CRIME

Murder and intrigue California-style

MALCOLM GRAY February 16 1987
CRIME

Murder and intrigue California-style

MALCOLM GRAY February 16 1987

Murder and intrigue California-style

CRIME

In 1983 Joseph Hunt, 23, stood at the pinnacle of success, Southern California style. His proven skills at trading on the volatile commodities market allowed him to indulge in expensive cars and an extravagant nightlife—and won him the adulation of 30 young men who came from some of the most prominent families in Los Angeles. His admirers installed him as leader of the Billionaire Boys’

Club (BBC), a closely knit business and social club they formed that year to manage investments in the hope of quick profits. But Hunt’s financial empire quickly collapsed, and in 1984 his desperate attempts to stave off ruin allegedly entangled club members in a chilling saga of murder and intrigue. As a result, Hunt and three other club members now stand accused of killing two wealthy men —charges that carry the death penalty upon conviction.

Last week, in a packed Santa Monica courtroom presided over by U.S. Superior Court Judge Laurence Rittenband, prosecutor Frederick Wapner outlined Hunt’s alleged involvement in the murder of Ronald Levin, a 42-year-old Beverly Hills investor who disappeared on June 6, 1984. According to the prosecutor, Hunt and his bodyguard, James Pittman, robbed Levin before shooting him and burying his body in a canyon because Levin had duped Hunt in a bogus business deal. In addition, Hunt, Pittman and club members Benjamin Dosti and Reza Eslaminia also face charges of murdering Eslaminia’s father, Hedayat Eslaminia. The senior Eslaminia, a wealthy investor with assets of more than $30 million (U.S.), was murdered almost two months after Levin disappeared. In response to the charge that his client killed Levin, defence lawyer Arthur Barens has promised to produce two witnesses who would testify that they saw the missing financier after June 6, 1984. Indeed, Barens argued that Levin, who was facing criminal charges for fraudulent business transactions, had good reason to disappear. Said Barens: “Levin was a parasite who bled white everyone who came near him.”

For his part, Wapner plans to use the

testimony of several BBC members to trace Hunt’s spectacular rise from a modest home in the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles. It began in 1972 when a gawky 13-year-old with a burning desire to prove himself as good as his rich classmates won a scholarship to the Harvard School, an exclusive North Hollywood private school. There he met future BBC members including

Dean Karny, the son of a wealthy real estate developer. And in 1980 a chance encounter on the street with Karny and Dosti, the son of a Los Angeles journalist, renewed Hunt’s ties to potential investors for his commodity market ventures. By 1983 Hunt’s coups included gaining control of Cogenco Systems, an energy company with $12 million in assets. And throughout a career marked by spectacular gains and losses, Hunt retained two key assets: charm and persuasiveness. Said Wapner: “He was able to convince people who had invested large sums of money and lost it to invest more money. He was very charismatic.”

Still, in documents filed with the court, investigators for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission say that

Hunt’s apparent success was based on fraudulent manoeuvres in which funds from current investors were used to pay previous backers who expected high dividends. And in 1983 Hunt met Levin—another speculator who had supposedly turned a $200,000 inheritance into a fortune worth $25 million. According to Karny, who agreed to testify for the state in exchange for immunity from prosecution, Levin told Hunt that he had $5 million for him to invest in commodities. In return for Hunt’s knowledge of the market the two partners would split any profit.

But Wapner maintains that Levin simply made a fool of Hunt. Levin did so by posing as a film-maker and persuading a Beverly Hills brokerage house to set up a dummy account for a documentary on a young trader— Hunt—working the commodities market. As a result, declared Wapner, Hunt’s share of an $8-million profit existed only in the dummy account. According to Karny, Levin had used statements from the account to obtain credit at other brokerage houses. Added Wapner: “Now Hunt had to go to the club and say, T was duped.’ ”

Karny also said that he saw Hunt making notes on a yellow legal pad two days before Levin disappeared. Under the title “at Levin’s, to do,” Karny said that Hunt had written a list, enumerating 15 tasks. Among them: “Close blinds; scan for tape recorder; tape mouth; handcuff; put gloves on; explain situation; kill dog.” Police found the list, covered with Hunt’s fingerprints, at Levin’s Beverly Hills home.

Drawing on Karny’s account, Wapner said that 10 core BBC members attended a meeting at Hunt’s luxurious condominium three weeks after Levin’s disappearance. There, declared Wapner, Hunt told them that in June, 1984, he had forced Levin to sign a $1.5-million cheque drawn on a Swiss bank account—shortly before Levin was shot and killed. According to Karny, Hunt told the assembled BBC members, “We have committed the perfect crime.” But Levin’s account contained only $40. And several BBC members, including Karny, told police of Hunt’s alleged involvement in the Levin and Eslaminia killings. Now, in a trial expected to last three months, Wapner is attempting to prove that the failed financial wizard is also a murderer.

-MALCOLM GRAY with ANNE GREGOR in Santa Monica

ANNE GREGOR