CRIME

04.11.12

Did Joe Pesci’s Ex Hire a Hitman?

The Oscar winner’s former wife heads to prison on charges she tried to have her other ex-husband, a star stuntman, bumped off. Christine Pelisek reports from the courthouse steps.

Movie stuntman Garrett Warren has been in his share of dangerous fixes—having worked on Mission Impossible III, Avatar, and playing Mickey Rourke’s stunt double in Iron Man 2. But none rivals what happened on May 20, 2000, when Warren found himself starring in a scene straight out of Goodfellas, with a cast of colorful supporting characters including Joe Pesci.

It was Saturday night, and Warren was in the hallway of his rented Westlake Village, Calif., home, when the doorbell began to ring repeatedly. As he approached to answer, the stranger asked him through the door if he was the owner of the silver Volvo parked in the driveway.

After six knocks, “I opened the door and said, ‘Yeah, this is my car. Did you hit it?,” recalls Warren. Seconds later, Warren says, the man raised a .32 caliber handgun and shot him in the chest, neck, and left hip. As Warren lay bleeding on the floor, the man fired again, hitting him in the right eye. Warren’s 64-year-old mother heard the shots and ran toward the door. The gunman fired two shots at her, narrowly missing her head, before he ran off.

“It was surreal,” says Warren, who is currently on location in New Orleans where the science-fiction thriller, Ender’s Game, with Harrison Ford, is filming. “I had been shot all my life in the movies and here it was happening for real.”

Warren’s case languished for years, with plenty of red herrings and false leads along the way. But in the spring of 2002, a random bust of a drug dealer 90 miles away uncovered startling new evidence. In the trunk of the man’s car, police unearthed pieces of napkin paper with directions to Warren’s house, possible kill dates, and a photograph of him.

The clues ultimately led detectives to Warren’s ex-wife Claudia Haro and police arrested her as the mastermind behind the shooting. Haro, a former actress who appeared in 1995’s Casino and was once married to Pesci, was so determined that after the first hit man didn’t get the job done, she allegedly hired another killer to replace him—and then demanded after Warren survived that he return to finish him off.

pesci-ex-wife-hitman-pelisek-inline
Courtesy of Garrett Warren

“If she didn’t try to go after him a second time, she would probably be on the streets now,” said Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department detective Mark Gayman.

In the end, Haro was brought to justice when her brother implicated her in the amateurish plot. Last month, Claudia Haro pled no contest to two counts of attempted murder and a principal firearm charge. At a sentencing hearing on Tuesday, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge sentenced the 45-year-old mother of one to 12 years and four months in prison.

Haro, who has been free on $1.25 million bail, arrived at the courthouse in a tight-fitting blue dress and high-heeled black pumps, with an entourage that included a nun wearing a white habit and Joe Pesci, dressed in all black and wearing sunglasses. Haro kissed her current boyfriend and passed him her black purse as she took a seat next to her attorney, Tom Mesereau, who reminded the judge and lawyers, “She has not pled guilty to anything.” Later, as Haro was led from the courtroom and into sheriff’s custody, members of her entourage cried out “We love you.” Pesci, looking visibly upset, quickly left the courtroom.

“[Warren’s] success is the best revenge,” said Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Michele Hanisee, who was in charge of the case. “He has gone on to be hugely successful in Hollywood, and she is going to prison.”

Warren’s Hollywood saga began in 1990 when he moved from Boston to Los Angeles to help a friend set up a karate school. It didn’t take long before Hollywood came calling and he was hired as a stunt double for the CBS drama The Raven. His career was skyrocketing when he met Haro through friends at a country club in Lake Sherwood. They wed in March 1998, and had a daughter the following December.

“I apologize, dude. I’m not a good shot … We’ll finish it off if that’s what you need,” the alleged hitman was recorded saying.

But with Warren constantly traveling for work, the relationship quickly unraveled, and the couple filed for divorce in 1999. They began to battle over custody of their young daughter, and Warren was ultimately granted shared custody by a Los Angeles judge. “I got what I wanted in court,” he said. “I wanted nothing more or nothing less. She wasn’t very happy with the whole thing.”

