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Phil Noir: In a Lonely Place 

With friends like Punkin Pie...

Friday, Jul 20 2007
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“I HATE THIS TOWN and I hate the people in it and I don’t want to be in it anymore.”

These words, uttered first thing in the morning by half of Los Angeles, were Lana Clarkson’s personal mantra toward the end of her life, according to her “best friend ever in the whole wide world.” Punkin Irene Elizabeth (PIE) Laughlin, better known as Punkin Pie, is a veteran nightclub promoter associated with Beverly Hills’ Backstage Café. Her MySpace page lists her age as 21, though her appearance for the defense this past week in Phil Spector’s murder trial suggested that her page is in need of some extreme updating. Voices aren’t normally described as disheveled, but everything about this woman, from her straggly, deep-roots blond hair to her spaced-out demeanor, seemed haggard and unkempt. Still, Punkin Pie was very much in the spotlight this past week, detailing how much Clarkson had begun to loathe L.A. as the sometime-actress’s luck with both Hollywood and men evaporated shortly before her 2003 shooting death.

Days previously, Clarkson’s second best friend ever, Jennifer Hayes-Riedl, confirmed that Lana’s mood only darkened upon getting a hostess job at House of Blues, where “she had to pull out chairs for people she’d beaten for roles” in the past. Clarkson, who needed loans simply to cover rent and groceries, had borrowed more than $30,000 to make a showcase video highlighting her standup-comedy skills called Lana Unleashed. Those who saw it didn’t laugh. Under Spector attorney Roger Rosen’s questioning, Hayes-Riedl identified items in Clarkson’s tiny Venice apartment, which was decorated in a leopard-skin motif and crammed with Marilyn Monroe imagery. Nothing, however, was a sadder indicator of her manically quixotic mood — and isolation from the entertainment industry — than a bulletin board plastered with decals and clippings of self-affirmation slogans: “Live Your Dream Destiny,” “Imagining the Future” and, simply, “Star.”

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Punkin Pie’s appearance on the witness stand was stormy, with prosecutor Alan Jackson hammering on one question in particular: Why didn’t Pie tell homicide investigators in 2003 that Clarkson was deeply depressed and made statements that could have been construed as suicidal? Pie contended that another girlfriend had advised her not to tell the police this information without a lawyer present. In 2005, Pie finally did reveal these secrets to lawyers — Spector’s lawyers. They are now using Pie’s statements to support their contention that a drunk and depressed Clarkson shot herself at Spector’s mansion. Jackson insinuated that Pie had come forward with her story either for personal gain or to spite Lana’s family, who she felt had snubbed her after Clarkson’s death.

Like so much testimony in this trial, Pie’s story did as much to tarnish the witness as to throw light on Clarkson’s last days. After the flamboyant promoter stepped down following more than two days of testimony, the trial resumed its familiar monochrome tedium, with the return of cops and criminalists. Yet they too, in their own gray, arid way, were there to piece together a postmortem image of Clarkson, just as Hayes-Riedl and Punkin Pie Laughlin had.

In some sense, Clarkson fulfills the classic film noir role of femme fatale — a woman mysterious and ultimately unknowable, both ethereal and abject. Writing in their seminal 1955 study of the genre, A Panorama of American Film Noir, Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton noted, in words that could be applied to Lana Clarkson:

“The femme fatale is also fatal to herself. Frustrated and guilty, half man-eater and half man-eaten, blasé and cornered, she falls victim to her own wiles.”

Or, as Hayes-Riedl put it, “Lana was this melty little thing.”

BY WEEK’S END, THE DEFENSE testimony returned to that reliable sedative, blood spatter — lightened by long discussions of Spector’s urine. Then the Whore of Babylon walked into Department 106. Not just that, but the Whore of Babylon who’d served a 22-month stretch in Chowchilla. “Hollywood Madam” Jody “Babydol” Gibson arrived during the middle of morning testimony wearing a blue miniskirted outfit with white buttons the size of mushrooms. Court spectators were temporarily jolted from the drone of criminalist James Pex. Judge Larry Paul Fidler immediately cut off the cross-examination and had the jury hustled out, as though for its own safety.

With her barbed-wired ankle tattoo, patent-leather sue-me stilettos and Lady Godiva blond mane, Gibson was an erotic parody — an image produced by mixing Viagra with too much Chivas. Still, Babydol represented “It,” and an undeniable sexual current jolted the room. The only other person I’ve witnessed doing this, though on a much bigger scale, is Senator Barack Obama.

Gibson and lawyer Sam Weiss were commanded to the bar, whereupon they both asked the judge to allow Gibson to freely promote her book, Secrets of a Hollywood Super Madam, along with a sequel, now that it appears highly unlikely that she will be called to testify. Fidler, however, warned Gibson that, while she is free to publicize her book, she cannot refer to its allusions to Lana Clarkson being employed as a call girl; nor even to the trial itself, nor discuss her famous little black book that purportedly shows Clarkson’s name. (The entry is suspected of being a forgery and is currently in custody at the Sheriff’s crime lab.)

Fidler based his ruling on the remote possibility that Phil Spector might testify, which could possibly cause Gibson to be brought to the witness stand. Babydol gagged could very likely be joined by criminalist Dr. Henry Lee and the self-proclaimed son of Raul Julia, the alleged actor “Raul Julia Levy,” as colorful no-shows on the defense’s witness list, thanks to various Fidler rulings, further taking much of the circus excitement out of this spectacle. In the end, Babydol, every ounce the businesswoman, walked out of the courtroom with a truckload of free publicity.

EASILY THE MOST VISIBLE and soul-searching of the bloggers who attend the Spector trial is Betsy Ross (her real name), a semiretired bodyworker and seamstress, whom I first met at the Robert Blake trial and who sits in on every day of Spector testimony. The Sherman Oaks “true-crime junkie,” who rises at 6 a.m. to take public transportation to the downtown courthouse, writes under the name Sprocket, and her highly detailed observations, delivered diary style, appear on her blog, http://sprocket-trials.blogspot.com, as well as on Court TV’s Spector chat board.

Like the handful of other bloggers in Department 106, Ross has no journalistic credentials and must await her turn for available public seating. It seemed to me during the first few weeks that some court personnel and reporters were standoffish to her. Today, however, she is considered a colleague by many and can usually be found animatedly chatting with Vanity Fair’s Dominick Dunne. By now, she has achieved her own blogger fame (as well as critics), and occasionally people in the hall will come up to Ross and ask, somewhat in awe, “Are you Sprocket?”

This was how she got one of her scoops, when adopted Spector son Louis Spector and his longtime girlfriend, both avid readers of Ross, approached her outside the courtroom one morning. Soon, Louis was detailing his estrangement from Spector to Ross over lunch in the court cafeteria.

After Wednesday’s session ended, Ross bolted the courtroom in order to catch the Red Line train so she could make her connection to the Orange Line bus that takes her home. Meanwhile, Louis Spector and his companion entered an elevator filled with Sheriff’s deputies that stopped on a floor on the way down to the lobby.

“Where y’all going?” asked another deputy as she stared into the crowded car.

“We’re all going to hell unless we change our lives,” one of the elevator’s deputies deadpanned, completely serious. Then the doors closed, and down we all went.

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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