Private eye to the stars is guilty

Times Staff Writers

Private investigator Anthony Pellicano, who wiretapped, followed and intimidated people all in the name of serving his moneyed clients, was found guilty Thursday of 76 federal criminal charges. Just reading the jury's verdicts on the dozens of counts of racketeering, wire fraud, computer fraud and wiretapping took 20 minutes.

Stoic to the end, the man who represented himself at trial and refused to testify in his own defense lest he be forced to talk about his clients declined U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer's invitation to have the jurors polled on the verdicts. "No, your honor, thank you," Pellicano said.

Pellicano's elaborate and illegal information-gathering scheme -- which the jury resoundingly deemed a racketeering enterprise -- aided celebrities and business executives, including studio chief Brad Grey and CAA talent agency co-founder Michael Ovitz, and targeted others. Among them: Sylvester Stallone, Garry Shandling and developer Robert Maguire.

Initially, it looked as if the government's six-year investigation would implicate billionaires and Hollywood power brokers and put them on trial with the private detective they had hired. The powerful would fall, some thought -- a cautionary tale for the industry.

But that didn't happen. Pellicano's Hollywood clients were questioned but never charged. The same held true for Bert Fields, the venerable lawyer to the stars, who was Pellicano's frequent employer and mentor. Never heard or seen on the stand, he nonetheless hovered over the trial like a ghost, his name often invoked by witnesses and even Pellicano in his phone recordings.

It's unclear how much time Pellicano will get; one legal expert estimated not more than 10 years based on the complex sentencing guidelines. But whatever the sentence, it will effectively bring to a close the career of the most infamous private eye in Los Angeles -- a man who insinuated himself into the loftiest legal and entertainment circles and even consulted on law enforcement cases until he became one.

Looking preternaturally calm minutes before the jury came back with its verdicts, Pellicano walked into the courtroom and sat down as he grinned and scanned the room. But on the first count, he took off his glasses and looked around expressionlessly. By the 19th guilty verdict, his face red, he shook his head.

The jury also delivered guilty verdicts against all four of Pellicano's co-defendants, a cast of characters who were decidedly un-Hollywood. There was Mark Arneson, the former LAPD police sergeant; Ray Turner, the former telephone company field technician; Kevin Kachikian, computer expert; and Abner Nicherie, a businessman-turned-nursing student who spent a good portion of the trial snoozing, his chin down on his chest.

"This case is not about Hollywood," the lead prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Atty. Daniel Saunders, told jurors in his closing arguments. "It's not about Sylvester Stallone . . . or Mike Ovitz or Brad Grey. This is a case about corruption, about cheating, about greed and arrogance and the subversion of the justice system. It just happened to take place in Hollywood."

The four co-defendants, who remain free on bail, are scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 24. Pellicano, meanwhile, was ordered to remain in federal custody until sentencing.

Jury foreman Terri Winbush, an L.A. Unified employee, said "justice has been served because people's lives, their identities, were violated."

As the prosecutors predicted, Pellicano's own secretly taped phone conversations -- played in court -- were some of the most incriminating evidence against him.

"He did a lot of code talking. . . . We figured it out," said Winbush of the taped phone conversations.

In an odd way, Pellicano's downfall started with a dead fish. It was left on a reporter's car and apparently intended as a cryptic threat and later linked to the private eye. That led to an FBI search of Pellicano's offices in 2002. The agents found explosives, which sent Pellicano to prison in November 2003 for a 30-month term for illegal possession. But the agents also stumbled upon something else during their search: a recording of a wiretapped phone conversation and tapes of phone conversations between Pellicano and his clients. The tapes caught Pellicano talking about wiretapping, prosecutors contended.

"I can't even listen to it all. It's too much," Pellicano told one client, action movie director John McTiernan, in a phone call, played in court. Prosecutors said they were discussing wiretaps on producer Charles Roven. "He'll call his secretary and she places calls for him and she may make 15 . . . calls. I've got to listen to every one of those to determine who he's calling for what."

McTiernan was one of seven people who pleaded guilty to charges connected to the case before Pellicano's trial. That group also included actor Keith Carradine's ex-wife, Sandra.

But for the most part, if Pellicano's wealthy clientele showed up at all, it was to testify under limited-use immunity agreements that protected them from prosecution for what they said. After their turns on the stand, they rushed out of the courtroom trailed by their lawyers, off to work, off to Europe.

So maybe the trial wasn't about Hollywood -- but it was very Hollywood.

The plot lines were as melodramatic as a Lifetime cable movie.

