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The Hustler, the Heiress, and the Soft-Porn King
The video is stark and grainy, its color garish, almost fluorescent, from one too many generations of unauthorized copying. A figure lies facedown on a bed, his eyes glassy, his mouth puddled in a stuporous grin, his pants pulled down around his ankles. There is a remote-controlled, multi-pronged pink vibrator resting along the crest of his buttocks, lazily whirring in a clockwise motion, like a rotating finger. A whip-pan stage left shows a driver's license pinned to a wall -- a subtle parody of the countlessb porn ingénues forced to comply with Title 18, Section 2257 of the U.S. Code, the federal record-keeping law passed in the wake of the Traci Lords scandal to make sure the adult film industry stays that way. Except nobody here is acting brazen or flirty or petulant or even just the slightest bit naughty. It's more like one of those hostage videos from war-ravaged Iraq, its subject disheveled, sleep deprived, and, just maybe, fearing something on the order of a live, onâ??camera beheading.
"My name is Joe Francis," he says over and over in a damaged monotone. "I'm from Boys Gone Wild, and I like it up the ass."
This blockbuster video, which you cannot buy through late-night TV ads or a vanity Web site, was to have been the centerpiece of what was shaping up to be the first Trial of the Century, an O.J.-size opus for the porn-drenched, fame-addled, meta-logical, proto-YouTube generation, slated for Los Angeles Superior Court in late February 2006. Police say Darnell Riley, now thirty-one, a Hollywood strong-arm enforcer, rough-trade Lothario, and now convicted burglar with an apparenttaste for the good life, which he was willing to cultivate by any means necessary, planned to sell the tape back to Francis, thirty-five, the Girls Gone Wild impresario who parlayed a privileged Laguna Beach upbringing into a $100 million empire of ersatz sleaze -- who for once would be playing the victim. The twist -- the hook, as they like to say in Hollywood -- is that the missing link in the case, in fact the Junior Gâ??Girl whose phone call to police provided them with probable cause to execute a search warrant on Riley's Hollywood apartment, was none other than accidental porn star and heiress aberrant Paris Hilton, the most famous reality-TV star in the history of the world. (Francis says they "dated"; Hilton begs to differ.)
Or at least that was how I spun it in my feature article in the November 2005 issue of Radar magazine titled "The Hustler, the Heiress and the Soft-Porn King."
In the early morning hours of January 22, 2004, Francis returned home from a nightclub to his tony Bel Air mansion to discover the door unlocked, the houselights on, and a masked, light-skinned black man selectively placing his possessions into a Louis Vuitton valise "like he was on a shopping spree." Francis, soft and doughy, quickly dissolved into tears, while the diminutive intruder held him at gunpoint for more than six hours, all the while talking to someone at the other end of a two-way radio. According to Francis's police statement, after walking him from room to room looking for a safe, Riley removed a Sony DV camera and pink sex toy from a Nike backpack in what was obviously a premeditated act, telling his victim, "Don't get me wrong, I'm not a faggot," and forced him into a makeshift porn audition tape, for which Riley attempted to extort upward of $500,000 in ten subsequent phone calls over the next six months. As dawn broke over the serpentine hills, the terrified Francis was eventually bound with black zip-ties covered with duct tape and forced into the back of his Bentley GT, which his assailant(s) left at the bottom of the canyon. (Francis's Ferrari and Bentley, parked in the garage, can be glimpsed at the tail end of the handheld tape, and a woman's voice heard faintly in the background.) Francis claimed he was robbed of personal property totaling $300,000, although in court records, Riley's attorney, Ron Richards, put the figure at $14,800 -- a Rolex, a Sony video camera, a Picasso print worth $1,000, two pieces of Louis Vuitton luggage -- and $15,000 in cash.
