Anthony Pellicano's Gang of Five Stand Trial
THIS WEEK, THE RICO TRIAL for Anthony Pellicano and four co-defendants finally began. With its recessed lighting, Formica-granite wall panels and curved pews, Courtroom 890 in the Roybal Federal Building gives the impression of some space-age church — Congregation of the Neutrino, perhaps. At the end of its Nuremberg-sized defendants’ dock sits Pellicano, whose bill-like nose and weak chin truly suggest a pelican.
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Always clad in the green-nylon Windbreaker of a federal prisoner, Pellicano has the satisfaction of knowing he’s represented by the cheapest counsel possible — himself. One drawback, though, is that Judge Dale Fischer must constantly remind Pellicano to refer to himself in the third person whenever he plays lawyer and speaks about his client.
Pellicano, who turns 64 in about two weeks, must wish he could place more than semantic distance between himself and the man who faces 625 years behind bars on 110 counts of racketeering and conspiracy.
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“United States vs. Anthony Pellicano” began as a fish story. In June 2002, Los Angeles Times reporter Anita Busch discovered her car windshield had been smashed. Left upon the shattered glass were a dead fish, a red rose and a note bearing the single word “Stop.” By the time the FBI had finished delving into the incident, the fish story had evolved into a leviathan narrative centered on Pellicano, Hollywood’s cocky “private eye to the stars,” and his alleged illegal use of wiretaps to mine valuable dirt on his clients’ personal and legal foes.
He’s also accused of using law-enforcement contacts to intimidate witnesses and journalists on behalf of his A-list clients, who include Hollywood superlawyer Bert Fields, comic Chris Rock, Die Hard director John McTiernan, über-agent/producer Michael Ovitz and film-studio chiefs Ron Meyer and Brad Grey.
The apparent intimidation of Busch, which resulted after Pellicano allegedly spied on her for clients upset with her coverage of the relationship between actor Steven Seagal and businessman Julius Nasso, was but one of many cases unearthed by the feds. Pellicano’s targets, whom he allegedly spied upon on behalf of monied clients who wanted to know their secrets, formed a kind of A-list beyond just journalists and producers, and included actors Sylvester Stallone and Keith Carradine and comedian Garry Shandling.
Pellicano’s co-defendants are ex-LAPD officer Mark Arneson,* former SBC telephone technician Rayford Turner, computer programmer Kevin Kachikian and Las Vegas businessman Abner Nicherie. (Hollywood lawyer Terry Christensen was recently severed from the case and will be tried later.) Only Pellicano, who sits far apart from his associates, remains in custody — now considered too much of a flight risk to be granted the bail the others enjoy. To make the RICO spaghetti stick to the wall the government, represented by assistant U.S. attorneys Kevin Lally and Daniel Saunders, must prove that Pellicano Investigative Agency Ltd. constituted a criminal enterprise and that the alleged crimes were committed for the achievement of a common illegal goal for that enterprise.
At the heart of the case is a computer-software program called Telesleuth that was developed by Pellicano with co-defendant Kachikian — a sophisticated program that makes it easier for an eavesdropper to monitor tapped phone calls, with the aid of a tricked-out iMac.
The defense counters that Pellicano had planned to legally market the system to law enforcement — he was just testing it to make sure it worked. Really. Kachikian’s lawyer, Adam Braun, also claims Telesleuth’s intricate system of passwords and self-erasure mechanisms was designed to keep the wiretaps from falling into unscrupulous hands.
So Telesleuth was actually programmed, the implication seems, to protect the privacy of those being tapped.
An allegedly corrupt cop rounds out the characters. The government contends that veteran Pacific Division cop Sergeant Mark Arneson — whose 29-year career on the force was speckled with controversies — was paid to act as a one-man information-retrieval service for Pellicano, to whom he handed eyes-only information from DMV, FBI and other databases.
In his opening statement, Arneson’s lawyer, Chad Hummel, spun the cop’s hijinks as the kind of above-board moonlighting any duty-conscious officer would engage in, since Pellicano had graciously provided the LAPD with all kinds of tips about organized crime on the Westside.
IN MANY WAYS, THERE IS NO “THERE” there in this case. Pellicano and his gang aren’t accused of any standout crime that would make a TV viewer drop his or her remote in shock. The defendants aren’t accused of burglarizing a psychologist’s office or giving a diagram of a weapon to a foreign enemy. They aren’t even accused of murdering a nightclub hostess.
Instead, the government seeks to impress the jury by the sheer accumulation of instances in which Pellicano broke the law. This is why the case is so massive. If he weren’t a private investigator but Anthony Pellicano, corrupt Dentist to the Stars, the government might’ve busted him, say, for illegally using silver while charging for gold. Its case would rest on years of appointments made with dozens of Hollywood’s rich and famous.
The Pellicano case is important to Los Angeles’ secret dream life because it is the latest installment of the Permanent Trial — that unique and never-ending proceeding involving the entertainment industrial complex. As American media have increasingly become celebrity-centric, L.A.’s local news outlets have made sure that at any given moment there is a spotlight on some scandalous misconduct on the part of some glamour-industry figure.
It’s not really important that old men such as Robert Blake, Phil Spector or Anthony Pellicano don’t generate much viewer heat — the important thing is that there be something to fit in between the newest shenanigans of Britney, Lindsay or Paris.
The prosecution’s lead-off witness was baseball slugger Matt Williams, who relayed how he’d hired the P.I. to spy on his ex-wife Tracie. Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Saunders played a recording, made surreptitiously by Pellicano, of a phone conversation between the investigator and the former third-baseman.
During their talk, Pellicano can be heard throwing out another option — tapping the phone line of Williams’ wife at the time, actress Michelle Johnson. (Williams declines.) Besides demonstrating that Pellicano would record conversations with clients without their permission, the recording also demonstrated his willingness to tap the phone lines of others. The playback also suggested the source of Pellicano’s wealth — many unhappy people with lots of money who have wanted to learn the innermost thoughts of their spouses, business associates or foes.
“I always thought he was a pain in the ass,” trial spectator and private investigator John Nazarian said of Pellicano during a break. “But he was a smart pain in the ass.”
PELLICANO’S CROSS-EXAMINATION of an FBI agent who’d participated in a 2002 search of the P.I.’s office, however, revealed that in representing himself at trial, Pellicano risks coming across to the judge and jury as a grumpy old man who can’t find his page in an evidence binder.
Pellicano’s much-anticipated opening statement lasted all of nine minutes, half of it seemingly consisting of his rephrasing of his sentences, under Judge Fischer’s prodding, in order to refer to himself in the third person. Standing at the lectern in his green windbreaker, amid a courtroom filled with suits, Pellicano looked like a little-league coach who was about to scold a losing team.
Day two saw the appearance of former Pellicano employee Tarita Virtue, an “actress, model and spokesperson” who wore noticeably more clothing than she displays on her Web site. The pneumatic bombshell’s testimony proved explosive as she described a “war room” whose five iMacs continually recorded “tons and tons of phone calls,” as well as credit-card and banking transactions. Virtue also confirmed a list provided by the prosecution of Telesleuth’s subject-file passwords, which included such unforgettable strings as “Bold Cocksucker Omerta,” “Prince of Islam Shit Omerta” and “Catholic Girl Reporter.” One subject-file password, related to actor Tom Cruise (in a case codenamed “Sissy”), was “Cruise Missile Omerta.”
“His clients loved him while they needed him,” attorney Pellicano had generously said of defendant Pellicano during the former’s opening statement. If testimony continues along these lines, however, Pellicano will not only have to learn to refer to himself in the third person, but also in the past tense.
* Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Mark Arneson's name.
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