For the last six years, few plots in Hollywood have kept more power brokers and entertainment lawyers in suspense than the FBI investigation into onetime private eye to the stars Anthony Pellicano.
With alleged victims including actors Sylvester Stallone and Keith Carradine and secret grand jury testimony from the likes of super-agent Mike Ovitz and studio executives Brad Grey and Ron Meyer, the case was seen by many as the entertainment industry’s biggest scandal in decades.
Although it never lived up to its billing, the racketeering and wiretapping trial that begins today in Los Angeles federal court will still offer plenty of star power and plot twists over the next two months.
Stallone and Carradine are expected to be among a long list of witnesses who will describe how Pellicano’s alleged snooping cost them lawsuits, careers or a sense of security. Ovitz, Grey and others will probably testify; celebrity attorney Bertram Fields may also be called.
Pellicano’s clients have told authorities that they were unaware that he was breaking the law.
“The whole story has not been told, so people are waiting for the dirt to come out at trial,” said Loyola University law professor Laurie Levenson, explaining the continuing interest in the case.
“They are waiting to find out: Why was Pellicano hired? What did he find out about these celebrities? And what can he tell us about what goes on in that world?” said Levenson, a former federal prosecutor.
The trial before U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer comes nearly six years after a threat against a former Los Angeles Times reporter led the FBI to raid Pellicano’s Sunset Strip offices and haul away truckloads of documents, tape recordings and computers.
Since then, industry insiders say, some of Los Angeles’ biggest stars, studio executives and entertainment attorneys have held their breath, fearful that the tentacles of the federal probe could ensnare them as part of Pellicano’s alleged enterprise to dig up dirt on dozens of people.
Federal prosecutors have secured guilty pleas from seven Pellicano clients or co-conspirators including “Die Hard” film director John McTiernan; former music company executive Robert Pfeifer; Sandra Carradine, ex-wife of actor Keith Carradine; and former Beverly Hills police officer Craig Stevens.
The 63-year-old Pellicano, acting as his own attorney, now faces trial with his remaining co-defendants: ex-LAPD Sgt. Mark Arneson, former telephone company technician Rayford Earl Turner, computer consultant Kevin Kachikian and Las Vegas businessman Abner Nicherie. All have pleaded not guilty to the charges. Pellicano will be tried on separate counts with entertainment attorney Terry Christensen about a month after the first trial concludes, a judge ruled Tuesday.
Among the longest-running criminal cases in recent Hollywood history, the Pellicano investigation began with an event straight out of an old B movie.
On the morning of June 20, 2002, then-Times reporter Anita Busch awoke to a neighbor’s news that someone had smashed the windshield of Busch’s car.
Walking to her vehicle, Busch found a dead fish, a rose and a note with a one-word warning: “STOP.”
Busch told authorities she believed that the threat was a result of her research into action film star Steven Seagal and his onetime producing partner, Julius R. Nasso, who had been indicted with New York mob figures for allegedly plotting to extort Seagal.
The day after the threat, Busch said, she had six voice-mail messages at her office from someone wanting to talk with her about her reporting on Seagal.
The caller, an FBI informant, told her he had recently met a man who said he had been hired by a detective agency to intimidate Busch.
The detective agency, authorities later alleged, was Pellicano’s.
But what began as a little-noticed threat investigation quickly grew into a sweeping and high-profile inquiry into the inner workings of Hollywood deal-making, litigation and domestic scandals. And, at the center of the probe was the self-described investigator to the stars.
With a celebrity client list that other private eyes could only dream about, Pellicano had been a Tinseltown fixture for two decades, working on behalf of superstars including Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor and Tom Cruise.
His manner gruff, his theatrics a perfect fit for Hollywood, Pellicano relished the reputation as a “fixer” who made problems go away.
As a three-year FBI investigation would conclude, Pellicano was good at what he did. And, authorities alleged, he was good because he broke the law with abandon, often aided by police officers, telephone company employees and others.
In a 110-count indictment unsealed in February 2006, a federal grand jury described Pellicano as the ringleader of a racketeering conspiracy that included Arneson, 54, of Culver City and Turner, 51, of Van Nuys.
For years, the indictment charged, the trio used wiretaps, bribery, identity theft and obstruction to enhance Pellicano’s reputation and service his well-heeled clients. Along the way, the indictment said, Pellicano paid Arneson at least $189,000 and Turner no less than $36,000.
And, there were other important characters in this plot, authorities alleged.
Kachikian, 43, of Fountain Valley was charged with developing the wiretapping software -- dubbed Telesleuth -- used by Pellicano. Three others -- music producer Pfeifer, 50, of Hollywood and brothers Daniel and Abner Nicherie of Las Vegas -- were charged with involvement in specific instances of aiding and abetting wiretapping.
Although authorities contend that Pellicano routinely used wiretaps to gain the upper hand on adversaries, they have so far acknowledged having only one recording of illegal surveillance. Instead, prosecutors intend to rely on written summaries of alleged wiretaps and testimony from people who say they either helped Pellicano with wiretaps or heard recordings of illegally taped conversations.
Apart from wiretaps, authorities cited nearly 100 instances in which Pellicano and Arneson allegedly accessed confidential law enforcement records, including the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database, to gain information about targets including comedian Garry Shandling, former “Saturday Night Live” star Kevin Nealon and real estate developer Robert Maguire.
One week after the original indictment, authorities added the name of prominent entertainment attorney Christensen to the list of defendants, alleging that he paid Pellicano $100,000 to wiretap the ex-wife of his longtime client, billionaire Kirk Kerkorian.
By the time the indictments were unsealed, authorities had secured guilty pleas from Pellicano’s onetime girlfriend, Sandra Carradine, who admitted lying about Pellicano’s alleged wiretapping of her ex-husband, and former Beverly Hills cop Stevens, who admitted illegally accessing police computers for Pellicano and lying about it to the FBI.
Though the allegations of secret surveillance and other crimes might always have been of some public interest, what elevated the Pellicano investigation were the names of celebrity victims and the prospect that many of the private eye’s most famous clients could be indicted.
“Look, these are serious charges,” Levenson said. “But without Hollywood, without Sylvester Stallone and some of the other names that have come up . . . I don’t think the public would have blinked their eyes at this case.”