Small Fry in a Big Net
A nanny grows disillusioned with her employer -- Canada’s richest woman -- and helps the woman’s rival in a child custody fight.
A fledgling lawyer complains that she was sexually harassed by her firm’s boss, a man made famous by the film “Erin Brockovich.”
A Beverly Hills couple goes through a bitter divorce that provides an opening for a convicted swindler to gain control of their business and real estate empire, once worth $40 million.
Three more soap operas that played out in Southern California courts. Three more disputes to destroy people’s reputations and livelihoods, if not their lives. And three more cases bearing the fingerprints of Anthony Pellicano, the bat-wielding private detective who promised his clients, “Your problem becomes my problem.”
The 61-year-old Pellicano is dealing with his own problems these days. He just finished a 2 1/2 -year prison term for possessing illegal explosives. Now he faces a federal racketeering indictment accusing him of bribing police and using illegal wiretaps to dig up dirt on those he was paid handsomely to investigate -- charges that he denies.
Although initial reports have focused on the boldface names on the list of his alleged victims -- such as actor Sylvester Stallone, comedian Garry Shandling and CAA talent agents -- the indictment and other court records provide evidence that Pellicano also used his police contacts and eavesdropping skills against individuals who were hardly power players on the Hollywood scene, or any scene.
The nanny, the novice lawyer and the businessman all complained long before Pellicano’s indictment that they felt overwhelmed in a legal system that was supposed to guarantee them a fair fight, but in which their deep-pocketed adversaries sometimes seemed to know their next move ahead of time, as if they were mind readers. All told their lawyers they thought their phones might have been tapped -- and one screamed it to anyone who would listen, to no avail.
He and the others were dismissed at times as paranoid, if not “looney-tunes.” They sometimes couldn’t be sure themselves whether their suspicions were true or only their imaginations at work.
Even if there had been no Anthony Pellicano, it is likely that all three still would have become obsessed with the legal disputes that threatened them with ruin on the one hand while promising redemption on the other. Even with last week’s unsealing of the 110-count indictment against Pellicano and six others, and the indictment Wednesday of a Hollywood attorney who employed Pellicano, there’s much they don’t know. But part of their obsession now is making sure there’s a price to pay for the people who allegedly crushed them with the help of the detective who once said, “I only use intimidation and fear when I absolutely have to.”
Pamela Miller was the daughter of a Pennsylvania steelworker and though her father worked his way up to being foreman of his plant, she was not prepared for the wealth she witnessed as a high-end nanny.
Miller stumbled into the career while a student at Temple University, when a couple needed help with their children one summer. Though it might sound like servant’s work to some, Miller liked looking after youngsters. The money wasn’t bad, either, if you were educated, attractive and English-speaking, and could put up with the quirks of rich folk like the woman who became her boss after she moved west in 2001.
Her job with Taylor Thomson paid $70,000 a year. Thomson was the daughter of Canadian media mogul Kenneth Thomson, who published 70 newspapers, including the Toronto Globe and Mail, and had an English title, Lord Thomson of Fleet. The family’s wealth was estimated by Forbes at $14.9 billion in 2002, and Taylor Thomson’s share was enough to place her 159th on one ranking of the world’s richest women.
Tall and elegant, like her mother, a former Miss Toronto, Thomson could have been a jet-set celebrity. But she kept a low profile except for an occasional mention in the news, as when she sued an English marquess and Christie’s auction house for selling her a pair of gilded Louis XV urns she alleged were fakes. Thomson was said to be intrigued by Los Angeles, where she had aspirations of becoming an actress or filmmaker.
Not many Hollywood wannabes can plunk down $7.4 million for a home in Bel-Air, as Thomson did in 2001. That’s when she also needed a nanny for her infant girl, Madeleine, and found Miller. The Pennsylvanian had come to California to be close to her parents, who had retired to Palm Springs, and had signed on with a Santa Monica agency that provided nannies to the elite.
After a two-week spring tryout, Miller was given the job that September, with one condition: that she sign a confidentiality agreement. The document, filed among court papers when the two later started suing each other, barred the nanny from disseminating “any information” related to Thomson, her daughter or the Thomson businesses, or any photographs, films or videos -- understandable precautions for a parent who had to worry that her child could be kidnapped.
But Miller later found it ironic that someone who would hire Pellicano would include a prohibition on her sharing anything she might pick up “by overhearing conversations on the telephone or otherwise.”
