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Wild case interrupts the party

November 21, 2005|Mimi Avins and Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writers

A partially nude video of Joe Francis, the 32-year-old founder of the popular "Girls Gone Wild" series, is a world away from the ribald party scenes he's made famous. With Francis as its unwilling subject, the tape is a key piece of evidence in an upcoming case of kidnapping, robbery and extortion.

With a Bel-Air mansion as the scene of the violent crime, a stolen Bentley as the getaway car, Francis as the colorful and controversial victim and his former girlfriend Paris Hilton as the party girl said to have led police to the defendant, the pending trial has the makings of the next big truth-is-stranger-than-fiction drama to unfold in a Los Angeles courtroom.

The role of victim is an uncharacteristic one for Francis, whose "Girls Gone Wild" videos feature nubile women flashing their breasts for the camera. In eight years, the tall, handsome entrepreneur has built his privately owned company into a lucrative brand and the sort of cultural touchstone that's parodied on "Saturday Night Live." His fortune has been estimated in the hundreds of millions. He owns two expensive homes, airplanes and luxury cars, and has also dated such other well-known "it girls" as Kimberly Stewart and Tamara Mellon.

"Girls Gone Wild" has been such a hit with the highly prized young male audience that Francis has been sought out by producers, studio heads and other businessmen eager to find out how to make fun-loving dudes open their wallets. He counts former Sony boss Peter Guber and music mogul Quincy Jones among his mentors. But his endeavors also have landed him in trouble with the law; he was arrested in Panama City, Fla., in 2003 in connection with a video shot during spring break in the beach town. Francis has been accused of filming of minors for one of his videotapes and charged with racketeering, prostitution, obscenity, child pornography and possession of an illegal drug. He has denied any wrongdoing and the case is pending.

Held hostage

There is no indication of any link between the earlier case and the shakedown attempt that occurred in the early-morning hours of Jan. 22, 2004, when an intruder broke into Francis' contemporary mansion in Bel-Air. Brandishing a pistol, the assailant ordered Francis to lie on the floor, tied his hands behind his back and relieved him of $1,500 in cash, his cellphone and an $8,000 Rolex watch, according to the police report. For the next few hours, the burglar repeatedly threatened to kill Francis while demanding money, the report says.

The intruder forced Francis to lie on his bed with his pants down, then switched on a video camera and is heard on the tape saying, "I'm not a fag, but I am going to make the owner of 'Girls Gone Wild' look like a fag. I am going to put this on the Internet and make money." The video lasts only a few minutes, long enough for Francis to identify himself and mumble that he enjoys anal sex. He made the statement, the police report details, fearing for his life. Police say no sexual assault occurred.

Hands still bound and mouth covered with duct tape, Francis was forced into his Bentley but freed himself after the car was abandoned near Sunset Boulevard.

For the next four days, the gunman called Francis many times, demanding that he be paid from $300,000 to half a million dollars in exchange for the video. Police attempts to identify a suspect through the calls were unsuccessful, since they were made from pay phones.

The case broke last December when a friend of Francis' -- later identified by the defense as Hilton -- overheard a man at a party bragging about knowing a guy who robbed Francis' home. The partygoer identified the intruder as Darnell Riley, who according to court documents had lived in Lancaster and more recently in Los Angeles. In a police search of Riley's home, the videotape of Francis was found and Riley's fingerprints were matched to some taken from the Bentley and the duct tape, according to the police report.

Riley, 28, is charged with six felonies and has been in custody since his arrest in March. A pretrial hearing is expected to begin in mid-December. His defense attorney, Ronald Richards, says, "We're contesting Joe Francis' description of the incident. Every fact in this case is at issue."

Previously acquainted?

A cornerstone of the defense will be that Riley and Francis were acquainted before the night of the break-in, Richards says. Bill Horn, a spokesman for Francis, says the two men never met before the night Francis was attacked in his home.

The case has been catnip to such gossip and scandal-obsessed websites as Radar Online and Defamer, which have described the video in purple prose. Hilton, a high priestess of celebritydom, has been subpoenaed, and if she testifies, even the pretrial hearing will likely be a media circus.

The district attorney has instructed Francis not to comment on the extortion case, but in an interview with The Times last summer, he said, "Envy makes you a target. People want what you have, and they think they can take what you have."

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