For the thousands of women who may have confused sexual empowerment with an alcohol-fueled lack of judgment when importuned to "show us your tits," Joe Francis's comeuppance at the hands of a twirling pink sex aid may seem like nothing short of poetic justice. Before his incarceration for contempt of court related to his legal troubles in Florida (and subsequent extradition to Nevada on tax fraud charges, which may have circuitously resulted from the preliminary hearing in the Riley case), Francis seemed to attract unwanted lawsuits and unwanted attention from the authorities on a more or less constant basis. At one time, he faced seventy separate charges stemming from spring break 2003 in Panama City Beach, Florida, when the mother of an underage girl claimed her daughter and three friends had been coerced by Francis and his professional entourage to appear naked and engage in sexual acts on camera, and to lie about their age. Francis was charged with racketeering related to prostitution, drug trafficking, and child pornography, and his private jet was briefly confiscated. The racketeering and drug trafficking charges were dismissed in November of that year when a judge ruled the hydrocodone and oxycodone pills seized in a raid on his rented condo were prescription medications.
At the time of the break-in, rape charges by two women, one a minor, had just been dismissed against Francis in a murky scenario in which he wore a wire in a meeting with opposing counsel, allegedly at the behest of the FBI, to prove charges of extortion. And in April 2004, just three months later, a Texas college student claimed Francis drugged and raped her in a Miami Beach hotel room. Francis responded by claiming the sex was consensual, and that the woman and a friend stayed through lunch, which they ordered up from room service the next day. The investigation was soon dropped, and Francis in turn filed suit against the woman for $25,000,036 -- the fractional amount to compensate for the price of the lunch. (That case has also been dismissed.) In fact, one anecdote then making the rounds in Hollywood circles was that actor Erik Palladino, who starred on ER from 1999 to 2001 and bears a striking resemblance to Francis, was constantly getting punched by irate women in nightclubs who mistook him for the amateur porn kingpin.
When police finally raided Riley's apartment on March 28, 2005, some fifteen months after the break-in, they discovered a VHS copy of the Joe Francis videotape (not the original) and numerous Girls Gone Wild master tapes, one of the Louis Vuitton bags (with an Oahu sticker on it from Riley's recent trip to Hawaii), and five handguns -- one of which belonged to restaurateur Dipu Haque, coâ??owner of Koi, where the Hilton sisters were regulars, and another belonging to horror filmmaker Wes Craven. Police also found a Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun propped behind the door and, reportedly, sticks of dynamite. Riley was charged with two counts of first-degree residential burglary, two counts of kidnapping, and one count each of carjacking and attempted extortion -- all felony charges; the kidnapping counts alone each punishable by life imprisonment. (Weapons charges were never filed, although the guns were not returned to him.) Bail was set at $1,050,000.
Understandably, the tabloids had a field day. With his name now connected to not one but two high-profile hillside burglaries (Joe Francis in Bel Air and the August 2004 burglary at the Hilton sisters' Hollywood Hills home that produced the fourteen hours of Paris Hilton footage), it was a short step to connecting Darnell Riley to the infamous Bel Air Burglar, thought to be responsible for some two hundred heists among Los Angeles's rich and famous zip codes, even if the prime suspect was already a middle-aged white guy captured on surveillance footage (he was later apprehended). The Globe speculated the Burglar was actually a ring that used an Elite model to gain access codes to the well-appointed addresses of credulous millionaires. A source in the Francis camp identified her to me as "lingerie model" Erin Naas, who appeared in (but did not actually pose for) the September 2004 issue of Playboy and who dated Francis in late 2003. In an eâ??mail, Riley's lawyer Richards claimed his client was also friendly with Naas, which explains how his fingerprints were reportedly discovered in Francis's Bentley, which Naas borrowed on occasion. (Naas denies being involved with any burglary.)
