Money talked, but to the wrong guy

Times Staff Writer

Among the inmates at the Clark County Detention Center in the summer of 2006 was a local celebrity, an ex-cop whose long fight to reverse his murder conviction still intrigued his hometown.

Ronald L. Mortensen had been a rookie Las Vegas police officer the night he and his partner went on a drunken off-duty spree. It ended with a fatal shooting. Was it Mortensen or his partner who pulled the trigger? The question dominated a sensational trial in 1997. It persisted even after Mortensen was convicted and shipped off to prison for life.

By 2006, Mortensen was preparing what might be his final bid for a new trial. Anxious to improve his odds, he orchestrated a scheme from behind bars to acquire California beachfront property from his ailing grandmother and tap loose credit markets for funds for his defense.

His ultimate plan, as revealed in secretly recorded jailhouse conversations, was to influence the court with something more than legal argument -- something like $100,000 in cash. Some might call that a bribe. Mortensen called it a campaign contribution.

Welcome to Las Vegas.

"Whether it's legal or not, that's just good politics. It's only illegal if we . . . get ourselves caught," Mortensen told a cellmate, unaware the FBI would hear every word.

Details of the plot hatched in Cell 8 are only now emerging from more than 100 hours of jailhouse phone and surveillance recordings and thousands of pages of internal police and FBI files.

The records trove was made public by Edward B. Gould -- a 6-foot-8, 270-pound convicted racketeer with a colorful past in crime, telemarketing and wrestling. He had tipped authorities to Mortensen's plan.

Gould, known in the ring as "Eddie Mountainman," now calls himself a disgruntled informant. After working undercover for investigators, he ended up indicted in the scheme -- even though his alleged frauds were carried out under almost constant police or FBI monitoring.

"I thought I was doing the right thing. I still do," said Gould, 43. "I don't deserve this."

But that's getting ahead of our story.

It all started with a birthday celebration on Dec. 27, 1996, the day Mortensen turned 31. After dinner, pool and a few rounds of beer chased by tequila, he and partner Christopher Brady went on a tear through gang neighborhoods.

They were out to harass drug dealers, Brady testified. Nothing serious, he said. "We were just having fun."

The fun ended in an alley. Brady drove up to a group of young men loitering in the shadows. Both off-duty cops were packing personal weapons. One of them fired six shots from Mortensen's Sig Sauer .380 pistol. Daniel Mendoza, 21 and unarmed, fell dead.

Brady said Mortensen did it. Mortensen said Brady did it.

The jury blamed Mortensen and convicted him of murder. He was sentenced to 99 years without possibility of parole and sent to a prison in Ohio.

Mortensen left behind a wife, a 2-year-old daughter and an 80-year-old grandmother, Doris Cossovel. As the matriarch's health declined, responsibility for her care fell to a daughter, Mortensen's mother, Sandra Adamson. Mother and son grew estranged.

"I talked to my stupid mother," Mortensen complained in one recorded conversation, after he had been transferred back to Las Vegas for hearings on his appeal.

Adamson told him the family needed to care for Mortensen's grandmother, not spend its resources on his case. She ruled out sharing the estate's biggest asset: a California home on Morro Bay called Pelican Roost. Mortensen pulled an end run.

"If you still want me to have the things you and Grandpa George wished for me to have -- including the beach house . . . and money for the new lawyers," he wrote his grandmother, then she should sign over Pelican Roost to him.

"You must do this for my protection and for my future," he concluded. "All my love to you. Ron Mortensen."

The letter was carried from Mortensen's cell to his grandmother's bedside by an unlikely messenger -- Kenneth W. Long, a former FBI agent who was then a North Las Vegas city prosecutor.

Years earlier, during a stint with the Clark County district attorney's office, Long had taken a personal interest in Mortensen's case. He interviewed Mortensen at the Ohio prison and came to doubt his guilt. The ex-federal agent and the convicted ex-cop became friends. Their daughters had play dates.

As "a favor for a friend," Long made four visits to Cossovel's nursing home in Las Vegas in the fall of 2005.

"I found her to be alert and cognizant of her surroundings," he wrote in an affidavit. He said she "clearly stated on three occasions" that she wanted her grandson to have the California house and that she "wanted to help Ronald."

Cossovel signed a quitclaim deed transferring ownership of Pelican Roost. Long, accompanied by a private detective and a notary, snapped a photo as the frail woman scratched an illegible signature.

