Editor's note: A clarification is appended to this article.
Inmate No. 21568-112 settles into a blue plastic chair inside the gymnasium-size visitor center at Big Spring Federal Correctional Institution, clad in a beige jumpsuit that matches the color of the dead grass surrounding the prison. Beyond the barbed wire lies the town of Big Spring, Texas (population: 25,000), a dusty, godforsaken former Air Force town pockmarked with shuttered businesses, fast-food joints, and four other detention and correctional facilities. The town’s biggest claim to fame was its supporting role in the 1969 best picture, Midnight Cowboy: this is the place Jon Voight’s character calls home, until he heads off to Manhattan to become a hustler.
And now it’s home to the hustler named Anthony Pellicano, self-styled Detective to the Stars, whose Soprano persona and win-at-any-cost tactics made him the No. 1 guy that Hollywood actors, suits, and their attorneys turned to whenever they had a problem. A big problem. The kind of problem where big bucks and bigger egos were at stake. With a Louisville Slugger in the trunk of his car and a computerized phone-hacking system in his Sunset Boulevard office, Pellicano dug up dirt on his clients’ enemies and helped make those problems go away—whether it was the embittered spouse of a mogul, an inconvenient gay lover, or a nosy journalist. That is, until he allegedly hired someone to intimidate the wrong nosy journalist—Anita Busch of the Los Angeles Times—and the FBI got involved, blowing the lid off the biggest wiretapping operation this side of Watergate.
On this 106-degree summer day, Pellicano has agreed to his first sit-down interview since going to prison in 2008. His case has long since disappeared from the front pages, replaced lately by the News of the World quagmire that has tarred Rupert Murdoch, David Cameron, and Scotland Yard. The way Pellicano sees it, the British phone-hacking scandal is kid stuff. “I was way ahead of my time,” he says. What’s the big deal about some tabloid hijacking Hugh Grant’s voicemails? “If Murdoch’s name wasn’t involved, would there be a story? If someone wiretapped Britney Spears, no one would care. The story is, did Murdoch know people were doing this? Did he condone it? I strongly believe he had no idea.”
Pellicano claims never to have lent his services to any of Murdoch’s newspapers, and says he met the mogul only once, “but it had to do with Judith Regan,” his former longtime friend, who was fired from News Corp.’s HarperCollins in 2006. (Regan says she never introduced the two men.) “If News of the World called,” he says hypothetically, “I would ask the editor, ‘Why would you want me to do that? Are you stupid?!’ The guy at News of the World was just getting leads for stories.” Pellicano boasts that “I was the top of the ladder. Just to talk to me it cost $25,000. These guys were stringers who worked with reporters to try to get information on a celebrity!”
Now 67, Pellicano looks trimmer than the paunchy figure in the double-breasted suits and patent-leather shoes he wore during his trial. His blustery temper seems to have subsided: gone are the days when he would toss a plate of spinach across the dining room at Le Dome because the garlic was chopped instead of sliced. He affects an air of Zen-like calm: you can envision him spreading out on a yoga mat and stretching into the downward-dog pose. He spends his days writing haiku, playing chess, and doing crosswords.
Before the convict was cooling his heels with more than 1,700 other inmates here in Big Spring, his milieu was the liposuctioned underbelly of Hollywood Babylon. “If you saw the stuff I found in celebrity homes: cocaine, heroin, Ecstasy, vials of narcotics. There was a doctor shooting up celebrities with morphine for $350.” His job was to keep the lid on such indiscretions. He liked to boast that he lived by omerta, the Mafia code of silence. “When you are my client, you become my family,” he says, and his clan included Michael Jackson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Farrah Fawcett, Kevin Costner, Courtney Love, Chris Rock, and über-agent Michael Ovitz, just to name a few. “That was the attitude I kept. I wasn’t really a P.I. I was a problem solver. People came to me because they had a problem. The government wanted me to turn on them.”
In the end, Pellicano didn’t rat out anyone, and the collective sigh coming out of Hollywood was stronger than any Santa Ana windstorm. And he’s still sticking by his code. Sort of.
Throughout the course of the two-and-a-half-hour interview, Pellicano lets slip one tantalizing tidbit after another. Describing the scene when the FBI raided his office, he says, “They come to my business…I have personal stuff on Arnold…If they found that stuff, he never would have been governor.” But he declines to elaborate, and later refuses to say whether he knew anything about Schwarzenegger having a love child with his maid. “I can’t say one way or another if I knew it,” he says. As for Schwarzenegger’s soon-to-be ex-wife, Maria Shriver, “Would I have told her? Probably not.” Schwarzenegger’s attorney was unavailable for comment.
