Inside the Pellicano Files

When the FBI raided the offices of Hollywood private eye Anthony Pellicano three years ago, they found enough explosives to take down a skyscraper and evidence that he might have been illegally wire tapping Hollywood conversations. The question is, what's on those tapes?

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He used to call himself a private detective to the stars. For the last two years, Hollywood gumshoe Anthony Pellicano has been sitting in prison on weapons possession charges. He's also likely to be indicted for illegal wiretapping and witness tampering in a case that could spark hundreds of new lawsuits. NPR's Laura Sydell has more.

LAURA SYDELL reporting:

The story of Anthony Pellicano sounds like a Hollywood gangster movie. It's about money, celebrity and the downfall of the powerful. Here's the plot summary. Pellicano comes to Los Angeles from the mean streets of Chicago. He meets movie stars. They like his tough, street-smart image because, for a price, he knows how to take care of them. The Chicago kid buys himself a couple of Mercedes, a million-dollar home and a high-end condo.

Then comes the downfall. In 2003, police are investigating a bizarre incident. A Los Angeles Times reporter, Anita Busch, says she's being harassed. Janet Sprintz followed the story for the Hollywood trade magazine Variety.

Ms. JANET SPRINTZ (Variety): She was looking into connections between Steven Seagal and the mob, a now long-gone but very juicy story. She awoke one morning to find a dead fish, a rose and a note saying `Stop' on the broken windshield of her car.

SYDELL: An informant leads police to Pellicano, who allegedly hired someone to harass Anita Busch. Pellicano becomes a suspect. Police search his office.

Ms. SPRINTZ: While they were there, they found a cache of weapons, hand grenades, C4, and they also found apparently thousands and thousands of illegally taped phone conversations from wiretaps.

SYDELL: The Hollywood rumor mill is buzzing. The word on the street is that almost every major Hollywood player has at least one cameo appearance on the tapes. It's almost an insult to be left out, says Variety's Sprintz. But there are also a lot of nervous people.

Ms. SPRINTZ: There seems to be a general belief that Pellicano at the least will be indicted on the wiretap charges, and the question is: Who's he going to bring down with him?

SYDELL: Pellicano mingled with and worked for Hollywood's biggest names: Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson, Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty and top entertainment attorney Bert Fields. Those who worked with him say they had no idea what Pellicano was up to. Jack Palladino, a private investigator who has known Pellicano for years, thinks the star clientele thought the baseball bat in the office and the tough talk was just part of an act.

Mr. JACK PALLADINO (Private Investigator): And those clients were people often out of the entertainment industry whose knowledge of the outside world seemed to be largely consisting of the films they had seen. So consequently responding to a film noir private detective seemed perfectly natural to them.

SYDELL: Many of Pellicano's clients liked his act so well, they used him as a consultant and writer for crime movies and shows. Pellicano even made a few cameo appearances as an actor. In the 1988 television series "Crime Story," he uses his tough-guy image to play a senator cross-examining a witness about narcotics trafficking.

(Soundbite of "Crime Story")

Unidentified Man: No, sir, I do not know any Ray Luca.

Mr. ANTHONY PELLICANO: Now wait a minute. We have a 200-page statement here that says that you ran drugs and guns with Ray Luca.

SYDELL: But in the real world, those who sat on the other side of the table from Pellicano knew it wasn't an act. Attorney Charles T. Matthews represented plaintiffs in cases against Bert Fields' clients, Michael Jackson and producer Don Simpson. Fields hired Pellicano to dig up information on Matthews' clients. It's not illegal, but Matthews says strange things happened.

Mr. CHARLES T. MATTHEWS (Attorney): Such as phone calls in the middle of the night to phone numbers that no one ought to have, hanging up, threatening, cars driving by nearly hitting my client, being at places where no one would know my client was likely to be there unless they had inside information.

SYDELL: Others have complained of similar incidents. But Pellicano's friends never believed he crossed the line. Now whether they knew what he was up to or not, many could pay a price. Lawsuits they once thought settled might reappear, says Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola School of Law and a former prosecutor.

Professor LAURIE LEVENSON (Loyola School of Law; Former Prosecutor): I think people are going to line up for all sorts of lawsuits as a result of this. They might come in and ask for a new trial and say the reason the other side won is that they used illegal evidence and they shouldn't be allowed to do that. Alternatively, they might just come in with their own lawsuits because there is a provision in the law that says if you are wiretapped illegally, then you can sue for damages.

SYDELL: While Pellicano largely worked in Hollywood, his downfall will have an impact outside of the entertainment business. He was considered an expert in what he called forensic audio and often appeared as a witness for the prosecution to analyze and enhance surveillance tapes. He testified a few years ago against a former Ku Klux Klansman, Thomas Blanton Jr., who was convicted of the bombing of a black church during the peak of the civil rights movement. Blanton even tried to get his conviction thrown out because Pellicano's testimony was crucial to the verdict. The attorneys who hired Pellicano could be in deep trouble, says Professor Levenson.

Prof. LEVENSON: I think it's really key to this case. What do the lawyers know about what Pellicano was doing? And, you know, what did they give him as his marching orders? Did they say `Get us this information; I don't care what it takes, and don't tell me what you do,' or did they monitor how he went about getting this information?

SYDELL: Levenson says even if they didn't exactly know, there are still ways that they could be held responsible. No one knows for sure if anyone other than Pellicano will be indicted. But those questioned by investigators for the government include some of Hollywood's biggest names: Michael Ovitz, one-time president of Walt Disney Company; Ron Meyer, president of Universal Studios; and Bert Fields, a prominent entertainment lawyer who frequently hired Pellicano.

The big question for a lot of people is: Why didn't anyone realize what Pellicano was up to? Levenson thinks when faced with difficult cases, both private attorneys and prosecutors didn't ask questions because they were happy with the results.

Prof. LEVENSON: You think you know people, and you really want people to be a certain way. You want them to be your shining witness; you want them to win the case for you. And Pellicano certainly had a personality that he was able to sell to a lot of people. But you see in people what you want to believe.

SYDELL: Of course, Hollywood has always been more interested in illusion than reality. In the case of Anthony Pellicano, reality has turned out to be quite a show. There are rumors circulating that some producers want to make a movie about Pellicano's life. But they may want to wait until the second act, when the details of what's on all those wiretaps start to become public. Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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