Did king of the gumshoes solve his own killing?

2 months ago 9

When Jack Palladino saw two men in a car behaving suspiciously outside his San Francisco home, he did what came instinctively to him: he grabbed his camera and rushed out to confront them.

Instead of fleeing, the man in the passenger seat tried to grab his camera but Palladino, who had it on a strap round his neck, refused to give it up. As the car accelerated away, the 76-year-old was dragged 40 feet down the road before the assailant finally let go.

Palladino fell backwards and struck his head on the pavement, suffering a brain injury so traumatic that he died four days later on Monday this week.

Palladino was America’s most notorious private eye and even managed to investigate his own death

But his attacker had tangled with the wrong guy. For Palladino was America’s most notorious private eye and, in the finest traditions of the service, had managed to snap pictures of the men in the car during the struggle. Police used them to track down the alleged culprits.

‘He investigated his own death,’ said his lawyer Mel Honowitz. ‘Those of us who knew Jack are mourning his death but chuckling that it is a fitting way for him to go.’

Ian Halperin was working on a book suggesting Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain was murdered, possibly at the behest of wife Courtney Love, when he received an unexpected visit from Palladino 

Well, some of them might be chuckling. Others will no doubt be secretly relieved at the passing of a private detective who would stop at nothing in his attempts to dig the dirt.

At the same time, his clients — many of them household names — have reason to be grateful to the muckraker they hired to thwart their foes and ensure that if any mud stuck, it was never on them.

However, the usual gushing eulogies for a deceased celebrity have been few and far between — most of Palladino’s clients preferring to keep quiet about knowing him.

In a 50-year career, the dapper detective with a flamboyant personality might one day have worked to get Bill Clinton off the hook over his womanising, and the next tried to silence the baseless claims singer Courtney Love helped kill her husband Kurt Cobain.

His clients — who also included Robin Williams, Kevin Costner, Don Johnson, Russell Crowe, Mariah Carey and Harvey Weinstein — paid handsomely and expected results.

Many wanted him to quash negative stories or discredit allegations. Through charm, guile and flat-out bullying, Palladino delivered.

Before his death Palladino had been wrapping up one final case before joining his wife and business partner of 40 years, Sandra Sutherland, in retirement.

Ironically, the long-lens camera that played such a central role in his demise had been the main tool of his trade.

While Palladino investigated murders, kidnappings and drug trafficking, he never believed in ‘packing heat’. Carrying a gun, he said, ‘makes you lazy, so you don’t look for more creative ways out of a situation’.

And as the ‘private eye to the stars’, Palladino certainly had to be creative.

Palladino’s heyday was the 1970s and 1980s — when American TV became obsessed with private eyes in series such as The Rockford Files, Hart To Hart, Cannon and Magnum.

By 1999, his celebrity was such that he played himself alongside Al Pacino and Russell Crowe in The Insider, a feature film about tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, who Palladino defended against industry attempts to smear him. Not without irony, 13 years later, Crowe was accused of using Palladino to smear one of his own enemies.

George Piggins, ex-chairman of an Australian rugby team the Kiwi actor was hoping to buy, said Palladino’s agency was recruited to ‘destroy me, my family and friends in their quest to privatise the club’.

In 1991, he was recruited by Robin Williams when the actor fought a $6.5 million lawsuit by a former lover accusing him of giving her herpes

He claimed Palladino’s people secretly photographed them in Sydney, tracked their calls and even went through their bins. Crowe’s business partner, Peter Holmes à Court, confirmed in court the actor had hired Palladino’s agency to surveil people opposing their takeover bid but only, he claimed, after Crowe had received a death threat.

By this time Palladino was a seasoned gumshoe. His career began in the early 1970s working for notable private eye Harry Lipset.

Lipset, an expert at electronic eavesdropping, was famous for once hiding a bug in a martini olive and provided the inspiration for Gene Hackman’s character, a surveillance expert, in the classic Francis Ford Coppola thriller The Conversation.

It was at Lipset’s agency that Palladino met the woman with whom he was to form a life-long double-act, his Australian-born wife Sandra.

The couple got together after meeting on a plane to New York where they were giving evidence in a trial resulting from one of Palladino’s first, and most dangerous, investigations.

Kevin Costner hired him to find the source of European newspaper stories containing ‘quotes’ from the actor in an interview that never happened

Both had gone undercover as inmates at Nassau County jail on Long Island to investigate criminal activity by the guards and Mafia-linked inmates. It resulted in charges against 22 guards and two Mafiosi.

In 1977, they married and formed Palladino & Sutherland, which hired them out at $35 an hour (around $150 today). Within two decades they were charging $300 an hour and earned enough to buy a second home in Tuscany and a hideaway in Mexico.

Sandra, the murder specialist, did the undercover work as it was hardly an option for Palladino, instantly recognisable with his bushy moustache, bald pate, 1970s-style Aviator sunglasses and garish wardrobe.

(He was so protective of his image, he once threatened to sue Newsweek magazine for saying he wore gold chains. But he didn’t quibble with its claim that he had a weakness for ‘loud ties and red-tassel loafers’.)

To avoid being tracked down by any hoodlums bent on retribution, they invited only trusted friends to their home, which was mortgaged under a bank’s name. The phone was listed under a pseudonym and they didn’t dare register to vote.

