Closer now, we cross San Pedro’s Vincent Thomas Bridge, recognizable for its many appearances in movies and television shows, and move past a graveyard of massive multicolored shipping containers. Just ahead awaits a peculiar Southern California landscape of palm trees and barbed wire, and then a cheerless, pitiless site: Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institution.
As one would expect, the building is grim, too, home to about 1,240 inmates. Among them: Anthony Joseph Pellicano, Prisoner No. 21568-112. The former private eye to the rich, famous and distressed resides in a cell less than 40 miles from the Hollywood office he rented at 9200 Sunset Blvd. — but it might as well be 40 light-years. Some may find it difficult to recall just how looming a figure Pellicano, 73, was in Hollywood beginning in the late ‘80s, after he had moved to L.A. and helped defend auto executive John DeLorean on cocaine distribution charges and built an all-star client roster that included Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor, Tom Cruise, Sylvester Stallone, Roseanne Barr, Garry Shandling, Courtney Love and many more. Or the spectacle of his 2008 trial on 78 counts of wiretapping, racketeering and other charges that featured testimony by industry figures from Chris Rock to then-Paramount CEO Brad Grey. For his A-list clients, Pellicano was convicted for performing such services as wiretapping, protection, intimidation and identity theft and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Once we’re inside the prison, there’s a glass-enclosed area, roughly the size of a standard jail cell, that is used to stash visitors. Now, after many months of requests, official refusals, texts, emails and carefully monitored phone calls — everything but eleventh-hour telegrams to the governor — the prison, and the prisoner, have given us the green light for a sit-down. It’s Pellicano’s first at Terminal Island (he was moved here in 2015 from the Big Springs Federal Correctional Institution in Texas) and his first interview with anyone outside of a courtroom hearing or deposition in more than six years. At precisely 9 a.m., right on schedule, Pellicano emerges from a doorway down the hall. A few inmates shuffle and slouch ahead of him, but Pellicano is easily distinguishable for his quick pace and erect posture. His gray hair is slicked back Pat Riley style, and a khaki-colored prison jumpsuit fits him loosely. He looks leaner by degrees than in most photographs taken while he was still free, but he’s only 1 pound lighter. “I’ve made it a point to tone up,” Pellicano will remark later. “Fifteen years of eating rice and beans can put weight on you; you’ve got to watch yourself.”
As 21568-112 walks closer, gait hastening, it’s hard not to think about the thousands and thousands of hours of recorded conversations floating around in his head. Imagine the secrets that he kept on dozens of clients, from financial to professional to sexual; his early days in Chicago’s mobster ZIP codes; his part in the investigation into John F. Kennedy’s assassination; the gaudy glory that was Watergate; and even his own wild personal life, including nine children from four marriages to three wives.
But while some see Pellicano as he prefers to be seen — a resourceful, old-world, live-by-your-word fixer — various victims from all those years aren’t likely to view him as some genial, lore-loving king of the underworld. To many, Pellicano remains a real-life mobster, armed and possibly dangerous, with trunks full of incriminating information, a menacing knack for ultra-high-tech spying and a flagrant disregard for the personal privacy of those who displease him or his clients.
After a friendly hello, Pellicano apologizes for a pair of clip-on shades, explaining that he must keep his eyes protected because they’ve been damaged by relentless exposure to the prison’s omnipresent fluorescence. He later will confide that his favorite pair of actual sunglasses that he owned was a duplicate pair of the ones Al Pacino wore in The Godfather: Part II.
Preliminary contact with him had suggested he’d be “up for anything,” but there’s a roadblock right away. Pellicano quickly throws down the hammer when asked if he was ever hired by President Donald Trump, or either former President Bill Clinton or former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, declining to confirm or deny that they were ever clients of his. Politics, however, isn’t Pellicano’s big front-burner issue; now life’s all about getting through the days. “The work call is at 7:30,” he says, “and I work for a couple hours, eat lunch and then do math crossword puzzles, IQ problems, and read for the rest of the day until the time I’ve got to go back to work, which is at 5:30, and I go sweep pigeon feathers and pigeon shit out in the compound.”
His time at Terminal Island is at last nearing an end. After first going to prison in 2003, he now is scheduled to be released March 22, 2019, his 75th birthday.
Pellicano has been savvy enough not to make trouble with his fellow inmates or the guards (“A lot of these guys know who I am — they were [in L.A.] when I first got arrested”), and he had one of the better jobs for a year and a half, working nights at the prison’s powerhouse, where the boilers are contained. “It was my solace, you know what I mean?” But it was deemed too dangerous. “Nobody would tell me what that really meant. This is all coming from somebody on the outside,” laments Pellicano. “Somebody on the outside is trying to make my life miserable in here.”