Pellicano says he once quashed a story headed for the National Enquirer about a male superstar who liked to play with a female sex toy. But he refuses to name names. He boasts about how he discredited an erotic wrestler who claimed he’d had an affair with Tom Cruise. “There was no truth to it,” Pellicano says. “He wanted to extort money.” (Cruise sued the man for slander and reportedly won a multimillion-dollar default judgment.) Later in the interview, Pellicano reveals that when he agreed to work for Jackson during the star’s 1993 child-molestation case, he warned Jackson that he’d better not be guilty. “I said, ‘You don’t have to worry about cops or lawyers. If I find out anything, I will f--k you over.’ ” The detective took the assignment, but says, “I quit because I found out some truths…He did something far worse to young boys than molest them.” But he refuses to say anything more about it. It’s as if Pellicano wants to send Hollywood a reminder: I know which closets hold the skeletons.
Pellicano grew up in Al Capone’s old haunt, Cicero, Ill., and worked as a bill collector before becoming a private investigator in Chicago. He made a splash in the early ’80s when he was a defense expert for John DeLorean, the car creator charged with smuggling large quantities of cocaine into the U.S. He moved to Los Angeles and became a braggart of the highest order, variously describing himself as an ace gumshoe, a martial-arts master, an expert in voice recognition, a screenwriter, and an actor. Pellicano gained access to Hollywood’s A-list after meeting celebrity power-attorney Bert Fields, who started using his services. Eventually, the detective was spying on Sylvester Stallone, comedian Garry Shandling, and Nicole Kidman. When he wasn’t digging through their dirty laundry, he was power-lunching with the stars, tooling around in his black Mercedes and dark sunglasses, and rubbing elbows with moguls like Ovitz, Universal Studios president Ron Meyer, and manager Brad Grey, now head of Paramount (Grey even attempted to make an HBO pilot with Pellicano, about a Hollywood detective).
It all came to a screeching halt in 2002, when federal agents started looking for evidence of his involvement in a plot to threaten the L.A. Times’s Busch—who had previously written about the downfall of Ovitz, and was now pursuing a story about alleged mob ties to movie star Steven Seagal. Busch discovered the windshield of her car smashed, and a dead fish left behind with a note reading “Stop.” (The man who vandalized Busch’s car, a Pellicano flunky named Alexander Proctor, told the FBI that he’d been hired by the detective. But Pellicano still maintains he had nothing to do with harassing Busch, who is suing him and Ovitz.) When agents raided Pellicano’s office, they discovered plastic explosives and a pair of hand grenades, and the private eye wound up pleading guilty to possession of illegal explosives in 2004. Pellicano tells NEWSWEEK that the small arsenal was owned by a celebrity who “got it off some motorcycle gang”; he claims he forcefully took the weapons away from the star and was planning to toss them off a friend’s boat when his office was raided.
But the most explosive find in Pellicano’s office was a trove of thousands of transcripts and encrypted tapes of phone conversations he’d illegally tapped. Pellicano had designed a wiretapping program to intercept calls that he dubbed Telesleuth. Aided by several phone-company workers he employed, he installed taps in telephone junction boxes and at the main switchboard that were then connected via phone lines to the computers in Pellicano’s office and remote laptops.
Ultimately, the feds’ investigation mushroomed into allegations of bribery of law-enforcement officers, identity theft, and high-tech eavesdropping. And as the case began to take on a life of its own, Hollywood heavyweights were dragged into the mess, including Pellicano clients Ovitz and Fields. In May 2008, Pellicano was found guilty on 76 charges, including wire fraud, racketeering, and wiretapping. Three months later he was convicted alongside prominent lawyer Terry N. Christensen for wiretapping the ex-wife of billionaire Kirk Kerkorian during a bitter child-custody battle. In all, close to a dozen people were charged in the FBI probe. Pellicano received the harshest sentence: 15 years.
Pellicano says he landed the hefty prison term because of his refusal to name names. “Up until the day of trial, [federal prosecutors] tried to get me to talk,” he says. Dan Saunders, who prosecuted Pellicano and is now a partner at Bingham McCutchen in Los Angeles, sees it differently. “Pellicano’s sentence was based not on any refusal to cooperate, but on what the law and the trial judge deemed just punishment for his many years of egregious criminal conduct.”
