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Pellicano, ex-aide face off

Times Staff Writer

Tearfully confronting her former boss, a key government witness in the racketeering trial of Anthony Pellicano told a federal jury Wednesday that she feared for her life after telling the FBI and a grand jury about the indicted private investigator’s alleged wiretapping and other crimes.

“I was shattered. I was so scared . . . about your retaliation,” a seemingly terrified Tarita Virtue said to Pellicano, who is acting as his own defense attorney.

Recalling how Pellicano considered her “like a daughter” during the two years she worked as his top assistant, Virtue, 38, said she continued to act as if she would never discuss his business so he would not become suspicious that she was cooperating with the government.

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“I wanted you to think I would always be loyal to you,” Virtue told Pellicano, “because I was in fear for my safety.”

Facing charges that could send him away for life, the 63-year-old Pellicano, who remains in federal custody, cross-examined Virtue at the end of her third day on the witness stand. Testifying under a grant of immunity, the onetime assistant has described in detail how Pellicano allegedly wiretapped a number of investigative targets on behalf of well-heeled clients and with the help of his co-defendants.

But after calmly answering questions from government and defense attorneys for days, Virtue went from stone-faced to distraught when it was Pellicano’s turn to question her.

Referring to a recent article in which Virtue was quoted as saying she wished Pellicano had died in prison, Pellicano stared at his former top assistant and asked, “Do you wish me dead?”

“I did,” Virtue said, staring right back at Pellicano. “When you threatened my life, I certainly did.”

Attempting to defuse the moments of tension between them, Pellicano suggested that Virtue’s anxiety and courtroom statements were driven not by fear but guilt or a sense of betrayal for testifying against him.

But Virtue rejected Pellicano’s explanation.

Choking back tears, she recalled how her father had called her, alarmed, five years ago when he received an allegedly threatening phone call about his daughter from Pellicano, just as she had begun talking to authorities.

“Would I threaten to kill my own daughter?” Pellicano asked Virtue in a calm voice.

“You already did,” she answered, sobbing, “when you made that call to my parents in Florida.”

Throughout her testimony in the trial before U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer, Virtue has said she was a reluctant witness who had no choice but to cooperate with federal prosecutors and the FBI because of her own complicity in the alleged wiretapping and racketeering enterprise of Pellicano. He and four others have denied the charges against them.

Toward that end, Virtue also has testified that she fled Los Angeles in 2003 after talking to authorities because she feared retribution from Pellicano. That fear, she said Wednesday, was fueled by conversations with two other former employees who also believed they were in danger after leaving his employment.

But defense attorneys have challenged Virtue’s contentions, noting that the model had posed for a photo spread in the men’s magazine Maxim in 2003 -- an assignment, Virtue said, that only fulfilled a previous commitment.

Defense lawyers also have portrayed Virtue as someone who enjoys the spotlight as an important government witness and whose statements have changed over the years.

The trial resumes today with testimony from Virtue and other government witnesses including comedian Garry Shandling, who authorities allege was among dozens of targets whose records Pellicano had searched on confidential law enforcement databases.

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greg.krikorian@latimes.com


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