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Murder at the Vanities 

Wednesday, May 29 2002
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Vanity Fair's pre-eminent crime correspondent returned with his green leather notebook last week to Los Angeles, where he caught up on a case he'd somehow overlooked during this winter's firestorm of celebrity bad behavior. The Weekly is pleased to print his reflections below, although contractual stipulations prevent us from printing his byline.

WHATEVER ELSE YOU WANT TO SAY ABOUT LOS ANGELES, it is a town that loves gossip. Nowhere is this truer than in the matter of California v. Robert Noel & Marjorie Knoller, or "the dog trial," as people out here call it. Last week I was having lunch at Le Dôme with Candy Spelling, when she asked me if I had attended any of the trial's sessions last March. I told her I was hardly aware of the case, except for a Sebastian Junger piece about it that had appeared in Conde Naste Traveler.

"Nick," this classy lady said, leaning forward, "you can't beat this case for excitement -- forget the Bobby Blake thing, everyone here keeps up with the dog trial. Go to one of the sentencing hearings!"

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Well, L.A. isn't my town, and I was only staying here two days at the Chateau Marmont to complete research for a novel I am writing based on Gary Condit, the California congressman whose career fireballed following the disappearance of his paramour, Chandra Levy, whose skull and femurs were found last week in Washington's Rock Creek Park. (I have a slight connection to the park, having spent many an afternoon walking its shaded paths with Eleanor Roosevelt and the hostess Pearl Mesta, whose young secretary, by the way, was a great-aunt to Michael Skakel, the accused bludgeon-murderer of Martha Moxley.) Nevertheless, the next morning, after attending a private Latin Mass celebrated by Cardinal Roger Mahony, I strolled from Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral, which is still under construction, to the Superior Court where Noel and Knoller were to be sentenced.

The clamoring mob of reporters outside Division 53 immediately told me I had no chance of getting in, but before I could put away my green leather notebook, a white-haired gentleman took me by the arm and led me to his assigned seat, which happened to be positioned directly behind the case's charismatic prosecutor, James Hammer. Before I could offer my startled thanks, the distinguished-looking man said, in a slight Mexican accent, "Please say nothing, Mr. ---- , consider it my gift." He then told me something even more incredible -- he had worked, so many years ago, as a gardener at the apartment complex of my daughter, who was brutally strangled to death by her boyfriend. As it so happened, my gracious benefactor was carrying a rabbit's-foot luck charm she had once given him and insisted I keep it.

Well, I thought, there was no way the hearing could top this coincidence for surprises, but it did. Minutes later I looked over my shoulder and saw Betsy Bloomingdale -- our eyes instantly locked on each other's. During the recess we caught a bite to eat at Phillipe's, where Betsy astounded me with details she knew about the dog-mauling case. (Although it hasn't been reported in the Times, apparently the teeth of one of the killer canines, Bane, were actually caps.) My eyes fairly popped when Betsy asked if I would like to see some of the crime-scene photos -- pictures that were ruled too gruesome to show the jury. Would I ever!

But just as she began to remove them from her Bottega Veneta bag, an elegant lady, who is also the wife of a very powerful producer in Hollywood, came over to our bench and whispered to me, "You don't know how nervous you have made a certain royal family in Monaco!" I gave her my phone number and she promised to call with details, but never did.

IN THIS TOWN YOU'RE ONLY AS BIG AS YOUR LAST MURDER, and so it was no surprise that O.J. Simpson's presence in the courthouse barely raised an eyebrow during the recess. I couldn't avoid him, though -- I was bent over a drinking fountain when I looked up and saw his massive frame towering over me. Simpson's lips were about to form his trademark phony smile, but I broke away before he could say anything. I happen to be a man of the old school who believes gentlemen do not shake the hands of murderers, even if they have only been convicted in a civil court.

Just as I turned around, I heard my name called.

"Nick!" a raspy female voice called. It was the literary agent Lucianne Goldberg, who keeps a pied-à-terre in downtown L.A. on Winston Street, in order to be a short walk from the courthouse.

After the hearing we repaired to Craby Joe's for cocktails. I don't drink, and had a dinner engagement with Larry King and Fred Goldman later anyway, so I sipped coffee while Lucianne knocked back eight or 10 Jägermeisters. She told me how it has all but been announced that her former client Mark Fuhrman will be appointed L.A.'s next police chief, and, as far as I'm concerned, it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. Although he took his lumps during the O.J. trial, Mark has turned into an ace crime reporter and a polished media personality.

I never did see much of Noel and Knoller (whose sentencing has been moved to June 7), although my trip held one last surprise. On the flight back to JFK, I glanced over to find an intense, haggard-looking woman with long, dark hair staring at me. She turned out to be Nedra Ruiz, Knoller's inept attorney, whose courtroom antics included crawling on all fours and barking at the judge.

"Mr. ---- ," she told me, "we're already filing for a mistrial because of my incompetence. If we can get a judge to agree that I'm a dilettante who has no right to practice law, Marjorie will get a new trial!"

At that very moment, shots rang out from the cockpit -- but that's another story for another time.

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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