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Geek Tragedy: Pellicano's Computer Man Crashes

NONE OF FORMER PRIVATE EYE Anthony Pellicano’s four racketeering co-defendants has stirred as much curiosity as Kevin Kachikian, the self-admitted “socially awkward” 43-year-old cyber savant who created Telesleuth, a wiretapping computer program, from Pellicano’s theoretical design. With his shaved head, preference for white socks and sandals and idiosyncratic Web site, Kachikian seems like a geek’s geek, a UFO aficionado possibly inspired by E.T. or Star Trek.

But is he a Trekkie or an alien? Is he a mindless follower or a man fully aware of the illegal uses to which Telesleuth was put?

For more than two days Kachikian sat on the witness stand, only the second of the Gang of Five to risk testifying on his own behalf. (Click here for “Pellicano Rebooted.”) Under his attorney Adam Braun’s deft questioning, Kachikian emerged as a thoughtful if naïve autodidact who weathered the abusive tantrums of a demanding boss to produce a suite of analytical computer tools that enhanced audio recordings.

However, one such program, Telesleuth, was an illegal Pandora’s Box. Telesleuth, which was planted inside iMacs, could relay, record and play back tapped phone calls with stunning efficiency and clarity. (According to Kachikian, Pellicano dreamed of other dubious inventions, including one device that could intercept faxes and another that would serve as a voice-stress lie detector.)

Although Kachikian sounded credible under direct examination, there was something not quite right — as he had to be frequently admonished by Judge Dale Fischer not to elaborate on his replies to Braun’s questions. The full extent of Kachikian’s clueless insularity became clear the moment Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Saunders began his cross-examination.

Kachikian recklessly tried to engage Saunders in a dialogue about his role on Team Pellicano, or insisted on providing long editorials to the prosecutor’s “yes” or “no” questions. An exasperated Judge Fischer finally dismissed the jury and warned Kachikian how close he was to being sanctioned by the court.

“I don’t know what my boundaries are,” he complained to Fischer, who’d spent Thursday morning spelling out exactly what those boundaries were.

“Be quiet!” she commanded in utter frustration. “You don’t even get it now!”

A CASE MIGHT BE MADE THAT Kachikian’s gaffes are proof that he lives in his own world — call it Kachikianstan — and that he’s a potential poster boy for Asperger’s syndrome. (Although an A.S. defense was notably barred by the judge in the trial of Caltech math genius Billy Cottrell, who was convicted of the 2003 firebombing of San Gabriel Valley SUV dealerships. (Click here for “A Terrible Thing to Waste.”)

But a few too many times, Saunders brought out moments in Kachikian’s timeline when the programmer suddenly appeared too aware to have been ignorant of the consequences of his actions. Such as when, following Pellicano’s 2002 arrest, Kachikian destroyed all traces he had of the Telesleuth program, and the time he e-mailed a Pellicano associate saying that “the walls have ears” and he was afraid of being found out by the FBI. If, as Pellicano and Kachikian claimed, Telesleuth was created to be sold to law enforcement, Saunders asked, why did it come equipped with a “code-wipe” program? This feature not only erased all the recorded audio of a wiretap if an unauthorized user attempted to access it, but it also erased the software program itself — then overwrote all vestiges of both audio and program with gibberish.

Kachikian suddenly sounded like Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates character in Psycho, in the scene where he’s caught in a lie about who had registered at his murderous motel.

“Yes ... now I remember,” Kachikian would stumble. Or, “Now that I sit here and think of it ...” And there was simply the disingenuousness of Kachikian’s stock statements about not knowing if Pellicano was actually using Telesleuth, even though Kachikian was continually being called into Pellicano’s office to tweak out the program’s bugs. Or, for that matter, his bald comment that he had no idea Pellicano was engaged in wiretapping at all.

By Wednesday, Pellicano finally answered the tantalizing question of whether he would testify on his own behalf. With a macho bravado worthy of Watergate fall guy G. Gordon Liddy, Pellicano announced that his sense of honor and loyalty to past clients compelled him to not testify.

Perhaps, though, Pellicano was too mindful of what had happened to co-defendants Kachikian and Mark Arneson, who’d testified similarly. Who knew what went through Kachikian’s mind as Adam Braun showed jurors a Rorschach-like waveform from a screen shot of one of Kachikian’s other audio-analysis programs. Now that he sat there and thought of it, perhaps Kachikian wondered where his next workplace would be — or if Leavenworth has an IT department.