Producer: ‘Sin Eater’ doc is about powerful people bending the rules

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“Sin Eater: The Crimes of Anthony Pellicano” parts 1 and 2 are streaming on FX and Hulu. Video courtesy of YouTube.

New York Times Presents’ Rachel Abrams, senior producer, and Liz Day, executive producer of “Sin Eater: The Crimes of Anthony Pellicano” directed by John Pappas, discuss the two-part documentary. Pellicano was a well-known private eye in Hollywood in the 1990s who was hired by the rich and powerful. In his heyday, his client’s list included studio executives, lawyers and some big names in entertainment: Chris Rock, Michael Jackson, Don Simpson, to name a few. Pellicano was tasked with digging up dirt, covering up scandals and intimidating those who posed problems to his clientele. His operation eventually came to light, and he was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison for wiretapping, racketeering, conspiracy and wire fraud, and released in 2019. 

In this conversation with Kim Masters, Abrams and Day discuss the drive to make a series using exclusive private tapes from the notorious Hollywood “fixer,” some of the intimidation and invasion of privacy tactics he employed on his victims, and the criminal charges that led to his eventual downfall. 

Masters describes how she met Pellicano, and shares how she was also a possible victim of his illegal wiretapping operation. 

“Sin Eater: The Crimes of Anthony Pellicano” parts 1 and 2 are streaming on FX and Hulu. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Kim Masters: What was it that made you decide to look into Anthony Pellicano or do a piece about him, now?

Rachel Abrams: Variety had run a story back in 2021 for him as a fixer, and I think a few people at the time saw that and came up with the idea that he would make for a great documentary and in particular [at how] Pellicano represents the early 2000s. 

There are a lot of pieces of this story that felt really relevant to today: the story is fundamentally a very human story about powerful people who find ways to bend the rules to their advantage and get around the systems that the rest of us have to abide by. 

And while his techniques might be a bit analog, he involved a lot of the same problems that we're all discussing. We are still talking about police officers leaking confidential information to benefit powerful people in Los Angeles. I'm thinking about Les Moonves and the LAPD. We're still talking about invasion of privacy issues with reporters. There's a Wall Street Journal reporter [who’s] accused a prominent law firm of hiring hackers who broke into his email and basically got him fired. So it felt very much relevant to a lot of stuff that is in the news, and is very topical today. 

We were also curious about how some of the victims’ stories were told at the time, and whether they were taken seriously, whether Pellicano became the show, whether some of these victims’ stories were worth revisiting, and whether any of them had been prematurely dismissed or not taken seriously enough.

Kim Masters: I don't know that it was so clear who the victims were. 

Rachel Abrams: I think the victims were people who felt that they had their privacy invaded. Some of these people ended up being evidence that their privacy is baited, for instance, their phones were tapped, but other people only had suspicions, and a lot of the damage here is the psychological damage of knowing that perhaps there was evidence that your phone was tapped. Is somebody following you? Is somebody listening to you now? Is somebody sitting outside of your house and spying on you looking where you're going? I think a lot of the victims that spoke with us, and their attorneys would say that some of these people never got over the feeling of always having to look over [their] shoulder.

Kim Masters: When it really became a public thing, was when one of Pellicano’s “henchmen” was dispatched to intimidate Anita Busch, who was working on a story about Steven Seagal for the LA Times. Was that public at the time? Just remind me about that.

Rachel Abrams: With Anita Busch, she is probably the most well-known and devastating example because Alex Proctor was hired by Pellicano to intimidate. Pellicano would say he just hired him to stake out Anita’s house, but we know that there was basically a death threat left on her car, and the psychological damage that that might do to a person. How would you feel if you knew that had happened to you?

Kim Masters: I've actually many times asked myself how I would react if somebody left a dead fish and apparently shot a bullet through her windshield. I don't know, because [that] never happened [to me]. 

I do, however, suspect that I was wiretapped by Pellicano. At one point, I asked him and he denied it, but I’ll take that to the bank. This was during [when] we were working on the book “Hit and Run” about Sony's acquisition of Columbia Pictures and the hiring of John Peters and Peter Guber, which turned into a big fiasco for Sony. 

