Federal officials investigating infamous Hollywood detective Anthony Pellicano have found no convincing evidence that actor Steven Seagal was involved in depositing a dead fish on a reporter's windshield in June 2002 and now believe Pellicano had some other motivation for staging the mob-style threat.
While prosecutors have yet to explain what that impetus was, their current lack of interest in Seagal fundamentally alters the original plot line of this Hollywood cliffhanger and raises this question: If not the movie star, then who was Pellicano working for?
The original premise was that Seagal had hired Pellicano to threaten Los Angeles Times reporter Anita Busch and scare her off a story about the actor's problems with organized crime.
The FBI initially subscribed to that theory because Alexander Proctor, the former convict that Pellicano allegedly hired to put a dead fish with a rose in its mouth and a note that said "Stop" on the smashed windshield of Busch's car, claimed he was working for Pellicano on Seagal's behalf.
Seagal's lawyers have denied since the fall of 2002 that the actor had anything to do with the threat, but federal authorities have never publicly exonerated him or explained why they eventually came to disbelieve Proctor.
"As we looked into it, there was very little to corroborate" Proctor's claim, said a source close to the investigation. "There was a lot to suggest that Seagal was not involved."
Indeed, the 110-count federal indictment accusing Pellicano and six others of conspiring to blackmail and intimidate dozens of celebrities, business executives and others in Los Angeles alleges that the private eye started spying on Busch well before Seagal was even on her radar.
Pellicano allegedly began prying into Busch's life nine days after she and her reporting partner, Bernard Weinraub, wrapped up a series of damaging articles in the New York Times about former super agent Michael Ovitz -- and more than two weeks before she began working on the Seagal story for the Los Angeles Times.
On May 16, 2002, Pellicano allegedly asked his contact in the Los Angeles Police Department, Sgt. Mark Arneson -- also now indicted -- to troll for information on Busch and Weinraub in law enforcement databases. Pellicano also is accused of paying telephone company technician Rayford Earl Turner to obtain confidential information that later enabled the private eye to tap Busch's phone. She no longer works for The Times.
As the racketeering investigation has widened, a big unknown is the extent to which Pellicano acted at the behest of high-powered lawyers or their clients -- or on his own in a bid to impress them.
But for whatever reasons they may have been targeted, several others with Busch on the list of Pellicano's purported victims also had some unpleasant history with Ovitz.
On the same day Pellicano allegedly requested Busch's information, he turned to Arneson for data on James Casey, who had sued Ovitz's Artists Management Group two months earlier to collect $450,000 he alleged he was owed for referring an athlete to the firm.
Six days before that, Pellicano had asked Arneson for information on Arthur Bernier, a former Artists Management executive who sued Ovitz in April 2002 for wrongful termination, alleging he was owed about $200,000.
And almost a year earlier, Pellicano allegedly went after two other Ovitz adversaries, talent agents Bryan Lourd and Kevin Huvane, ordering their names run through the law enforcement databases as well.
Both were former proteges of Ovitz at Creative Artists Agency, which he co-founded. They became his competitors when Ovitz started Artists Management Group after a brief but tumultuous stint as president of the Walt Disney Co. in the mid-1990s.
Federal officials would not say if they regard Ovitz, who has testified before a grand jury in the case, as anything other than a witness.
Through his lawyer, Ovitz acknowledged that a law firm working on behalf of Artists Management on the Casey and Bernier matters, Gorry Meyer & Rudd, retained Pellicano in early May 2002.
But Ovitz denies any knowledge of the alleged wiretapping or illegal background checks detailed in the indictment, his lawyer said.
"At no time did Mr. Ovitz or anyone on his behalf ever direct or instruct Mr. Pellicano, or anyone, to engage in improper or illegal means to carry out the legitimate tasks for which he was engaged," said James Ellis, Ovitz's personal attorney. "Nor was Mr. Ovitz aware of any improper or illegal activities undertaken by Mr. Pellicano at any time."
Ellis said that Ovitz has been told by federal authorities that some of his "conversations were recorded by Anthony as well." Ellis said it was unclear whether Ovitz was talking to Pellicano or other people in the recorded conservations.
Ellis said Ovitz was unaware of, and did not authorize, Pellicano to conduct "any type of background check" on Lourd or Huvane in 2001.