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Local Elections : 'Dragon Lady' D'Agostino Covets Publicity, D.A.'s Job

June 04, 1988|SCOTT HARRIS | Times Staff Writer

One year later and the first book is out. One year later and the second-guessing begins anew.

One year later, and Lea Purwin D'Agostino, the flamboyant prosecutor who lost the "Twilight Zone: The Movie" case but achieved head-turning fame, is running in Tuesday's primary election for the job of her boss, Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, and fuming at her critics.

"Utterly shocked" is how D'Agostino says she felt when reading a recent Herald Examiner book review of "Outrageous Conduct: Art, Ego and the Twilight Zone Case," by Stephen Farber and Marc Green. It is the first of three books expected on the case that ended in the acquittal of director John Landis and four associates on manslaughter charges in the movie set deaths of actor Vic Morrow and two child actors.

The trial was "badly bungled by a prosecutor who used it as a tool for self-promotion," wrote the reviewer, a reporter who covered the case. Farber and Green, likewise, do not flatter D'Agostino.

Such criticism--heard widely among professional prosecutors--might seem critically damaging to a candidate for office.

But D'Agostino--who during the "Twilight Zone" prosecution became a nightly staple of local TV news and was featured prominently in a People magazine account of the trial--may well be one of those strong, controversial personages for whom there is no such thing as bad publicity. After all, she now promotes a nickname she once found offensive.

"I'm not called the Dragon Lady because I have dark hair and red fingernails," D'Agostino told the Los Angeles County Federation of Republican Women in a recent campaign speech. "It's because I'm tough."

D'Agostino uses the moniker for two standard lines: "Who better than a Dragon Lady to breathe fire in the war on crime?" and, "Remember, this is the Year of the Dragon."

"A lot of people don't know my name," D'Agostino explained in an interview, "but they remember 'the Dragon Lady.' " Now she says she wishes she had gotten her name on the ballot as Lea (Dragon Lady) D'Agostino.

Even without the nickname, the petite, image-minded 51-year-old prosecutor who speaks in a husky Lauren Bacall purr represents one of the most intriguing figures on the ballot. Ever stylish, always perfectly coiffed, she is a singular character.

Born in Israel

Born in Tel Aviv, she immigrated with her mother to the United States as a child. Before she became the Dragon Lady, D'Agostino was something of a Hollywood social butterfly in the 1960s as an aide to such figures as the late producer David O. Selznick and agent Freddie Fields, and gossip columnists linked her romantically with a Field client, actor Peter Sellers.

Later, when she was social director of the Marina City Club, she met and married Joseph D'Agostino, who later controlled the food and beverage concession at Hollywood Park. In her mid-30s, she entered law school and pursued her career as a prosecutor.

The "Dragon Lady" nickname, perpetuated in the "Twilight Zone" case, was actually given to her in court years before by defendant Muharem Kurbegovic, the so-called "Alphabet Bomber" who killed three people and injured 36 when he exploded a bomb at Los Angles International Airport in 1974. D'Agostino boasts that she is the "first woman prosecutor" in Los Angeles County to put a murderer on Death Row.

D'Agostino sees herself as a role model for career-minded women. Her endorsements range the political spectrum, from conservative former Congresswoman Bobbi Fiedler and the Los Angeles County Professional Peace Officers Assn. (whose membership includes the Sheriff's Department, the county marshal and district attorney investigators) to feminist lawyer Gloria Allred and the National Organization for Women.

At the same time, D'Agostino doesn't like the label "feminist" and insists in court on being addressed as "Mrs.," not "Ms." Many of her colleagues have thought for years that she is running for queen--another perception she promotes.

'Her Royal Highness'

There is the trademark golden queen bee brooch she wears every day. There is the vanity license plate on her burgundy Cadillac Seville that is a play on "Her Royal Highness."

More than anything, D'Agostino says she is running simply because Reiner has done a poor job. "He's like a beautifully wrapped box," she says. "He looks good, he sounds good, but there's nothing inside. There's no substance."

A plank in the D'Agostino platform is an amnesty program to collect overdue child-support payments from delinquent fathers. She has talked in more vague terms of improving prosecution of rape laws and crimes against the elderly. Another pledge is aimed at "scaring straight" first-time juvenile gang offenders with field trips to see drug addicts going through withdrawal at detoxification centers and to the morgue to see the victims of gang warfare.

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