It was one of the biggest scandals ever to hit Hollywood: a private investigator using wiretaps to secretly gather the secrets of celebrities and entertainment titans.
The case of Anthony Pellicano, “private eye to the stars,” captivated Hollywood for years and brought down some big names.
Now the case is quietly coming to a conclusion as Pellicano was released Friday morning from the Federal Correctional Institution at Terminal Island in San Pedro after more than 10 years behind bars.
Pellicano was scheduled for release March 23, according to inmate records, but prisoners slated to be released on a weekend are allowed to leave early, prison spokeswoman Monica Devore said.
He became a free man on his 75th birthday.
A Hollywood scandal
Prosecutors said Pellicano charged steep rates for information he got by listening to people’s most intimate and personal conversations, often to give his rich and famous clients an edge in legal fights.
He bribed police officers to run names in law enforcement databases, and phone company officials to get wiretaps running, prosecutors said.
Pellicano’s troubles began in 2002, when a reporter who wrote negative articles about former Hollywood super-agent Michael Ovitz went to authorities after she found a dead fish, a rose and a note saying “Stop” inside the smashed windshield of her car.
The reporter, Anita Busch, now an editor at entertainment publication Deadline, told a judge that Pellicano’s intimidation and wiretapping were like “death by a thousand cuts.”
The investigation led authorities to Pellicano’s office, and it quickly snowballed into a wide-reaching probe that appeared would implicate some of Hollywood’s biggest celebrities.
Authorities said LAPD Sgt. Mark Arneson and a phone company employee helped Pellicano earn millions of dollars by getting information on former spouses, business associates and opponents in lawsuits. According to an indictment, Pellicano paid Arneson at least $189,000.
Federal prosecutors secured guilty pleas from seven Pellicano clients or co-conspirators, including “Die Hard” film director John McTiernan; former music company executive Robert Pfeifer; Sandra Carradine, ex-wife of actor Keith Carradine; and former Beverly Hills police officer Craig Stevens.
In 2006, Pellicano finished serving 30 months in prison for possession of explosives. He was sentenced to an additional 15 years in December 2008. Pellicano tried to have his convictions overturned but largely lost his legal battle.
He also was ordered to forfeit more than $2 million in proceeds, which prosecutors said “grossly undersells” what his private investigation business actually raked in by illegal means.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Pellicano’s most serious convictions, overturning only two, for aiding and abetting computer fraud and unauthorized computer access. The court said the trial judge had given an erroneous jury instruction on those counts.
Following his release Friday, Pellicano must serve three additional years of probation.
“He served his time, and I hope that he decides to do something positive and productive with the remainder of his life,” Busch said in an emailed statement Friday.
Nearly a dozen people — among them Keith Carradine and fellow actor Sylvester Stallone, film producer Vincent Bo Zenga and Busch, a former Los Angeles Times reporter — were the victims of wiretaps conducted by Pellicano and others between August 2000 and November 2002, the indictment in the case alleged.
It was a threat against Busch in 2002 that led the FBI to raid Pellicano’s Sunset Strip offices and launch the wiretapping investigation.
Additionally, authorities cited nearly 100 other instances in which Pellicano and an associate accessed confidential law enforcement records, including the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database, to gain information about targets, including comedian Garry Shandling, former “Saturday Night Live” star Kevin Nealon and dozens of others.
Sylvester Stallone, one of Pellicano’s victims, could not immediately be reached for comment about his release. Film producer Vincent Bo Zenga declined to be quoted.
John Bauer, Carradine’s manager, said by phone Friday, “I have nothing to say about it,” and declined to connect a Times reporter to Carradine.
In a prison interview last year with the Hollywood Reporter, Pellicano said: “I’m an old man now, and all of my associates are either in prison or dead. The old days are gone forever.”