to wear the same clothes to the audition as Johnson.

She told police that she had been skeptical. She met him the next day anyway, but took her boyfriend along. She said the man had chastised her for not wearing the right clothes and told her he couldn’t take her to meet Sean Connery and Pierce Brosnan. When Murphy’s boyfriend asked the man for identification, he fled.

Alice Walker told investigators that, later that same day, a man she identified as Paleologus had approached her at the same mall with the same pitch. She told police he then had repeatedly postponed the audition, which had never taken place.

Laura Hayden told police of a similar experience. When she went to meet the man, he told her she wasn’t wearing the proper shoes. She decided not to return. Prosecutors believe that man was Paleologus.

Stories Fit a Pattern

Investigators thought the women’s stories fit a pattern in Paleologus’ criminal behavior.

In 1989, Paleologus falsely told Christine Kludjian that he worked for Columbia Records and invited her to a music industry party at the Bonaventure Hotel. Kludjian, who was 21 and a model at the time, said Paleologus attacked her in the hotel room, and she fought him off. He was arrested, pleaded guilty to false imprisonment by violence and was sentenced to three years’ probation.

In 1995, Paleologus was charged with breaking into the home of a woman he had once dated and holding her against her will. In a plea bargain, he pleaded guilty to burglary and was placed on five years’ probation. “The victim list has now increased,” a probation officer wrote. “The defendant is simply a non-remorseful, sophisticated criminal. He seems to use his intellect to the detriment of others.”

In 1998, prosecutors charged Paleologus with attempting to rape a 24-year-old woman in Brentwood after offering her a chance at a role in a James Bond movie. Paleologus pleaded guilty to assault to commit rape and was sentenced to state prison. He was paroled on Jan. 20, 2003, after serving three years and five months.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Eleanor Hunter, who is prosecuting the case, acknowledged that there was no scientific evidence linking Paleologus to the crime. Johnson “was out there in the wilderness forever,” she said. “Any evidence that might have been around, I’m sure got washed away by the elements.”

But the circumstantial evidence is strong, police said. In addition to the connections with the women who called police and to the previous cases, phone records reportedly show that Paleologus made a cellphone call just after 10 p.m. Feb. 15 near Laurel Canyon, not far from where Johnson’s body was found.

Johnson’s death is the latest in a long line of tragic ends to Hollywood dreams. In the 1947 Black Dahlia mystery, aspiring actress Elizabeth Short was found dead in Southwest Los Angeles. More recently, model Linda Sobek was strangled and buried in a grave in the Angeles National Forest by a freelance photographer during a photo shoot in 1995.

At a time when women are generally more cautious, Hollywood remains an area where some women are so desperate to succeed that they ignore red flags and break their own safety rules -- again and again. Young actors and actresses romanticize life in Hollywood, believing they are going to live the perfect rags-to-riches story.

“Not that it never happens, but it’s just so rare,” said LAPD Det. Pat Barron, who spent eight years investigating sexual assault cases in Hollywood. “It only happens on ‘Star Search’ and ‘American Idol.’ ”

Casting agents don’t walk through malls looking for fresh faces and directors don’t discover stars in coffee shops. “If it seems too good to be true, it normally is,” said Lori Talley, casting editor for the weekly trade newspaper Backstage West. The industry “could eat you alive if you don’t even know the basics.”

Ignorant about the business and surprised by the stiff competition in their search for celebrity, young actresses and models see ads in newspapers or on the Internet and go places to meet people they don’t know. And predators and con artists are waiting to prey on their hopes and dreams.

“Ninety-nine out of 100 times, these guys are good talkers,” said LAPD Det. Jesse Alvarado, who has investigated sex crimes for more than a decade. “They know what to say so they’ll fall into the trap.”

SAG Issues Advisory

The Screen Actors Guild advises its members to take a friend along, never to disrobe at an audition and never to try out at a private residence. After Johnson’s death, SAG warned actors and actresses never to place career above safety.

Police say sexual crimes in the entertainment business are underreported because women are either ashamed that they were duped or fearful that they will not be able to work in Hollywood if they do file reports.

“More cases don’t get reported than do get reported,” Det. Barron said. “They don’t want to be in the news as a victim. They want to be in the news as a star.”

Actress Yvonne Fisher, who moved from San Diego to Los Angeles two years ago, said she trusts her instincts. More than once, she has driven to an audition and decided not to get out of her car.

She knows she is not invincible and that what happened to Johnson could happen to her. “I’m very aware of my surroundings,” Fisher said. “I stay on my toes a little bit more.”

Another actress, Tina del Campo, tries to strike a balance between being overly paranoid and staying safe. She knows anybody can pose as a producer, get business cards or put an ad in a magazine. She always tells someone when she heads to an audition.

“That’s what is sort of alarming,” she said. “The entertainment business is all about networking. All it takes is networking with one wrong person and you can get into a lot of trouble.”

Back in Michigan, Kirk Johnson grieves for his lost daughter. He muses that she had the looks and the personality to succeed in Hollywood -- and in life. But she also was overly trusting and got in over her head.

“Kristi was a little girl from Holland, Mich., and she went to big Los Angeles and it gobbled her up,” he said. “I don’t think she was ready for the fast lane of L.A.”


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