Miller also was given seven pages of instructions, those too now filed in court, for caring for Madeleine. They stretched from 7 a.m. breakfast preparation, “Either fruit smoothie (consisting of a banana, blueberries, papaya, kiwi, pineapple, and a 1/2 of an avocado -- for two people) or fruit salad,” to 8:30 p.m., when she would put on the baby’s nighttime diaper, read her a bedtime story, sing a lullaby and “clean all toys the dog has had that day.”
Thomson wanted her daughter sheltered from the sun “at all times,” with an umbrella if necessary, and specified that when they traveled the girl’s toy bag include a stuffed animal named Jean, a “cream bunny with pink ribbon.”
Miller said the demands made the job hard to enjoy, though she did get to attend a Christmas party thrown by a Rothschild in London. Thomson also was more considerate than many wealthy bosses, Miller said, inviting her to use her first name and to eat off the same china as guests such as Bert Fields, the entertainment lawyer. Fields was listed among “Friends,” not “Lawyers,” on Thomson’s printed roster of handy phone numbers in Los Angeles, the nanny said.
The legal battle then preoccupying Thomson was in Canada, where the girl’s father, a tall engineer named Michael Kolesa, was seeking greater visitation rights. The far-off proceedings posed a problem for her, too, Miller recalled in court papers, because of “extreme pressure to provide favorable testimony” for Thomson, such as that the Canadian spent a great deal of time with her daughter. In fact, “Thomson spent frequent nights outside of the home,” the nanny said.
Miller clearly did not approve of how the woman was raising her little girl -- she later alleged, in an affidavit filed in federal court in Los Angeles, that Thomson was “endangering the child’s health and welfare.”
Miller said her unease with the parenting boiled over the night of a birthday party for Thomson on Feb. 2, 2002, when Madeleine came downstairs complaining of an earache and her mother insisted on naturalistic treatment to soothe the ear pain -- olive oil in which onions had been sauteed. Miller said she was appalled by the “radical nonmedical” remedy and had to sit up into the night with the crying child.
Soon after, Miller made her fateful decision to call the child’s father.
She eventually agreed to go to Canada too -- without telling Thomson -- to sign an affidavit that might help Kolesa in the custody case. Miller said she had a week off that April and was first heading to the desert to see her parents. Before she went, she said, an aide to Thomson insisted on having her parents’ phone number. “She absolutely had to have it.”
After visiting her folks, Miller said, she flew under an assumed name to Toronto, where on April 4 she was confronted in the courthouse by a Canadian lawyer for Thomson, who, she said, “stuck a finger in my face” and said to the attorney with her, “You know that your client is fired.”
From then on, she was a defendant and plaintiff in her own legal battles.
Thomson acted first, going to court the next day for an order under their confidentiality agreement to force Miller to turn over a diary she’d kept. They fought over that until October 2002, when Miller agreed to surrender “the only copy,” seemingly ending their encounter.
Three months later, however, the nanny filed suit in Los Angeles County Superior Court, alleging wrongful termination and infliction of emotional distress, and asserting that her former boss “and her agents” had undermined her efforts to get and keep new jobs. Miller alleged that after she had been fired by Thomson, someone would follow her “to and from the store ... or employment interviews, photographing and videotaping” even while she was working with other children.
Later, she amended her complaint to say “plaintiff further believes ... investigators illegally wiretapped plaintiff’s telephone. Plaintiff was unaware of these illegal wiretaps until she was contacted by government agencies.”
In the spring of 2003, Miller was called to testify before the federal grand jury looking into someone else who she said was on Thomson’s ready list of phone numbers: Anthony Pellicano.
Pellicano had officially gone from being an investigator to being investigated several months earlier, when FBI agents checking into an attempt to terrorize a Los Angeles Times reporter searched his Sunset Boulevard office and found hand grenades and illegal C-4 explosives. Then, at a subsequent bail hearing, Assistant U.S. Atty. Daniel Saunders disclosed that Pellicano was suspected also of illegal wiretapping, an allegation immediately belittled by the detective’s attorney as “around the bend.”
“Make them prove these allegations,” Pellicano’s lawyer told U.S. District Judge Dickran Tevrizian, “because they can’t.”
Yet to Pamela Miller, it made sense -- how determined they’d been to get her parents’ number, or even how Thomson had her daughter take the same stuffed bunny, Jean, whenever the girl visited her dad. Miller knew it sounded crazy, but could a bug have been planted inside?
In addition to her grand jury testimony, she said, the FBI asked for “every phone number I used.” The agents told her little in return, however, other than that she was “a piece of a very large puzzle.” She kept pestering them about when someone would be indicted, and they would always tell her, “three months,” she said.