After Riley's arrest, the New York Post reported that Riley was blackmailing Paris Hilton for $20,000 a month to keep her stolen videotapes off the market. None other than Joe Francis claimed to have seen the tapes, and that their release would "ruin her career." Hilton told the Post's Page Six, "Anyone who blackmails should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law." In an eâ??mail responding to my questions, Richards attempted to clarify the matter: "[Riley] recovered the tape from someone trying to sell it to Rick Salomon [on the strength of his 1 Night in Paris tape]. That person knew Darnell and knew that Darnell knew Rick, so he contacted Darnell to get the tapes back to Rick...to give them to Paris Hilton." In the same eâ??mail, Richards claimed that "Darnell was sexually intimate with Nicole Richie,"Hilton's costar in The Simple Life. Speaking from the red carpet at the Video Music Awards in Los Angeles, Richie answered, "I have never met that person in my life. I know he said that crap before, and he needs to stop lying."
Yet for someone accused of multiple felonies, Riley's career path wasn't all that different from all the other eager young hopefuls who show up in Hollywood looking to trade upward on their good looks, innate charms, and sexual prowess: he worked as an extra in films, went to the right parties, and rubbed elbows with an Aâ??list crowd he thought could help him achieve his outsize goals. And when times got hard, he did things he may have regretted later.
According to a blind quote added to my story after I filed it, "a source close to Hilton" said, "Darnell knows some models and was on the fringes of that scene, but has no intimate contact with Paris, Nicole Richie, or Joe. If Paris had his number, it was some sort of business arrangement due to the tape." But in his eâ??mail, Richards said that he had a statement from Paris that read, "Darnell is a friend of mine and he never robbed me." In fact, even though Francis denied knowing Riley, Richards claimed the two had business between them. His client had attended a Halloween party in 2003 at the Francis home (actually held at a separate location). Richards also claimed that Riley had been hired to humiliate Joe Francis by the father of a young woman, and that Riley was negotiating a settlement with musician Stevie Wonder, on whose property he allegedly tripped and fell the same month he was arrested. And just to spice things up, Riley was reportedly prepared to testify, as a cornerstone of his defense, that he was having a sexual relationship with Francis, and that the bizarre Joe Francis vibrator tape was a consensual act.
While researching the Radar story, I got a tip from one of my sources -- a Teamster -- urging me to talk to a guy named Alex Vaysfeld, a Russian boxing manager/promoter, bail bondsman, and self-styled bounty hunter who was a regular at Hollywood Gym at Hollywood and La Brea.
Vaysfeld is a Russian immigrant who came to this country with $120 in his pocket and a handiness with his fists, which he managed to parlay into a brief boxing career as a 147-pound welterweight before starting Union Bail Bonds, his Los Angeles-based national bail bond chain. Compact and pugnacious, a Jew who answers his phone "Hey, Jewboy!", he still keeps his hand in the sweet science by managing professional boxers on the side, like the light heavyweight champion Roman "Made in Hell" Karmazin. It was at Hollywood Boxing where he met Riley, who used to hang around the gym, training and sparring with the pros in the hopes of trading body shots with some of the celebrity clientele, which included Mickey Rourke, Pauly Shore, John Stamos, Denzel Washington, and the Wayans brothers. Despite his slight build -- five feet eight and 165 pounds, with almost delicate features -- Riley had something Vaysfeld may have recognized in himself, something the fight world calls heart, that would routinely see him hold his own against opponents who were out of his weight class or who had inches on him in reach. He's also not a man to mince words.
"Don't let Darnell's looks and stature fool you," says Vaysfeld. "He'd do collections work for some powerful people who didn't want to get their hands dirty. He referred clients to me. I deal with these fucking niggers day in, day out -- he was a hustler but Darnell was faithful. Most of them think everybody owes them. He got educated in jail. He was good with computers, and when he got out, he started trading on the stock market. He did it well. Darnell was fascinated with glamour and all the Hollywood bullshit. He thought he would make it up the ladder in Hollywood somehow, but he was criminally minded. I tried to mentor him. Some days, he'd come to me and say, 'I'm so fucking broke I'm ready to knock off a 7-Eleven.' I'd toss him a hundred dollars every now and then."
Such was his appearance and demeanor that someone at the gym who said he knew Riley could still claim, "I honestly thought he was a successful young businessman."
