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He's No Angel, He's a P.I.

John Nazarian shares Pellicano's profession, but his reputation is cleaner. Even if he does dig for DNA in rich people's trash.

June 13, 2006|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

It's 10 p.m., and John Nazarian, a burly 53-year-old private eye, is hurtling around Beverly Hills in his immaculate red Scion looking for garbage. Nazarian treats trash as his private archeological site, the detritus of human existence that exposes all our hidden vulnerabilities -- financial documents, prescription bottles, booze bottles and anything, anything, that might sport DNA.

"I would love to find condoms," he said, and cackled. "It's kind of disgusting to be pawing around other people's personal waste."

Yes, it's a dirty job being a private investigator, but Nazarian is prepared to do it. As he likes to say over and over again, he is one of the most expensive private eyes in L.A., charging $10,000 to $20,000 on retainer and $400 an hour for his services. He's racked up a number of celebrity clients, including singer Peggy Lee (whom he assiduously protected from the paparazzi to preserve the public's memory of her as a blond bombshell), Dean Martin, kooky billionaire Doris Duke and her butler, Bernard Lafferty. He's caught stalkers for CBS Chairman Les Moonves and former "NYPD Blue" star Andrea Thompson.

And then there are the 20 or so unnamed Hollywood wives with philandering husbands for whom Nazarian and his crew of 22 ex-cops and sundry specialists seem to be working in perpetuity.

Nazarian is part of a long, not particularly illustrious tradition of Hollywood private eyes, from fictional antiheroes, such as Sam Spade and "Chinatown's" Jake Gittes, to real-life swaggerer Fred Otash, the investigator for the scandal sheet Confidential Magazine, and Anthony Pellicano, the infamous gumshoe who sits in jail awaiting trial on more than 100 counts of wiretapping and witness intimidation.

This is why Nazarian keeps no records. Nothing. Tonight's game plan merely consists of a 3-by-5 card with an address.

"The D.A.s get furious with me," he said in a broad Boston accent. "We've had our documents requested, and I said I don't have 'em."

For this particular jaunt around Beverly Hills and Bel-Air, Nazarian has opted for a black muscle shirt and black sweats. He is officially dressed down, having left much of what he calls his costume at home. That includes a hat, oversize designer shades and bling -- most notably his trademark rings, two hunks of gold and platinum that look like smashed golf balls. He designed them himself, as he did the idiosyncratic cut of his dyed black beard. It looks as if his goatee sprouted two slender butterfly wings. He shaves what's left of his hair, like Kojak. The general look suggests menace, and that's the point.

"As a private detective, the more bad things you say about me, the more valuable my trade becomes," he said.

Pellicano Fallout

Things have cooled down in Nazarian's line of work since the Pellicano indictment.

"I said to the lawyers, all the good wire guys, they've all gone to Chicago for the summer. Anybody who goes out and wiretaps and does bugging now, they've got to be out of their minds."

Nazarian said he didn't bug because "I'm too old to go to jail." As a former cop, he insisted he knew how to push the boundaries without going over the line.

"I have a huge amount of sympathy for Anthony," he said as he zipped through the canyons looking for the house. "If I was his office manager, I would have made sure that none of that happened." As for the lawyers who employed Pellicano, he groaned theatrically. "I feel horrible for those guys. A lawyer always trusts me to do the right thing. Not that we break the law, but a private eye, by the mere fact of what we do, it's not like we're a bunch of choirboys. We're not."

Nazarian is almost compulsively upfront about the people who don't like him -- the California Assn. of Licensed Investigators, for one, which recently suspended him from its e-mail list serve for 30 days after he sent a nasty e-mail. Nazarian thinks most private investigators are "clowns" who rack up bills and don't deliver.

"I saw what all those other private eyes were doing, and I thought I shared nothing in common ... that's why I don't associate with any of them." Nazarian owns a cream-colored Bentley and a Rolls-Royce, and, as he said, 'I don't go to their conferences, because where am I going to park this Bentley in a parking lot full of Camrys?"

He also brings up a case from the early '90s, when he was working as a private eye in San Francisco. Police suspected a ring of Gypsies was swindling elderly victims out of their savings, then poisoning them with digitalis. Nazarian, something of a Gypsy specialist, began investigating on his own. He was later accused of scheming to sell a confidential police affidavit to Hollywood and then to the defense.

Nazarian adamantly denies trying to peddle the affidavit to the defense and says it's not his fault that the police file fell into his lap. "How do I force a police inspector to give me something? What size gun was I pointing at him?"

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