But as the investigation stretched into nearly three years, Miller came to conclude that she’d brought her own Pellicano-related complaints too soon. “You can’t go into court,” she noted, “and say, ‘The FBI told me.’ ”
And though Miller could not prove anything illegal had been done, attorneys for Thomson -- from Fields’ firm -- had strong ammunition to use against her. For starters, her employment agreement specified that Canadian laws governed, not California’s. Then there was a letter her first lawyer sent the other side, suggesting that they settle because unpleasant information might otherwise reach the press. Thomson’s attorneys pounced on it, filing an “unclean hands” complaint that Miller was improperly using the legal system by threatening to publicly humiliate her “to extort a monetary settlement” -- and judges were indeed appalled at the letter, never mind that Miller soon parted with that lawyer.
As for the surveillance, Thomson admitted in court papers to hiring investigators, but watching someone in public is perfectly legal. Thomson denied authorizing any wiretapping, and her chief lawyer, Robert Chapman, said both she and her lawyers had “no knowledge of that one way or another.” If Pellicano did it, in other words, he did it on his own. Miller could not prove otherwise.
By the time the dust settled, Miller was bankrupt, representing herself in court and hit with a $113,000 judgment for malicious prosecution.
“I lost everything.... My life has been a living hell,” Miller said then. “People thought I was looney-tunes.... I had an attorney who thought I was crazy.... My parents kind of thought I had lost it upstairs.”
But after a while she found she could laugh at her fantasies of seeing her enemies in orange jumpsuits. She gained perspective, she said, from caring for a 36-year-old woman who had had a heart attack while giving birth and needed a feeding tube until she died. “I promised her the whole time I would not let her die alone,” Miller said. “In the end, I couldn’t leave her.”
How bad were her problems compared to that?
The nanny, now 43, was “between jobs” and living in Costa Mesa when an FBI agent called two weeks ago asking her to confirm that Andrew Miller, a minister in Bakersfield, was her brother. The government needed to send him -- and her parents -- formal notice of their involvement, too, in the indictment about to be unsealed, U.S. vs. Pellicano et al.
Kissandra Cohen was a prodigy. It was in the papers, several times: how this Valley girl was videotaped by her parents at age 2 reciting the Pledge of Allegiance; by first grade playing the violin and acting in commercials; by 10 taking calculus at UCLA; then, while other kids were starting high school, speeding through college and talking of becoming a doctor and a lawyer. She was a looker too, tall and coltish, with blond hair down to her waist.
“People said, ‘Do you miss prom?’ ” she recalled. “Well, I went to a formal dance at Duke when they were at the prom.”
But she was still young, and her mom moved to North Carolina and took some classes with her. P.J. Cohen had been a precocious child herself, as a singer. “It’s hard for me to let go,” she said when “Kissy” finished Duke and headed to Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
Later, Kissandra Cohen said she truly believed she was the youngest in the nation to pass a bar exam when she did it at 20.
But after her ugly split with the first lawyer to hire her, Westlake Village’s Ed Masry, that was one of the things they rammed down her throat -- they checked various states and found some younger bar-passers. “ ‘See what a liar this girl is?’ ” she said, parroting their offensive.
Cohen had joined Masry’s firm in the spring of 1999, as he was poised to become a celebrity through “Erin Brockovich,” the film about the feisty legal assistant who helped him put together a class-action pollution suit that won a $333-million settlement from Pacific Gas & Electric Co.
Almost every detail later became a he said, she said dispute, “but the two sides did agree that she was fired Dec. 26, after less than a year. Masry said she was “in over her head.” Cohen said he wanted more than lawyering.
While pursuing her lawsuit alleging wrongful termination and sexual harassment by Masry and others, Cohn told of being called “Babe” and being given a lollipop shaped like a male body part, having her thigh rubbed and her neck caressed, and finding a copy of the Jewish Journal, which profiled her, marked up with “Cool and kosher!! No pork on these gams!!”
The other side denied the worst of it, including the lollipop, sloughed off other incidents as harmless and said Cohen had joined in the office teasing, as when she gave Masry a G-string at a party.
Beyond that, they did what litigators do, and came at her. In a videotaped deposition, Masry told her lawyer, “You’re gonna have nothing but grief out of this when this is over.” One brief on his behalf stated: “Plaintiff represented that she was being pursued by many major law firms. This was not true. Plaintiff represented that she would graduate either first, second, or third in her graduating class. This was not true.” They found that in her 398-member class at Loyola, the prodigy had graduated fifth from the bottom.