Vaysfeld also further clouded the chain of provenance by introducing a third mysterious figure into the Paris Hilton /Joe Francis phone call that fingered Riley.
"Darnell had a celebrity confidant who will go unnamed," he says. "We'll call him 'Will.' Will and Darnell were good friends. Will was drunk one night and he told Paris Hilton about what went down with Darnell and Joe Francis. Darnell claims he was banging Paris and her sister, Nicky, before all this went down. [I think he means Nicole Richie.] Paris, who believes she was robbed by Darnell earlier, went to Francis and said, 'I know who hit you.' Francis picked Darnell from a photo lineup. Now the kid's life is completely screwed up. We probably won't see him for ten years. Last time we talked, he said he was willing to make a deal and take the extortion charge. In many ways, he was a fall guy."
Before I left, Vaysfeld told me one more story, one that I didn't put in the Radar article. At the time, it was too explosive for even me to go out on a limb for, and I only had the one source. Later, after an article ran in an August 2006 edition of the Los Angeles Times' West magazine where reporter Claire Hoffman described being slammed onto the hood of a car by a near-psychotic Francis attempting to demonstrate his treatment at the hands of Miami police, I changed my mind and dumped the whole thing on my Web site.
Through his contacts in Russia, Vaysfeld is a partner in the popular Moscow nightclub, Night Flight, known as a home base for expensive prostitutes. It was there that he met Francis and his entourage several years ago, presumably there on a fact-finding mission to gauge the relative wildness of girls behind the former Iron Curtain.
"Francis was staying at the luxury hotel Balchug in an eight-hundred-dollar-a-night suite with some friends," recalls Vaysfeld. "At the club, he said he wanted girls. I said, 'How many girls do you want?' and he said, 'As many as I can handle.' My club is one of the biggest pickup joints in Moscow, so that was easy. I got him five girls -- my treat. I came to his hotel suite with them, and he and his buddies were popping Viagra like crazy. They were banging the girls -- flip-flopping with them -- and videotaping the sex. Then Joe asks me for some X [Ecstasy]. He banged all five of the girls, then he said, 'You know what I really want -- right now?' I said, 'I gave you girls, dope -- what else do you want?' He said, 'I want a twelve-year-old to fuck.' That's where I jumped off. Joe Francis is a sick piece of shit -- a pedophile.
"I split, and later that night I got a call from Francis's hotel. He was on the phone telling me, 'My friend's money is gone. It was about three thousand dollars.' He was trying to accuse me of ripping his friend off! Obviously, I did no such thing. I fart three thousand dollars. But when I got back to Los Angeles, my friend the actor Mario Lopez told me that Francis was telling people that I stole money from him. Mario warned me, 'He's gonna put people on you.' "
Asked if he was worried about a powerful millionaire like Francis carrying a vendetta against him, Vaysfeld just laughs. "They never get to me," he says. "I get to them first. I'm licensed to carry a gun. If I see him or any of his people following me, he's liable to get shot and die. I know that prick is under indictment for things like rape and pedophilia. The second he brought up the twelve-year-old, he was finished with me. Now, I will tell everyone he's a pedophile."
I also tracked down Riley's mother, Azline Hibler, who was just then using the name Azline Washington. In fact, she had a whole host of aliases she revolved between -- Washington, Hibler, North, Cox, Perez -- collected through numerous marriages and inhabiting a police record that included embezzlement and numerous claims of domestic violence. Washington agreed to meet me at a Denny's in Palmdale, California, a dusty watering hole in the high desert noted for its Joshua trees and meth labs. She arrived early in a gold Cadillac Escalade and immediately ordered a steak. A large woman with a robust appetite who has studied the law and done paralegal work, in addition to working as a Hollywood extra, Washington chose to open the conversation by noting, "My son is facing the possibility of life without parole and there wasn't a bruise on Joe Francis's body." She systematically discounts most of the stories swirling around her son as so much urban legend. "Darnell wants it known, 'I may be a lot of things, but I'm not the Bel Air Burglar,' " she states emphatically.
