Anthony Pellicano, the famed Hollywood private eye, was fond of saying he would go to great lengths to solve his celebrity clients’ problems -- even if it meant whacking somebody with a baseball bat or resorting to blackmail.
He cultivated an aura of danger, boasting that he knew how to shred someone’s face with a knife.
Yet for three decades, prosecutors across the country had no hesitation about using him as an expert witness in dozens of cases. Despite his unsavory image and win-at-all-costs reputation, Pellicano, who is now serving time for possession of illegal explosives, built a lucrative career as an “audio forensics” expert, analyzing and enhancing tape recordings.
Interviews and court documents show that prosecutors often turned to Pellicano to examine disputed evidence in troubled cases. In some instances, he vouched for the authenticity of tape recordings that defendants said had been altered.
In others, he enhanced garbled or faint recordings after other experts, including those at the FBI, were unable to do so.
In one such case, the U.S. attorney’s office in Tampa, Fla., hired Pellicano to enhance recordings that were the key evidence against a couple suspected of killing their baby daughter. Pellicano said he heard incriminating utterances by the parents, including a comment by the mother that the child “died real bad.”
But after listening to the tapes, a federal judge said they were worthless as evidence.
“I heard none of it,” said U.S. District Judge Steven D. Merryday, who later awarded the couple nearly $3 million in attorneys’ fees after the federal government conceded that charges never should have been filed.
Pellicano also served as a prosecution expert in the high-profile trial of Thomas Blanton Jr., accused in a 1963 church bombing in Alabama that killed four African American girls. Pellicano produced enhanced tape recordings and a transcript that bolstered the government’s case.
Then-U.S. Atty. G. Douglas Jones said Pellicano’s analysis was instrumental in convicting Blanton in 2001.
Well-Paid as a Witness
Over the years, Pellicano collected as much as $350 an hour from the government and was paid tens of thousands of dollars in some cases.
Now, his career as a prosecution expert is almost certainly over.
On Jan. 23, he was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to possession of illegal explosives. Federal agents found plastic explosive and a pair of hand grenades in his Sunset Boulevard office. They were searching for evidence of his involvement in a plot to frighten a Los Angeles Times reporter into abandoning a story on movie star Steven Seagal.
Pellicano, 59, is also at the center of a federal investigation into allegations of illegal wiretapping of entertainment industry figures.
Even before his recent legal problems began, Pellicano’s background should have raised red flags for prosecutors, according to legal scholars and former government attorneys. Even cursory research would have turned up media accounts in which he boasted about or was accused of thuggish or illegal behavior.
For instance, in a January 1992 profile in GQ magazine titled “The Big Sleazy,” Pellicano bragged that he had used a baseball bat to beat up one of his client’s adversaries and had blackmailed others.
“I’m an expert with a knife,” he was quoted as saying. “I can shred your face with a knife.”
Although some defense attorneys and civil litigators are known to shop for experts whose testimony will favor their cases, prosecutors are supposed to operate under stricter ethical guidelines.
“Prosecutors have a duty to seek justice, not just find an expert who supports their case and gets them a win,” said USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, who teaches legal ethics.
Former U.S. Atty. James P. Walsh, who prosecuted one celebrated case in which Pellicano was a defense expert -- the 1984 cocaine-trafficking trial of automaker John Z. DeLorean -- said he was stunned to learn that Pellicano had gone on to work for prosecutors.
“I find that surprising almost to the point of unbelievable,” said Walsh, now in private practice in Los Angeles. While examining government tape recordings in the DeLorean case, he said, Pellicano got into a scuffle with an FBI agent and damaged the evidence.
“I’m blown away prosecutors would use him,” Walsh said.
Pellicano declined requests for an interview through his attorney, Donald M. Re.
Re said Pellicano had “long been recognized by defense lawyers and prosecutors as a leading expert in tape analysis. It’s unfortunate that some people would attack him now, but it is the nature of jackals to attack when a person is down.”
Before he was arrested on the explosives charges, many prosecutors were full of praise for Pellicano, as evidenced by a stack of letters in his court file. Re had presented the letters as evidence of Pellicano’s good character in arguing that he should be released on bail.
One was from Jones, then U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, who hired Pellicano in the church bombing case.
Pellicano enhanced a nearly 40-year-old reel-to-reel audiotape on which Blanton, a former Ku Klux Klansman, allegedly was heard telling his wife about a meeting to plan the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church.
“Although the FBI worked with these tapes, I was not completely satisfied with the result and contacted you,” Jones wrote Pellicano in May 2001. “Through your tireless efforts we were able to produce to the jury an audible recording of a critical conversation in which the defendant clearly admitted his involvement in this horrible crime.”
On the enhanced tape, Blanton is heard telling his wife, Jean: “We had that meeting to make the bomb.”
