When the FBI first issued pagers to agents in Los Angeles, the idea of being electronically tethered to the office didn’t sit well with a bear-sized veteran named Stanley Ornellas.
So, to make a point about how the technology intruded on agents’ traditional independence, Ornellas and his partner wore garage door openers instead of beepers.
“I recall they joked that they had to stop,” said former federal prosecutor George Newhouse, “because every time a supervisor tried to page them, one of their garage doors would open.”
The prank, Newhouse said, was vintage Ornellas: The old-school agent was known for taking his job, but not himself, seriously, and he was willing to buck the bureaucracy.
Now, in what was to be his triumphant swan song, the conduct of the 58-year-old veteran in some of the FBI’s biggest Los Angeles organized crime and political corruption investigations is at the center of a legal attack by defense attorneys in the wiretapping and racketeering trial of onetime Hollywood private eye Anthony Pellicano and five co-defendants.
Today, U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer is to consider defense allegations that Ornellas, in an affidavit seeking to search Pellicano’s office, included false information and omitted evidence that should have been shown to a judge.
It’s common for the defense in major federal cases to attack the investigation in order to derail the prosecution before the trial begins.
But the judge last month, in an unusual ruling, said Ornellas would have to answer separate allegations that he used Pellicano’s former girlfriend to spy on the private eye during prison visits without informing Pellicano’s lawyer.
Getting a separate hearing on Ornellas’ conduct and the search warrant will be more difficult. The legal standards for throwing out a search warrant are high, and Pellicano’s former defense attorney, Donald Re, failed in a previous attempt to invalidate the warrant. But Re has said he might have prevailed had the government revealed earlier the information that the defense is using in this challenge.
“In our motion we have made straight-forward allegations that agent Ornellas misled the magistrate, yet the government has not provided one word from Ornellas himself denying these allegations,” said Pellicano attorney Michael Artan. “That absence of denial speaks volumes.”
The government, for its part, contends that the defense is relying on minor discrepancies and unsubstantiated personal attacks.
“These increasingly outrageous personal attacks on [Agent] Ornellas have been a staple of the defense since the initiation of this case, and will no doubt continue to be waged at trial in an effort to distract the jury from the overwhelming evidence of defendants’ guilt,” the prosecutors said in court papers.
In requesting the search, Ornellas contended that Pellicano hired an ex-convict to try to frighten two journalists out of writing unflattering stories about actor Steven Seagal. In one of the incidents, then-Los Angeles Times reporter Anita M. Busch found a dead fish and a red rose on the punctured windshield of her car below a note that read: “Stop!”
The affidavit suggested Seagal had been implicated in the scheme. The actor was never charged, and federal authorities have privately told reporters they have no persuasive evidence against him, although the FBI has not publicly cleared him.
The defense says Ornellas failed to disclose false statements by the ex-convict. An informant taped the ex-convict saying he shot a bullet through Busch’s windshield and left a fish in a plastic pan on the reporter’s car.
According to the police report, no bullets were recovered at the scene and the pan was made of aluminum.
Ornellas also did not tell the judge that the informant tried to peddle the tape, the defense says. Pellicano’s lawyers also say Ornellas tried to rig a photo lineup.
Prosecutors argue that the defense’s points pale by comparison to other facts implicating Pellicano in the threat, including phone calls between him and the ex-convict. They also say the law did not require Ornellas to disclose all that he knew, just enough to establish probable cause that a crime was committed.
Defense lawyers also sought to portray Ornellas as a bully. In a sworn declaration, property owner Cecilia Glorious said she allowed FBI agents to search one of her apartments during the 2002 Pellicano investigation only after one identified as “the boss,” apparently Ornellas, had threatened her.
“We can do this the easy way or the hard way,” the agent had said, according to Glorious’ declaration. “I felt at that moment that he was threatening me by implying that he was going to trash my entire home . . . filled with heirlooms and antiques.”
But prosecutors said Glorious signed a consent form agreeing to the search voluntarily and under no threats. Prosecutors also said they can produce sworn testimony from four law enforcement agents to refute any contention that Glorious was threatened.
Although federal prosecutors declined comment about the latest defense allegations against Ornellas, in court papers they emphatically denied descriptions of him as a “discredited” and “disreputable” agent.
“During his entire lengthy FBI career, not a single court ever found him to have acted dishonestly, unethically or improperly,” they said.
In recent interviews, former FBI officials and federal prosecutors who worked with Ornellas in the past said the agent, who has been with the FBI for roughly 35 years, has a solid reputation.
“The Stan Ornellas I knew was a very straight shooter,” said Newhouse, who prosecuted a half-dozen cases investigated by the agent.
“If someone screws up a case or an agent doesn’t have a solid track record, people hear about it,” said former Los Angeles FBI Agent John Hoos, who retired from the bureau in 1999 after 30 years. “I can honestly say I never heard one derogatory thing said about Stan.”
During the course of his career, Ornellas has handled numerous high-profile cases.
Almost 20 years ago, he was part of an FBI investigation into then-Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley’s conduct in office and personal finances. The federal investigation ended without an indictment, though the mayor paid a $20,000 penalty to the city for failing to properly report his financial holdings and forfeited $55,000 in legally questionable campaign contributions.
Just before that case, Ornellas had investigated public corruption among Bell officials. The probe led to prison sentences for that city’s former mayor and city administrator.
More recently, Ornellas was in the FBI’s cyber crimes unit, investigating hackers such as Kevin Mitnick, who served five years in prison for cracking into the computer systems of major corporations including Sun Microsystems Inc.
Tim McNally, who once ran the FBI’s Los Angeles division, said Ornellas was known as a methodical and ethical investigator.
“Criminal law is not rocket science,” said McNally, a 24-year FBI veteran who retired in 1999. “It is about facts and gathering evidence about violations of the law. And Stan is good at gathering facts.”
Physically imposing and plain spoken to the point of seeming curt, Ornellas can look gruff and appear as if he “could twist your head off,” McNally said.
“But that physical presence belies a very human and gentle side,” McNally said.
The Pellicano case, which has spanned more than five years, will be the last for Ornellas, who reached mandatory retirement age a year ago but has been kept on under a special contract authorized by the FBI director in Washington. The contract, say current and former agents and prosecutors, illustrates how central Ornellas is to the Pellicano case and how well-regarded he is within the FBI.