Sparky remembers to forget
On Thursday the prosecution’s guns in the racketeering trial of Anthony Pellicano and four co-defendants fell silent as the government rested its case-in-chief that afternoon. Friday morning came and spectators filled Courtroom 890 in the Roybal Federal Building to watch the defense return fire. If visitors were expecting Pellicano to open up with heavy artillery they were quickly disappointed. Pellicano called on a single witness, FBI computer expert Donald Schmidt Jr., a short, goateed figure who, with other federal geek squad members, had worked long hours to unpack the contents of hard drives seized in a November, 2002 raid on Pellicano’s Sunset Blvd. office. Those hard drives allegedly contained esoterically encrypted audio files containing hours of wiretapped telephone conversations – files that had at first baffled Schmidt and other cyber sleuths who were unable to unlock their secrets.
As he did with many of the prosecution’s own computer experts over the past five weeks, Pellicano, acting as his own attorney, seemed to be trying to out-dweeb his witness by showing off his technical know-how and splitting hairs over terminology. Still, I was told by someone well acquainted with this aspect of the case that Pellicano is pinning his hopes on catching a moment in the FBI’s timeline in which the bureau worked on copies of his files and his proprietary snooping program, TeleSleuth, before it had the legal authority to do so.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Saunders, whose upholstered chair makes a whoosh sound every time he stands up from it, was in no mood to let Pellicano run amok and quickly objected whenever the jailhouse lawyer strayed beyond the scope of the prosecution’s evidence. Whoosh went Saunders’ chair when Pellicano asked a question that had already been answered. Whoosh again when Pellicano asked a question with no apparent relevance to the testimony. It got to the point that Pellicano would ask a question, hear the chair creak and turn to hear Saunders’ expected objection. Finally Pellicano rested after 66 minutes, his final two questions cut short by sustained objections.
At 9:30 a.m. attorney Chad Hummel called co-defendant Mark Arneson to the stand. Arneson, a retired LAPD sergeant, has appeared, all these weeks, to be the most troubled-looking of the five defendants. And well he should, since he and former phone-company technician Ray Turner were the men whom Pellicano allegedly relied upon the most for his investigative business to thrive. The balding, bespectacled and goateed Arneson has struck a professorial pose in court and took the witness wearing a camel-hair sports coat, white shirt and tie. At first he seemed like the perfect witness – a clear-voiced and persuasive conversationalist who spoke in complete sentences. He was well-complemented by Hummel, who seemed to challenge his client’s motives when he asked Arneson if he knew he was doing wrong when he supplied Pellicano with requested criminal and DMV data on people the detective was investigating.
Arneson allowed that he knew it was a violation of departmental policy and that he later came to understand that it was a violation of law “at the state level” – seeming to exclude knowledge that he could be prosecuted for it in federal court. He admitted to having ethically “crossed the line,” he said, although he did so for a greater good: In return for occasionally providing Pellicano with a few names and addresses, he was able to access the investigator’s wealth of knowledge about organized crime activity on the Westside, where Arneson was stationed – as well as harnessing Pellicano’s expertise in forensic-audio analysis, which he said Pellicano provided free of charge to the LAPD. Besides, Arneson likewise took no payment from Pellicano for his information-sharing from criminal data bases – although he was retained as a $2,500-a-month security consultant.
The sergeant, who abruptly retired one year short of spending 30 years on the force, after Pellicano’s world collapsed following the FBI raid, had an answer for everything and nothing Hummel threw at Arneson caused him to stumble or pause. But before long Arneson seemed to be too good a witness, his dialogue with Hummel was just too slick and affable – you half expected the man in camel hair to greet the attorney’s queries with, “Thank you, that’s an excellent question.”
For a while it appeared that Hummel would run out the clock with Arneson’s testimony, but he relinquished his witness to Daniel Saunders at 12:50 p.m.
Saunders wasted no time in attacking the image of the LAPD sergeant that had been so carefully constructed by Arneson and Hummel over the past three hours. A citric smile cracked the corners of Saunders’ mouth as he asked Arneson if the sergeant had always planned to retire one year shy of 30 years. There was more to come. Had it been coincidental, Saunders inquired, that Arneson retired the day he was scheduled to be interviewed by the Internal Affairs division of the LAPD about his relationship with Pellicano? Hadn’t he lied when he wrote to a supervising officer that Anthony Pellicano had provided no insights into organized crime on the Westside and that there had been no quid pro quo between the two men? Had Arneson not lied again, when he told Saunders in July, 2003 that the times he’d supplied Pellicano with privileged information numbered fewer than one hundred – that, in fact, it was in the thousands?
Saunders’ sarcasm was withering – no more so than when he asked the sergeant why he, Arneson, claimed he adhered to a principled position of not providing Pellicano with information that affected LAPD cases, but felt no compunction about handing over personal data on the victims of crimes in Long Beach and other jurisdictions whenever Pellicano’s lawyer clients needed information to discredit these same victims.
Arneson still seemed to have an answer for everything, but as Saunders pressed him those answers seemed all the more transparent – especially the one that formed a kind of unified field theory for Arneson, namely, that since other cops had his LAPD serial number and police-computer password (“Sparky”), those thousands of inquiries that coincided with Pellicano’s investigations must have been someone else’s doing. Finally, Arneson’s memory seemed to desert him and he was reduced to answering with such phrases as, “I don’t recall that,” “I can’t tell you what I told them” and “Couldn’t tell you because I don’t remember it.” Sparky was remembering to forget.
Arneson’s wife watched stoically from the front row, chin held in the palm of a hand; Hummel sat back and thoughtfully watched his client try to fend off the prosecutor’s attacks. The remaining three co-defendants – Kevin Kachikian, Ray Turner and Abner Nicherie, also sat riveted, undoubtedly seeing their own fates reflected in what was happening to Arneson, should they testify on their own behalf.
It would be Daniel Saunders who ran out the clock Friday and he was not finished – his cross-examination of Sparky will continue when court reconvenes Tuesday. In an odd note, after one of the recess breaks preceding Saunders’ cross-examination, Chad Hummel asked Arneson a series of questions to establish that Anthony Pellicano had never given any Italian surnames to the sergeant, nor had he discussed with Arneson any individuals with Italian names who belong to organized crime. Arneson, on cue, replied that not only had this never happened, but that Pellicano was not an informant in any sense of the word. When one considered that Pellicano had been praised for three hours Friday as a police asset and that he was soon to be returned to his cell in the federal lockup adjacent to the federal building, this Q&A suddenly made sense.
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