My phone started to make a lot of noise and people would say to me, “What is that noise?” And I would say, “I don't know. But if somebody wants to wiretap my phone and hear what people really think of these people are really telling us about them, have fun, because we're getting a lot of good stuff about John Peters and Peter Guber. I don't know how happy you're going to be hearing somebody give us a real off the record opinion that they would not necessarily say in public, but we could use in the book.” 

At one point, my editor at Vanity Fair said to me, “I'm really tired of this noise. I want you to have the phone swept and we'll pay for it. Just get it done.” And not unlike in your show where Diane Diamond – [who] was cleverer than I was -  really set a trap to show that he was tapping her phone. But when my editor did say that, the noise stopped immediately, and I never swapped it. 

Tell people how Diane Diamond set that trap for him.

Liz Day: So Diane Diamond, for people who aren't familiar with her, was an investigative reporter. She was working for Hard Copy back in the 90s and she really was at the vanguard of the Michael Jackson child sexual abuse allegation story, and while she was reporting that story, she started to suspect that her phones were tapped. As you describe, she often started hearing clicks and pops, and unusual things were happening where it felt like other people knew the contents of her phone conversations. 

So she devised a little plot, in which she had her husband call her, but pretend to be a source for a documentary. Her husband called and said, “I have some questions about the documentary that you're working on about Anthony Pellicano.” Then,  she said, “Oh, it's going great! I'm so excited for the documentary, but I gotta go.” And after she hung up the phone, a few minutes later, she got a call from a lawyer at the production company that made Hard Copy, and they said, “Are you working on a documentary about Anthony Pellicano?” And she said, “What are you talking about?” And they said, “We just got a call from Howard Weitzman 's office saying you're working on one. And she said, “I knew it. That was proof that I was being tapped. How else would anyone you know, even think that we were making a documentary about Anthony Pellicano?” 

I believe she never was able to get hard proof in the form of admission from Pellicano that she was wiretapped, but because of that plot, and she also had had an incident where AT&T, or someone from the phone company, had also seen some suspicious wires, [so] she thought she was wiretapped by him.

Kim Masters: I can't quite remember when I met Pellicano, but he was very much a thing of the moment. I remember producer Don Simpson, who was definitely a Pellicano guy, told me once, when I annoyed him in some way: “I'm going to have Pellicano look into you, and you're not going to like it.” And I said, “Well, I'm pretty boring, Don, so it's not going to be too rewarding.” And he said, this line that I have never forgotten, which is, “It's not what we'll find, but how we will make it look.” 

Rachel Abrams: Wow, we should have interviewed you for the documentary.

Kim Masters: When I first started interacting with Pellicano he was so theatrical about himself and using such kind of central casting, hardboiled detective guy and investigator that I didn't take him that seriously. I thought, “This is like a joke.” And I actually remember talking to [actor] Warren Beatty about Pellicano and saying, “How do you even think this guy is for real? He's so theatrical.” And I remember Warren Beatty saying, “Well, he is rather self-dramatizing.” Which is true. 

And then, it comes to light that he is not just this comedic figure. I only found out once the authorities got involved, [he was] much more dangerous than I’d imagined.

Rachel Abrams: Yes, definitely. John Connolly, who was a reporter for Vanity Fair, made an excellent point in one of his articles: basically these people that hired him [did so] because he looked like the detective that would be played on TV. They thought that he knew what he was doing, because he seemed as [if] he was coming straight from central casting. They thought, “Well, he must know what he's doing.” 

But I think a lot of normal people or people that have any experience with legitimate private investigators, or law enforcement, looked at him and were like, “This guy seems like a buffoon. This is not the way that a legitimate, responsible, private investigator would comport themselves.” 

I think that there was a big divide among his potential consumers. There were the people who were entranced by him and felt that his swagger certainly must have meant something. And then there were the people who were immediately turned off and thought, “How could anybody buy what this guy is selling?”

Kim Masters: But then I heard stories [and] I had some conversation with him where he said something to the effect of, “Bad things happen to little girls who put their noses where they don't belong.” There's always that thing with Pellicano stuff where it's implied that something terrible is going to happen. The fear, he just nurtured fear in people to achieve his ends. 

Rachel Abrams: To your point, the looming specter of threats and intimidation, and the question of how far this guy would go to hurt you, that was part of his power, for sure. 

Kim Masters: There's a point in the show where he says something like, “Oh, honey, did I do anything illegal? Of course I did.” And I think of when Don Simpson, the producer, died. Don had a lot of drug issues. I was doing a piece for Vanity Fair, and I talked to Pellicano, and he told me on the record that he had gone to Don's house and cleaned the place before the cops got there. 