On Dec. 13, 2005, San Luis Obispo County recorded ownership of the house in the name of Ronald L. Mortensen.

In a town where whom you know can be very important, Long knew someone very important to Mortensen. Long's friend Joe Saitta, retired chief of the U.S. Secret Service office in Las Vegas, was married to Clark County District Judge Nancy Saitta. Or, as Mortensen called her, "my judge."

In the fall of 2006, Judge Saitta was to hear Mortensen's appeal. His hopes for freedom rested on her response to his wrongful-conviction claim and his argument that new evidence cast doubt on his accusers.

Mortensen and his wife, Zoe, were impatient for Long to use his in with the judge. Long assured Zoe in an e-mail: "I keep in contact with her husband and have told her [sic] my feelings about Ron's case; basically that his conviction is a wad of . . . ."

Later, in a secretly recorded conversation, Long described a lunch with Joe Saitta: "I told him what I thought was bull---- about [Mortensen's case]. The question is what kind of influence does Joe Saitta have over Nancy. I don't know."

Judge Saitta was amassing a campaign war chest to challenge an incumbent on the Nevada Supreme Court. Individual donations were limited to $2,000. But Mortensen was thinking on a grander scale.

He expressed confidence that she "wants to rule for me" and joked on one surveillance tape that "another hundred grand really gets [her] predilections going."

Mortensen encountered frustration trying to get cash out of the California house. Even in wild credit markets, evidence of income or a job was generally required for a loan.

More bad news: Ownership of Pelican Roost had been transferred years earlier to a trust controlled by Mortensen's mother and grandmother. The elderly woman might have lacked authority to give it to her grandson.

Worse, Mortensen's mother was threatening legal action against her son and his property claim. "They just got Grandma declared incompetent -- isn't that convenient," Mortensen fumed in a phone call to relatives.

Enter Eddie Gould. The newest resident of Mortensen's second-floor cellblock saw opportunity in Mortensen's difficulties -- and a way to help him. Gould had a prior conviction for telemarketing scams and faced new charges involving drugs and fraud. Mortensen was not fazed.

"OK, so you were nailed for racketeering. Doesn't mean you can't make an honest deal," Mortensen wrote in a note to Gould.

The deal: Gould would buy the disputed property from Mortensen for $1.3 million, with no money down and two years to pay. Gould figured he could resell it for twice as much and pocket the difference.

"Hey, for that kind of deal I'd parade down Fremont Street in a Speedo and nipple pasties," he said in an interview.

Mortensen agreed. A jail guard notarized the deed. On May 23, 2006, San Luis Obispo County recorded Gould as the new owner of Pelican Roost.

Then, according to Gould, Mortensen said he couldn't wait two years for his money. He needed some right away for his family, his legal team -- and the judge.

"It's one thing to buy some real estate; it's another to bribe a judge," Gould said. He notified authorities.

Police were skeptical. But real estate records confirmed the property transfers and the curious role of the former FBI agent. Gould offered to gather additional evidence with a concealed tape recorder.

Authorities had him transferred to Cell 8, replacing a serial rapist as Mortensen's cellmate. And Las Vegas police opened a joint investigation with the FBI.

Mortensen outlined his plot into a hidden microphone as Gould asked questions. Clearly, the plan relied on Long and his ties to the judge's husband -- and on the potential influence of six figures.

Did Mortensen want Long to make "a bunch of contributions" to the judge's campaign fund or give $100,000 directly to Joe Saitta?

Mortensen: "He probably knows [Saitta] well enough to give it to him. That would be my guess. . . . It works either way."

What did Mortensen expect from the judge in exchange for "the 100?"

Mortensen: "She needs to, one, reverse [the conviction], obviously -- which she has enough to go on, purely legally, without any fix."

If the judge obliged, would Mortensen plead guilty to a "way, way lesser" charge?

Mortensen: "Look, I ain't murdered someone, dude, and I ain't going in there to say I murdered anyone. . . . But we know because of the political magnitude [of this case] that we've got to leave her a little . . . wiggle room to work with. She can't just outright let me go."

He sounded upbeat.

Mortensen: "I'll be honest with you. I think I'm gonna get out whether we do this or not."

Gould: "You're just swaying the odds."

Mortensen: "Yeah, I just wanna . . . put so much . . . cheese on this end of the scale that it just has to work, that there's not even a choice anymore."

To raise cash for Mortensen, Gould put up Pelican Roost as collateral for a loan. Using a cellblock phone, Gould lined up mortgage brokers, title insurance, appraisals and the like. It took weeks.

