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Playboy Mansion visitors hit with mystery illness

L.A. County health officials are investigating a possible respiratory infection outbreak after dozens of illnesses are reported by people who attended a recent fundraiser.

February 12, 2011|By Ruben Vives, Los Angeles Times
  • A view of the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles.
A view of the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles. (Fred Prouser / Reuters )

Los Angeles County health officials are investigating suspicions that Hugh Hefner's legendary Playboy Mansion was ground zero for a rash of mysterious respiratory ailments that afflicted people who attended a fundraiser there earlier this month.

The inquiry by the Department of Public Health follows dozens of complaints of illness after the annual DOMAINfest Global conference in Santa Monica.

The department sent an e-mail Friday to all participants warning them that the agency had received reports of a possible respiratory infection outbreak among attendees at the conference, which held events at several locations, including the Playboy Mansion.

On Saturday, a number of those who had become ill told a reporter or posted on social networking sites that they believed they had contracted the illness at the mansion fundraiser.

"An investigation into the cause and extent of illness and into potential sources of exposure is ongoing," said Sarah Kissell, a department spokeswoman. Those who reported illness complained of respiratory problems, flu-like symptoms and pneumonia, officials said.

The conference was based at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica, but a Feb. 3 fundraiser was held at Hefner's Holmby Hills mansion.

David Castello, 54, who co-founded Castello Cities Internet Network Inc. with his brother Michael, said they attended the conference and fundraiser. Castello said he became ill a day after the event.

"It knocked me off my feet for five days," he said. "I'm over it now, but I'm still feeling fatigue, which is not a good thing."

For the last few days, Castello said, he lay in bed recovering from fever, a dry cough, headaches and back spasms. He said his brother, who was mostly outside on the night of the event, did not get sick.

Another attendee, Nico Zeifang, has started a sick list on Facebook. Castello added his name to the list, which he said has 77 names.

Many who have reported falling ill after the event suspect that their symptoms are related to legionellosis, or Pontiac fever. A milder form of Legionnaires' disease, legionellosis is caused by a bacterium that grows in warm water and can take root in hot tubs or parts of air-conditioning systems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The bacteria are not spread from person to person, according to the CDC, but are instead inhaled in water vapor.

Some of those who became ill said they suspected a fog machine that was used at the party.

DN Journal, a website that reports on Internet domain commerce, broke the story when it wrote that a Swedish attendee returned home and tested positive for the Legionella bacterium.

Roughly 700 people from 30 countries attended the four-day conference. The event's organizer warned people not to jump to conclusions about the illness or its origin.

"Only medical authorities are qualified to identify this illness and investigate its ultimate source.... It's important not to speculate or make unfounded assumptions," said Mason Cole, organizer of the conference.

Playboy spokeswoman Teri Thomerson said the Playboy Mansion was cooperating fully with the Department of Public Health's investigation.

ruben.vives@latimes.com

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