Not long ago, Steven Seagal was one of the best-paid action stars in Hollywood. The martial arts master played crime-busting anti-heroes in films that generated more than $1 billion in ticket and DVD sales during the 1990s.
Now he appears in low-budget productions that go straight to video.
Seagal says he knows why: Five years ago, he was implicated in a plot to frighten two journalists out of writing unflattering stories about him and his former business partner.
An FBI affidavit detailed allegations that Seagal hired private eye Anthony Pellicano to terrorize one of the reporters, a freelancer working for the Los Angeles Times.
The investigation soon changed course, focusing on allegations that Pellicano spied on celebrities and other members of the Hollywood elite. The onetime detective-to-the-stars is in federal prison, awaiting trial on wire-tapping and other charges.
FOR THE RECORD:
Steven Seagal: An article in the Aug. 17 Section A aboutactor Steven Seagal stated that journalist Anita Busch was afreelance reporter for The Times when her car was vandalized in 2002in an apparent attempt to frighten her off a story about Seagal. Atthe time, Busch was working for the paper under contract, and thebyline accompanying her articles identified her as a Times staff writer.
Seagal and the alleged plot to intimidate journalists became a footnote. The actor was never charged, and federal authorities have privately told reporters they have no persuasive evidence against him. But the FBI has never publicly cleared him.
Seagal said the publicity has been devastating to his career. He wants an apology.
“False FBI accusations fueled thousands of articles saying that I terrorize journalists and associate with the Mafia,” Seagal, 56, said recently in his first public comments on the case. “These kinds of inflammatory allegations scare studio heads and independent producers -- and kill careers.”
Laura Eimiller, an FBI spokeswoman, said she could not comment on Seagal’s demand for an apology or on questions about the case. They “relate to an ongoing investigation which we are not at liberty to discuss,” she said.
Seagal was past his prime earning years even before the Pellicano scandal broke in 2002. His career peaked in the 1990s with such blockbusters as “Under Siege.” His last hit, “Exit Wounds,” was released in 2001. Since then, he has made a dozen films that generated an estimated $25 million in total DVD sales, a fraction of what his movies used to take in.
“This controversy made the studios very nervous,” said longtime Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman. “Let’s be honest: Steven Seagal was no Harrison Ford when this happened. But these accusations certainly hastened his decline.”
Seagal, sipping tea in his Mandeville Canyon home, in a dining room filled with Japanese art, said the premise of the allegations was preposterous.
Seagal said he and Pellicano have not been on speaking terms since the early 1990s. The detective worked on a legal matter for the actor, and Seagal was dissatisfied with both his performance and his fee, according to people familiar with the dispute.
Seagal said the idea that he would hire Pellicano to intimidate a reporter was “laughable.”
The Pellicano investigation dates to June 20, 2002, when reporter Anita M. Busch, then working on contract for The Times, awoke to find a dead fish and a red rose on the punctured windshield of her car below a note that read: “Stop!”
Busch told the FBI she suspected that the threat stemmed from research she was doing on Seagal and his former producing partner, Julius R. Nasso. Earlier that year, Nasso and New York mob figures were indicted on charges of plotting to extort money from Seagal.
An FBI informant in Los Angeles claimed to have information about the threat against Busch. He identified the perpetrator as Alexander Proctor, a career criminal with a string of drug convictions. The informant secretly recorded a series of conversations with Proctor for the FBI.
The FBI agent in charge of the case, Stanley E. Ornellas, summarized those conversations in an October 2002 affidavit filed in federal court seeking permission to search Proctor’s home.
According to the affidavit, Proctor said Seagal had hired Pellicano to threaten the writer, and Pellicano had turned to Proctor to do the job. Proctor said “they wanted. . . to make it look like the Italians were putting the hit on her so it wouldn’t reflect on Seagal,” the affidavit states.
Details from the affidavit were reported in The Times, and pages from the document were posted on www.thesmokinggun, a website specializing in celebrity crime.
Seagal said he felt blindsided. He said his attorneys asked the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office for a copy of the affidavit, which was rejected by the judge, and were told they could not have one, because it was under seal.
“I asked them why the media was allowed to review it but I couldn’t,” Seagal said.
He said authorities gave the following explanation: The affidavit was not leaked to the media but, rather, was mistakenly placed in a public court file, where reporters found it.
“Do you believe it was an accident that this secret document was placed in a public file?” Seagal asked recently. “I don’t.”
