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The State

Private eye to the stars is guilty

May 16, 2008|Carla Hall and Tami Abdollah | Times Staff Writers

Private investigator Anthony Pellicano, who wiretapped, followed and intimidated people all in the name of serving his moneyed clients, was found guilty Thursday of 76 federal criminal charges. Just reading the jury's verdicts on the dozens of counts of racketeering, wire fraud, computer fraud and wiretapping took 20 minutes.

Stoic to the end, the man who represented himself at trial and refused to testify in his own defense lest he be forced to talk about his clients declined U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer's invitation to have the jurors polled on the verdicts. "No, your honor, thank you," Pellicano said.

Pellicano's elaborate and illegal information-gathering scheme -- which the jury resoundingly deemed a racketeering enterprise -- aided celebrities and business executives, including studio chief Brad Grey and CAA talent agency co-founder Michael Ovitz, and targeted others. Among them: Sylvester Stallone, Garry Shandling and developer Robert Maguire.

Initially, it looked as if the government's six-year investigation would implicate billionaires and Hollywood power brokers and put them on trial with the private detective they had hired. The powerful would fall, some thought -- a cautionary tale for the industry.

But that didn't happen. Pellicano's Hollywood clients were questioned but never charged. The same held true for Bert Fields, the venerable lawyer to the stars, who was Pellicano's frequent employer and mentor. Never heard or seen on the stand, he nonetheless hovered over the trial like a ghost, his name often invoked by witnesses and even Pellicano in his phone recordings.

It's unclear how much time Pellicano will get; one legal expert estimated not more than 10 years based on the complex sentencing guidelines. But whatever the sentence, it will effectively bring to a close the career of the most infamous private eye in Los Angeles -- a man who insinuated himself into the loftiest legal and entertainment circles and even consulted on law enforcement cases until he became one.

Looking preternaturally calm minutes before the jury came back with its verdicts, Pellicano walked into the courtroom and sat down as he grinned and scanned the room. But on the first count, he took off his glasses and looked around expressionlessly. By the 19th guilty verdict, his face red, he shook his head.

The jury also delivered guilty verdicts against all four of Pellicano's co-defendants, a cast of characters who were decidedly un-Hollywood. There was Mark Arneson, the former LAPD police sergeant; Ray Turner, the former telephone company field technician; Kevin Kachikian, computer expert; and Abner Nicherie, a businessman-turned-nursing student who spent a good portion of the trial snoozing, his chin down on his chest.

"This case is not about Hollywood," the lead prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Atty. Daniel Saunders, told jurors in his closing arguments. "It's not about Sylvester Stallone . . . or Mike Ovitz or Brad Grey. This is a case about corruption, about cheating, about greed and arrogance and the subversion of the justice system. It just happened to take place in Hollywood."

The four co-defendants, who remain free on bail, are scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 24. Pellicano, meanwhile, was ordered to remain in federal custody until sentencing.

Jury foreman Terri Winbush, an L.A. Unified employee, said "justice has been served because people's lives, their identities, were violated."

As the prosecutors predicted, Pellicano's own secretly taped phone conversations -- played in court -- were some of the most incriminating evidence against him.

"He did a lot of code talking. . . . We figured it out," said Winbush of the taped phone conversations.

In an odd way, Pellicano's downfall started with a dead fish. It was left on a reporter's car and apparently intended as a cryptic threat and later linked to the private eye. That led to an FBI search of Pellicano's offices in 2002. The agents found explosives, which sent Pellicano to prison in November 2003 for a 30-month term for illegal possession. But the agents also stumbled upon something else during their search: a recording of a wiretapped phone conversation and tapes of phone conversations between Pellicano and his clients. The tapes caught Pellicano talking about wiretapping, prosecutors contended.

"I can't even listen to it all. It's too much," Pellicano told one client, action movie director John McTiernan, in a phone call, played in court. Prosecutors said they were discussing wiretaps on producer Charles Roven. "He'll call his secretary and she places calls for him and she may make 15 . . . calls. I've got to listen to every one of those to determine who he's calling for what."

McTiernan was one of seven people who pleaded guilty to charges connected to the case before Pellicano's trial. That group also included actor Keith Carradine's ex-wife, Sandra.

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