Before O.J. Simpson, before Erik and Lyle Menendez, there was Joe Hunt.
Handsome and charismatic with a boyish charm, Hunt led the Billionaire Boys Club, a social and investment fraternity. Club members, clad in Armani suits and driving high-end BMWs, dined at Spago and partied with supermodels. The exclusive club, however, was a giant, high-stakes investment scam.
The whole scheme unraveled when investor Ron Levin vanished in 1984 after allegedly conning the club. His body would never be found, but a Santa Monica jury convicted Hunt in 1987 of murdering Levin.
Now, Hunt wants a chance to be released and is trying to persuade Gov. Jerry Brown to commute his sentence of life without the possibility of parole.
The question is whether this is the sincere act of a changed man or just another con job by a master manipulator, which is what prosecutors and law enforcement officials believe.
“Joe doesn’t deserve to be out of jail at all,” said Leslie H. Zoeller, the Beverly Hills police detective who led the investigation into the Billionaire Boys Club. “He is a borderline sociopath in my opinion.”
Hunt faces an uphill battle, despite the criminal justice reform movement sweeping California.
Brown in recent months has commuted 18 life sentences, giving the inmates a chance at freedom. But he also has repeatedly rejected parole requests for high-profile killers, including members of the Manson “family.”
While Hunt is seeking a shot at freedom, he still maintains he didn’t kill Levin.
“Their whole case is: ‘Joe Hunt was this manipulative guy who told people a lot of stuff for a fact. He manipulated other BBC members,’ ” Hunt said. “ ‘And he said he killed Ron Levin, and therefore Ron Levin must be dead.’ If that is the case, there is no physical evidence.”
“The irony of the situation isn’t lost on me,” said Hunt, who admits he was the consummate liar, drawing an analogy to the fable of the boy who cried wolf. “If you are established as a liar when you tell the truth, you’re perceived to be lying, and that is kind of your karma.”
According to the government’s star witness at trial, Hunt and his bodyguard forced Levin to sign a check for $1.5 million at his Peck Drive home in Beverly Hills. Dean Karny, Hunt’s closest confidant in the Billionaire Boys Club, testified that Hunt told him they handcuffed Levin and shoved him face down on the bed, where the bodyguard put a bullet in the back of his head.
Karny said Hunt told the story as he strolled through the Westside Pavilion mall, describing vividly Levin’s “explosive gasp” upon death and how they disfigured Levin with a shotgun — his “brain jumped out of his skull and fell on his chest” — before dumping his body in a remote part of Soledad Canyon.
The bodyguard and alleged triggerman in Levin’s killing, James Pittman, pleaded guilty to accessory to murder.
“I did say I knocked off Ron Levin. I did say that to a group of guys at BBC,” Hunt said. “We were involved in various deceitful transactions with investors. And a company we took over, we took over on false pretenses. We were all making stuff up to look bigger than we were.”
By 1984, despite the Billionaire Boys Club’s trappings of success and dreams of its members becoming more prominent than their wealthy parents, the group had lost nearly $1 million in bad investments. That’s when Levin, according to prosecutors, agreed to place $5 million in a brokerage house account and let Hunt trade it. They would split the profits 50-50.
Levin, however, conned the brokerage into believing he was a TV producer doing a documentary on commodities trading. He told the firm not to execute Hunt’s orders but said Hunt needed to believe his buys and sells were “real” decisions.
That con job, to the L.A. County district attorney’s office, was a clear motive for Hunt. As one club member testified at trial, Hunt told nine members after Levin vanished: “Don’t worry. This was the perfect crime. They’ll never find the body.”
From his prison phone, inmate No. D61863 quickly rattles off half a dozen names of people who claimed to have seen Levin after the con man’s disappearance. Some testified at the trials.
Detectives never found Levin, but they did find what prosecutors called the “recipe for murder,” a chilling to-do list scrawled on pages from a yellow legal pad.
“Joe was all talkative until I pulled out the seven pages of to-do list and put in front of him,” Zoeller said. The detective asked Hunt, “What can you tell me about this?”
“Closed blinds, scan for tape recorder, tape mouth, handcuff, put gloves on, explain situation, kill dog,” reads the list. Hunt has long insisted that the list left at Levin’s duplex was designed to scare him.
“If I did a wholesale capitulation, then I would be a perfect candidate for parole,” Hunt said. “Look, I am innocent. I am not going to lie about it.”
Behind bars, Hunt teaches yoga and meditation. He has defused violence and helped start a project at Folsom State Prison to address how trauma in inmates’ past can lead to violent behavior. He worked closely with the prison’s clergy, acting as a chapel clerk.
When authorities tried to increase a fellow inmate’s sentence by two years, citing a sentencing error, Hunt filed a petition that saw the sentence cut by two and a half years. That inmate was released last month.
“Joseph Hunt made my ministry and work in prison worthwhile,” Chaplain Dennis Merino wrote.
Zoeller, however, said he isn’t surprised that Hunt hasn’t lost any of his powers of persuasion after decades in prison.
“He is living a lie,” Zoeller said.
Hunt defended himself at trial for a second murder case. Those charges were dropped after jurors deadlocked on the allegation that he and others killed Hedayat Eslaminia, a wealthy Iranian-born businessman, in July 1984. That, Hunt says, was the trial at which jurors got to hear the truth about his activities.
Hunt is being assisted in his effort by his family. His younger sister and her husband are funding the FreeJoeHunt.com website and campaign.
They are trying to capitalize on a push by various criminal justice groups to end life without parole.
Others are highly skeptical Hunt is a candidate for this reappraisal.
Michele Hanisee, an L.A. County prosecutor and president of the county’s Assn. of Deputy District Attorneys, said she is not surprised that Hunt is making a bid to commute his sentence. But she said Hunt’s continuing insistence on his innocence makes it hard for him to win over Brown.
“The governor’s policy seems to be consistent with a philosophy of commuting sentences for those with exemplary behavior who show remorse,” she said. “It is really difficult to do that when you won’t admit the crime.”
Former L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said that Hunt killed for greed and that his case was one of the highest-profile murder cases handled by the office in the 1980s.
“It is a last-ditch effort to get a shot at walking out the door because he exhausted his appeals,” Cooley said.
But Hunt insists he’s a changed man and ready for rehabilitation.
“I have left a lot of wreckage behind me because of the way I behaved in my early 20s,” he said. “I have tried to contribute to the welfare of my fellow human beings ever since.”