He's No Angel, He's a P.I.

Times Staff Writer

It's 10 p.m., and John Nazarian, a burly 53-year-old private eye, is hurtling around Beverly Hills in his immaculate red Scion looking for garbage. Nazarian treats trash as his private archeological site, the detritus of human existence that exposes all our hidden vulnerabilities -- financial documents, prescription bottles, booze bottles and anything, anything, that might sport DNA.

"I would love to find condoms," he said, and cackled. "It's kind of disgusting to be pawing around other people's personal waste."

Yes, it's a dirty job being a private investigator, but Nazarian is prepared to do it. As he likes to say over and over again, he is one of the most expensive private eyes in L.A., charging $10,000 to $20,000 on retainer and $400 an hour for his services. He's racked up a number of celebrity clients, including singer Peggy Lee (whom he assiduously protected from the paparazzi to preserve the public's memory of her as a blond bombshell), Dean Martin, kooky billionaire Doris Duke and her butler, Bernard Lafferty. He's caught stalkers for CBS Chairman Les Moonves and former "NYPD Blue" star Andrea Thompson.

And then there are the 20 or so unnamed Hollywood wives with philandering husbands for whom Nazarian and his crew of 22 ex-cops and sundry specialists seem to be working in perpetuity.

Nazarian is part of a long, not particularly illustrious tradition of Hollywood private eyes, from fictional antiheroes, such as Sam Spade and "Chinatown's" Jake Gittes, to real-life swaggerer Fred Otash, the investigator for the scandal sheet Confidential Magazine, and Anthony Pellicano, the infamous gumshoe who sits in jail awaiting trial on more than 100 counts of wiretapping and witness intimidation.

This is why Nazarian keeps no records. Nothing. Tonight's game plan merely consists of a 3-by-5 card with an address.

"The D.A.s get furious with me," he said in a broad Boston accent. "We've had our documents requested, and I said I don't have 'em."

For this particular jaunt around Beverly Hills and Bel-Air, Nazarian has opted for a black muscle shirt and black sweats. He is officially dressed down, having left much of what he calls his costume at home. That includes a hat, oversize designer shades and bling -- most notably his trademark rings, two hunks of gold and platinum that look like smashed golf balls. He designed them himself, as he did the idiosyncratic cut of his dyed black beard. It looks as if his goatee sprouted two slender butterfly wings. He shaves what's left of his hair, like Kojak. The general look suggests menace, and that's the point.

"As a private detective, the more bad things you say about me, the more valuable my trade becomes," he said.

Pellicano Fallout

Things have cooled down in Nazarian's line of work since the Pellicano indictment.

"I said to the lawyers, all the good wire guys, they've all gone to Chicago for the summer. Anybody who goes out and wiretaps and does bugging now, they've got to be out of their minds."

Nazarian said he didn't bug because "I'm too old to go to jail." As a former cop, he insisted he knew how to push the boundaries without going over the line.

"I have a huge amount of sympathy for Anthony," he said as he zipped through the canyons looking for the house. "If I was his office manager, I would have made sure that none of that happened." As for the lawyers who employed Pellicano, he groaned theatrically. "I feel horrible for those guys. A lawyer always trusts me to do the right thing. Not that we break the law, but a private eye, by the mere fact of what we do, it's not like we're a bunch of choirboys. We're not."

Nazarian is almost compulsively upfront about the people who don't like him -- the California Assn. of Licensed Investigators, for one, which recently suspended him from its e-mail list serve for 30 days after he sent a nasty e-mail. Nazarian thinks most private investigators are "clowns" who rack up bills and don't deliver.

"I saw what all those other private eyes were doing, and I thought I shared nothing in common ... that's why I don't associate with any of them." Nazarian owns a cream-colored Bentley and a Rolls-Royce, and, as he said, 'I don't go to their conferences, because where am I going to park this Bentley in a parking lot full of Camrys?"

He also brings up a case from the early '90s, when he was working as a private eye in San Francisco. Police suspected a ring of Gypsies was swindling elderly victims out of their savings, then poisoning them with digitalis. Nazarian, something of a Gypsy specialist, began investigating on his own. He was later accused of scheming to sell a confidential police affidavit to Hollywood and then to the defense.

Nazarian adamantly denies trying to peddle the affidavit to the defense and says it's not his fault that the police file fell into his lap. "How do I force a police inspector to give me something? What size gun was I pointing at him?"

