Spector’s past to figure in trial

Times Staff Writers

Phil Spector never denied he wagged a pistol at a member of the Ramones or fired off a shot during a studio session with John Lennon. The music industry loves edgy characters, especially when they churn out chart-topping hits as the influential music producer once did. But now, with his murder trial approaching, his reputation for drunken gunplay is coming back like a vicious ricochet.

“He always had that habit of showing off guns when he was drinking; it’s what he did, it was his thing,” said Larry Levine, the recording engineer who sat next to Spector in the studio for years. “And now, well, all of that is going to be part of this trial. I don’t know what happened on that night, but the jury will have to figure it out.”

“That night” was the predawn hours of Feb. 3, 2003, when 40-year-old Lana Clarkson, a tall, blond actress, died from a gunshot to the mouth at Spector’s quirky “castle” in Alhambra. Both a hired driver for Spector and the first police officer on the scene have said the dazed producer told them he thought he had killed someone. Spector, however, has maintained that Clarkson committed suicide, telling Esquire magazine: “She kissed the gun.”

Prospective jurors report to court Monday for a lengthy selection process scheduled to run into April. When arguments begin, the prosecution is expected to tell those chosen that Spector, a man with a history of rage against women, met an attractive bar hostess during a night of drinking, persuaded her to come home with him and then shot her when his advances did not go as planned.


“You know Lana was waiting to leave,” prosecutor Douglas W. Sortino told a grand jury in 2004. Noting that Clarkson was found seated near the mansion’s front door, Sortino argued, “She’s not sitting there saying, ‘Oh, I think I’ll kill myself.’ ”

If the defense mirrors Spector’s accounts, it will contend that Clarkson, whose middling acting career had gone cold, chose Spector’s 33-room faux castle to take her own life in the presence of a music-industry legend. Roger J. Rosen, one of Spector’s attorneys, declined to comment on possible strategies but did say, “Suicide is of course a possibility.”

The prosecutors have a strong case, legal experts say: Spector’s admissions and his alcohol consumption, after years of sobriety; physical evidence; and an important pretrial ruling allowing testimony of prior incidents involving Spector, a woman and a gun.

One of four women who may testify, Philadelphia photographer Stephanie Jennings, told the grand jury that when she refused an invitation to go to his hotel suite during a 1995 trip to New York, Spector blocked the door and brandished a handgun until she called police.

On its side, the defense has testimony that the gun likely went off inside Clarkson’s mouth. A lurid theory about sex games, fueled by Spector’s widely quoted “kissed the gun” comment, may also become a pivot point.

When asked whether the gun was part of the couple’s foreplay, one of Spector’s attorneys, Bruce Cutler, replied: “I’ve read it, I’ve heard it.... If that’s what happened, it’s a tragic waste of life, isn’t it? Most importantly, it is not a crime.”

Prosecutors have not done well in recent years against celebrity defendants, including Robert Blake and Michael Jackson, and USC law professor Jean Rosenbluth noted that the defense has in this case not yet shown its hand. Cutler, a New Yorker and mobster John Gotti’s longtime lawyer, may sway the jury with his theatrical flair, she said.

“He’s a showman. It’s what he’s hired to do,” she said. “We haven’t seen all evidence. Who knows what will happen?”

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler is allowing cameras in the courtroom, ensuring that the case, with its tawdry trappings, pop psychology and celebrity tinder, will generate a bonfire of media attention. At the center will be Spector, once an essential figure in American pop music who in recent years has come off more as a diminutive Howard Hughes type with Cuban heels and elaborate wigs.

“Everyone will watch the trial,” Spector’s old friend Levine said. “How can you not? I just hope that his appearance won’t hurt him. I hope he doesn’t wear one of those terrible wigs that make him look so strange.”

Spector’s music career will be a backbeat to the trial, and, according to the defendant, it was even a strange soundtrack for Clarkson’s death that fateful February night: According to a police officer, Spector said Clarkson was singing two of his signature hits just before she shot herself. One was the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron,” the other the Righteous Brothers’ classic “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.”

That police officer, Derek Gilliam, also testified that Spector repeatedly pantomimed the shooting, using his index finger and thumb.

“He would throw his head back and then all of a sudden you see his finger go bang, and he laid back and sat there for about five seconds,” Gilliam said. Finally, according to Gilliam, Spector “looked down at the floor, and he came back up and he said ‘Nobody takes a gun from me,’ with a smirk.”

More than meets the ear

There has always been a dark tinge to Spector’s life, even though he first became famous for shimmering, buoyant pop symphonies like the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and the Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me.”

He was born the day after Christmas 1940 in the Bronx, and his childhood was defined by his poor health and his father’s suicide in 1949. The family then moved west, and Spector, attending Fairfax High School, found success young in the music business.

His reign as the “Tycoon of Teen,” as Tom Wolfe famously dubbed him, ebbed as the 1960s wore on. Still, in the 1970s he worked with Cher, George Harrison and Leonard Cohen. By the 1980s, though, his music sensibilities and tantrums had reduced him to an industry curio. When he met Clarkson, he had grown increasingly isolated and glum after a recent comeback bid with a young British band called Starsailor fizzled.

For Clarkson’s family, the worry will be that the tragedy of the Long Beach native’s death will be lost in Spector’s long shadow. Already, Clarkson’s B-movie resume (“Female Mercenaries,” “Vice Girls”) has been used to portray her as less than wholesome.

