NBC's "Billionaire Boys Club" miniseries left little doubt that Joe Hunt and some of his preppy followers were greedy rich kids who plotted and committed two murders for money and revenge.
But, in reality, did they? Did the television movie accurately recount the Hunt murder trial and the events leading up to it?
The person who could best say, Joe Hunt, is behind bars at Folsom state prison, and could not be reached for comment Monday. He has insisted he is innocent of both crimes.
But as the reporter who covered his trial for The Times, I found the so-called docudrama that concluded Monday night smaller than life, a pale and sometimes misleading imitation of reality, slanted toward the prosecution's view.
The riveting witnesses who testified during the five-month proceedings in Santa Monica Superior Court became look-alike characters barely distinguishable from each other on film, where they are thinly disguised and given different names. The crusty old judge who presided, as well as the colorful lawyers for both sides, were legal stereotypes. The "paradox philosophy" and magnetism of the leader who mesmerized a score of young men--as well as some of their parents and parents' friends--were never fully revealed.
The TV version stuck closely to the case presented by the prosecution in Hunt's Santa Monica trial earlier this year. But it misrepresented many of the participants and events, particularly when the scenes shifted from the courtroom where witnesses began their narratives to flashbacks of the events they were describing.
It ignored--almost entirely--the defense version of what happened, which may explain why Hunt's Los Angeles attorney, Arthur Barens, was not invited to the preview screening last week and had seen only the first half of the miniseries when interviewed Monday.
Barens said what he had seen so far contained "a multitude of inaccuracies, particularly in its portrayal of Joe." He said some incidents, such as the swimming pool scene and the tennis party, never happened, while Levin's lavish life style and the Billionaire Boys Club's wild parties were greatly exaggerated and other parts of the case were distorted by omission.
The film underplayed the defense and overplayed the prosecution, he complained. Such one-sided courtroom drama may be fine in fiction, but it appears ill-placed in a purportedly factual account of a real-life story that is still being played out in the courts, where a defendant's fate could turn on a misperception generated by a TV show.
It shed little light on the real-life events outside the courtroom, because neither Hunt nor any of the other four alleged participants or witnesses to the crimes were interviewed. It relied almost entirely on the court testimony of the Billionaire Boys Club's second-in-command, Dean Karny, who was granted immunity from prosecution for his story, and on interviews with lesser members who acted as paid consultants to the film makers and evidently saw themselves, not the Beverly Hills police, as heroic sleuths who cracked the case.
A television viewer might not know that jurors in the Hunt trial cited their distaste for the cocky, confident Hunt more often than the evidence itself in explaining why they found him guilty last spring of the murder of Beverly Hills con man Ron Levin. (Hunt's appeal is pending.) The same evidence that put Hunt behind bars for life, however, was not enough for two other juries, which were unable to reach a verdict on Hunt's bodyguard and alleged hit man, Jim Pittman, who now faces a possible third trial.
Pittman's attorney, Jeff Brodey, termed the film "biased and totally unfair in its characterization" of his client, and said he will move today that charges against Pittman be dismissed.
A viewer also might not realize that no one charged with the second murder in Northern California has been found guilty. Two Billionaire Boys Club members are currently on trial; no trial dates have been set yet for Hunt and Pittman.
Parker Kelly, Hunt's attorney in the upcoming trial, said in an interview from San Mateo that the show "amounts to nothing more than an opening statement by a prosecutor. . . . That obviously will spill into our case up here. What really happened is still a great mystery, but they just presented the case against him as fact and made it look like there was a single trial for both murders.
Kelly also noted that the film failed to point out that Hunt's so-called recipe for murder--the sinister, handwritten "At Levin's To Do" list--surfaced two months after the victim vanished, raising questions about its connection to Levin's murder or disappearance. But, hey, this is Hollywood, so why worry about the facts?
In a key scene, for example, after Judd Nelson as Joe Hunt tells his followers that he and his bodyguard have "bumped off" Levin, the monologue in which he explains his actions is pure fiction. "That never happened," said the man who prosecuted the case.