In Hollywood he's known as the fixer. For 20 years private investigator Anthony Pellicano has been a sleuth for hire to stars like Michael Jackson, Kevin Costner, Farrah Fawcett and others who either had something to find, something to hide or simply wanted to keep their private lives out of the headlines. "If you were somebody in L.A. and you were in trouble, this was the guy you would go to," says Pellicano's former wife Kat. "If whatever you were involved in didn't turn up in the [tabloids], then Anthony was doing his job."

Just how he did that job is now the subject of an FBI investigation that has become the talk of Hollywood. The trouble started last year, with a dead fish, a rose and a note that said "Stop" left on the windshield of a car belonging to a reporter for the Los Angeles Times who was investigating actor Steven Seagal and the Mob. After an informant linked Pellicano to that threat, police raided his Sunset Boulevard office on Nov. 21,2002, and found a cache of illegal weapons—including enough C-4 plastic explosives to down a jet—$200,000 in cash and voluminous computer files with records of his business dealings. Pellicano, 59, pleaded guilty to weapons charges on Oct. 9 and will spend up to 33 months in prison.

It doesn't end there. A federal grand jury is now investigating whether Pellicano illegally tapped phone conversations, possibly with the knowledge of celebrity clients and their high-powered attorneys. "Celebrities," says a friend of Pellicano's, not mincing words, "are s—- scared." Sources say the FBI is focusing much of its investigation on top entertainment lawyer Bert Fields, who often used Pellicano's services and whose clients have included Tom Cruise, George Harrison and John Travolta. "This whole thing is really aimed at Fields," says a source close to the investigation. "The U.S. attorney is out to get the big fish." Fields says he never authorized Pellicano to perform wiretaps, and the prosecutor
declined to discuss the case or Pellicano. Before reporting to jail on Nov. 17 to begin his sentence, Pellicano declared that his clients' secrets were safe. "I am not a rat, and I don't rat on a client," he told PEOPLE. "I am a stand-up guy."

A flashy dresser who likes to dine at L.A.'s old-style Italian eateries, Pellicano has an image that is part Tony Soprano, part Philip Marlowe. "He was the only man I ever met that could make a silk shirt look like polyester," says Kat, the fourth of his five wives, who had four children with him during their 18 years together. Rivals are just as cutting about his methods. "All he would do is intimidate," says private investigator Ernie Rizzo, who met him when both worked in Chicago in the early 1970s. L.A. lawyer Leslie Abramson, whose client had a business dispute with Pellicano, says the detective's undoing was only a matter of time: "He was a little man who tried to be a big man, and he tried to do it like they do in the movies—with braggadocio."

Pellicano may have learned something about that while growing up in Chicago's Cicero neighborhood, the one-time turf of Al Capone. After a stint in the Army, he worked under the name Tony Fortune, tracking down delinquent bill payers for the Spiegel catalog company before launching an investigation firm. He claimed that by the early 1980s he had found 4,000 missing persons. He first won national attention in 1977, when Elizabeth Taylor's ex-husband Mike Todd's bones were reported missing from a Forest Park, Ill., cemetery. As TV cameras rolled, Pellicano led police to the bones, which he had discovered-so he said-a few hundred feet from the grave.

His big break came in 1983, when attorney Howard Weitzman recruited him to Los Angeles, where Pellicano successfully dissected key recordings and helped undermine prosecution witnesses to win automaker John DeLorean's acquittal on drug-selling charges. Stars soon came knocking. Michael Jackson enlisted him to combat allegations that he had molested a young boy in 1993. Roseanne Barr paid him to hunt down a daughter she had given up for adoption 18 years earlier. "Celebrities hire him because they have the money to get the best," says Ed Masry, the lawyer who worked with Erin Brockovich and a former client of Pellicano's who was also interviewed by the FBI. "And he is very good."

Whether he's good enough to fend off the latest investigation remains to be seen. He headed to prison with his usual bravado, even getting married in Las Vegas—to Teresa DeLucio, 42, a night-club bartender-two days beforehand. "I'm going to jail with the attitude that I'm going to further educate myself," he told the Los Angeles Times. "And I hope to come out smarter than when I went in." This being Hollywood, he also has a few projects to keep him busy in his cell. Top of the list? A screenplay about the life of a private eye.

Thomas Fields-Meyer. Champ Clark and Frank Swertlow in Los Angeles and Sam Jemielity in Chicago

  • Contributors:
  • Champ Clark,
  • Frank Swertlow,
  • Sam Jemielity.