ANTHONY PELLICANO, HOLLYWODD'S most famous private investigator, ushers a visitor into his inner sanctum, a room in his Los Angeles office crammed with enough computers and electronic gear to make a cyberpunk swoon. Pellicano, 49, has something he wants to share—a tape, he says, that will show that the allegations of child molestation leveled against his client Michael Jackson are nothing more than an extortion plot gone bad. Mostly the recording sounds like two guys haggling over business. A former lawyer for the father of the 13-year-old accuser tells Pellicano that the father, ostensibly negotiating a screenwriting gig with Jackson, wanted more than the $350,000 deal that had been offered. Aired earlier at a press conference, the tape is suggestive but far from conclusive. Listening to the conversation yet again, Pellicano can scarcely contain himself, at one point excitedly grabbing a visitor's arm in a viselike grip. "It absolutely happened," says Pellicano of the alleged extortion attempt. "I mean, he acknowledges that on the tape."

The style is pure showbiz—intense, hype-laden, in-your-face. But then nobody becomes Hollywood's premier P.I. through modesty and understatement. And make no mistake, Pellicano is Hollywood's top-of-the-line troubleshooter. Over the years he has reportedly worked for Sylvester Stallone, Ed McMahon, Kevin Costner, Roseanne Arnold and James Woods, sometimes making more than $250,000 a job. Now, as the point man in Jackson's efforts to clear his name, Pellicano has taken on a role usually reserved for a lawyer or a public-relations expert.

To his detractors, Pellicano is a blustery egotist who is not above cutting ethical corners and thus is a risky choice for such a sensitive case. But to hear Pellicano tell it, he is a thoroughly modern shamus who relies more on brains than on muscle. Indeed, he likes to boast that not only is he a member of Mensa but also that he doesn't even carry a gun. "That's a physical solution to a mental problem," he says disdainfully. "I involve myself in cases that take tremendous amounts of thought—Sherlock Holmes-type things."

Damage control might actually be his intellectual specialty. "Anthony (Joes clean up messes," says freelance writer Peter Wilkinson, who did a profile on Pellicano last year for GQ magazine. "His job is to intervene at a stage before anything scandalous becomes public." In the Jackson case, of course, he didn't have the luxury of quashing the allegations before they hit the front page.

Pellicano, who has worked on and off for the Jacksons for four years, was with the singer in Bangkok on Aug. 22 for the start of the Dangerous world tour when he got a phone call that the police were executing a search warrant on Neverland, Jackson's 2,700-acre estate north of Santa Barbara, Calif. A day later he was back in the U.S. holding press conferences, playing tapes, lining up boys to say they knew Michael but that their frolics with him had been totally innocent.

It is that sort of performance that has earned Pellicano an impressive list of satisfied customers. "If he's working with you or for you, his loyalty is rock-solid," says criminal-defense attorney Howard Weitzman, who is working on the Jackson case along with Pellicano. It was Weitzman who lured Pellicano from Chicago to California in 1983 to assist in the defense of onetime auto mogul John DeLorean, who beat a cocaine-trafficking rap with their help. "The overwhelming majority of people he deals with are very satisfied with his services," adds Weitzman. Producer Don Simpson (Top Gun, Days of Thunder), for one, used Pellicano in 1989 to fend off a $5 million suit for emotional distress filed by a secretary, who claimed that, while around her, Simpson watched porn videos, had her schedule hookers for him and used cocaine. Pellicano claims he turned up evidence that the woman did drugs, rented porn videos herself and stole letters from Simpson's wastebasket. "Anthony is one of those people, shall we say, who is a lion at the gate," says Simpson. "He is not a man to be on the wrong side of."

Perhaps. But some critics say that's because there's more schlock than Sherlock to his methods. Several journalists claim Pellicano tried to intimidate them into spiking unflattering stories about his clients. In some instances, they say, he even insinuated he had ties to organized crime. "He told me he was a 'connected guy', " says John Connolly, a former New York City police detective who was doing a story on actor Steven Seagal for Spy magazine when he recently got a call from Pellicano.

At one point Pellicano also incurred the wrath of Roseanne Arnold, who had hired him to track down her 17-year-old daughter, Brandi, who had been put up for adoption years before. The Arnolds came to believe that he had joined forces with the National Enquirer, offering a pair of reporters a cut of his $25,000 retainer for leading him to Brandi. "[Pellicano] is the sleaziest human being," she told GQ. He disputes Arnold's story, and her rep now says, "They resolved their differences."

One Pellicano critic who is less charitable is archrival Ernie Rizzo, 51, himself a celebrated P.I. from Chicago. "Like 'da Bulls,' they're 'da Detectives', " says Chicago divorce lawyer Bernard Rinella. "These guys are classic Chicago." They have also been publicly skirmishing with each other for years. Thus it was no surprise when, in the wake of the allegations against Jackson, Rizzo popped up claiming to represent the father of the 13-year-old accuser. Since then the family has tried to distance itself from Rizzo, but he has kept up a steady attack on Pellicano. To Pellicano's claim that he is the best investigator around, Rizzo has said, "The only thing he's best at is bulls—t." In reply, Pellicano dismisses Rizzo, who in 1978 lost his own P.I. license until this year after being convicted on wiretapping charges, as "an insignificant fruit fly."

Pellicano also insists that he has never implied to anyone that he is connected with the Mob. He acknowledges, though not grudgingly, that he has been acquainted with a few gangsters and that he has used a baseball bat for other than sporting purposes. "I always start out by being a gentleman," says Pellicano. "I only use intimidation and fear when I absolutely have to."

Nourished in pragmatism in Cicero, Ill.—still famous as Al Capone's home turf—Pellicano ran with a rough crowd. "I'm a kid from the streets," he says. "I could have been a criminal just as easily." In the '60s, Pellicano began his investigative career in the collections department at Spiegel Inc., chasing down deadbeats for the catalog company. Later, setting up his own practice and going by the low-rent pseudonym Tony Fortune, he specialized in missing persons and collections. In 1974 he filed for bankruptcy and listed Paul DeLucia Jr., the son of a reputed Chicago mobster and the godfather of Pellicano's daughter, as one of his creditors.

Pellicano lives in an L.A. suburb but adamantly refuses to discuss his family. "I'm a guy in the line of fire all the time, and I'm very self-conscious about them," he says. He is finishing a novel about a government assassin and—surprise!—has lately been discussing ideas for a movie with his friend director-producer Michael Mann (Miami Vice). But first he will have to deal with the tribulations of star client Jackson and waiting to see if L.A. authorities, who are still investigating, file any charges. For all his confidence, Pellicano acknowledges that, from his standpoint, the hardest part of the case may involve demonstrating a negative. "How do you prove something never happened?" he asks. "How do you prove that there never was a spaceship landing in this guy's backyard?" With Michael Jackson, that may be especially difficult.

BILL HEWITT
LYNDON STAMBLER and JOHN HANNAH in Los Angeles, LEAH ESKIN in Chicago

  • Contributors:
  • Lyndon Stambler,
  • John Hannah,
  • Leah Eskin.