Since arriving at Terminal Island, Pellicano has adopted a social policy that combines insight into prison life with a touch of paranoia. “I don’t make any friends. I’m absolutely unsociable,” he says. “You have to understand, there are guys here who are looking for ways to get information to get their sentences reduced and all that. There’s always a guy who will ask me a question that will lead to another question, so I just don’t answer people. I keep to myself.”
This is not to imply that Pellicano is without allies on the outside, those who feel he’s done his penance and then some, and has earned the right to live out his remaining days in peace. “He’s paid his dues,” says Bert Fields, for whom Pellicano worked extensively doing what the renowned lawyer calls “hard-core detective” services. “I’m sorry to see him in this plight,” says Fields. “The guy has been in there for years, his life to a great extent has been ruined. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for people who say he shouldn’t come out. He didn’t kill anyone, that I know about.”
Not surprisingly, others disagree. “What struck me was the pervasiveness of his criminality — it reached into so many areas of finance, entertainment and law,” says Neville Johnson, a Los Angeles attorney whose firm represented 10 Pellicano victims, including Kirk Kerkorian’s ex-wife Lisa Bonder. “What was also so shocking was the length of time over which he was able to engage in this kind of conduct.”
Tracing Pellicano’s journey in reverse takes us from Terminal Island to Hollywood, then back further, to Chicago. “I’m an old man now, and all of my associates are either in prison or dead,” he says wistfully. “The old days are gone forever.”
In the crowd he ran with, “I had an edge that others did not,” he says. “I had a [private investigator] license, and that key, along with my associations, helped me help a lot of people.” Asked to clarify his use of the word “associations,” Pellicano becomes not indignant but almost playful. “If you tried to connect me to organized crime, you probably could get close — but no cigar.” He says the “cigar” part mischievously, adding with a chuckle that some of those who could bear witness to his organized-crime days in Chicago are no longer with us, only with one another.
Any Pellicano trail inevitably is littered with boldfaced names. JFK assassination? Pellicano offered himself up as an audio expert to the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978, submitting a paper on the investigation of the exact number of gunshots heard. (In his book Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Vincent Bugliosi supported Pellicano’s belief that there were only two shots and cited experiments that Pellicano performed to authenticate it all.) How about Watergate? Pellicano was hired by the attorneys of Richard Nixon’s secretary in 1974 to see if the immortal 18-minute gap in the Nixon tapes could be recovered. He said no, it couldn’t; in addition, he believes the erasure wasn’t intentional. And international politics? In 1979, Pellicano was hired as an audio expert by The New York Times to investigate tape recordings that featured the exiled Shah of Iran.
“I had a great knowledge of electronics, and much of what I dealt with was so far advanced from others in that business,” says Pellicano. “I was mentored by a genius from military intelligence, Lt. Col. Allan D. Bell, who over time became closer to me than my own father — and more of a father to me. He taught me many things which gave me an edge over others.”
But Pellicano was resourceful in this Orwellian subculture even before meeting Bell. “I had lots and lots of toys to work with,” he boasts. “Ironically, President Johnson gave me an edge as well. He was the one who installed recorders in the White House — not Nixon. They were Sony 800B tape recorders capable of recording hours on reel-to-reel tapes.” (Nixon would wind up using those same Sony TC-800Bs for his own hobby.) “I devised a method of wiretaps using these recording devices that automatically turned the recorders on when the telephone handset was lifted and off when the phone was hung up — a real special tool.”
Bell’s mentoring put it all into overdrive. “My methods just kept getting more and more sophisticated as time and technology advances took place,” says Pellicano, adding yet again that “the system I designed is still state-of-the-art — it even encrypted the recordings it made.”
Surveillance, so inescapable in headlines of today, was a big part of Pellicano’s business dating back decades, and if the magnitude of his operation is to be believed, J. Edgar Hoover would have been envious of Pellicano’s voyeuristic library. When he was arrested in 2002, FBI agents found more than 150,000 pages of transcribed recordings. And these were not court-ordered wiretaps. He charged clients nonrefundable retainers of $25,000, plus an added fee, which varied greatly but usually reached hundreds of thousands of dollars — plus expenses. Ensconced among the rich and famous, Pellicano never suffered for business.