She began modeling after moving to Los Angeles from the Napa Valley at age 16, and in 1982 she landed a bit part in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Three years later, she had the title role in producer Roger Corman’s “Barbarian Queen,” a low-budget hit that won her a devoted following among fantasy film buffs. She was a frequent presence at area sci-fi conventions such as DragonFest, and her website still has mash-note messages posted by fans. She did work in commercials and television (including episodes of “The A-Team,” “Silk Stalkings” and “Knight Rider”) but by 2001 the film jobs had dried up completely.

But Edward Lozzi, Clarkson’s publicist, said she had told him weeks before her death that she was excited about her hostess job at the House of Blues VIP room. Clarkson’s family has declined interviews, citing their wrongful-death lawsuit against Spector.

“I was very impressed she was chosen to be the hostess of the Foundation Room. A lot of people don’t get that,” said Lozzi, adding that she had other career moves planned.

The trial’s start has been repeatedly delayed, in part by Spector’s merry-go-round of defense attorneys. Robert Shapiro, who was part of O.J. Simpson’s defense team, handled early matters but was replaced by Leslie Abramson and Marcia Morrissey, attorneys for Eric and Lyle Menendez, who in turn gave way to Cutler and his team, which includes attorneys Rosen, Bradley W. Brunon, Linda Kenny-Baden, Christopher Plourd and Robert Blasier, and jury consultant Richard Gabriel.

Up for the prosecution will be Patrick Dixon, head of the district attorney’s major crimes unit, Alan Jackson and an unnamed jury consultant.

In the four years since Clarkson’s death, a picture of what may have happened has sharpened, with details from autopsy reports, grand jury testimony and a few interviews with Spector.

According to a Spector deposition in 2005, he spent the evening among three longtime celebrity haunts: The Grill on the Alley and Trader Vic’s in Beverly Hills, and Dan Tana’s in West Hollywood. At Dan Tana’s, Spector drank alcohol, surprising the staff, who knew him as a teetotaler.

In his deposition, Spector said he had his driver for the night, Adriano DeSouza, take him and a friend, a waitress named Kathy Sullivan, to the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip. Former Judas Priest singer Rob Halford was finishing his set on the club’s main stage when Spector and Sullivan arrived, but they skipped the show and went upstairs to the Foundation Room, a plush VIP bar near the dressing rooms.

The driver testified that after 15 minutes, Sullivan returned to the car, accompanied by a tall blond woman introduced as “Lana.” The woman was Clarkson, who had been a Foundation Room hostess for about three weeks.

DeSouza drove Sullivan home, then returned. The next time he saw Spector, Clarkson was guiding the drunken appearing producer to his car.

House of Blues records showed Clarkson clocked out at 2:21 a.m. The driver said Clarkson repeatedly declined Spector’s invitations to visit his house, but then relented, telling DeSouza that she would stay only for one drink.

Spector’s mansion was up the hill from a lawnmower store and a gun shop in Alhambra, a middle-class San Gabriel Valley community where Spector was an unlikely celebrity resident. Spector and Clarkson went inside. About 5 a.m., according to the driver, Spector emerged from the house, holding a gun.

“I think I killed somebody,” Spector said, according to the driver.

When Alhambra police arrived, Spector did not follow orders, and officers shot him with electric Taser darts. Inside, officers found Clarkson’s corpse upright in a white chair, her legs stretched out in front of her in a red-carpeted foyer.

On the floor beneath her left leg was the .38-caliber weapon that killed her, one of several firearms in the house.

Medical examiner Louis Pena, who performed Clarkson’s autopsy, told the grand jury that his findings could support either a suicide or homicide. The revolver was in her mouth when it was fired -- traces of her tooth material were on the barrel. Pena said bruising on her hands could be from a struggle, but he also said the finding was inconclusive. The coroner concluded that the death was a homicide, based on “history, circumstances, law enforcement police reports and autopsy.”

In the hours after the shooting, during a tape-recorded interrogation, Spector rambled profanely, saying, “The gun went off accidentally.... It was a mistake.”

In pretrial skirmishing, Spector’s lawyers suggested that he was confused during the conversation by his medication and the effects of the stun gun. Although attorneys have not introduced a mental defense, Spector on several occasions has claimed a history of instability. In a July 2005 deposition, Spector testified that he had been on medication for manic depression for eight years.

“No sleep, depression, mood changes, mood swings, hard to live with, hard to concentrate, hard -- just hard -- a hard time getting through life,” he offered. “I’ve been called a genius, and I think a genius is not there all the time and has borderline insanity.”

A fall from grace

Since Clarkson’s death four years ago, Spector has been free on bail, a bitter topic for family and friends of the actress.

Spector has kept a low profile, although last fall he married actress-model Rachelle Short, 26, in Los Angeles. His history is still very much a part of the music industry present, however -- albeit an awkward part.

Last Monday night, the Ronettes, the girl group that Spector shaped, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The group’s lead singer, Ronnie Spector, is the producer’s ex-wife and has long accused him of abuse and tyrannical behavior.

She pointedly did not mention him during her acceptance speech.

Afterward, musician Paul Shaffer read a letter from Spector to the industry crowd, which greeted the proxy speech with tepid applause and plenty of rolling eyes.

Hal Blaine, who played drums on many of Spector’s classic hits, said it’s hard for music fans today to understand the singular figure Spector cut in the heady days of the 1960s.

“I remember Brian Wilson coming by just to watch and to try learn about this magic dust that Phil seemed to sprinkle on his hits,” Blaine said. “I remember a kid named David Geffen hanging around a lot, too. Everyone loved Phil, and everyone wanted to know his secrets.”

Blaine, now a retiree in Palm Desert, still answers questions about his old maestro, but the topic now is murder, not music. “I spent three hours talking to the L.A. detectives; they came out here. They wanted to know about Phil and, you know, his history with guns.”


Times staff writer Greg Krikorian contributed to this report.