Photos Develop Into Court Case

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Times Staff Writer

The case is officially known as People vs. John Rutter.

But the real star of the courtroom drama that got underway Wednesday in Los Angeles Superior Court was Cameron Diaz.

The theft and forgery case centers on sexy photos of the model-turned-actress taken before she became a celebrity.

And it comes in the midst of an increased effort by L.A. law enforcement to crack down on people who allegedly prey on celebrities.


Rutter, 42, shot the racy photos and videos of Diaz in 1992 when she was a largely unknown model -- two years before the movie “The Mask” transformed her into a movie star.

Prosecutors contend that in 2003, Rutter attempted to sell the photographs for millions of dollars, presenting a model release with what they allege is Diaz’s forged signature. He is charged with attempted grand theft, forgery and perjury. A charge of extortion was dropped before the case went to trial.

Rutter’s defense lawyer said that Diaz, 32, is using her wealth and power to try to bury photos to which he owns the rights -- and that Los Angeles prosecutors are helping her.

“This is the case of a rich and powerful movie star who, through this prosecution, is seeking to crush and destroy John Rutter,” defense attorney Mark Werksman said in opening arguments.

But to others, Diaz is a hero for standing up.

She’s one of several stars -- including Lindsay Lohan and Reese Witherspoon -- who urged the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office last month to focus more on celebrity harassment. Diaz was sued last year by a photographer who said she snatched a camera from her. The case was settled out of court.

“She is one of the celebrities that, if they feel a mistruth is being printed or something she doesn’t like, she will take legal action,” said Gary Morgan, co-owner of Splash News and Pictures, a celebrity news agency in Venice that sent its own representative to the trial. “A lot of celebrities don’t.”


The case comes against the backdrop of a new campaign by the Los Angeles district attorney’s office and the Los Angeles Police Department to combat what stars say are the increasingly aggressive and even criminal tactics of paparazzi.

The effort was spurred in part by an incident in May in which police arrested Galo Ramirez, 24, on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon for allegedly using his van to ram Lohan’s car as she tried to make a U-turn near the Beverly Center shopping mall.

Several other paparazzi were on the scene almost immediately to photograph and videotape Lohan, 18, who was upset and still in her car after the collision.

There were few paparazzi on hand Wednesday at the Diaz trial -- but that might change today when she is expected to testify.

Even without the star, reporters from in Touch magazine, the “Extra” TV program and the New York Post among others were there in force.

Indeed, television and newspaper representatives filled three rows of blue-cushioned benches, scribbling notes on paper pads, some already coiffed for their prime-time appearances.


“My editors love this stuff,” one reporter said as she made use of her BlackBerry through opening remarks.

In his opening arguments, Deputy Dist. Atty. David Walgren said Rutter approached Diaz in June 2003, offering to sell her pictures from the photo shoot -- some of which featured the actress topless -- for $3.3 million, purportedly at a discount from what he said a photo syndicate had offered him for the shots.

Since the photo shoot, Diaz had become one of the world’s most bankable female stars, commanding up to $20 million a film.

“Her career had skyrocketed,” Walgren said. “Mr. Rutter’s didn’t.”

Rutter’s request, Walgren said, was timed to the release of “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” -- which was scheduled to come out in days -- to put “maximum pressure on Ms. Diaz.... She would be portrayed as the bad angel, the evil angel in the worst possible light,” Walgren said Rutter told Diaz and her representatives.

Walgren also said investigators discovered significant evidence on computers found in Rutter’s apartment that he had used the Photoshop computer program to doctor the model release, adding signatures from other documents.

But Werksman responded that his client had no idea how or why those signatures would have been faked, adding that others had access to Rutter’s computers.


If anything, he said, Rutter was “guilty of being a nice guy,” of offering to sell the photos directly to Diaz rather than to a syndicate or magazine. The decision about how or where to sell the pictures, he said “was his prerogative as the owner of the images.”

The prosecution disputes that claim.

At the time of the photo shoot, Werksman said, “Diaz was a 19-year-old unknown who was looking for exposure.... She was willing to literally expose herself to gain that attention.”

As fame and fortune came her way, Diaz began to exert more control over her public image -- even going so far as to use obscene gestures, an open umbrella or circuitous routes to ward off the paparazzi who sought to photograph her in unguarded or personal moments.

She and her pop singer boyfriend, Justin Timberlake, recently settled a lawsuit filed by two photographers after an incident in which the paparazzi alleged that Diaz and Timberlake engaged them in a fight.

Los Angeles County prosecutors have been exploring the possibility of bringing conspiracy cases against individuals or companies they believe may be orchestrating some of the riskiest photo ambushes. Bill Hodgman, head of the Los Angeles County district attorney’s target crimes unit, said his office is examining whether paparazzi behavior amounts to a crime with efforts to catch celebrities in dangerous situations.

Although everyone involved in this case agrees that Rutter is not a paparazzo, the tinge of celebrity has pervaded the trial.


“A hot name creates a hot value for photos,” Werksman said as he pressed former model Natasha Cotroneo, also present at the 1992 shoot, on whether photos of her now would be worth millions. She conceded that they probably would not.

The first day’s witnesses included Cotroneo, model-actress Kristen Zang, former Rutter assistant Craig DeCristo and the former director of the Elite Models’ Los Angeles office, Capucine Castets.

Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office, disputed any suggestion that the presence of a celebrity victim in the case has intensified the prosecution’s zeal.

“The district attorney represents the people of the state of California,” she said. “If there is evidence we feel is beyond a reasonable doubt, that a person violates the law, then we file the case....

“Fortunately or unfortunately, we live in a company town. And the company is Hollywood. The people who work in the entertainment industry live in our community. And they can be victims like everyone else.”

Times staff writers Jessica Gresko and Richard Winton contributed to this report.