The tapes played in court -- or leaked earlier -- revealed the uncensored, tawdry and vain musings of his sophisticated clientele as they were alternately coddled by Pellicano and harangued for more money.

Pellicano wiretapped Stallone (a.k.a. "Johnny Friendly" in phone company records) for the movie star's ex-business manager, Kenneth Starr (not the Clinton prosecutor.) And he tapped Carradine for his ex-wife, she testified. (She also dated Pellicano.)

Paramount Pictures chief Grey hired Pellicano to help him after comedian Shandling sued him for $100 million. Ovitz unleashed Pellicano on two people suing his company and on two reporters, Anita Busch and Bernard Weinraub, who wrote stories he objected to for the New York Times. Both men denied knowing that the private eye was doing anything illegal.

In June 2002, Busch -- who by that time was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times -- walked to her Audi outside her home to find a dead fish under a pan, a hole in the windshield and a note that read "STOP." A couple of months later, Busch said, she was almost run down by a car. Phone company staffers twice found a suspicious "half-tap" on her phone lines -- a wire that can be used for legitimate repairs or for wiretapping.

"I was scared 24/7," Busch testified.

Pellicano performed other nasty chores for his clients, trial witnesses said. Ivan Kaufman, chief executive of a Long Island-based commercial mortgage banking company, hired him to run interference with a young Los Angeles woman, Timea Zsibrita, who said she was carrying Kaufman's child.

Zsibrita testified that Pellicano drove her to an appointment for an abortion -- and then presented her with the $125,000 check that her lover had promised in exchange for keeping quiet.

Her sister, Monica Zsibrita, a model, demanded money from comedian Chris Rock because of her pregnancy, he testified reluctantly. (He was not the father.) Rock hired Pellicano to investigate her.

The fact that most of Pellicano's clients were not prosecuted wasn't lost on defense attorneys.

During his closing argument on behalf of Arneson, the ex-cop, attorney Chad Hummel ticked off a list of seven people who testified that they had listened to wiretapped conversations -- but were never criminally charged. Prosecutor Saunders, the model of high dudgeon during the trial, scoffed in his closing arguments: "As if that makes his client any less corrupt." The statute of limitations for prosecuting wiretapping had run out in some cases, Saunders said.

The trial was laced with references to Pellicano's self-styled operatic sense of loyalty, which he seemed to have borrowed from "The Sopranos."

One of the several pass codes necessary to get into his highly secured computer system was omerta -- the Italian word for the Sicilian code of keeping silent about crimes and refusing to cooperate with police.

Prosecutors played in court a conversation between Pellicano and a man whose brother was charged with bookmaking. The private detective tells the man: "If you're a rat, don't even come anywhere . . . near me. 'Cause I will hurt you. I don't deal with rats. I am an old-style Sicilian, you understand, and I don't want to have nothing to do with any . . . rats."

Of course, the words rang out in an open courtroom for all the world to hear.

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carla.hall@latimes.com

tami.abdollah@latimes.com

Times staff writer Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The verdicts

Anthony Pellicano, 64, private eye

Convicted:

* Racketeering, 1 count

* Racketeering conspiracy,

1 count

* Honest services wire fraud, 19 counts

* Unauthorized access of national law enforcement database, 18 counts

* Identity theft, 13 counts

* Computer fraud, 13 counts

* Conspiracy to wiretap,

1 count

* Wiretapping (of specific individuals), 9 counts

* Manufacture or possession of a wiretapping device,

1 count

Acquitted:

* Unauthorized access of national law enforcement computer database, 1 count

Mark Arneson, 54, former LAPD sergeant

Convicted: (all counts)

* Racketeering, 1 count

* Racketeering conspiracy,

1 count

* Honest services wire fraud, 17 counts

* Unauthorized computer access of national law enforcement database,

17 counts

* Identity theft, 5 counts

* Computer fraud, 5 counts

Rayford Earl Turner, 51,

phone technician

Convicted:

* Racketeering, 1 count

* Racketeering conspiracy,

1 count

* Identity theft, 4 counts

* Computer fraud, 4 counts

* Conspiracy to wiretap,

1 count

* Wiretapping (of specific individuals), 5 counts

* False statements, 1 count

Acquitted:

* Wiretapping (of specific individuals), 4 counts

Kevin Kachikian, 43,

computer expert

Convicted:

* Conspiracy to wiretap,

1 count

* Manufacture or possession of wiretapping device, 1 count

Acquitted:

* Wiretapping (of specific individuals), 9 counts

Abner Nicherie, 44,

Las Vegas businessman

Convicted:

* Wiretapping (of specific individuals), 1 count

Source:

Times reporting

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