Can Billionaire Kirk Kerkorian Save Terry Christensen From Tony Pellicano's Fate?
“If they catch Terry, they won’t care how he got away. All they’ll care about is the circus they can make of the trial.”
—Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye
THE FIVE-WEEK FEDERAL wiretapping trial of Terry Christensen and Anthony Pellicano is winding down. Last May, Pellicano’s first trial netted the Private Eye to the Stars 76 racketeering convictions. It was Movie of the Week stuff featuring torrid stories of sexual betrayal and drug abuse, buckets of witness tears and no fewer than five defendants.
But this latest trial, Pellicano II, seemed to have been scripted by an experimental Polish theater company devoted to anti-drama theory. (Christensen’s law partner, Bob Shapiro, could sometimes be glimpsed in court with his eyes closed. He was not alone.)
The second time around, Pellicano shared the dock with only one man, megalawyer Christensen. In 2002, Christensen hired Pellicano to find, for Christensen’s client, billionaire Kirk Kerkorian, the biological father of Kerkorian’s daughter, Kira, with whom he shared custody with ex-wife Lisa Bonder.
Christensen’s enormous resources eclipsed those of the first trial’s defendants, as evidenced by the sheer number of his firm’s attorneys and aides present in court. Pellicano, incarcerated since 2002, has acted as his own attorney.
The government’s chief evidence was 34 phone conversations between Pellicano and Christensen that the former secretly recorded. On them, the two men are heard giggling like adolescents while making vulgar comments about Lisa Bonder and her attorneys.
In the recordings, Pellicano was boisterous, his mood erratically swinging from locker-room bravado to needy declarations of fealty to Christensen and Kerkorian (“I’m a Sicilian,” “I’m a soldier,” etc.). Christensen’s recorded chuckles suggested a white-shoe lawyer tempted to join the dirty fun but usually holding back.
Prosecutors Daniel Saunders and Kevin Lally allege that Pellicano, with Christensen’s knowledge, tapped Bonder’s phones and relayed her conversations with her lawyers to Christensen, all during a bitter court fight to get Kerkorian to increase his monthly child support from $50,000 to $320,000. Her demands led Kerkorian, nearly half a century older than Bonder, to renew a 1997 attempt to discover whether he truly was the newborn Kira’s blood father.
Kerkorian’s first effort produced DNA proof showing he was Kira’s dad. Unknown to him, though, Bonder had tricked Kerkorian’s adult daughter into leaving her saliva on a swab (part of a “science project,” Bonder told the adult daughter) and Bonder then submitted it to a lab as little Kira’s DNA.
When Kerkorian heard that Kira’s daddy was real estate heir and sometime-Hollywood player Steve Bing, Kerkorian’s security operatives snatched dental floss from Bing’s trash, which confirmed Bing as Kira’s father. (In 2002, Kerkorian’s lawyers revealed in court that he is sterile and couldn’t have fathered Kira.)
THIS TIME AROUND, Pellicano has sat alone at a table far from Christensen, who is normally flanked by his high-powered attorneys, Terree Bowers, and, from Christensen’s own firm (Christensen, Glaser, Fink, Jacobs, Weil & Shapiro), Patty Glaser. Neither Bowers nor Glaser are criminal trial lawyers — their natural habitat is corporate litigation — and their selection generated talk from the start. Certainly, both Bowers and Glaser have had unsteady moments during cross-examination, often guided by an irritated Judge Dale Fischer into properly formulating their questions.
It wasn’t Christensen’s legal firepower that separated him from Pellicano, however, but the willingness of Christensen’s attorneys to throw his co-defendant under a train by claiming Pellicano probably doctored the 34 phone recordings to incriminate Christensen. Pellicano definitely got the push Tuesday, when Glaser brought in a nationally noted audio-visual recording analyst, Bruce Koenig, to establish that Pellicano had the means and expertise to alter the recordings.
Over weeks of testimony Bonder emerged as a kind of mythical she-monster but was never called to testify. Yet last week the 91-year-old Kerkorian did appear for the defense. During 26 minutes on the stand, the unsmiling tycoon, who’d built his diversified fortune on Vegas real estate, automobile manufacturing and oil, appeared alert yet admitted he was hard of hearing and not entirely sure of specific dates; at one point he checked himself while referring to the FBI as “the RAF.” (Kerkorian had flown for the Royal Air Force as a contractor during WWII.)
In measured, sepulchral tones, Kerkorian described one pre-floss meeting with Bing, also attended by Christensen and Pellicano, in which Bing was asked if he would take a DNA test. Bing, according to Kerkorian, said he’d consider doing so but never did. When the meeting broke up Bing left the room but his lawyer lingered. “Steve Bing was drinking out of a bottle of water,” Kerkorian testified. “His lawyer saw me looking at that bottle and smiled at me. He took the bottle and walked out.”
Kerkorian described his lawyer Christensen as “excellent, honest and a true friend.” He had nothing to say for Pellicano, the Sicilian soldier. The case soon goes to the jury.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.