Two weeks later he was shot, and found himself fighting for his life at Northridge Hospital Medical Center, suffering multiple gunshot wounds, a broken jaw, and the loss of his right eye.

Warren described the shooter as a stocky male, possibly Italian or Israeli, approximately 5 feet 9 or 5 feet 10, with short dark hair and a goatee. Asked by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department detectives who might have wanted him dead, Warren responded: my ex-wife. “I didn’t say, ‘I think it is her,’ I said, ‘I know it is her,’ ” he says. “There was no one else I thought would have done it.”

On the night of the attack, detectives interviewed Claudia Haro, but she denied any involvement and provided them with an alibi. Warren soon learned that detectives didn’t think she was involved. “They said, ‘We talked to her and we believe it wasn’t her,’ ” he said. “After a while, I thought it must not be her; they are the professionals. I always thought it was her, but when the police said it couldn’t be her, I let it go.”

Investigators started looking into other possibilities. Perhaps Warren crossed someone in a business transaction. Or maybe he was a victim of road rage; that might explain why the shooter asked him about the silver Volvo. Maybe he cut the gunman off without realizing it?

For months, Warren was convinced the shooter would return to finish the job. He began wearing a bulletproof vest and installed pressure-sensitive plates along the perimeter of his property. “I used to put scotch tape on my door and gas cap, and when I came back I would look to see if anyone tampered with my [car] security,” he said.

The case remained cold for two years. Then, on March 14, 2002, while Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department detectives were sifting through clues, the San Bernardino Police Department arrested a drug dealer and restaurant owner named Miguel Quiroz. Inside the trunk of Quiroz’s Mercedes Benz, detectives discovered an envelope hidden beneath a spare tire. The envelope contained pieces of paper with a photo of Warren taken from a stunt-man directory, and directions to the house where he was living after the shooting. It looked like the letter was sent from Hollywood on Oct. 18, 2001.The envelope and its contents were passed along to Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department investigators.

That’s when the case turned hot again. Warren picked out Quiroz as the shooter in a photographic six-pack, and again in a live lineup, and Quiroz was charged with attempted murder. But then things began to unravel. First, Quiroz was much smaller than the man Warren originally described as the shooter. And during his preliminary hearing in December 2003, a handful of witnesses swore that on the night of the shooting, Quiroz was 90 miles away at his restaurant, B & J’s Pizza, in Rancho Cucamonga.

Police realized that Quiroz wasn’t the shooter, but they believed he knew who was. In March 2004, Quiroz admitted to detectives his part in the botched attempt, and in exchange for lesser charges he agreed to wear a wire. The exchanges between Quiroz and the hit man, Jorge Hernandez, were clearly heard on tape; in one recorded conversation, Hernandez said of the failed attempt on Warren’s life, “I apologize, dude. I’m not a good shot … We’ll finish it off if that’s what you need.” Quiroz also provided detectives with a second letter allegedly given to him by Claudia Haro that listed the days when Warren had custody of their daughter. A portion of the message read: “not wed or sat my daughter is w/ him.”

In addition, Quiroz pointed his finger at the man who helped hatch the scheme, Manuel Haro, his ex-employee at B & J’s Pizza and the younger brother of Claudia Haro. On June 29, 2005, police arrested both Manuel Haro and Hernandez for the attempted murder of Warren. Manuel Haro agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit murder, and as part of the plea deal, he told investigators he was approached by his sister in February 2000. According to Gayman, the L.A. Sheriff’s detective, Manuel Haro said his sister “asked if it was guaranteed, will there be some kind of warranty, and if the job wasn’t done, would they finish it later.”

Soon afterward, detective Gayman said, Manuel Haro approached a friend, Lovell Campbell, who agreed to find someone to do the job for $6,000. Campbell asked for a gun, directions to Warren’s house, and a description of the target. Manuel Haro said his sister gave him the first half up front, $3,000, along with directions and a description of Warren.

