Pellicano's Tactics on Trial

With an office on Sunset Boulevard and a well-advertised baseball bat in his trunk, Anthony Pellicano honed a reputation as the gumshoe to the Hollywood stars. Over 20 years, the private eye cultivated a client list that ranged from Tinseltown A-listers like one-time superagent Mike Ovitz and actor Chris Rock to top divorce attorneys and business tycoons. He burnished an image as a high-tech audio surveillance whiz with an edge that was part Sicilian menace, part confidential servant to the showbiz elite.

But his federal trial on wiretapping, bribery and conspiracy charges, which opened earlier this month, is putting a major dent in that carefully nurtured image. The trial is exposing methods of intimidation more reminiscent of skid row than the silver screen—ranging from telephone threats to amateurish harassment of adversaries on the streets. His behavior with some clients seems equally bad, looking less like gallant Philip Marlowe and more like a grifter with money problems, willing to leech off vulnerable clients, such as a divorcing woman who forked over nearly $1 million to him, including her diamond-and-pearl earrings.

The trial has also called into question just how well-connected Pellicano really is in Hollywood. To be sure, showbiz victims and clients occasionally take the stand--comedian Garry Shandling last week, Paramount chairman (and former Shandling manager) Brad Grey this week. But when they're gone, Pellicano, who is saving money by representing himself in court, is left to stand trial with four no-name codefendants included a retired police sergeant, a computer technician, a small-time Israeli businessman and a repair guy from the phone company. Hunched and pallid after five years in jail awaiting trial, Pellicano has traded his Gucci jackets for a prisoners' regulation green windbreaker and Velcro-fastened sneakers.

Pellicano and four codefendants are in court facing a 110-count federal indictment alleging that the detective illegally wiretapped opponents' phones and paid a Los Angeles Police Department sergeant to run illegal criminal and other background checks as part of a broad scheme to gain leverage for his clients in showbiz lawsuits, divorce actions and business negotiations. All five men deny wrongdoing. One frequent Pellicano client was superlawyer Bert Fields, who was investigated but not indicted. In one episode under scrutiny, Fields brought in Pellicano to help Grey, Garry Shandling's manager and a producer of his HBO series, after Shandling filed suit charging that Grey and his company had shortchanged him by millions of dollar through dubious accounting methods. (Grey later settled for an undisclosed sum.) According to the Feds, Pellicano ran illegal checks on Shandling and his girlfriend.

Shandling's former girlfriend, Linda Doucett, took the stand Wednesday to say that weeks after she'd talked to the FBI about the Shandling-Grey suit, and the same day a Los Angeles Times reporter called to ask about the case, she got a menacing phone call from a man who knew a lot about her business. "If you talk to your friend Stan [Ornellas, the FBI agent then leading the Pellicano investigation] or the press, you won't be seeing your child anymore and he won't be going to [his school]." An FBI investigation didn't determine who made the call, but Pellicano had checked her background information with his LAPD source, and Doucett was quite certain Pellicano was behind the call. "Why?" Pellicano asked her during his cross-examination. "You're just the only bad guy I know," she said. "Why did you investigate me?" Pellicano made no reply. (He is not charged with wiretapping the phones of Shandling or Doucett. She revealed that the FBI traced the call to a warehouse in Pomona, Calif., but never arrested anyone for the threat.)

Some of Pellicano's playbook seemed drawn from bad cop shows. Jude Green, the former wife of the late Leonard Green, a Pellicano client and Beverly Hills investor, testified Wednesday that the detective threatened her and one of her lawyers during her divorce case. Later, she said, Pellicano followed her in a tan Mercedes as she dropped a pet at the Classy Cuts Dog Groomers in Santa Monica. Blocking her car with his, he "pressed [his] face against the [shop] window in a menacing way," then stood silent with his arms folded like a B-movie gangster when she emerged. He followed her to a Peet's Coffee shop and began bumping and shoving her in line. Finally, Green testified, "I turned around and said 'Get the f--- away from me'." Pellicano finally left.

Pellicano hid his wiretaps from some clients and their lawyers, but he didn't spare them all, according to Susan Maguire, a client from 1996 to 1998 when she was divorcing her husband, a real-estate mogul. According to Maguire's testimony Thursday, Pellicano tapped her husband's phone then made her come to his office and listen to the illegal tapes to identify the speakers, thereby making her a party to the alleged crime. That lapse in judgment means she's testifying under a use immunity arrangement with the government that spares her from prosecution in exchange for her testimony.

Pellicano seemed to enjoy his adversary's discomfort. In one excruciating episode, Maguire told jurors she sat with Pellicano as they listened to a recording of her husband's tearful conversation with his psychiatrist. "It was awful," Maguire testified, saying she found listening to her estranged husband's distress "really upsetting." Pellicano, by contrast, seemed to enjoy the man's anguish. "He was excited about it," she said.

Pellicano didn't shy away from intimidating his own clients, either. Maguire testified that Pellicano told her the taps were legal; he also warned her not to tell anyone about them, not even her lawyers. She complied. When Pellicano and her lawyers had a falling out, he made her write a letter of recommendation praising him. And he was relentless about asking her for more money. He had not made direct threats but "he was a threatening kind of person," she told prosecutors. "He would tell you about things that he had done [in the past], things that were threatening and violent." She got the message—although she also gave the impression she'd been largely happy with his work. In his brief cross-examination, Pellicano has not disputed her story thus far. But he asked her whether he "was loyal to you." "Yes," she answered. "He's still loyal to you," Pellicano said and sat down.

Even his billing methods seemed bizarre. Maguire testified that Pellicano came to her and asked for a $200,000 "loan" because he had what he called "a tax problem." She wrote him a check for the supposed loan. But he asked her write to record it as a "nonrefundable retainer"--and she said he never repaid it. Pellicano frequently asked her to pay him in $9,500 increments, she testified, as prosecutors showed jurors the canceled checks. Maguire added that Pellicano requested the odd sum because it would not "cause alarm," a sum which fell conveniently under the $10,000 federal bank-reporting requirements. He even asked her to sell her jewelry and give him cash. Instead, she gave him a pair of diamond-and-pearl earrings she believed were worth $100,000, but he only credited her account for $20,000 to $40,000. For less than three years' work, she told jurors, she paid Pellicano a sum she estimated at "up to a million dollars." (Pellicano has not disputed her account to date.)

She wasn't the only client who witnessed his aggressive methods of getting paid. A Tennessee physician named Charles Lull hired Pellicano in 2000 with a $25,000 retainer to harass California Web TV entrepreneur Laura Buddine, with whom he was feuding. He soon followed that with a $100,000 payment to Pellicano.

But it wasn't enough. In an April 2001 phone call that Pellicano taped and prosecutors played for the jury Thursday, Pellicano tried to convince the flustered Lull that he had actually agreed to pay a second $100,000—the first $100,000 was just "half" of the payment they'd agreed to, Pellicano insisted. When Lull balked, Pellicano backed off. But not far. He said he was "upset" over what he termed the "misunderstanding." Next Pellicano tried to make Lull feel guilty, claiming "I am going to have to eat" some of the expenses. Pellicano never got the added money—but then again, Lull never learned exactly what he'd gotten for his $125,000 except Pellicano's assurance that he was succeeding in making Buddine's life "absolutely f---ing miserable." With his reputation in tatters and his future freedom in doubt, Pellicano probably has a pretty good idea how she felt.