The letters from prosecutors gush about the testimony and analysis that Hollywood private eye Anthony Pellicano provided as an audio forensics expert: Professional. Impressive. Invaluable.
But the same government that relied on Pellicano’s help in several major cases, including a deadly church bombing in Alabama, has now charged him with running a widespread wiretapping scheme in Hollywood beginning in 1997.
Pellicano is accused of bugging phones and bribing police to get information on celebrities and others at the same time he was providing expert testimony for prosecutors.
“I don’t think prosecutors start out suspecting their own witnesses to be criminals,” said Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor who now teaches at Loyola Law School.
Pellicano, 62, has pleaded not guilty and said he won’t aid authorities.
However, his alleged habit of playing both sides of the law raises questions about how well he will protect the secrets of his high-profile clients as prosecutors pressure him to cooperate.
“The only loyalty Anthony Pellicano has to anyone is to Anthony Pellicano,” Levenson said.
The allegations against him include tapping the phone of actor Sylvester Stallone and having police run the names of comedians Garry Shandling and Kevin Nealon through a government database. Prosecutors accuse him of using the information for threats, blackmail and in some cases to help clients gain advantages in legal disputes.
Fourteen other people also have been charged in the case so far, including two former police officers and a defense lawyer who has represented billionaire investor Kirk Kerkorian. They face a variety of charges, including wire fraud and conspiracy.
The 14th person charged was director John McTiernan, whose films include “Die Hard” and “The Hunt for Red October.” Authorities claim he lied when he said he had no knowledge of wiretapping by Pellicano.
Five people have pleaded guilty, including former Hollywood Records president Robert Pfeifer, who admitted Friday that he hired Pellicano to tap the phone of a former girlfriend.
Messages seeking comment from John Carlton, McTiernan’s attorney, were not returned.
Pellicano began testifying for prosecutors in the late 1970s. His most notable work came in 2001, when he helped analyze an undercover FBI audiotape of former Ku Klux Klan member Thomas Blanton Jr. as part of an investigation into the 1963 killing of four black girls in the bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Ala.
Pellicano was able to electronically enhance a fuzzy 1964 tape that contained a reference to a bomb and helped prosecutors convict Blanton, who is now serving a life sentence.
“Through your timeless efforts we were able to produce to the jury an audible recording of a critical conversation in which the defendant clearly admitted his involvement in this horrible crime,” wrote G. Douglas Jones, then a U.S. attorney in Alabama.
‘We had no complaints’
Jones said he had checked out Pellicano’s credentials with other federal prosecutors before using him. “Regardless of what his other practices were, we had no complaints of what he did in our case,” Jones said.
Blanton’s conviction could be appealed if any information emerges that Pellicano tampered with evidence, said Blanton’s attorney, John Robbins.
Pellicano also analyzed tapes that helped lead to convictions in the killings of a store clerk in Orange County in 1995 and a 1996 killing of a surfer.
Not every effort was successful, however.
Pellicano analyzed the recording of a wiretap that authorities placed on the phones of a couple accused of lying about the 1997 disappearance of their 5-month-old daughter, then testified that he could hear them making incriminating statements.
A federal judge threw out the charges in 2001 after determining the recordings were nearly unintelligible. The child was never found.
Even so, prosecutors thanked Pellicano for his contribution to the case.
“Your efforts at digitizing the tape recordings, making enhancements of some of the conversations, and conducting a thorough review of particular conversations and locating specific words and phrases were truly impressive,” wrote Mac Cauley, then a U.S. attorney.
Cauley couldn’t recall why Pellicano was used in the case.
Even Pellicano’s defense attorney, a former federal prosecutor, used him as a witness to refute claims in an organized crime case that a recording by an undercover FBI agent might have been altered.
“What made him a good witness was that he was unwavering and committed to getting at the truth,” attorney Steven Gruel said.