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Diverse cast in wiretap case

Times Staff Writer

In the courtroom drama starring Los Angeles private detective Anthony Pellicano, they are the supporting players -- the disgraced cop, the one-time Las Vegas businessman, the former phone company technician and the computer whiz.

It is Pellicano who faces the most counts and casts the biggest shadow over the trial, now in its eighth week. But prosecutors allege that his unlikely posse of co-defendants all played important roles in the elaborate wiretapping and racketeering scheme he is accused of masterminding. Some defendants, prosecutors allege, had bigger parts than others.

Former Los Angeles Police Sgt. Mark Arneson is accused of illegally tapping into law-enforcement computer databases to feed Pellicano confidential information for his clients. Arneson has already spent hours on the stand defending himself as a hard-working cop -- only to be filleted later by a prosecutor who painted him as a crooked liar.

Then there is Abner Nicherie, 44. A friendly, boyish-faced Las Vegas businessman turned nursing student, he faces a single count of aiding and abetting the interception of wire communications. Nicherie has dozed during the trial and was warned by the judge to stop being so chatty with one of the court reporters who transcribe proceedings. His lawyer said Thursday he would not present a defense.

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This week, Rayford Turner, the former phone company technician, and Kevin Kachikian, the computer expert, put on their defenses, playing their parts in very different ways.

So far, Turner, 51, who is accused of being paid to deliver proprietary phone company information to Pellicano, has been cast as the affable ladies’ man. From his seat in court, he watched, unruffled, as a former phone company employee, who pleaded guilty to computer fraud, tearfully told of pulling confidential phone records for Turner -- and cooking fried chicken for his frequent parties. He laughed when another former colleague who gave him confidential information said on the stand that she thought he looked like professional basketball star Tony Parker.

“I’m sorry, Ray,” she said plaintively. “I don’t mean to embarrass you.”

Former Pellicano bookkeeper Gaye Palazzo told the court she “messed around” with Turner at work in a closet.

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Meanwhile, Kevin Kachikian, 43, who wrote the code for Pellicano’s TeleSleuth computer program for wiretapping, is the social misfit who by his own admission grew up more comfortable with electronics than with girls. He stands accused of wiretapping, conspiracy to wiretap -- and bad dressing.

“Whenever Mr. Kachikian came into the office, he was dressed in shorts and flip-flops or Tevas,” said Ricardo Preston Cestero, who once worked for Pellicano in the detective’s forensic audio lab. “My impression was Mr. Pellicano didn’t like Mr. Kachikian very much. Mr. Pellicano liked people to be in the office dressed in a professional way.”

Kachikian hasn’t changed his sartorial style much for court. He took the stand in his own defense on Wednesday and Thursday in cotton slacks, white socks and Teva sandals -- his courtroom uniform.

Long before he was sitting in a courtroom, linked in purported ignominy with the city’s most controversial private eye, he was just the tinkerer, he told the jury. He was the 5-year-old who took apart an alarm clock to see how it worked, the kid who cobbled together his own version of the robot R2-D2 from “Star Wars,” the teenager who left UC Irvine after one year to start consulting on computers and software design.

“It’s made me a little socially awkward,” he said on the stand, “which is why this is so hard . . . especially when several years of your life are on the line.”

Kachikian started consulting for Pellicano in 1993. Even as Kachikian became part of Pellicano’s roster of aides, the detective could be cold, irritable, demanding. “He was a micro-manager,” Kachikian recounted.

That didn’t stop Kachikian from working with Pellicano -- for $60 to $75 an hour -- to write the code for software programs that helped the detective enhance and analyze mostly audiotapes for court cases and lawyers.

But the jewel in the crown was the TeleSleuth software Kachikian wrote for Pellicano.

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The program could take a phone call (funneled to the computer through a converter box hooked to a phone jack), digitally record it and allow it to be listened to, “minimized” during irrelevant conversation and authenticated as continuous.

Kachikian said Pellicano wanted to sell it as legal wiretap software to law enforcement agencies around the country.

“I thought it was great,” said Kachikian. “I jumped at the chance to work on it.”

Assistant U.S. Atty. Daniel Saunders grilled Kachikian on cross-examination, his voice filled with skepticism that Kachikian was just a naif who had no idea that Pellicano was, according to the government, listening to his own illegally wire-tapped conversations with the TeleSleuth program.

Kachikian seemed agitated by Saunders’ questions. Many times he sought to add further explanation to his answers only to be cut short by the judge, who at one point threatened to sanction him.

“Mr. Kachikian, you are too smart to be doing this,” she scolded him. “You are not to comment. You are here to answer questions.”

Only one of Saunders’ questions seemed to please him. Saunders asked him about the extraordinarily difficult password to get into the system. “You created the code to get in -- control, alt, snowflake -- not shift -- type ‘Luca’?” Saunders rattled off.

“That’s correct,” Kachikian said, beaming.

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Turner, by contrast, declined his right to take the stand and defend himself against charges of wiretapping and racketeering. Instead, his attorney, Mona Soo Hoo, was peppered with objections from prosecutors as she struggled to get in testimony from phone company employees suggesting that Turner neither helped Pellicano do actual wiretapping, nor supplied key information for wiretapping.

Turner left the personal image-making to admiring female friends and jocular male buddies.

“Yes, I do know T,” said Alphonse Arnold Jr., an independent auto appraiser who met Turner years ago in a gym. “We work out about four times a week, play basketball about three times a week,” he said.

Phone company services technician Barry Barnett testified that he had heard nothing from his friend, Turner, about anything involving the phone company and Pellicano.

“After work, we don’t talk about the job,” said Barnett, who left the stand stunned by the testy exchanges between attorneys and the judge.

“This is Perry Mason all the way up in here,” said Barnett, looking at Judge Dale S. Fischer as she dismissed him from the stand. Outside the courtroom, Barnett, 47, said he still sees Turner (who, like all the defendants except Pellicano, is free on bail.) “We play baseball together. Life goes on.”

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carla.hall@latimes.com


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