It was so striking to me that I kept waiting for him to say, “That's off the record.” He was so confident and connected with somebody in the police department. You have people who got in trouble for helping him that he didn't go off the record. You just acknowledged that, and I thought “That is incredible. That's a crime.”

Rachel Abrams: After he got arrested, did you see that as a sign of how he had really ingratiated himself with law enforcement or did it strike you is really reckless the kind of reckless behavior that led to him serving such a long prison sentence?

Kim Masters: Honestly, what I thought was that he must have done something that took the police department, and I don't want to smear the whole LAPD, but I thought he did something, crossed a line, and I think maybe it was the Anita Busch thing. 

I can't quite be sure of the timing, but that he did something where he was no longer tolerated. The same thing happened in a way with Heidi Fleiss, the madam. She was not being hassled until she was, and I thought, “Maybe when you get a little out of hand, the police say that's enough.”

Rachel Abrams: That's a really interesting theory.

Liz Day: One additional thing that makes me think of is I believe Anthony [Pellicano] had told us, “I used to do so much for the cops.” And, to the degree, we couldn’t fact check how much of that was true, but I think it is likely that he would do a lot for the police department: pass along tips or help them out in certain ways. And I think that might have created a coziness, which took a while for him to be prosecuted for doing illegal things.

Kim Masters: How is it that they claimed the cops couldn't decrypt some of the tapes from the phone tapping? But couldn't the FBI do that? I never quite believed that.

Rachel Abrams: That is a really good question. I think the people involved in the case might tell you, “Look, if this had been priority number one national security, if we had given this over to the NSA, would they have been able to decrypt this? Maybe. But this was largely seen as a Hollywood story, which as we all know, a lot of mainstream news outlets and a lot of parts of society maybe take Hollywood stories less seriously than they should. 

And so the impression I got from talking to people, was that there was some thinking that if the entire weight of the justice system had actually been put behind trying to get into these things, maybe they could have, but this was about those celebrity people. It's not worth massive government resources. I think there were two prosecutors on this thing.

Liz Day: Additionally, many files were encrypted. I think that Pellicano told us himself that he didn't record many of his most important clients, so by design, he set it up [so] that there wouldn't be evidence. And he also told us, he stored the wiretap calls themselves. 

What you hear in the documentary of his calls with his clients, as opposed to the wiretap calls between a client and their wife or whatever. He did not store them in his office, so they were never seized by the government. He claims that they no longer exist. Whether or not that's true, we don't know. But he also talked about destroying warehouses full of evidence. So it almost seems like it was luck that the government was able to go after him and the people that they were able to go after. 

And are they really going to try to go after these really prominent people with really powerful, expensive attorneys, if they're not sure they can win that case?

Kim Masters: That's how things work, right? Privilege is privilege, and these people were all very wealthy and could litigate the government into the ground. 

Then, of course, [Pellicano] takes great pride in the omertà that you don't rat and one of the mysteries you touch on is whether the people who walked away with no damage somehow put money into an account or gave money to the family, and made it, in some way, tolerable and worth his while. Obviously it would be against his self image of what is honorable, to say anything and turn as a witness against the people who used him. But he didn't. And that question lingers, right?

Rachel Abrams: Absolutely. That is a question that of course does linger. I think that a lot of intelligent people are asking, “There must be other charities besides Anthony Pellicano,” as one of the FBI agents in our film puts it. 

In our film, one of the things that I think viewers will find really interesting [is] we got access to this treasure trove of recordings, where you have in many instances, very rich, powerful people saying things that they probably would prefer did not become public, not necessarily because they're committing crimes, but just because it's a window into how powerful people operate when they think nobody is looking at what they think they can get away with. 

So I think our audience is going to have to listen to some of these recordings with people like Chris Rock, or Marty Singer, or whoever, and come to their own conclusions based on what he himself is saying about whether they think people should have been held more responsible than they ultimately were.

Kim Masters: Seems like you had so much more material, could have gone more than two episodes, but didn't. You've been talking about things just in this interview that would have been fascinating.

Rachel Abrams: If anybody wants to give us a third episode, hey, listen, we got plenty! 

Kim Masters: I bet you do. 




Kim Masters


Joshua Farnham