As to charges that he was blackmailing Paris Hilton for compromising videotapes, Washington claims her son was a frequent guest in the Hilton home.
"My son was with the Hiltons a week before his arrest," she says. "If he was extorting her, what was he doing at a function at the Hilton family home?" Besides, she says, "My son and I are very close. If he was getting twenty thousand a month from Paris Hilton, I would know about it. When he has had money, he's always helped me out. Whatever he had from Paris Hilton, she gave it to him."
Washington claims she has five other children, one of whom was shot in a still unsolved murder. She describes Darnell as a polite kid who got his associate in arts degree and a culinary certificate while incarcerated, and who has turned his life around since he got out.
"I'm not saying he's one hundred percent innocent," she says. "But if there's a tape out there with her saying the N word -- what's up with her? The reason these people are setting Darnell up is because there are tapes of Paris saying 'nigger' and having sex, and things about underage girls and boys and Joe Francis that may get out. A lot of people caught up in that Hollywood scene are cowards. I want him to come home and finish his life and give me a grandchild."
At a preliminary hearing in August 2005, Riley was brought into court in a regulation-blue county jumpsuit and sat quietly at the defense table, asking occasional questions in a barely discernible voice. His close-cropped hair and the thick beard beginning at his sideburns still couldn't obscure his Roman nose, Arabic or Hispanic features, olive skin, and piercing brown eyes set in thick palm-frond lashes, nor the implacable calm and extreme confidence that reportedly served him well in Youth Authority. This is the prison system for minors where Riley served a six-year bid from ages fifteen to twenty-two for a double homicide, the details of which were sealed by court order. Richards emphasized that his client had no prior adult record, but then, in all fairness, he hadn't had much time to acquire one.
Outside the L.A. County courthouse after the hearing, I blindsided Richards and asked him to let me see the infamous videotape -- mostly in jest. Instead, he told me to meet him at his office at the Sierra Towers, a multistory mostly residential building that anchors the western end of the Sunset Strip. There, he screened the forty-five-second clip for me, as well as some of the Girls Gone Wild master tapes confiscated from Riley's apartment, which showed Francis barking orders at a bevy of volunteer models like somebody's dad coaching girls' softball, and at the end, manually stimulating one of them to his professional satisfaction.
Richards most resembles a Jewish Fred Flintstone -- slimmer, but with soft jowls and a pronounced beard line -- and his bespoke suits and wire-framed glasses make him look like he's still chasing the dream of Miami Vice from the mid-eighties. He has represented a number of high-profile clients, including John Rutter, the photographer accused of attempting to illegally sell topless photos of Cameron Diaz, and John Gordon Jones, the soâ??called Limousine Rapist, acquitted in 2001 of drugging and date-raping a series of women he met at nightclubs. Richards also specialized in Ecstasy cases -- at least according to his Web site -- and more recently served as an onâ??air legal analyst for NBC in the Michael Jackson trial.
"I tend to represent underdogs and rougher clients," Richards tells me. "They're more interesting and more colorful. By and large, celebrities are prima donnas. With Darnell, the business model is that a lot of people know him in town and feel favorably toward him, whether out of fear or respect, and so I get kudos by defending him. And then, just so many people hate Joe Francis...He's a pedophile scumbag."
However, he bristled at the suggestion, made in the National Enquirer, that he had marketed the Paris Hilton videotapes in partnership with Riley.
"I would never go into business with Darnell Riley," he states categorically. "Think how insane that is."