“The government claimed that I compromised the judicial system — and I did,” he concedes. “I was often the court of last resort for many. People, and not just famous ones, didn’t pay me all that money just to hear stories about how I had failed to get things done. I always kept my word and did everything I could — good, bad or indifferent — to get the job done, and I was successful.”
What Pellicano wants to make clear from the first encounter is that, while he misses his freedom, he hardly covets more time with members of the Hollywood elite. Though there are exceptions. “I knew Brad Grey since I moved to California back in 1982,” says Pellicano, referencing the former Paramount chief who died of cancer in 2017. “His and Bernie Brillstein’s office was right next to mine on Sunset Boulevard. As a matter of fact, I moved my suite of offices and laboratory to another floor so that they could expand for the sake of Brad,” says Pellicano. “I was saddened that he died so young and with so much to live for. I liked him and was proud of what he was able to accomplish. He often told me that he, and others, were so glad that there was someone like me to go to. They needed someone like me, someone who would take up the battle for them, who would do what needed to be done to prevail.”
He pauses. “There still is a need, as I have often been reminded,” he adds. “There will never be another Pellicano, however … never.”
He often refers to the “omerta,” the vow of loyalty he took to clients, the same vow that cost him his freedom. Yet talk to him about most of the A-list that once employed him, and his distaste is clear. For example, Michael Jackson, who reportedly engaged his services around 1993 (via attorney Fields) — and whom Pellicano claims he “fired” because he was disgusted by truths even darker than those alleged in Jackson’s molestation scandal. “I was offered $500,000 to tell the whole story by a tabloid, and I declined, even though, while incarcerated, I needed the money.” Other questions regarding the Jackson saga are met with what may be the definitive Pellicano irony: “All of that would get too close to the truth, so, regretfully, I have to decline.”
On Nov. 21, 2002, the feds raided Pellicano’s Hollywood offices. “The FBI guys asked if there was anything in there that could hurt them. There were two guns, which I turned over to them,” says Pellicano. When they asked him to open his safes, he says he complied without protest, believing he had nothing to hide. “I opened the safes and left the lab, completely forgetting about the C-4 and two grenades that were locked in one of my evidence safes. Well, you can imagine the result of that.” (Pellicano later would tell Newsweek that he was holding the weapons for a star client, but as with so many of his favors, he refused to name names.)
The 2002 FBI raid was fueled in part by a June 2002 incident in which reporter Anita Busch, then working for the Los Angeles Times, walked to her waiting car and found a bullet hole through the windshield, a dead fish with a rose in its mouth and the word “Stop” scrawled on a cardboard sign. At the time, Busch (who’d previously been editor of The Hollywood Reporter) was working on a story about Steven Seagal’s Mafia ties and previously had written about Pellicano client Michael Ovitz. While Pellicano denies playing a role in any of it, he pleaded no contest to witness intimidation; he does acknowledge that the work may have been done by one of his operatives “wanting to impress me.” (The man who vandalized the car, convicted felon Alexander Proctor, told an FBI informant he was hired by Pellicano.)
In 2008, after representing himself in a trial that gripped Hollywood and saw emotional testimony from Busch and others, the PI was convicted of 78 felony offenses, including racketeering and wiretapping. He was sentenced to a 15-year prison term. Busch’s civil suit against Pellicano and Ovitz (eventually severed into two separate suits) was settled for an undisclosed sum in January. “Now that [Busch] has some coins in her purse, she doesn’t need to pursue her role as a professional victim and can quit whining,” says Pellicano. “I believe everyone involved is, if not happy, content with the end. I have been dismissed, so I no longer have to look forward to a trial when I get out.” Pellicano says he was “disappointed.” He adds, “I really wanted to get Busch on the stand.” (Busch directed all requests for comment to her attorney, who did not respond in time for publication.)
“I got convicted of committing crimes I did not commit,” he says. “I had to listen to testimony of those who got up on the stand and lied. I changed a lot of lives for the better, helped a whole lot of people who were all grateful at the time. That’s what I kept in mind as I took all the heat — alone. As things got troublesome for me, they all took off for the hills.”
Pellicano says he “has no regrets, except I do wish that I had been more careful at the end.” But during the course of our conversation, one regret does emerge. “I would not change a thing, but I would never have given absolute loyalty to so many,” he says now. “Some people got away with a lot of things and made a lot of money because of me.” Pellicano acknowledges his nobility, real or apocryphal, was seldom, if ever, paid back in kind. “Unfortunately, my loyalty was not enough for some,” he says. “I would not have trusted some to the degree that I did. But I would never relent in the pursuit of winning for my clients who came to me for just that. My honor and word meant, and still mean, everything to me. Without that, I cannot, and could never, consider myself a man — especially a man of his word. One who does what he says he’s going to do.”