While Cohen maintained that it was hard for her to find a new job with another firm because “your first job out of law school ... sets your path,” they said: “Plaintiff’s inability to find other employment is due to her own lies and misrepresentations ... her poor academic credentials and her failure to interview for jobs for which she is academically qualified.”
Cohen’s trial lawyer, Dan Marino, understood playing tough. But he said this case had “very weird” twists to it. They were talking about locating a former employee of Masry’s who might testify about similar misconduct, he said, only to find her on a list of people represented by Masry’s lawyers and thus not available for questioning. He said Cohen told him, “I think my phone is being tapped.”
In written questions to the other side, Marino asked for “any attempts to intercept any wire or oral communications which involve or involved Kissandra Cohen.” Masry denied knowing of any such activity, though he said he did hire a private investigator.
In June 2002, a Superior Court jury found for Masry on the main allegations of sexual harassment and wrongful termination, but awarded Cohen $120,000 plus attorney fees for slander because of comments he made during a TV interview. Cohen sobbed afterward. Masry celebrated.
“Frankly, if it cost me $120,000 to say what I said, it was worth it,” he declared.
There were more dismissive comments a couple of years later, when Cohen took another shot at him with a new lawsuit, with a new name in the mix, Pellicano’s. The quip this time came from an attorney for the detective, who said, “I guess people will come out of the woodwork to say anything.”
Cohen based her new suit on the questions she was asked when subpoenaed before the grand jury. “I’ve been told they actually have recordings,” she said. Then she corrected herself, “That’s the sense I’ve got.” Until she had more, she was in the same spot as the nanny, with an allegation but no proof.
“For a while, I was always the happy-go-lucky, spunky optimistic girl,” Cohen said over dinner in the Valley one night, then trying to make a go of a solo practice. “Life kind of took a separate course.”
What bothered her more than Pellicano’s possibly listening in on her trial strategy was his potentially eavesdropping on family calls. “For me to have a conversation with my mother and tell her, ‘I love you,’ ... he has no right to hear that.” Her mother, who was at the dinner, could not hold back her tears. “She would have been such a big lawyer,” P.J. Cohen said.
In retrospect, Ami Shafrir could point to depositions he gave on Nov. 2 and Nov. 8, 2000, and say, “I knew.”
He was being sued then by one of his own former companies, AmTec Audiotext, located in one of his own former office buildings -- on Wilshire Boulevard -- and he had been reduced to representing himself and ranting about how everything had been taken from him in a giant con.
Among the things that stunned him were questions from an opposing lawyer who asked about “an assistant United States attorney named Olson” and queried, “Now you have spoken with an FBI agent named Walker, correct?”
Shafrir shot back, “Is there a way you are obtaining information in an illegal way?”
He later explained his suspicion by recalling how he had been relating his story to FBI Agent Dale Walker and was arranging to meet federal prosecutor Steven Olson but “didn’t tell anyone.”
How could these people have known?
The lawyer told him, “I don’t answer questions here,” so Shafrir keep making speeches: “You are part of the conspiracy, OK. You are burning my money.” Asked about a conversation with a former associate, he said, “We were talking about girls, OK ... about life, about Genesis, about the creation of the world, about the birds in the sky.” Shafrir blew up also at Beverly Hills Police and the LAPD, one of whose officers did off-duty security chores for the people Shafrir saw as driving him to ruin.
At least he did not have to wait for the indictment of Pellicano to receive assurances that he was not nuts. Two years ago, the federal government arrested Israel native Daniel Nicherie on a 44-page warrant that described him as a man with 11 aliases who had left Shafrir and his wife “defrauded out of at least $40 million,” in part by using their own money to fund “approximately 106 lawsuits and 10 bankruptcy filings.” The government said the accused swindler had used $154,000 of the Shafrirs’ money to pay Anthony Pellicano.
Well before Pellicano came under official scrutiny, this case provided a window into what the detective did for such fees.
Ami and Sarit Shafrir had come to the U.S. from Israel in 1989 and made their fortune through companies that provided phone lines and billing services to connect callers with psychic hotlines and racy chat rooms. They bought a home on Mount Olympus, above the Sunset Strip, but the marriage collapsed after two children when Sarit came to believe she was not getting enough credit for the businesses and that her husband was straying. “Sometimes, when you make a lot of money the wife gets ugly and the house gets smaller,” she said. Her anger led to “my stupid mistake,” she added.
In one court declaration, she said fellow Israelis Daniel and Abner Nicherie presented themselves as “wealthy businessmen” able to help make sure her husband did not cheat her in their divorce. One way they gained her cooperation, she said, was by sharing dirt that Pellicano dug up. They called him “the doctor,” she said, as in, “We have to go to the doctor today.”
