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Expert's past raises queries

A key government witness in the Aisenberg case has denied active mob ties but admitted knowing mobsters.

By GRAHAM BRINK

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 7, 2000


TAMPA -- Anthony Pellicano has been called "the Big Sleazy." He claims he'll do almost anything as long as it helps his celebrity clients out of a jam.

He willingly tells reporters he's used a baseball bat for more than hitting fly balls.

Now the Los Angeles-based private investigator can add another line to his bio: chief audio expert in the federal government's case against Steven and Marlene Aisenberg.

The choice of Pellicano over, say, experts from the FBI has raised eyebrows with those following the high-profile case. It's not that he lacks experience in audio analysis. It's that he travels with baggage. Lots of baggage.

"I'm a kid from the streets," he told People magazine in 1993. "I could have been a criminal just as easily."

The hearing to determine whether authorities acted improperly in obtaining wiretaps for the Aisenberg home begins next week. Authorities used the recordings as evidence to charge the couple with lying about the disappearance of their 5-month-old daughter, Sabrina, from their Brandon home on Nov. 24, 1997. No trace of the child has been found.

The defense team has called the tactics underhanded and claims the tapes are inaudible and prove nothing. The government says otherwise and hired Pellicano to help enhance the tapes.

The tapes are at the center of the courtroom showdown, one that could cripple the prosecution's case.

Pellicano, 56, did not return messages left at his office on Sunset Boulevard. Federal prosecutors would not comment on Pellicano.

He is often quoted in the Hollywood trade magazines about helping one star client or another. He has been profiled by GQ magazine under the title "The Big Sleazy." He appeared in Forbes. Has played 20 questions with Playboy.

The profiles tell the same story of Pellicano's early years. He says he grew up around Chicago, running with a rough crowd and had trouble in school. He never went to college. In the 1960s he encoded and decoded secret messages as an Army cryptographer. Upon his discharge, he went to work as a bill collector for Spiegel, the mail-order house.

Pellicano parlayed his talent for finding people into a job as an investigator at several Chicago detective agencies. Eventually, he put out his own shingle, specializing in collections and missing persons. He went by the name Tony Fortune.

The local papers followed his successes, showcasing his role in reuniting runaway kids and kidnap victims with their families.

After he went bankrupt in the mid 1970s, one of his creditors was the son of a well-known organized crime boss.

Pellicano has denied active ties to the mob but admits knowing his share of gangsters.

He moved to Los Angeles in 1983 and made an almost immediate splash. A year earlier, sports car manufacturer John DeLorean had been busted on federal drug charges. Agents had DeLorean on video closing a drug deal. DeLorean was acquitted after Pellicano's analysis of phone lists and audiotapes helped discredit a star government witness.

The case opened a lot of Hollywood doors for Pellicano. It also helped solidify him in the relatively unmined audio analysis business.

He created a lab with state-of-the-art equipment, always trying to stay at the cutting edge of new developments. Local attorneys and law enforcement agencies began paying him for his expertise.

He helped a record company defend a lawsuit against some Nevada parents who claimed subliminal lyrics from the heavy-metal band Judas Priest caused their sons to commit suicide.

Years after the Kennedy assassination and Watergate, he was asked to analyze the series of gunshots in the Zapruder film, and the infamous 18-minute gap in President Richard Nixon's tapes.

"I'm the most respected man in the country," Pellicano told GQ of his audio expertise. "I'm the guy. I'm better than anybody."

Many former clients agree with Pellicano's boast. It's the other side of his practice that could haunt him on the witness stand.

Pellicano is considered one of a handful of go-to investigators for celebrities in trouble. He claims to charge a $25,000 retainer and get as much as $250,000 for a single case.

He says his client list includes James Woods, Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, Sylvester Stallone and Roseanne Barr.

Pellicano helped Los Angeles police Detective Mark Fuhrman, a witness in the O.J. Simpson case, fight charges that he was a racist.

Much of what Pellicano calls "help" can safely be described as ethically questionable.

A secretary sues a movie producer for $5-million for subjecting her to cocaine and porn movies. Pellicano steps in, and the case goes away.

Sometimes he bypasses the source and hits the messenger. Several entertainment reporters have accused him of trying to intimidate them into killing stories about his clients.

A typical case, as Pellicano told GQ: Drug dealers are preying on a rich kid's addiction. The father hires Pellicano, who talks to the drug dealers . . . with a baseball bat. The dealers don't come around anymore.

"I always start out by being a gentleman," he told People. "I only use intimidation and fear when I absolutely have to."

-- Times news researchers John Martin and Kitty Bennett contributed to this report. Graham Brink can be reached at (813) 226-3365 or brink@sptimes.com.

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