If every man has a Hamlet in him, Pellicano’s ponders one haunting conundrum: To rat or not to rat? That is the question. He chose “not to” during his legal battles, he says, even though he might have made his own life much easier with a healthy dose of ratting. “I believe rats, informants and others of that ilk are worse than child molesters. Close call — but I feel that way, and I will never relent.”
Pellicano’s friends believe he was wildly foolish not to share with the FBI all or even some of what he knew; a shorter sentence would have most likely been the result. “I could have saved myself, or at least done less time, if I had even slightly cooperated with the government,” he maintains. “I could have ruined many careers and lives, and I could have hurt many law enforcement personnel, government employees, even judges, but I would have dishonored myself by doing so. I remember them telling the court that they disagreed with my form of honor but respected it.”
As to his personal life, “There are many things I would do different,” he says. “I lost my family as a result of my ordeal. Most of my kids wanted me to tell on others to save myself. Being incarcerated, as all those who are will tell you, destroys families. How do you keep family close without any form of comfort? You eat it, that’s what you do. You survive on memories. You learn to stay awake at night and play back what I call ‘memory movies.'”
But what about after his release? Pellicano may speak frequently of his code of honor, but he also speaks of being in a financial quagmire and needing money — thus, the big question of whether he’ll want to use his secrets to get back at those he says ran the other way when they could have stood their ground and supported him. At the trial, most of those who relied so heavily on him pretended he didn’t exist. “During the entire time I’ve been in a cage, those who wanted to help, and could, chose not to,” he continues. “That was their choice, and they have to live with it and probably have. No, I’m not at all bitter, and I’m doing my time and, after all this time, seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.”
After close to two decades in prison, has he been able to avoid plotting revenge against those who turned their backs on him?
“There are certain people who will remain nameless who are seemingly scared [of his release],” says attorney Mark Geragos, who represented several wiretap victims, including Keith Carradine, his wife, Hayley DuMond, and lawyer Stephen Kolodny. “For others, it’s across the spectrum — some don’t care, some have forgotten.”
The matter of what Pellicano decides to do when he is released has more complications than most prisoners face as they approach freedom. Pellicano has volumes of valuable information inside his head (or perhaps stored elsewhere) about the rich and famous of Hollywood and what they’ve done that they probably shouldn’t have, from tawdry faux pas to downright felonies — and it’s safe to say that there are many people, including those who hired Pellicano in his halcyon days, who have more than an academic interest in what he decides to do with that knowledge. The FBI took “everything,” he has said repeatedly, but he alone knows if “everything” is to be taken literally.
“A lot of people are quaking that I’m going to disclose lots of things when I get out,” he says. “They’ll just have to keep quaking, won’t they? I’m not stupid. Unless something has greatly degraded, I still have an IQ of 167.”
With just over a year left on his sentence (plus three years of supervised release), it would seem that Pellicano would be consumed with visions of his re-entry. “I’m going to go to Sicily,” he says, but then quickly adds, “Just kidding.”
Fields, who has sent Pellicano a letter or two in prison, believes he can rehabilitate himself. “I actually had a crazy idea for him,” says Fields. “He does love cooking. He could actually do a small version of Rao’s in New York. Pellicano’s. I think the mystique of Anthony would be exploitable in that way. I could imagine that succeeding.”
The world into which Pellicano will be released is not, he can clearly see, the world as he left it. There’s been a revolution in his line of work. “The technology is such that there isn’t privacy anymore, and more so with the advent of social media,” he says, as if lamenting that thousands of amateurs now handle the kind of jobs professionals like him used to do. “Everyone who engages in the use of Facebook and other types of social media puts their lives on display and says too much about how they live and interact,” says Pellicano.
“Were I tempted to engage in any type of investigative business, I would find it easier, especially the business of ‘data mining,’ which I was way ahead of the pack in doing long before the government caught on.” With a chuckle, Pellicano adds, “When I finally walk out the door, free except for the supervised release process of three years, then I may take a look at what I can do … or not.”
Things indeed have changed mightily since Pellicano was last a free man. Many norms and traditions have been obliterated, especially in the ever-bloody political arena. With that in mind, does one dare wonder if Pellicano might wind up working on a forthcoming re-election campaign? As with so much with Anthony Pellicano, it’s a secret.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.