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Anthony Pellicano, former celebrity private eye, loses bulk of his appeal

Anthony Pellicano, former celebrity private eye, loses bulk of his appeal
A federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld most of the convictions of onetime Hollywood private detective Anthony Pellicano, shown in 2003. He is serving a prison term in Texas. (Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Anthony Pellicano, a former celebrity private eye who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for illegal wiretaps and running a criminal enterprise, lost most of his legal battle Tuesday to overturn his convictions.

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.

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The most serious convictions, for running a criminal enterprise, remain intact, and Tuesday's ruling was not likely to significantly alter Pellicano's sentence.

Steven F. Gruel, Pellicano's lawyer, said he would ask a larger 9th Circuit panel to review the case. He said his client, who is serving his time in a Texas prison, is scheduled for release in 2018.

"It is half a victory and half a disappointment," Gruel said. "I want to see if that disappointment can be changed."

Former Assistant U.S. Atty. Daniel A. Saunders, who prosecuted Pellicano with Assistant U.S. Atty. Kevin Lally, called the decision "a monumental win for the government." He described the overturned computer fraud convictions as "peripheral at best" and said the ruling would not affect Pellicano's sentence.

The investigation into Pellicano, dubbed the private eye to the stars, received widespread attention. Celebrity clients used his services to outmaneuver their opponents in litigation.

The Pellicano Investigative Agency bribed Los Angeles police to access law enforcement databases, paid a telephone company employee for confidential technical information and hired a software developer to build a custom system for recording others' calls, the ruling recounted.

"At the height of PIA's success, scores of people retained PIA for its often illegal services," Judge Richard R. Clifton, an appointee of former President George W. Bush, wrote for the 9th Circuit.

Among them was Terry Christensen, a top-tier Hollywood lawyer who hired Pellicano and listened to wiretapped conversations with him, the court related. Christensen was among five Pellicano associates whose appeals were decided Tuesday.

The court rejected all of Christensen's challenges. He was sentenced to three years in 2008 and remains barred from practicing law in California.

Abner Nicherie, who the court said hired Pellicano to wiretap someone else, won his appeal of his only conviction, for aiding and abetting wiretapping.

The investigation into Pellicano began after journalist Anita Busch found her car had been vandalized in 2002. The windshield was broken and a dead fish and rose were left along with a sign that said "STOP."

The investigation led to Pellicano, who was indicted in 2003 and tried twice.

Twitter:  @mauradolan

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