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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

2 in Brockovich Case Won't Stand Trial

Courts: Charges are dropped against the movie subject's ex-husband and ex-boyfriend. Their attorney pleads not guilty to extortion and conspiracy.

October 04, 2000|CATHERINE BLAKE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Prosecutors dropped extortion charges against the ex-husband and ex-boyfriend of movie heroine Erin Brockovich on Tuesday, but charged their attorney with two counts of attempted extortion and conspiracy.

Attorney John Reiner, 52, pleaded not guilty, while his former clients--Shawn Brown, 38, Brockovich's ex-husband, and Jorg Halaby, 46, her ex-boyfriend--were visibly relieved when the decision was announced in court.

"I'm overwhelmed with happiness," Brown said. "This situation happened so quickly it was like I got hit in the face with a sledgehammer. I knew I was innocent."

The three men had been accused of trying to blackmail Brockovich, and her lawyer boss, Ed Masry, by promising not to reveal damaging information about Brockovich in exchange for $310,000.

Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Frawley would not say why his office declined to prosecute Brown and Halaby, but said he could refile the charges.

Frawley said prosecutors had not cut a deal with Brown and Halaby to testify against Reiner.

The film "Erin Brockovich," starring Julia Roberts, tells the story of a down-on-her-luck mother of three whose research led to Pacific Gas & Electric paying a $333-million settlement for polluting ground water with the carcinogen chromium 6.

Brown was upset at the film's intimation that he was an absent father, so he hired Reiner to help in a movie-related dispute. Halaby, who was portrayed in the film as Brockovich's biker boyfriend, signed a lucrative contract with Universal Pictures, the maker of the movie, but allegedly joined with Brown in threatening to disparage Brockovich in the tabloid press.

Sheldon Levitin, Halaby's defense attorney, said he was glad prosecutors "saw through the chaff to the truth" and dropped the charges against his client. "If there was any guilt at all, Mr. Halaby does not share it."

Gary Lincenberg, Reiner's attorney, said the discussions between Masry and Reiner were part of a legitimate business exchange with no attempted extortion.

Lincenberg said he remains confident the charges against Reiner will be dropped. "I think the D.A. recognized they should never have been charged and eventually will see the wisdom in dropping charges against Reiner," he said.

Lincenberg speculated that prosecutors could not drop all the charges because of the case's high profile. Prosecutors, he said, made a national issue out of the events and might appear foolish if they abandoned the entire case.

In the preliminary hearing, defense attorneys brought up the parties' past relationships and questioned whether Masry and Brockovich were motivated by ill feelings toward the men in bringing the extortion accusations. Defense attorneys have accused Masry of manufacturing the case and manipulating prosecutors into filing it.

Lincenberg said he will continue to seek a change of venue, because he said Masry and Brockovich are local heroes in Ventura County.

Masry, the Westlake Village-based lawyer, said he and Brockovich had discussed the plan to drop the charges with Frawley several days ago and supported the decision.

"Erin is very relieved by this," Masry said, adding that she didn't relish the thought of testifying against the father of her children.

"Whatever happens happens," Masry said. "This is a big burden off Erin, and if it makes Erin happy, then I'm happy."

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