The disgraced detective still insists that none of his clients knew anything about his wiretapping, in particular the high-powered lawyers, like Fields, who employed him. “I didn’t tell no one about the wiretapping,” he says. “I didn’t trust lawyers: they had an obligation to tell on me.” Still, he adds knowingly, “You can turn a blind eye, but 99 percent of the lawyers out there don’t care how the problem was solved.”
Pellicano is currently appealing his conviction, and if he’s successful, he could be out by 2013, six years before his eligible parole date. He’s pinning his hopes on an 86-page appeals brief that accuses the government of misconduct, misrepresentation, and constitutional violation. Among other things, the brief charges that the agents’ search of his office was illegal. The U.S. Attorney’s Office has until late September to respond to the brief.
In the meantime, Pellicano has 30 civil lawsuits hanging over his head, including the one from Busch. Will Pellicano rat out anyone in the civil cases? Don’t count on it, says his attorney and friend Steven Gruel. “Everyone expected this to be the case that rocked Hollywood, and it didn’t happen, and it didn’t bring in the great names they hypothesized would happen,” the attorney says. “He wouldn’t buckle, and that is why he is in Big Spring, Texas, today.”
Pellicano gets precious few visitors here in west Texas, and the letters he used to receive in droves have long since stopped arriving. Many of his old friends disappeared a while ago: Judith Regan, who “was like a sister to me,” Pellicano says, “was a good example of someone who I gave a lot of affection to, and when I got arrested she turned her back on me.” Regan says she last saw Pellicano at lunch in 2001 or 2002. “I didn’t turn my back on him,” she says. “He kind of disappeared, and I didn’t know how to get in touch with him. It is not like he left a forwarding address.” Pellicano still keeps in touch with a few pals, like actor Tony Danza, who tells NEWSWEEK that the two write each other regularly. “I’m actually reading the latest from him now. I often send some clippings or stories that I know will interest him,” Danza says. The actor visited Pellicano when he was incarcerated in Los Angeles, but hasn’t yet gone to Big Spring, where Pellicano was transferred in May. “I was about to make the trip to Safford, Ariz., where he was before Big Spring,” Danza says, then adds: “Anthony Pellicano in Big Spring, Texas. Incongruous.”
Pellicano, who has eight children from four marriages, says, “Everything I have is gone, including my family.” His wife, Kat, who lives with three of their four children in Thousand Oaks, Calif., declined to speak to NEWSWEEK for this story. Pellicano says his son Ronnie, from his first marriage, wants to visit him, and he would like to see his grandchildren one day. He’s given up hope that he will ever see his 88-year-old mother again. She is too frail to make the flight to Texas. “Those are the hard things to deal with,” Pellicano says. “Life is pain and suffering, and some happiness.”
He claims he doesn’t harbor any ill will about his situation. “I had a really long run. I am not bitter. I don’t have any hard feelings against the government. Every U.S. citizen is subjected to the laws of this country. This guy in Norway [faces] a maximum sentence of 21 years,” he says, referring to the recent massacre there. “I got 15 years for giving away DMV information.” The inmate does have a few complaints about his current living situation. He grouses that the air conditioning knocks out on occasion, and that half the toilets and showers don’t work. He’s developed an eye problem, and says it takes forever to get medical attention. And with so many roommates in his prison dorm, Pellicano says he isn’t able to write the autobiography he claims he’s received numerous offers to pen. “Imagine trying to write a story with 100 guys around you,” he says. “There is nowhere to go for quiet.”
Still, given the alternative of being a stool pigeon, Pellicano says he wouldn’t have it any other way. “It was either I talked or go to jail and accept it like a man,” he says. “I could have gone to the Clintons [Pellicano was reportedly hired to investigate Monica Lewinsky, and Gennifer Flowers before her] and senators and asked them for a favor. I am not going to ask them for a favor. You take your lumps and go on with your life the best way you can.”
He pulls up his sleeve to reveal a tattoo on his shoulder. It reads “Honor.” He got it done the night before he went to prison. “You take everything from me, and I still have honor and integrity. I look in the mirror and see a person I like.” The image may be cracked, but its subject hasn’t. Yet.
Editor’s Note and Clarification: While Pellicano, as reported, maintains he had nothing to do with harassing Busch, he pleaded no contest to making a criminal threat in 2009 and was sentenced to three years on that charge. He is also defending against a civil suit by Busch related to the matter.