A second affidavit filed by Ornellas under seal in federal court in November 2002 repeated the allegations about Seagal’s involvement in the threat against Busch. The new affidavit also implicated Seagal in a separate threat against a writer for Vanity Fair magazine who was also working on an article on the actor. The writer, Ned Zeman, had reported that an unidentified man had pointed a gun at him and said: “Stop!” The affidavit said a source had told Ornellas the man was John Rottger, a former Navy SEAL and longtime friend of Seagal.
The affidavit did not lay out corroborating evidence for these assertions. Its purpose was to show that there was probable cause to justify a search of Pellicano’s Sunset Boulevard office.
Based on the affidavit, a judge granted a search warrant, and on Nov. 21, 2002, more than a dozen FBI agents searched Pellicano’s office.
There is no indication they found any evidence implicating Seagal or Rottger, who, like the actor, has denied any involvement in the threats.
The agents did, however, find two hand grenades, plastic explosives and bundles of cash in Pellicano’s safe. The detective was arrested on weapons and related charges.
Jan L. Handzlik, one of Seagal’s attorneys, said he contacted Assistant U.S. Atty. Daniel A. Saunders, a lead prosecutor in the case, and volunteered information indicating that Seagal and Pellicano were antagonists and therefore unlikely co-conspirators.
The information related not to their falling-out in the early 1990s but to a more recent controversy. In the summer of 2002, Pellicano and Seagal were on opposite sides in a bitter legal dispute. A law firm that claimed Seagal had failed to pay $260,000 in fees had hired Pellicano to collect the money.
“Those two guys hated each other with a passion. This I experienced firsthand,” said entertainment lawyer Martin D. Singer, who has worked with both men and who represented Seagal in the fee dispute.
Handzlik said he also told Saunders several times that Seagal would appear for questioning with no preconditions and that the actor was not seeking immunity. Handzlik said the prosecutor turned down the offers.
Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, declined to comment.
Seagal contends that authorities showed no interest because they knew the allegations against him were groundless.
“The FBI didn’t want to know,” he said. “It would’ve been very easy to prove if Pellicano was calling me or if I was calling him. The FBI subpoenas phone records every day. Why not mine? You have to ask yourself: If there was enough probable cause to raid Pellicano, why not raid me too?”
As months passed, Seagal said, he grew frustrated, his reputation clouded by suspicions he felt powerless to dispel. Authorities had neither charged nor exonerated him. They had not even questioned him in the Pellicano case, he said.
Seagal said this struck him as bizarre, given that prosecutors and FBI agents had interviewed him several times in 2002 about Nasso -- including at the very moment other agents were searching Pellicano’s office. Seagal later testified against his former business partner, who ultimately pleaded guilty to conspiring to extort money from the actor.
Handzlik said that in September 2004, nearly two years after the first torrent of publicity about the Busch incident, Ornellas contacted Seagal’s lawyers to arrange an interview with him. Later that month, one of Seagal’s lawyers, Carmen A. Trutanich, arranged for his client to take a lie detector test, wanting to make sure that Seagal was being truthful.
A report of the polygraph results reviewed by The Times indicates no deception on Seagal’s part.
On Oct. 20, Seagal, Handzlik and Trutanich met with Ornellas in a law firm conference room in Century City. The interview lasted about 20 minutes, Seagal said.
“The last thing Stan said to me was: ‘We know you had nothing to do with it.’ ”
Ornellas declined to comment.
On Feb. 6, 2006, the U.S. attorney’s office held a news conference to announce a 110-count indictment accusing Pellicano and six others of conspiring to spy on and tap the phones of celebrities, business executives and others. Pellicano’s alleged motive: to gather secrets that would give his clients the upper hand in legal battles.
The indictment made no mention of Seagal. Still, reporters asked about the actor’s role in the threat against Busch, the event that triggered the investigation. Prosecutors dodged the question. Many news reports on the indictment traced the scandal back to the alleged threat against the reporter.
A month later, two FBI agents asked to talk to Seagal about Nasso. Seagal, who was on his way to an overseas film shoot, met with them at Los Angeles International Airport.
The agents’ notes, recently entered in the court file on the Pellicano case, show that Seagal complained bitterly.
“I was sick of hearing my name associated with a crime the government knew I had nothing to do with,” Seagal said. “Until it happens to you, you can’t imagine what it does to your life.”