Anthony Pellicano, the famed Hollywood private eye, was fond of saying he would go to great lengths to solve his celebrity clients' problems -- even if it meant whacking somebody with a baseball bat or resorting to blackmail.
He cultivated an aura of danger, boasting that he knew how to shred someone's face with a knife.
Yet for three decades, prosecutors across the country had no hesitation about using him as an expert witness in dozens of cases. Despite his unsavory image and win-at-all-costs reputation, Pellicano, who is now serving time for possession of illegal explosives, built a lucrative career as an "audio forensics" expert, analyzing and enhancing tape recordings.
Interviews and court documents show that prosecutors often turned to Pellicano to examine disputed evidence in troubled cases. In some instances, he vouched for the authenticity of tape recordings that defendants said had been altered.
In others, he enhanced garbled or faint recordings after other experts, including those at the FBI, were unable to do so.
In one such case, the U.S. attorney's office in Tampa, Fla., hired Pellicano to enhance recordings that were the key evidence against a couple suspected of killing their baby daughter. Pellicano said he heard incriminating utterances by the parents, including a comment by the mother that the child "died real bad."
But after listening to the tapes, a federal judge said they were worthless as evidence.
"I heard none of it," said U.S. District Judge Steven D. Merryday, who later awarded the couple nearly $3 million in attorneys' fees after the federal government conceded that charges never should have been filed.
Pellicano also served as a prosecution expert in the high-profile trial of Thomas Blanton Jr., accused in a 1963 church bombing in Alabama that killed four African American girls. Pellicano produced enhanced tape recordings and a transcript that bolstered the government's case.
Then-U.S. Atty. G. Douglas Jones said Pellicano's analysis was instrumental in convicting Blanton in 2001.
Well-Paid as a Witness
Over the years, Pellicano collected as much as $350 an hour from the government and was paid tens of thousands of dollars in some cases.
Now, his career as a prosecution expert is almost certainly over.
On Jan. 23, he was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to possession of illegal explosives. Federal agents found plastic explosive and a pair of hand grenades in his Sunset Boulevard office. They were searching for evidence of his involvement in a plot to frighten a Los Angeles Times reporter into abandoning a story on movie star Steven Seagal.
Pellicano, 59, is also at the center of a federal investigation into allegations of illegal wiretapping of entertainment industry figures.
Even before his recent legal problems began, Pellicano's background should have raised red flags for prosecutors, according to legal scholars and former government attorneys. Even cursory research would have turned up media accounts in which he boasted about or was accused of thuggish or illegal behavior.
For instance, in a January 1992 profile in GQ magazine titled "The Big Sleazy," Pellicano bragged that he had used a baseball bat to beat up one of his client's adversaries and had blackmailed others.
"I'm an expert with a knife," he was quoted as saying. "I can shred your face with a knife."
Although some defense attorneys and civil litigators are known to shop for experts whose testimony will favor their cases, prosecutors are supposed to operate under stricter ethical guidelines.
"Prosecutors have a duty to seek justice, not just find an expert who supports their case and gets them a win," said USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, who teaches legal ethics.
Former U.S. Atty. James P. Walsh, who prosecuted one celebrated case in which Pellicano was a defense expert -- the 1984 cocaine-trafficking trial of automaker John Z. DeLorean -- said he was stunned to learn that Pellicano had gone on to work for prosecutors.
"I find that surprising almost to the point of unbelievable," said Walsh, now in private practice in Los Angeles. While examining government tape recordings in the DeLorean case, he said, Pellicano got into a scuffle with an FBI agent and damaged the evidence.
"I'm blown away prosecutors would use him," Walsh said.
Pellicano declined requests for an interview through his attorney, Donald M. Re.
Re said Pellicano had "long been recognized by defense lawyers and prosecutors as a leading expert in tape analysis. It's unfortunate that some people would attack him now, but it is the nature of jackals to attack when a person is down."
Before he was arrested on the explosives charges, many prosecutors were full of praise for Pellicano, as evidenced by a stack of letters in his court file. Re had presented the letters as evidence of Pellicano's good character in arguing that he should be released on bail.