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Dead or Alive?

Courts: Billionaire Boys Club founder, convicted of murder, contends victim is still living. Prosecutors doubt witnesses' accounts.

July 12, 1996|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ron Levin is dead. Or maybe he's not.

Joe Hunt helped kill him and then buried the body in the Angeles National Forest.

Or maybe he didn't and, like Elvis, Levin keeps turning up: at a funeral, driving a car through Brentwood, even relaxing in a taverna on a trendy Greek island.

Levin's body has never been found.

And therein lies the riddle that has dominated a reprise of the Billionaire Boys Club saga--the drama that riveted Los Angeles in the 1980s and played out again over recent months at the Criminal Courts Building.

Is Levin really dead? Or has Levin, a skilled con artist, staged his own disappearance and pulled the ultimate con?

Hunt, the charismatic leader of the club and himself a man who's been described as a con of some renown, was convicted nine years ago of murder. Since March, he and his lawyers have been back in court, arguing that he deserves a new trial, mostly on grounds that Levin is alive and well.

At the hearing, which wrapped up Monday before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge J. Stephen Czuleger, five witnesses said they'd seen Levin alive after he disappeared June 6, 1984.

"It goes without saying that a murder does not occur if no one is killed," defense attorneys Michael M. Crain and Rowan K. Klein said in a legal brief filed on Hunt's behalf.

Prosecutors countered that Levin is dead, that Hunt killed him, that a jury said so--and that anyone claiming to have seen Levin is mistaken. Considering all the publicity the Billionaire Boys Club generated, including several books and a made-for-TV movie, prosecutors suggested that it seems incredible there haven't been more "sightings" as well as more recent ones--if, in fact, Levin still is running around in public.

"Not one of the sightings has produced a shred of credible evidence of the corporeal evidence of a live Levin," Deputy Dist. Attys. Andrew J. McMullen and Imogene M.N. Katayama said in their legal papers.

In court this week, both sides struggled to come to grips with this latest twist in a tale of greed and betrayal that long ago became legendary as one of the most complicated and bizarre in the history of California jurisprudence.

In 1983, when he was 23, Hunt formed the Billionaire Boys Club, an investment and social fraternity, with other young men he recruited from prominent Los Angeles families.

Members drove high-performance cars. They wore designer suits. They frequented Los Angeles' trendiest nightclubs. They personified the me-first greed that came to symbolize the '80s.

By 1984, however, the group's business ventures were foundering--and its get-rich-quick schemes, according to prosecutors--turned murderous.

Prosecutors argued that Levin, then 42, duped Hunt in a high-stakes commodities swindle.

Levin supposedly had agreed to place $5 million in a brokerage house account and let Hunt trade it. They would split the profits.

Levin, however, had told the brokerage company that he was doing a TV documentary about commodities trading and that none of Hunt's buy or sell orders should be executed. Hunt was not to be let in on the secret--that way, he would think he was making "real" decisions.

Hunt apparently made the right moves. He turned the supposed $5 million into $13 million and then asked for his share of the profits--$4 million.

Only then was he told it had all been a game.

On the night of June 6, 1984, Hunt and his bodyguard, Jim Pittman, met Levin at the latter's Beverly Hills duplex.

According to prosecutors, Pittman pulled a gun on Levin, and Hunt made Levin sign a check for $1.5 million.

Then, prosecutors said, they took Levin into the bedroom, put him face down on his bed and, with a .25-caliber pistol equipped with a silencer, Pittman shot Levin in the back of the head.

Hunt and Pittman took the body to Soledad Canyon and dumped it in a pit, prosecutors said. There, they said, the men blasted it to pieces with a shotgun so it could not be recognized.

The $1.5-million check bounced.

And Hunt was arrested after confiding in several club members, who later said he told them it was the "perfect crime."

*

At the trial, perhaps the key piece of evidence against Hunt was a seven-page list of items the prosecution called "a recipe for murder."

Under the heading, "At Levin's To Do," were notes in Hunt's handwriting that included: "close blinds," "scan for tape recorder," "tape mouth," "handcuff," "put gloves on" and "kill dog."

In April 1987, Hunt was convicted in Santa Monica Superior Court of murder. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Pittman was tried twice for murder; both times the jury deadlocked. In 1987, he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge--being an accessory to murder after the fact--and was sentenced to three years and six months, time he already had served.

In May 1993, Pittman told a TV crew from "A Current Affair" that he was indeed the triggerman. Because of double jeopardy, he boasted, he could not be tried again for murder.

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