The other shoe finally dropped on why Richards was being so accommodating to me at the next court hearing, held September 14, 2005, the Honorable Marcelita V. Haynes presiding. Haynes is an intimidating African-American woman in her forties or fifties who rules her courtroom with an iron hand, and you were free to talk to it all you wanted. She wore reading glasses on a chain and stared down over the top of them imperiously, as if from a great height, and with Richards refusing to bring his client out due to a beef with my photographer, she was the one thing I had to look forward to. At an earlier hearing, when a gang-banger in a wheelchair tried to bargain her down on some legal point, she told him, "You remember what you told me the last time you were here? You said if it weren't for people like you, I wouldn't have a job. Now, you want to go back there again?" He quietly shook his head no. Another time, after she had to separate the attorneys like a boxing referee, she turned to me in an aside and said, "I don't want you magazine folks to get the wrong idea -- I'm shy and retiring."
Richards and Deputy District Attorney Hoon Chun were in the midst of one of their endless procedural squabbles over whether to enter the video in the court record -- thereby making it accessible to the media in attendance but ostensibly violating the rights of the victim. All had agreed to table the matter for the time being -- or thought they had.
"Doesn't the defense get to respond to this?" Richards asked after one particularly brutal exchange.
"I'll tell you what, you run the show and I'll sit here," said Haynes.
Finally given the floor, Richards began his argument, then motioned me to the railing. Raising the videotape to make some point, he turned and handed it to me. I heard the judge scream "No!" but I kept my eyes on the bailiff, who had dropped to a crouch and was deliberating whether he should shoot me just to be safe.
"I was given this tape with no order," Richards said. "I wanted him -- the media -- to have standing to litigate the issue."
"Would you please return that to him?" Haynes instructed me. I handed the tape back to Richards. "So now you've made a whole other issue that I have to deal with. You did it underhandedly, in open court, in a very dishonorable way in my opinion. It's exactly the opposite of what I ordered you not to do. I'm just aghast."
After my story ran, a couple of things happened. One is that a guy named Rich Jardine eâ??mailed me and told me to take a look at a Web site called "WhoIsWillWright.com" (since taken down). Jardine was the CEO of an advertising company called Clear Media in Beverly Hills that had shown up in the Joe Francis police report as one of half a dozen burglaries to which Riley might be connected. He was also, I would find out later, the owner of Beverly Hills Bookie, an online sportsbook gambling site Darnell did collections for and claimed to have equity in; Wright's one-time best friend and the author of the WhoIsWillWright.com site; and a confidential informant who told the LAPD, "I was with Will when I got robbed and he actually sold my stolen paintings back to me!" Inside, beside a photo of a skinny white kid with a wandering eye in bâ??boy drag (Nike sweatshirt, gold chains, a hoodie that read "Don't Ask Me 4 Shit") with the caption "Will Wright: Compulsive Liar," I found the scarcely believable story of a Washington State pot dealer with a manic spiel who had bum-rushed Hollywood with the best of them.
According to his personal mythology, conveniently collected in would-be press releases for a proposed film based on his life, to be directed by Joe Carnahan (Narc, Smokin' Aces) and financed by FilmEngine, an L.A.-based film production company just then flush with cash, Wright was an academic prodigy and star high school athlete who was scouted by the Seattle Mariners, and who at seventeen managed to build a $70 million drug empire in the Pacific Northwest before serving nine years in prison. But from the story painstakingly laid out in legal documents pertaining to his Washington court case, as well as comments from victims of his numerous instances of alleged fraud, Wright is revealed as a pathological liar who forged documents to prove his storied exploits and made Sammy Glick look like a weekend warrior.
Wright was introduced to young Hollywood society -- people like Paris Hilton and Brandon Davis -- by exâ??girlfriend Kristen Williams, an aspiring model-actress, who in a heartfelt mea culpa on the Web site maintains that Wright convinced her to sell the engagement ring given to her by former fiancé and convicted Ecstasy dealer Louis Ziskin, worth $250,000, for which she received $90,000. Wright claimed to be investing the money for her in a series of commercial ventures, all confirmed by financial documents. In reality, she says he created the documents in Photoshop and used the money to charter private jets, pay hookers, and buy bottles of Cristal champagne and expensive gifts for the celebrities and wealthy elite he sought to impress and emulate.