But, ten days later, Campbell informed Manuel Haro that he couldn’t find Warren or his house. (Later, during Claudia Haro’s preliminary hearing, Campbell revealed that he was working with San Bernardino police and had no intention of carrying out the hit.) Manuel Haro said he broke the news to his sister that Campbell couldn’t do the job, and she wanted to know if he could find somebody else. So he approached Quiroz, who then hired Hernandez, who allegedly agreed to do the job for $10,000. After Warren survived the first attack, Claudia Haro contacted her brother and wanted to know when the job could be completed, Manuel Haro told detectives.

Sheriffs finally arrested the former actress in December 2005 and charged her with two counts of attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder. She spent 23 months in jail before she posted the $1.25 million bail and was set free pending trial. The following year, in November 2006, Hernandez was convicted by a Los Angeles jury and was sentenced to 77 years in prison. Warren took the stand during that trial, and when he was asked by a prosecutor how certain he was that Hernandez was the shooter, he replied: “I would bet my left eye on it.” Quiroz, who agreed to testify against Hernandez and Claudia Haro, entered a plea of being an accessory after the fact and received five years' probation, including a suspended prison sentence of three years. Claudia’s brother Manuel has been in L.A.’s Men’s Central Jail since his 2005 arrest and has been awaiting sentencing after pleading to attempted murder.

Throughout the case, one question that has continued to dog investigators is where Claudia Haro got the money to pay for the hit. Manuel Haro told investigators that on one occasion he collected money from his sister in front of Joe Pesci’s house. Claudia Haro had lived in Pesci’s guest house on-and-off since their three-year marriage ended in divorce in 1991.

According to detective Gayman, Sheriff’s investigators interviewed Pesci and searched his property looking for evidence against Haro. But he was never charged with any involvement in the case.

Yet his name came up during Claudia Haro’s 2007 preliminary hearing, when Mesereau, her attorney, asked if her brother had told Lovell Campbell that Pesci was involved in the attempt to shoot Warren. “Not directly like that,” Campbell responded. “It had more to do with the finances, where the money might be coming from.” Mesereau then asked if Haro told him that Pesci was paying for the hit.

“He made indications that the money was coming from the direction or from Joe Pesci,” testified Campbell. “He wouldn’t come out and say that himself because he had a lot of respect and admiration for Joe Pesci and didn’t want to implicate him in anything. He would never say his name. He would say ‘that person’ or ‘him’ or ‘them.’ ”

Mesereau asked if Haro had suggested Pesci was involved. “Not in the shooting,” said Campbell. “Just in the paying.”

Mesereau did not return repeated calls for comment. Asked about the statements made by Campbell in the preliminary hearing, Pesci’s lawyer and manager Jay Julien told The Daily Beast, “We don’t have any comment to make on any of this.”

Hanisee, the deputy district attorney, said Manuel Haro denied that Pesci was involved, and she said there was no credible evidence that Pesci had any involvement in the case. “If there was evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was involved, he would have been charged,” she said.

As for Warren, he says he will always remember the day he learned his ex-wife was behind the attack on his life. He was working on the movie Beowulf when he received a call from Gayman. A few days later, at lunch at Culver City Studios, Gayman and his partner Brad Higgins told him that Manuel Haro implicated his sister in the attack. Gayman told him that Manuel Haro was apologetic and believed he had been manipulated by his sister. “She had told him horrible things and that I had done horrible things to my daughter,” Warren says.

Warren felt both vindicated and horrified. “She had been putting on an act for so long and making it seem like it had to be someone else and that it was my fault it happened to me,” says Warren, who is remarried and has sole custody of the daughter he had with Haro.

“I don’t feel good about anyone going to prison. However, I feel glad it is over and there is closure,” he says.

Asked what he did when he heard Haro had pled no contest last month, he responded: “I did a jump in the air and said ‘Woo.’ ”