I was driving a black Mercedes V-12 AMG, and I had come to own two homes, one on a bluff in Malibu overlooking Paradise Cove, and another above the Strip, which was where I was heading that evening. My neighbors in the hills over the years have included the likes of Cameron Diaz, Paris Hilton, Leo DiCaprio, Keanu Reeves, Sally Fields, Dolly Parton and Robert Downey Jr., whom I later represented. I mention them only to suggest that my neighbors are the kind of well-heeled people who like their privacy, though the celebrities attract tour buses even up the road I live on.
It’s an exclusive neighborhood of gated homes, accessible by only a handful of narrow, winding streets that are discreetly patrolled by security. The tree-shrouded ambiance gives the impression of being in the country, with no sidewalks or lawns. I moved here in the late sixties when I made my first modest fortune, because even back then this awesomely gorgeous terrain provided the ultimate in seclusion, opulence, staggering views of the entire Los Angeles basin, and for me, convenience – it was only a ten minute drive from my office.
After three decades, having established the largest criminal defense practice on the West Coast, I was at the top of my game. I had it all, as they say. I had paid my dues in court by pitting myself on behalf of my clients against the vast resources that the state of California and federal government had to throw at me. Year in and year out, doing it my way meant bringing all of my passion to that time-honored contest with blind justice, and there were spiritual as well as material prizes to be won along the way. As a refugee, I had seen the extremes of poverty and wealth that made this country what it is. I was about to learn, however, the price we pay for our success can sometimes be as dear as life itself.
That fateful day in 1998, glancing down at the wheel, I could see my wristwatch glittering in the sunlight. I was wearing a Presidential Rolex, which was a gift from one of my drug-dealing clients, whose freedom and eternal gratitude I won after negotiating a favorable plea-bargain for him. This was one of those gratifying cases that comes along every once in a while, when some measure of justice actually manages to prevail. My client was no doubt guilty of any number of offenses, but not the charges that were brought against him. He had been set up by police and some of the evidence – a kilo of cocaine – had mysteriously vanished.
The case was a prelude to the notorious Rampart scandal that was about to make headlines with sensational horror stories of LAPD corruption – drug deals, robberies, arson and murder. Rampart was to be a great boon for me as a defense attorney, because it made juries justifiably suspicious about the credibility of LA’s finest whenever officers gave testimony. I can tell you we have more than our share of outlaws in blue and I’ve represented quite a few of them. If the dead could speak for themselves and take the stand in LA County, there would be more cops wearing prison stripes.
I should tell you that during my forty years of practicing law, I’ve represented any number of “made men” of Italian descent. In fact, a few of these wise guys became close friends, and one time they even paid me tribute by initiating me as an honorary member of one of the infamous East Coast crime families. But that’s another story that I’ll save for later, except to say that I’m not offering any apologies for how I’ve lived my life or practiced my trade. I’m just going to tell you how it is. And when it comes to criminal justice, it’s probably not what you think it is, unless you’ve been there in the trenches of our court system and seen the blood of the victims and heard the lies of our finest. The reality is that LA law in practice allows for justice to be systematically compromised, time and time again, by ego, ambition, and the overriding goal of winning at all costs.
This was serious business involving the only daughter of an Italian family. The Micelis were screaming for blood. Emotions ran high, and as a precaution, I had armed bodyguards stationed on both sides of the courtroom for the preliminary hearing. This was before metal detectors were installed in the courthouse, and I was afraid there might be more than one stray bullet in this dispute. The district attorney in Malibu back then was a talented guy by the name of Lawrence Mira, who is now the presiding judge in that court. Larry told me at the time, “The Miceli family wants serious justice. I can’t offer you a deal on this one, Peter.”
I told him, “There will come a day, my friend, when the family will tell you they’re not interested in your justice. They will find their own.” Larry couldn’t believe it when my prediction proved to be accurate. The case never went to trial. But the matter was, in fact, settled out of court between the families, and it was the difference between prison and probation for Ted. The families resolved the matter privately by having a tribunal in Las Vegas, for which none other than Frank Sinatra was brought in to adjudicate. One family member confided to me that Frank “sat as Godfather.” What the terms of the settlement were, no one would ever say, but both sides abided by Frank’s familial decree, and there was no bloodshed.
Years later I learned firsthand that Sinatra’s involvement with the mob was more than just guilt by association exaggerated by the media. In the late seventies, I happened to be retained as counsel on a manslaughter case by an Italian family on behalf of their young son, Ted Sennes. His father was Frank Sennes, who ran showrooms like the Stardust and Desert Inn in Las Vegas during the Rat Pack days. He also had a hand in Ciro’s and owned the Moulin Rouge in Hollywood. There was another Italian family in Los Angeles, the Micelis, who owned a chain of pizza parlors, and they had a daughter who Ted Sennes was dating. Now these were two Italian families that were apparently both ‘connected.’ One night after some partying, Ted was driving under the influence and went off a cliff in Malibu Canyon. The Miceli girl was in the car and died in the accident. Ted walked away without a scratch, and according to witnesses, showed no remorse.