"He was very charming and knew the right things to say," she says in her statement. His last communication with her was a threatening text message on the eve of her first interview with me; it read, "Darnell is going to be out sooner than you think."
In court documents, Joe Francis identified Wright as the voice at the other end of the walkie-talkie Riley held the night of the home invasion, and Wright also emerged as the hypothetical "Will" who Vaysfeld said had dropped a bug in Paris Hilton's ear. Coincidentally, his lawyer was Ron Richards. I eventually condensed much of this into a story for my Web site Hollywood, Interrupted ("How a Cast of Royal Screwups Took Down Aâ??List Hollywood," April 2006) that later became the basis for "The Paris Hilton Tapes" episode of NBC's Dateline, where I appeared on camera as a reporter and served as a consultant for the story.
I was even contacted by a drug dealer named Rick Doremus, better known as "Nas" or "Shrek" (between the metal plate in his head and his years of rough-and-tumble in the drug trade, he really does bear a disturbing resemblance to the affable green ogre), who said he could tell me more about Will Wright than I would ever want to know. Doremus had his own epic tale -- not the least part of which involved his recent career change as an undercover agent for the Drug Enforcement Agency, which he judiciously employed to settle unresolved scores from his days in the life -- and I later profiled him in Maxim ("Rat," April 2007). Also from Washington State, he could tie Wright heavily into the drug trade.
VH1 called and told me they were doing a documentary on "Hollywood Blackmail," and they wanted to make the Joe Francis story the centerpiece. They sent out a producer in his late twenties and we scheduled one full day of interviews, starting with Ron Richards at his office. We staged on the sidewalk outside, where I told him, "This is going to get hairy." When we walked off the elevator into Richards's apartment-cum-office with our camera crew, a figure suddenly emerged from around the corner in the kitchen who I recognized as Will Wright -- shaved head, shorts, and a Tâ??shirt -- working it to look menacing. I said to my producer, "This is a setup."
So I immediately went on the offensive. I said, "Will, what are you doing here?"
Ron answered, "He's my client."
"Who are your sources?" Will said, swaggering up to me.
I told him, "I'm here to interview your lawyer; I'm not going to get into who my sources are. But if you want to go on camera, I'll interview you right now."
He said, "Naw, I'm not really a TV guy. And besides, I'm on federal probation; I can't do any interviews."
Bullshit. I said, "I've interviewed plenty of people on probation. It's your constitutional right." He pressed me for my sources again, and I told him they were none of his business.
"Well, then you're a punk-ass bitch," he said, squaring off. I could see Richards over his shoulder, and it became clear he was trying to bait me. I just laughed at him. The producer looked shell-shocked, or at least like this was above his pay grade. When we finally got Richards on camera, he declared that Wright had nothing to do with the Joe Francis break-in, and if we reported anything to the contrary, he would sue us.
Outside, waiting for the valet, Wright switched into his "charming" mode. He volunteered that they were making a movie of his life, and that Joe Carnahan would direct. "Oh yeah?" I told him. "Joe Carnahan's a friend of mine." He dropped the subject. When I mentioned I was going to New York, he told me he kept a place there. I could see that upstairs, he was the cornered rat lashing out; down here he was just the "successful businessman," waiting for his slate-gray Escalade, on the way to his next meeting.
When it became clear that the talking heads out here came with their own threat level, VH1 asked me to conduct the Joe Francis interview myself. At his sleek Mantra Films offices at the high-end Water Garden in Santa Monica, a seventeen-acre complex with Versailles-styled fountains and a man-made lake, Francis sat down in front of a black backdrop in a corner of the shipping and receiving bay and described his ordeal. On camera, his eyes kept wandering all over the place, and I had to keep reminding him to focus on me. After the interview, as he reclined at his massive desk, framed against a row of three or four Andy Warhol dollar bill canvases, I mentioned that I had written the Radar article. Suddenly, he was on his feet and swearing up a blue streak.