Although physically imposing, this Ivy League-educated son of a Sicilian-American plumber insisted he never once got into fisticuffs.

‘I don’t need fear and intimidation. I don’t beat people up,’ he once said defensively, adding that he’d also never gone up a ladder to peer through anyone’s bedroom window.

His modus operandi weren’t exactly rocket science, he made clear. ‘We talk to strangers and we get them to tell us their secrets, their fears and many things they never thought they’d be talking to strangers about.’

One of his early cases involved investigating the 1974 kidnapping of American heiress Patty Hearst by a group of Left-wing guerillas.

Palladino also had a leading role following the 1978 Jonestown Massacre, when 900 members of a cult, many American or European, were either murdered or committed suicide on the orders of their leader Jim Jones.

The private eye with counterculture sympathies spent seven years defending Larry Layton, one of Jones’s most senior lieutenants. It was not his finest hour: Layton was sentenced to 20 years, before being released on parole in 2002.

Palladino and his wife made much of their left-wing sympathies, taking on clients at discount rates who included the Anti-Vietnam War movement, the Black Panthers leader Huey Newton, and the Hells Angels. His investigations took him as far afield as Thailand and Guatemala.

As he and his wife’s reputation grew, they became a popular port of call for celebrities in a fix — and able to pay.

‘I am somebody you call in when the house is on fire, not when there’s smoke in the kitchen,’ he once said. ‘People call me because they are in a great deal of trouble, and sometimes in a great deal of pain.’

In 1991, he was recruited by Robin Williams when the actor fought a $6.5 million lawsuit by a former lover accusing him of giving her herpes.

During the trial, Palladino undermined her case by passing on information that she’d had unprotected sex with at least seven others.

In a 50-year career, the dapper detective with a flamboyant personality might one day have worked to get Bill Clinton off the hook over his womanising

The following year, Palladino started more sexual digging, this time on behalf of Bill Clinton, whose presidential bid was being jeopardised by a mountain of claims about sexual misconduct or affairs.

Palladino was paid more than $100,000 by the Clinton campaign to deal with a reported 26 women’s claims, earning him the unlovely nickname of ‘The President’s D***’ .

When cabaret singer Gennifer Flowers released tapes of phone calls with Clinton to back up her claim they’d had an affair, Palladino promised he would set out to impugn Ms Flowers’s ‘character and veracity until she is destroyed beyond all recognition’.

Whether he really believed it or not, he left no doubt that he was convinced she was lying but Clinton later admitted he had indeed had a relationship with Ms Flowers. By then, Palladino had scoured the U.S., interrogating anyone who could tell him her weaknesses.

Palladino always insisted he never used intimidation in his investigations but some targets beg to differ.

In 1996, writer Ian Halperin was working on a book suggesting Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain was murdered, possibly at the behest of wife Courtney Love, when he received an unexpected visit from Palladino at his Montreal home.

Palladino said he was working for Love — who denied the murder allegation — and lured him out for dinner in an expensive restaurant.

There, the detective asked to see the manuscript to ensure it was ‘accurate’. When Halperin refused, Palladino turned to ‘coercion’. He produced a dossier on Halperin’s life, even listing his ex-girlfriends.

‘He said he could make my life miserable [and would] go to any length to get the book suppressed,’ the writer recalled. Palladino handed his file to the local paper, hoping they might run something to embarrass Halperin.

Palladino’s doggedness made him a favourite of stars in need.

Kevin Costner hired him to find the source of European newspaper stories containing ‘quotes’ from the actor in an interview that never happened. Costner’s lawyer described Palladino as ‘very honest, imaginative, methodical, diligent — and expensive’.

And Mariah Carey took on Palladino to investigate her suspicions her former husband Tommy Mottola, ex-head of Sony Music, was trying to wreck her career. Mr Mottola insisted he wasn’t.

Other clients were more sinister. The singer R. Kelly recruited Palladino after he was charged in 2002 with videotaping himself having sex with an underage teenage girl.

Following Palladino’s six-year investigation, during which he allegedly tried to get any such videos off the streets, the detective challenged the main prosecution witness and the star was rapidly acquitted (although Kelly’s now behind bars for new sex offences).

As with Clinton’s female accusers, did Palladino genuinely believe Weinstein was innocent or simply that — as he liked to repeat — everyone deserved a fair trial? 

For a man who professed high principles, Palladino certainly picked some very dubious clients.

Perhaps the least reputable was Harvey Weinstein, who hired him in 2017 to provide dirt on women accusing him of sexual misconduct and journalists investigating him.

Palladino and a colleague reportedly created profiles of people, containing ‘information that could be used to undermine their credibility’. A report on Weinstein’s main accuser, actress Rose McGowan, ran to more than 100 pages and included sections titled ‘Hypocrisy’, ‘Potential Negative Character Witnesses’ and ‘Past Lovers’.

As with Clinton’s female accusers, did Palladino genuinely believe Weinstein was innocent or simply that — as he liked to repeat — everyone deserved a fair trial?

His widow has said he would have been delighted to have brought down his attackers with him. ‘He went out the way he would have liked,’ she said, ‘in a dramatic confrontation with the forces of evil.’

Sadly, his distinction between good and evil left something to be desired.

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