He did, however, register the information with the Writers Guild of America. Nazarian was never charged with any wrongdoing.

Nazarian unabashedly loves the limelight and has just wrapped his first film role, essentially playing a version of himself opposite Anthony Hopkins in "Fracture," directed by Gregory Hoblit. (Nazarian once found someone who had been stalking Hoblit's wife, actress Debrah Farentino). He's worked for the tabloid show "Extra," which last week sent him to Mexico, with a camera in tow, to hunt for Olivia Newton-John's longtime boyfriend, Patrick McDermott, who disappeared a year ago.

Nazarian employs his team of experts to do what he can't: a former Beverly Hills cop for handwriting analysis, a forensic accountant, a lab guy, tech guys for debugging or to apply Global Positioning System tracking devices to cars (the latest way to follow spouses), a European detective to handle cases that go Continental. For people worried about wiretapping, he offers simple advice: Buy a bag of disposable cellphones.

Nazarian says he tries to work with the police, particularly the Los Angeles Police Department's Threat Management Unit, which deals with celebrities and stalking.

"I always tell my clients whenever I have the police involved, if you're lying to me and they pull out a big ugly skeleton, I'm getting up and leaving you there," Nazarian said.

Det. Jeff Dunn of the Threat Management Unit declined to comment.

Former "NYPD Blue" star Thompson worked with Nazarian and the Threat Management Unit when she had a menacing and persistent stalker.

"John saved my life and my son's life," said Thompson, explaining that Nazarian not only set up surveillance at her house and kept an armed guard there at nights, but he also helped her learn skills such as hand-to-hand combat and defensive driving.

Although he does a smattering of criminal cases, family law accounts for about 70% of his business.

He is the only investigator used by 79-year-old attorney Sorrell Trope -- often referred to as the dean of L.A. divorce lawyers. Trope, who has represented Cary Grant and Nicole Kidman, among other stars, has employed Nazarian to serve subpoenas and to get background information to facilitate in searches for hidden assets. "The principal thing is, he's honest," Trope said. "He's legitimate."

Family law attorney Lisa Helfend Meyer says she tried a lot of private eyes before she met Nazarian in the courthouse. "I wasn't happy because most of them are flaky.... I trust John, and I don't trust the majority of private investigators I've worked with."

In one Meyer case, Nazarian tracked down a husband who'd gone to Mexico with his wife to try to reconcile their marital differences but then vanished after five days. (Nazarian found the faithless husband with his girlfriend). In another case, a doctor claimed that he couldn't pay his child support because he was too ill to work; he was healthy enough to treat Nazarian, though, when he came in posing as a patient.

Attorney Cary Goldstein, who specializes in palimony cases, uses Nazarian "for questioned documents and handwriting analysis, surveillance."

"Investigators are kind of interesting characters," Goldstein said. "What they do is sell information, and sometimes you just want to know things about people and you don't want it to be the same kind of baloney that anyone can pull off a Google search. You want to know the real stuff.... John has a web of operatives and a way ... of casually obtaining relevant information about people. That's what you pay for with someone like Nazarian."

What's notable these days about Trope, Meyer and Goldstein is that none of their names has surfaced among the widening ring of pricey L.A. attorneys who used Pellicano. However, all of them have battled with Pellicano's employers, most notably Dennis Wasser, Tom Cruise's divorce attorney, and celebrity litigator Bert Fields, both of whom have been officially notified by the U.S. attorney's office that they're "subjects of interest" in the inquiry. (Wasser and Fields have denied any wrongdoing.)

Nazarian believes -- but can't prove -- that he tangled with Pellicano during the acrimonious palimony battle between former Miss USA Shanna Moakler and boxer Oscar De La Hoya.

A few hours after Moakler aired her grievances against De La Hoya on Court TV in October 2000, a crew of burly paramilitary-style operatives barged into the home she once shared with De La Hoya. According to court documents and the police report, they also ringed the perimeter and harassed friends who were trying to enter. Moakler had called Nazarian, who arrived with his crew to protect her before police came and dispersed De La Hoya's operatives. Fields represented De La Hoya at the time. Stephen Espinoza, a former attorney for Fields' firm who was working on De La Hoya's behalf, insists that the men who arrived at Moakler's house were not Pellicano's but from a different security firm employed by De La Hoya.

