Homeland Security investigators in New Orleans were listening to phone calls made by a suspected Los Angeles drug dealer last year when they heard a disturbing snippet of a conversation, according to court documents.
Their target, who they believed to be a methamphetamine trafficker, told the person on the other end of the line that someone had asked if he could carry out a “hit,” court records show.
The phone call sparked an investigation that spanned from New Orleans to Los Angeles to San Diego in search of the person trying to organize the killing. At one point, federal agents even staged a bloody murder scene with the help of the would-be victim.
In April, David Phillips, the CEO of a Los Angeles-based medical marketing firm, was arrested on charges of plotting the death of a former business associate, according to a federal criminal complaint filed in Louisiana.
Phillips, 36, of Culver City, told the accused drug dealer he would be willing to forgive a $30,000 debt if the drug dealer agreed to set up the hit, court records show. Federal authorities have not revealed the name of the alleged drug dealer, who is now a cooperating defendant, or the purported victim of the alleged murder-for-hire plot.
Phillips was arrested at the Sepulveda Boulevard offices of his firm, NKP Medical Marketing, on April 25 after the suspected drug dealer presented him with a staged photo depicting the would-be victim battered and bloodied, court records show.
Phillips has since been transferred to New Orleans, where he is awaiting trial, said Anna Christman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in the Eastern District of Louisiana.
Glen Jonas, Phillips’ Los Angeles-based attorney, said his client has done nothing wrong. He did not know the identity of the cooperating defendant, he said.
Jonas also said he may seek to have the case tried in Los Angeles, rather than New Orleans, because the alleged conspiracy took place here.
The case is being tried in Louisiana because the alleged murder-for-hire plot was first overheard by New Orleans agents investigating drug trafficking, according to Christman and the complaint.
Phillips pleaded not guilty in New Orleans on Thursday, according to court records. His next court appearance is scheduled for early July.
The initial investigation centered on the alleged meth trafficker, according to the complaint. After hearing the comment about the “hit, an undercover federal investigator contacted the accused drug trafficker in Los Angeles in February, according to the complaint.
During that first meeting, the undercover agent posed as a drug dealer who might be able to connect the suspect to a contract killer. “It was understood,” according to the complaint, that the drug dealer would sell meth to the undercover agent at a discount in exchange for arranging the hit.
They met again in April in San Diego, where the alleged drug dealer provided the undercover investigator with a photo of the potential victim and a document listing work and home addresses where the target could be located, the complaint said.
The accused dealer was arrested in Los Angeles a few days later, and would soon provide investigators with information about Phillips. The suspect told investigators that Phillips had given him $30,000 to launch a failed “marijuana venture” in early 2016, but when the dealer couldn’t pay it back, Phillips offered to wipe the debt clean in exchange for carrying out the hit.
The would-be victim once helped Phillips run NKP Medical Marketing, according to the complaint. He left the business after they began clashing in either late 2014 or early 2015.
According to the potential victim’s statements to law enforcement, Phillips often made rash claims about having someone “taken out” and once claimed to have “friends with AK-47s.” The pair had several verbal altercations in recent years, according to the complaint, but have not interacted since September 2016, roughly the same time investigators in New Orleans say the suspected drug dealer made the comment about being asked to carry out a hit.
On the day Phillips was arrested, he met the suspected dealer at the marketing firm’s Los Angeles offices. Agents provided the dealer with a staged photograph of the execution, which showed the would-be victim with bruises and “a gunshot to the forehead.” Blood splatter could be seen on a wall behind the victim’s head, according to the complaint.
Phillips “appeared nervous” while looking at the picture and his “hands were shaking,” according to the complaint.
He was arrested a short time later. A search of his office turned up a document detailing the work and home addresses of the supposed victim, the complaint said. The document was similar to the one the suspected trafficker gave to the undercover agent at their earlier meeting, the complaint said.
Three other defendants — David Suiaunoa, Lucky Fua Iosua and Nadine Samalaulu Paala — were indicted for conspiring to distribute large quantities of methamphetamine. Suiaunoa, Iosua and Phillips were indicted in the murder-for-hire plot. Christman would not comment on what, if any, relationship Phillips had to the other defendants.
Suiaunoa, Iosua are also in custody in Louisiana, she said. Paala remains at large.
Jonas dismissed the would-be victim’s characterization of Phillips’ behavior and said his client would not stand to gain anything from having the man killed.
“The purported victim is a disgruntled former employee. That’s it, and frankly, his importance to my client, was minimal,” Jonas said.
Jonas also scoffed at prosecutors’ description of the would-be victim as a business rival, calling it “ridiculous.”
“It’d be saying that the local T-shirt shop is a business rival of Walmart,” he said.
NKP Medical Marketing was incorporated in 2006, according to documents filed with the California Secretary of State. The company “is a leader in online marketing for cosmetic surgery practices and general surgery practices,” and works with surgeons, dermatologists and cosmetic dentists in five continents, its website said.
The defendant’s brother, Paul, was recently installed as CEO, according to the website, which does not mention a reason for the change. Several phone calls and an email to Paul Phillips seeking comment were not returned.
David Phillips’ bio boasted that his employees had previously worked at major tech companies including Google, Yahoo, Myspace, Facebook and Amazon.
The company’s headquarters is split into two small offices inside a building populated by several businesses on Sepulveda Boulevard. NKP does not appear on the list of businesses in the building’s lobby, and the company name is not posted on the entrance to either of its offices. One of the offices was sparsely furnished, and several men inside were wearing T-shirts and shorts.
An employee, who did not to provide his name, stopped a Times reporter from entering the second office, which other employees said housed “management.”
The man said he believed Phillips was being “framed” and that the federal charges had been “drummed up,” but did not offer an explanation.
“He’s a great guy. Saved my life several times by employing me,” said the man, adding that he feared he could have wound up homeless without the job.
“I don’t think he did anything wrong,” he said.
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