"Motherfucker, I can't believe you did that!" he yelled into my face. "You cost me the cover of Architectural Digest! I was looking for a way to sue you guys." His publicist froze. I told him to calm down. "Fuck me once, it's on me; fuck me twice, it's on you," he said, his voice a threatening growl. Or at least I think that's what he said. His whole demeanor was totally erratic -- he was up and down, his eyes kept shooting off; he was prone to fits of anger one minute and then making up with you like he was your best friend the next.
For the Dateline special ("The Paris Hilton Tapes," broadcast September 23, 2006, on NBC), they put me on camera and again I wrangled some interviews for them. We filmed Will Wright's exâ??girlfriend Kristen Williams and her friend Heather Bernardcyck, who had flown in from Las Vegas, at Kristen's Sunset Plaza apartment. This is the same complex where Kristen had lived with Will Wright; where Erin Naas had lived (Will moved in with her when he lost his own apartment, and then both were evicted Christmas 2004 when Will threw furniture off the balcony); where nightclub manager Timmy Iannello "was over so much he pretty much lived there"; where club promoter Chuck Pacheco had lived and shared an apartment with actor Lukas Haas; where Darnell's girlfriend Ruby lived before he met her; and where Darnell himself lived platonically with an Austrian model named Simone (with whom he also shared a New York loft) from 1999 to 2001, with Rick Salomon crashing there from time to time. It was their own little Melrose Place. "Mark Wahlberg lived there!" said Kristen when I asked her about it. "When I dated Mark ten years ago, he lived there." She and Heather hadn't seen each other in a while, and they were giving me an animated rundown of their exploits, stripped down to their underwear in Kristen's walk-in closet, doing shots to calm their nerves and trying to find something to wear while I did my best to get them pumped up for the camera.
Afterward, onâ??camera interviewer Keith Morrison (Matthew Perry's stepfather) took us to lunch at Caffe Med on Sunset Plaza, which was walking distance from the apartment. We were barely seated when both girls flitted off to another table to talk to a gaunt character in a knit skullcap with piercing eyes, there with his friends, who kept shooting glances over at me as they explained to him what they were doing. When they returned to the table, both seemed slightly flushed.
"That's Rick Salomon," said Heather, who had spotted him first. "We've known him forever."
A few days later, Morrison's producer told me they had just gotten Will Wright on camera at Ron Richards's office. "You know, you didn't make any fans over there," she confided to me.
On the broadcast, looking sketchy and evasive, Wright presented his theory of Hollywood: "In Hollywood, celebrities, you know, party on the fringes of people who are in the gray and in the dark. You know what I mean? It's a very interesting crowd. It's like, celebrities mix with people who sell drugs for a living or commit crimes. I mean, Hollywood's weird like that."
But long before this rich stew of characters and connections could come to a satisfactory boil, Darnell copped a plea. As a testament to Richards's lawyering skills, after the preliminary hearing -- a de facto two-day trial -- he turned over all sorts of rocks in Joe Francis's sub rosa business dealings and argued that Francis was incapable of telling the truth, even under oath. The D.A. dropped burglary, carjacking, and the two kidnapping charges in exchange for Riley pleading guilty to extortion and robbery with a gun enhancement and agreeing to serve ten years, eight months. At his sentencing, asked if he understood the terms of his deal, Riley smiled and gave the judge a thumbs-up. As far as Darnell was concerned, of all the crimes he had ever considered or committed, this seemed among the least likely to put him away for most of his thirties. Without any new charges slipping down the pike -- and from the little I knew about him, Darnell was up in a whole mess of things -- he'd be out by the time he was forty. And the circus closed up shop.
Then a week before the Dateline show, I got an eâ??mail in the comments section of my Web site. It was from Darnell. I'd been logging periodic posts on the subject, some of them at his expense -- at one point, I called him Dildo Dude -- because, well, really, why not? He wasn't going anywhere.
Now it seemed that Darnell was unhappy.Copyright © 2008 by Mark Ebner