Private eye to Hollywood stars faces setback after guilty pleas

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The plot of a three-year federal investigation into illegal wiretapping by a high-profile private detective in Hollywood that began with a dead fish and a rose has suddenly thickened. Two witnesses - one his ex-girlfriend; the other a veteran police officer - on Tuesday pleaded guilty to having lied to a grand jury about the detective's use of wiretaps and other illegal tactics.

The perjury pleas, one coming from the former wife of the actor Keith Carradine, add new spice to a criminal case that threatens to reach into the highest echelons of the Hollywood elite and which, since the investigation first begun, has had the studio establishment in Los Angeles on the edge of their seats.

At its core is Anthony Pellicano. Until police raided his west Hollywood offices in November 2002, he was one of the most successful private detectives in the city, with a roster of clients running to A-list actors and the industry's most important lawyers, among them Bert Fields, who represents Dustin Hoffman, Tom Cruise and Michael Jackson.

Pellicano, also known simply as The Pelican and private dick to the stars, is already in prison on federal charges of possessing explosives and grenades at his office, although he is due to be released on parole next month. So far, the federal government has filed no new charges against him, but the investigation is far from over.

His troubles began - and important individuals throughout Hollywood began worrying - when a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times returned to her car one day in 2002, to find a fish - a rose planted in its mouth - on the roof of the car. The windshield had been broken to make it look like it had been pierced by a bullet and a brief and to-the-point message was left for her to consider. It said "Stop".

At the time, the journalist, Anita Busch, had been writing about a case involving the actor Steven Seagal and a purported Mafia operative named Julius Nasso. Police said the fish had been planted by a former drug convict, Alexander Proctor. They charged him and then became suspicious that he had done it at the behest of Pellicano, head of the Pellicano Investigative Agency Ltd.

That was when investigators raided the company offices and found more than they had bargained for. First there were the explosives as well as $200,000 (£113,000) in gold bullion, cash and jewellery. Then, after seizing computers, they found evidence that Pellicano was illegally wiretapping people on behalf of his clients. They also found that he had somehow gained access to police data on individuals.

Late last week, Sandra Carradine, a girlfriend of Pellicano and herself an actress, acknowledged that he had secretly wire-tapped the telephone of her former husband, who now dates actress Hayley DuMond, during a divorce battle over child custody. She will now cooperate with the investigation. Her lawyer said she had at first lied when asked about the wiretapping to protect her boyfriend. A second guilty plea was also entered by a veteran of the Beverly Hills Police Department, who revealed that he had lied to the grand jury about extracting files from police data bases and selling the information to Pellicano. Craig Stevens resigned from the police force on Friday. He faces up to 35 years in prison, while the prison term for Ms Carradine could reach 10 years.

With Ms Carradine and the ex-police officer now committed to co-operating in the investigation, prosecutors may move swiftly to close the net. A lawyer for Pellicano insisted this week, however, that his client would maintain his silence, as he has in prison. "It won't work - I don't care how much they pressure him," said Victor Sherman. "He's not going to bend."

For Mr Fields, the lawyer, the investigation continues to be an embarrassment. He has already acknowledged that he has been questioned by investigators but has said that while he may have used the services of Pellicano, he had no knowledge of any illegal wiretapping.

But the details of the data theft given up by Mr Stevens may draw Mr Fields deeper into the affair. He said he sold protected information to Pellicano concerning a former Hollywood producer and gubernatorial candidate in Nevada named Aaron Russo, as well three of his relatives. Mr Russo was being sued at the time by a New York asset manager, who had hired Mr Fields.

A lawyer representing Mr Fields, John Keker, said his client was in the clear. "Bert Fields is completely innocent of any wrongdoing," he said on Tuesday.