Pellicano also made a key discovery that assisted the prosecution. Jones had feared that the taped conversation might not be admissible in court because it was between a husband and wife. Pellicano detected what he contended was a third voice on the tape. That was significant because the so-called marital privilege does not shield a conversation involving a third party.
Blanton, now in his 60s, was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. After the explosives charges against Pellicano attracted wide publicity, Blanton’s lawyer asked for a hearing on the investigator’s role in the church bombing case. A court ruling is awaited.
In an interview, Jones said he had no concerns about Pellicano’s work on the case. But he said he would not have hired him had he known more about his background. “As I sit here today, no way,” said Jones, now in private practice in Birmingham.
In another case, a Los Angeles County prosecutor enlisted Pellicano’s help in an attempted-murder case after learning that the defense would contend that a detective had altered a key audiotape.
On the tape, the defendant was allegedly heard bribing the victim not to testify. Pellicano examined the tape and the equipment used to record it, and vouched for the accuracy of the recording. The defendant was convicted and sentenced to 32 years to life.
“Your quick response convinced the defense to completely abandon their tampering claims,” Stephanie Wilson, then a deputy district attorney, wrote Pellicano on April 8, 1999. “Thank you again for your willingness to come to our rescue at the eleventh hour.”
James D. Dutton, a prosecutor with the state attorney general’s office, sought Pellicano’s help with the retrial of a San Diego State student accused in the 1996 killing of a surfer. The case had been damaged when a county prosecutor said a colleague coached a key witness to lie. Pellicano was brought in to deal with further claims of prosecution misconduct.
One side of a tape-recorded interview with another important prosecution witness was inexplicably blank. Pellicano offered a theory as to how the detective could have accidentally pushed “play” instead of “record,” resulting in the blank side.
In August 2000, a jury convicted the defendant of involuntary manslaughter.
“The defense attempted to show that the blank side of the audiotaped interview was part of a law enforcement/district attorney’s office conspiracy to conceal exonerating evidence,” Dutton wrote Pellicano a month later. “Thanks to your tireless efforts we were able to present an explanation.”
Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Elizabeth Henderson said Pellicano’s analysis of a grainy security video was key to convicting a gang member in the 1995 murder of a 7-Eleven clerk in La Habra.
The defendant’s face was covered in the video and there was no admissible evidence directly linking him to the scene. Pellicano enhanced the tape and determined through what he called “critical listening” that the defendant’s crime partner could be heard saying the word “Downer” -- the defendant’s gang moniker.
Henderson said in a recent interview that she could not make out the man’s utterance. But she was thankful that Pellicano said he could.
“I believe that your testimony regarding the content of the audiotape was critical to [the jury’s] decision” to convict, Henderson wrote Pellicano on June 4, 1998. “I found your testimony. to be fascinating, as I hope it was for the jury.”
Pellicano also helped the Houston Police Department in its defense against a lawsuit by a former narcotics officer who said the department had retaliated against him for exposing misconduct. The plaintiff contended that a crucial tape recording had been altered by police.
Found on the Internet
Constance K. Acosta, a lawyer for the city, was distressed to learn that the audio expert she had hired largely agreed with the plaintiff’s lawyer that the tape had been doctored. Acosta hurriedly searched the Internet for a new expert. She found Pellicano, who helped her devise a strategy to counter the plaintiff’s expert. A jury rejected the former officer’s claims.
“Even though we came to you at the last possible moment for what seemed to be an insurmountable dilemma, your outstanding efforts, patience and perseverance allowed us to be successful in defending truth and justice,” Acosta wrote in a Jan. 2, 2002, letter. “Many officers of the Houston Police Department owe you a sincere debt of gratitude for vindicating their honor.”
In a recent interview, Acosta said that audio forensics was extremely complex and that Pellicano “helped me take the science out of it.”
“I think the sun rises and sets on him,” Acosta said. “He is a tough guy, but he comes across honestly. I believe the guy is a genius.”
Many of the prosecutors who solicited Pellicano’s help said they did not thoroughly research his qualifications. In most of the cases examined by The Times, defense attorneys also failed to question how a high school dropout became an expert in such an arcane field.
Pellicano, who grew up in Cicero, Ill., served in the Army and worked as a bill collector before becoming a private eye in Chicago. After moving to Los Angeles, he became known as an investigator to the stars, helping Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise and other celebrities deal with their legal problems.
An unabashed self-promoter, Pellicano has described himself as a screenwriter, an actor and an expert in voice recognition, typewriter analysis and martial arts. While in his late 20s, Pellicano boasted that he had investigated 3,964 missing-persons cases and solved every one.
In a resume from the 1970s, he said he had been trained by military intelligence personnel in highly sophisticated audio surveillance procedures and countermeasures.
His interest in tape recordings grew as he recognized their power as evidence. In the early 1980s, Pellicano gained national exposure for his role as a defense expert for DeLorean, who was charged with conspiracy to smuggle more than 200 pounds of cocaine into the United States.
