It looks like Anthony Pellicano, the infamous private detective to the stars, won’t be getting sprung from prison. On Monday a Los Angeles federal judge denied Pellicano’s request to be set free on bail, after a brief hearing that included an appeal from journalist Anita Busch, who made headlines a decade ago when she found a dead fish on her car along with a threatening note that read “Stop”—an incident that ultimately led to Pellicano’s undoing.
In making her decision, U.S. District Court Judge Dale S. Fischer said that “having spent a number of years with Mr. Pellicano, I have a great deal of confidence in his abilities. You haven’t convinced me he isn’t a flight risk or won’t flee.”
A decade ago, Pellicano’s win-at-any-cost tactics made him the No. 1 guy Hollywood actors, suits, and their attorneys turned to whenever they had a problem. But in 2008, Pellicano was found guilty on 76 charges—including wire fraud, identity theft, and racketeering. His trial rattled Tinseltown’s powerbrokers, several of whom were dragged onto the witness stand. Pellicano refused to name names at his trial and was sentenced by Fischer to 15 years in prison.
At issue in Monday’s hearing was whether the 68-year-old former sleuth, who now sits in a federal correctional facility in Big Spring, Texas, is a flight risk or a danger to the community if he is released on bail pending his appeal. (According to his appeal brief, Pellicano accuses the government of misconduct, misrepresentation, and constitutional violations. Among other things, the brief charges that agents’ search of his office was illegal.)
Federal prosecutor Kevin Lally described Pellicano as a man who “has complete contempt for the rule of law.”
“He puts himself first,” Lally said. “His 76 convictions show his willingness to violate the law … He is a man full of hubris.”
Pellicano’s attorney, Steven F. Gruel, argued that his client has never been a danger or flight risk before or after he was sentenced to prison. His once-lucrative private investigation firm is now defunct, and his private investigator’s license is suspended. Gruel says Pellicano, who suffers from blepharospasm, a brain disorder that causes the eyelids to involuntary shut for as long as 20 to 30 seconds, is broke and has no desire to return to private investigating work. He wants to move back to Southern California and live out his remaining years with his family, the attorney says.
“What are they worried that Mr. Pellicano will do?” Gruel asked during the hearing. “He didn’t do anything except for his clients. He doesn’t have clients anymore.”
“We believe Pellicano is both a danger and flight risk,” said federal prosecutor Kevin Lally.
Gruel argued that the prosecution approached Pellicano and his legal counsel on several occasions over the years, offering him the prospect of freedom in exchange for cooperation. “They really don’t think he is a danger,” Gruel said.
In a motion filed with the court last week, Gruel said that in December of 2005 two federal prosecutors and two FBI agents drove from Los Angeles to the federal prison in Taft, Calif., to pay a surprise visit to Pellicano, who was in prison after he was convicted for possession of explosives. “They needed and wanted his cooperation in their [federal RICO and wiretapping] investigation,” he wrote. “Mr. Pellicano said ‘no,’ and the four went back to Los Angeles empty handed. As with the numerous cooperators in this case, if Mr. Pellicano had cooperated with his federal visitors he would not be in custody today.”
“The argument he raises is a non sequitur because there isn’t any cooperation,” Lally told The Daily Beast. “There has never been an acceptance of responsibility. There are mechanisms in place to allow them to get sentencing consideration but it matters not. He has neither cooperated nor accepted responsibility. He claims we treat him differently but that is just unfounded.”
In the motion, Gruel also argued that the prosecution had a vendetta against Pellicano and offered up more lenient sentences to his co-defendants, including Craig Stevens, a former police officer with the Beverly Hills Police Department, who was convicted of seven felony counts including computer fraud and making false statements. The prosecution recommended five years’ probation and a $10,000 fine. “When, in 2010, the probation department advised the Court that Mr. Stevens was violating probation with excessive alcohol abuse, the prosecution did nothing,” according to Gruel’s motion.
“As reflected in Craig’s testimony before the jury he fully cooperated with the investigation, and if you cooperate you are entitled to time off and a more lenient sentence. It is just the nature of the way the federal system is structured,” said Stevens’s defense attorney, Dana M. Cole. “You are only entitled to such leniency if you tell the truth.” Asked about Stevens’s probation violation, Stevens said: “I am not aware of any hearing regarding that allegation.”
Pellicano’s motion also poked fun at the prosecution’s assertion that he could quickly make enough money to flee by selling his life rights to a book publisher. “The comment is utter nonsense and, frankly, shows the thinness of the government’s arguments for continued detention pending appeal,” according to the motion. “One response can be equally absurd: if he flees because he sold ‘his story’ arrest him at the book signing!”
At the hearing, Gruel said Pellicano’s family was willing to post a $400,000 bond if he is released. “These are family members,” he said. “If he flees it will affect his family members.”
“We believe Pellicano is both a danger and flight risk,” said Lally.
Pellicano’s life in the fast lane came to an abrupt end in 2002 when federal agents began investigating his role in a plot to threaten reporter Busch after she found her windshield broken and the dead fish left along with the note—a scene like something out of a gangster movie. Busch, a well-known Hollywood reporter, had previously written about the downfall of Hollywood agent Michael Ovitz, and was looking into a story about alleged mob ties to action star Steven Seagal. After a tip about Pellicano’s alleged involvement in the fish caper, agents raided Pellicano’s office and discovered plastic explosives and a pair of hand grenades, and the private eye wound up pleading guilty to possession of illegal explosives in 2004. Investigators also discovered a treasure trove of transcripts and encrypted tapes of phone conversations he’d illegally tapped.
In October 2009, Pellicano plead no contest to making a criminal threat against Busch. Busch filed a civil lawsuit against Pellicano. claiming that the “threats and assaults on [her life] traumatized her and brought her illustrious career to a halt.” The civil case, which also names Ovitz, is still pending.
Inside the federal courtroom, Busch walked up to the podium with a limp and had a wheelchair nearby. There, she accused Pellicano of being a “domestic terrorist.”
“My life is hell and I know others who have suffered,” she said. As a reporter, she said, her career was ruined because she lost sources. “I lost my livelihood,” she said. “And my peace of mind.”
“He has terrorized people for years and I think it would be a defeat for victims if he is let out,” she said. “He never cooperated and he wears it as a badge of honor.”
Busch then added, “If he is so indigent, who pays you Mr. Gruel?”
“I don’t make a dime,” Gruel snapped. (Gruel, appointed by the court in 2009, says he will get paid at the end of Pellicano’s appeal).
Outside the courtroom, Gruel said he is planning to appeal Fischer’s decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals later this month. “I knew it would be an uphill battle,” Gruel said.