Nazarian definitely butted heads with Pellicano after the wife of Pellicano's former accountant sued Nazarian for several million dollars. "She wanted her husband's horses killed, and I balked at it. She sued me for breach of contract. Six months later she came back to me, asking for my help," Nazarian said.

In the interim, the former client allegedly hired Pellicano to investigate Nazarian.

"He couldn't do much. He sent a packet to my home demanding all my files, all my records. Don't contact her. Don't do this. I have power of attorney. I basically laughed at him."

Not everybody admires Nazarian's methods.

One family law attorney, Lynn Soodik, says Nazarian tried to intimidate her while she took his deposition in a case.

"He sent me a greeting card at home. On the surface, it was not threatening, but you knew he was saying, 'I know where you live.' I just thought it was unprofessional," Soodik said.

Nazarian said he also went through her trash, just to unnerve her.

"I think it's funny Lynn Soodik would say something that I did was unprofessional," he said with a smirk. "You know the difference between a private eye and a lawyer? They have a nicer office."

Determination Pays Off

Nazarian pulls up in front of a red brick house. The light in the garage is on, and the trash is, unfortunately, sitting at the side of the house behind a gate. His language turns blue. "Again there's no trash," he said.

This is the second time Nazarian has hit this house, and he's frustrated, but the night is still young. He decides to come back later, and scoots over to Bel-Air to check on a husband who his client thinks is cheating on her.

"Trust me. Just like Bugs Bunny gets a carrot, I'll get my ... trash." (Indeed, a couple of weeks later, he reported finding enough blood to get a pregnancy test, as well as enough bottles of alcohol to suggest massive consumption.) Nazarian is vague about exactly what he's trying to prove, saying only that it's a family law case.

Nazarian dabbled in many professions before he became a private eye. His past incarnations include mortician, prison guard (at the Californian Institution for Women, where he got to know the Manson women), a heavy-equipment operator, the owner of a lawn business, a sheriff's deputy in San Francisco and a small-town cop in Mendota, Calif., where he worked with juveniles.

He was well known as one of the first openly gay cops in San Francisco. Nazarian says he's actually bisexual, although he generally doesn't discuss his sex life. "To classify myself, I would never say gay, but I consider myself fairly happy. I'm an across-the-board lover of trees, women, men, dogs, horses," he said. When he started out as a private eye, he worked often for people who were dying of AIDS and wanted to find lost loved ones. "All my friends who came on the department with me died of AIDS. It was a big part of the reason I left San Francisco. I lost all my friends when I was in my 30s."

Now infidelity pays the bills.

He's driving up to a client's house in Bel-Air, a $12-million mansion surrounded by foliage and mostly obscured from the street except for a portico with cars. Nazarian gets very excited because one is gone, the BMW that belongs to the spouse he's keeping tabs on.

He calls his client only to learn that the missing husband is not missing at all ... but with her.

"She was laughing. 'My God, you're doing a good job of keeping track of him,' " said Nazarian, who seemed at least pleased to prove to his employer that he was working hard on her case. In the next week, he did the trash at this house and discovered that the spouse dined on TV dinners while his wife was away. "I'll never understand an unhappy multimillionaire who doesn't eat well," Nazarian said.

The majority of Nazarian's clients are women, and it's easy to see why. While Pellicano oozed a kind of predatory, oleaginous charm, Nazarian is more like a pit bull -- ferocious to strangers, but deeply loyal and solicitous to his masters.

"Women gravitate toward him because they feel comfortable with him," Meyer said. "It's hard when a woman goes through a divorce. They've relied on their husbands, and now they're adrift. John comes through for them."

Nazarian also caters to the wealthy women who don't want to give up the Jaguars and the Beverly Hills mansion -- they just want to know where their husbands are sleeping.

"They basically want to keep track of the flavor of the month," Nazarian said as he cruised back to the Beverly Hills house to see if the trash was out. "The men think they're in charge, but the women are always in charge."

Nazarian earns a lot of money because of men who can't stay faithful. He loves to find people's secrets, and he reels off some recent discoveries like a hunter bragging about his kills -- the wealthy couple's box of sex toys, the nude photographs that had been shredded but that his team managed to piece back together.

"It's not an honorable profession," he said, sighing.

But he's no Pellicano, the disgraced avatar of Hollywood gumshoes.

"Some of the stuff Pellicano did was overboard," Nazarian said. "It was like putting too much garlic in the sauce. He didn't need to do that."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°