Most of the lawyers and clients identified as using Pellicano have maintained that if he did anything illegal, he hid it from them. But Sarit Shafrir said Pellicano let the Nicheries hear recordings of Ami’s phone conversations, perhaps because some were in Hebrew and he needed help translating them.
She said she regularly dropped off Abner Nicherie at the detective’s office, where Nicherie, who had to leave his cellphone at the front desk, would sneak in a second phone, “small, like a Snickers bar.” He would place it next to the headphones, on his lap, when no one was looking, and call her cellphone, Sarit said. She thus “listened to conversations Ami had with the FBI and with his attorneys,” she stated in a court declaration.
She also heard her husband “talking to his mother about me and the children,” she recalled. “I really wanted to bury this man.”
But by mid-2001, she had second thoughts about working with the brothers and announced, during a dramatic court appearance, that they were pulling a “big scam.” She told a judge, “They showed me how to lie. They showed me how to forge.” They even tried to brand Ami a child molester, she said.
Sarit Shafrir later testified before the grand jury investigating Pellicano, while Ami gave investigators samples of his voice -- and, like Miller and Cohen, over the years also spewed out to the FBI details of the stories related here. Federal authorities seemed to be most riled by the possibility that Pellicano had listened in on one of their agents, he said.
As in all the cases, though, law enforcement officials revealed little to the couple, who were separately trying to rebuild their lives. Sarit did help Ami win a civil judgment against the Nicheries, but he had little hope of collecting a penny.
Ami had to settle for the moral victory of the call from someone with the federal government on Feb. 6.
“He said, ‘Good morning, how are you?’ ‘Fine.’ ‘I’d like to inform you your name was mentioned as a victim of a wiretap.’ “I said, ‘Thank you for letting me know.’ ”
Pellicano’s indictment won’t allow Pamela Miller, Kissandra Cohen or Ami Shafrir to replay their lives, but it may give them new life in court -- and signal to doubters that they weren’t making everything up.
The indictment unsealed last week alleged that Shafrir had been wiretapped “in and around” August to December 2000, thus including the period of the depositions that made him suspicious. What’s more, the Nicherie brothers were among those charged with Pellicano.
“Finally, things are surfacing,” said Shafrir, who already has conferred with an attorney about suing the phone company for an employee’s complicity in the tapping. He would not say what else he is doing to make himself whole other than that he won’t be congratulating the FBI until it ties in more of the attorneys who continue to say they had no idea how Pellicano got such wonderful information.
“I lost $40 million,” he said of the indictment. “It’s no consolation.”
Cohen, now 26, said she too is going to sue: to begin with, the phone company. The indictment’s news for her was that Pellicano had gotten his paid helper in the LAPD, now-retired Sgt. Mark Arneson, to run her name through a police computer and also do a check on her ophthalmologist father, on May 15, 2000, three weeks after she filed suit against Masry’s firm; and that Pellicano used his “Telesleuth” computer program to record her phone calls “in and around July 2000.”
A small part of her original harassment claim also is due to be retried, but without her lead adversary. Ed Masry died in December at 73, yet Cohen still speaks of him in present tense. “He goes around with this whole David and Goliath thing, but in my opinion he’s the Goliath,” she said. “I did wonder if I was paranoid.”
Miller found her name in the indictment too, as having been run through police computers on April 3, 2002, the day before she was fired at the Toronto courthouse. Michael Kolesa, Madeleine’s father, also was listed among the scores of Pellicano targets getting illegal background checks. It was enough for the nanny to say, “They did it!”
But neither she nor Kolesa were mentioned in the far fewer counts alleging actual wiretapping. Though the indictment did charge that a Pellicano associate had “corruptly altered, destroyed, mutilated and concealed” some wiretapping records, prosecutors have not said if that’s why Miller and others were not listed as having been tapped -- or whether there’s no evidence it happened in their cases. There was no mention, either, of hidden bugs.
Perhaps the bunny was just a bunny.
But Miller at the least plans to join the likely torrent of suits against the LAPD because of its detective’s work for Pellicano. Then she wants someone to answer for three other names on the indictment’s list of victims.
Who is going to explain why a cop needed to run the backgrounds of Richard and Joyce Miller, retirees of 73 and 68, living in a condo in Palm Springs? Or of Andrew Miller, minister?
“My parents, my brother, they definitely have a case,” the nanny said. She wants to sees anyone justify that to a judge.
“First Church of Christ,” she said. “A man of god.”