Pellicano examined tapes of secretly recorded conversations between DeLorean and an FBI informant. One of DeLorean’s attorneys said later that Pellicano’s work helped secure an acquittal.
Pellicano’s investigative practice and his stature as an expert grew. Though he lacked formal scientific and educational credentials, he could afford the most sophisticated equipment.
He took out ads in legal magazines. His website touted his Sunset Boulevard lab as “the most comprehensive and state-of-the-art tape analysis laboratory in the country.”
Even the FBI envied his lab, he told clients. Pellicano gave reporters tours of the facility. On one occasion in the early 1990s, he demonstrated to a Times reporter how an innocent conversation could be altered to appear incriminating or embarrassing.
Pellicano has written articles and at least one book on tape analysis. He designed a computer program for analyzing tapes called “Forensic Audio Sleuth.”
By his account, he has testified as an expert in hundreds of cases. Some audio experts credit Pellicano with developing the standards used to analyze tape recordings. Pellicano himself has said he coined the term “audio forensics.”
Prosecutors who hired him said Pellicano was charismatic and persuasive on the witness stand.
“He was one of the best, if not the best, witness I’ve ever had,” said Steve Gruel, head of the major crimes division of the U.S. attorney’s office in San Francisco.
One instance in which Pellicano’s powers of persuasion failed was in the prosecution of Steve and Marlene Aisenberg, the Tampa couple suspected of killing or selling their baby.
The Aisenbergs reported on Nov. 24, 1997, that their 5-month-old daughter, Sabrina, had disappeared. Investigators from the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department suspected that the parents were responsible.
There were no signs of forced entry, and the family’s dog didn’t bark during the night. Marlene, according to authorities, failed a lie detector test. Then the Aisenbergs hired a lawyer and began to place conditions on their cooperation with authorities.
With court approval, detectives secretly placed listening devices in the couple’s home. Deputies monitoring their conversations reported that Marlene told her husband: “I hate you. I hate you for what you did to our tiny daughter.”
Despite what would appear to be strong evidence, local prosecutors did not charge the Aisenbergs with murder. Instead, the U.S. attorney’s office took over the case and charged the couple with making false statements and covering up the circumstances of their daughter’s disappearance.
The tapes were the key evidence. Yet when defense lawyers listened to them, they said none of the supposed incriminating statements could be heard. Experts at the FBI lab in Quantico, Va., were unable to enhance the tapes. Prosecutors then sought Pellicano’s help. After listening to the tapes hundreds of times, he said he could hear incriminating words and phrases, including this statement by Marlene Aisenberg: “I tried to save her. She died real bad.”
As he had in other cases, Pellicano had audio-analysis equipment flown to Tampa from Los Angeles for a courtroom demonstration. “You’d swear this was a rock concert,” federal Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo quipped as he looked out at the computers and speakers.
But before his demonstration began, the Aisenbergs’ attorneys questioned Pellicano about his qualifications. He acknowledged that he had no scientific, mathematical or engineering education and did not understand the science underlying his findings.
Defense lawyers also told the judge that Pellicano had used an alias, had filed for bankruptcy and once received a $30,000 loan from the son of a reputed mobster.
Todd Foster, one of the Aisenbergs’ attorneys, told Pizzo that calling Pellicano an audio expert was like “saying I’m an expert in dentistry because I went out and bought a very fancy drill and I have X-ray equipment.”
The judge allowed Pellicano to testify. But after listening to the tapes, Pizzo said: “The government hears what no reasonably prudent listener can. It interprets what can be heard as no reasonably prudent listener would.”
Judge Merryday, who presided over the case, agreed and criticized the prosecution for paying Pellicano up to $350 an hour. He called it “a surprisingly generous rate given Pellicano’s credentials, and in excess of any of the notably more reputable experts retained by the Aisenbergs.”
The prosecution dropped the charges, and the Aisenbergs filed a claim under a seldom-used federal law that allows defendants to recoup their legal expenses if a prosecution was “vexatious, frivolous or in bad faith.”
For the first time since the law was enacted in 1997, the government admitted liability. Merryday awarded the Aisenbergs $2.9 million last year.
The couple are seeking additional damages in a separate lawsuit. In court papers, their lawyer, Barry Cohen, has accused prosecutors of hiring Pellicano to “fabricate transcripts” and give perjured testimony.
In an interview, Cohen said the government’s reliance on Pellicano was “an act of desperation. They were going to get this scumbag to lie for them.”
Yet after the case fell apart, the top federal prosecutor for the Middle District of Florida wrote Pellicano praising his work.
“You provided outstanding forensic audio assistance, which was both comprehensive and timely,” said then-U.S. Atty. Mac Cauley. “We look forward to working with you on future significant criminal matters.”