Pellicano case reveals secrets true price of fame

first_imgBack in the golden days of Hollywood, the studios had in-house detectives to erase the indiscretions of their bosses and stars. In the era of outsourcing, Pellicano set himself up as a fixer for hire, on a $25,000 nonrefundable retainer, creating a character to suit whatever his clients imagined him to be: old-time shamus or shady ex-spy, geeky technophile or mobbed-up muscle. His constant allusions to being “connected,” to his roots in Al Capone’s old stomping ground of Cicero, Ill., nurtured what, for some customers, was a captivating aura of violence. From his suite on Sunset Boulevard, he maneuvered his way into the confidences of the powerful and fabulous, peddling information as ammunition or as protection from the unintended consequences of their lives. Eavesdropping was nothing new in Hollywood. As early as the 1950s, a small industry of security companies was kept busy sweeping for bugs in the homes and offices of studio executives and cheating husbands. But by the mid-1990s, Pellicano had revolutionized the practice, inventing a virtually undetectable wiretapping technique. His wiretaps were installed not inside a target location but outside, in phone company junction boxes, and connected over telephone lines either directly to his office or to a laptop in a nearby apartment that recorded every call. Eventually, he devised a way to operate many wiretaps at once. By the late 1990s, to hear him tell it in conversations with clients, he was tapping phones all over town. (His lawyers did not respond to messages requesting comment.) Pellicano’s association with Bert Fields, a litigator known for his confrontational style, gave him entree to a client list studded with stars like Tom Cruise and executives like Ovitz and the talent manager Brad Grey. “I don’t care how you get information,” David Moriarty, a lawyer helping Fields defend Grey, told Pellicano in one recorded conversation. “You’re my kind of man,” the private eye shot back. Hollywood is sustained by its own peculiar system of mutual advantage. There are the boldface names, their lives often complicated by overlapping personal and professional conflicts, who believe that one call to the right person (and a lot of money) can solve any problem. And then there are the service providers – the agents, lawyers, publicists, assistants and countless others – who stroke the egos of the people paying the bills and get to have their own egos stroked according to their proximity to celebrity. Pellicano’s consigliere persona, reinforced by the Italian opera on his telephone system, was a perfect fit. The singer and actress Courtney Love called in 2001. She was fighting to get out of her record contract, fighting the surviving Nirvana musicians over control of the estate of her late husband, Kurt Cobain, and supporting her producer and boyfriend, James Barber, in a child-custody fight. She also feared that a disgruntled former assistant who had hacked into her e-mail account might publish her correspondence with friends like Drew Barrymore, Russell Crowe and even her psychic. Love complained to Pellicano that previous private eyes had turned out to be overpriced frauds, wimps or geeks. She wanted someone who could do it all, she told him, who would use whatever tools it took to get results – from refinement to “baseball bats.” “And I need them all under one roof,” she said. “Listen, Courtney, if you come to me, that’s the end of that,” Pellicano said. “My clients are my family, and that’s it.” Love indicated her approval. “There is no other way around it,” he said. “I’m very heavy-handed, honey.” “I need heavy-handed, baby,” Love said. “I like talking to an Italian.” “Sicilian, honey,” he corrected. “Well, that’s even better.” The tapes do not tell what Pellicano ultimately did for Love, who declined to comment for this article. But for stars who lived and died on image, perhaps his most valuable service was making sure a private problem did not metastasize. In one conversation in 2001, the comedian and actor Chris Rock showed how attuned he was to the levels of outrage evoked by different types of scandal. Rock feared that his rising stardom was being threatened by an accusation that an adulterous one-night tryst two and a half years earlier had not been consensual. “I’m better off getting caught with needles in my arm, I really am,” he fretted. “Needles with pictures: `Here’s Chris Rock shooting heroin.’ Much better blow to the career.” “I’m not going to let it happen,” Pellicano assured him. “Just stick with me, baby. I’ll take care of it.” Pellicano read from the woman’s police report, saying he was not supposed to have gotten a copy, and then confided that the police were not taking her seriously. (No charges were brought. Rock declined to comment for this article.) 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! Perhaps the case has not lived up to its advance billing as the biggest Hollywood scandal in decades. More than a dozen people have been arrested, including a movie director, the head of a Century City law firm and a cast of minor characters. Pellicano himself sits in jail, awaiting trial on charges that his vaunted detective prowess actually boiled down to an almost addict-like reliance on illegal wiretaps. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of wiretapping and conspiracy. Only one actual wiretap has been produced by prosecutors, and defense lawyers dispute its authenticity. Still, the evidence so far – 150,000 pages of documents and hundreds of recordings Pellicano made of his own phone calls, many of which include discussions of wiretapping – is a rich sourcebook of show-business manners, mores and argot, a vicarious tour through the dysfunctional heart of Hollywood. The case file, much of which was obtained by The New York Times, illustrates the economics of information in the place that values it most – a community devoted to the manufacture, control and perpetuation of image. And it explains why Pellicano, who trafficked in all manner of potentially damaging data, was so eagerly hired and his unmasking so direly feared. The marketplace was filled with potential buyers, from the top of the town to the bottom of the D-list, in the movies, television, music, even the art and sports worlds. Stars might have had the most to lose if secrets were exposed. But entertainment executives – for whom job security is notoriously fleeting, and reputations as evanescent as last weekend’s box office – had ample reason to think others were plotting against them, or at least rooting for them to fail. Just hours after a raft of articles suggesting the impending collapse of his business hit the papers on April 11, 2002, Michael S. Ovitz did what Hollywood moguls had done for a generation: He called Anthony Pellicano. “I need to see you,” Ovitz said, asking for a private meeting at an out-of-the-way spot. “This is the single most complex situation imaginable.” They all went to Pellicano when their situations seemed too complex, or the stakes too high, to leave anything to chance: executives and actors, studio bosses and their jilted spouses, the hottest and the has-been. In nearly 20 years in Los Angeles, Pellicano had made himself into the rightful owner of that breathless title, “Detective to the Stars,” the one man who would, and seemingly could, do anything to clean up any mess. So when federal agents raided Pellicano’s office in November 2002, his case became a local obsession: who would be fingered next, people wondered anxiously, as investigators gathered evidence and listened to Pellicano’s wiretap tapes. last_img