"I'm not like Donald Trump who can go into a bank . . . and they give me the money in three days," Gould told police.

Along the way, Gould filed less-than-truthful documents. In one, he claimed to be employed by a bail bond company. In another, he invented a family relationship with his cellmate.

"Mr. Mortensen is my stepfather," Gould declared in a handwritten statement directed to "whom it may concern."

Remarkably, he landed a loan commitment of $324,000 from At Home Capital, an Oxnard-based lender. After deducting lending fees and $68,000 seized by the IRS to satisfy an old tax lien, Gould received $234,290.13. The entire transaction had been arranged over police-monitored phones and via jail-monitored mail.

Gould's loan funded on July 21, 2006, a Friday. The following Monday, 11 felony charges against him were favorably resolved with dismissals or suspended sentences and probation, records show. He was freed from jail.

"That was no coincidence," Gould said, crediting his cooperation with authorities.

Still, no one had yet tried to pay off a judge -- or a judge's husband. From an FBI office, Gould called Long to arrange a meeting. The two met in a Las Vegas hotel in early August 2006, with concealed cameras recording the encounter.

Gould brought a black bag crammed with cash and a handwritten letter from Mortensen addressed to "Ken," explaining that only $40,000 was available at the moment. "Please use thirty thousand towards the contributions we spoke about, and keep ten thousand for yourself as we discussed," it said.

But, after reading the note, Long turned to Gould and the hidden cameras and said he didn't want any of the cash for himself.

"This money is to get Ron out of jail," he said. To that end, Long added, he was prepared to put Mortensen's cash into -- no, not a judicial election, but a money market account.

Gould stammered, confused, finally insisting that Long go back to Mortensen and "resolve where this money's going." When Long walked out of the room, he left the black bag untouched at the foot of a double bed.

Questioned afterward by police, Long was adamant that he knew nothing about any plan to pay off Judge Saitta. He agreed to wear a hidden recorder into the jail, where he confronted Mortensen.

"You can't contribute to a judge who's going to hear your case. . . . I gotta hear it from you that you ain't bribing no judge," Long said.

Mortensen said he was embarrassed and denied ever considering such a plan.

"You and Eddie never talked about the judge?" Long pressed: "Can you tell me as a friend and as a fellow Mormon that you're not bribing a judge?"

Mortensen: "I'm not bribing a judge . . . I have no interest in bribing Judge Saitta."

The bribery investigation was soon shut down. There is no evidence that Judge Saitta or her husband ever heard about the scheme before it was disclosed earlier this year by the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The judge declined to be interviewed for this article.

Long and Mortensen were charged with elder abuse for conning the grandmother out of her house. Long pleaded guilty to a gross misdemeanor and was fined $2,000. His law license was suspended. He did not respond to requests for comment.

Gould and Mortensen lost their claims to Pelican Roost. Ownership was restored to the grandmother's estate and her family trust.

Judge Saitta was elected to the Nevada Supreme Court. The Mortensen appeal, along with the rest of her caseload, was transferred to other district court judges. One of them denied Mortensen's motion for a new trial.

The whole misbegotten bribery scheme might have vanished -- like a dead body dumped in the Mojave -- except that Las Vegas prosecutors decided to charge their whistle-blower.

Gould is scheduled for trial in July on charges of forgery and theft stemming from alleged misrepresentations in his application for the $324,000 loan.

He contends that the government prodded him to secure the loan. The misrepresentations were made "with the knowledge, coordination, consent and under the supervision" of police and prosecutors, he said in a federal civil rights suit.

Lt. Dave Logue, head of criminal intelligence for the Las Vegas police, said Gould "was not truthful . . . nor did we direct him to do anything fraudulent."

Gould's defense team won court orders forcing police and prosecutors to turn over their investigative records. Gould gave the whole pile to local reporters and The Times.

Those documents revealed that the investigation may have been compromised by a leak: A jail guard tipped Mortensen that Gould was "wearing a wire." Also, it turned out that a lead detective in the probe had once testified that he was a friend of Mortensen.

Gould vows to clear his name -- and his credit standing. He must repay the $324,000 loan but has only $91,000 left in his frozen accounts. And, of course, he has no beach house.

But he recently retained an entertainment lawyer. "I've sold my life story," Gould said. "I'm fighting an entire political system, and that takes money. Hollywood is my last hope."

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william.rempel@latimes.com

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