The fairy-tale notion of being "discovered" in Hollywood finds fertile ground in many Americans' heads. Some move to Los Angeles hoping they might be wandering around a mall or nightclub and suddenly be handed the "role of a lifetime." Once most of them reach L.A., they realize their facile plan for instant fame was indeed simply a dream and that becoming famous usually requires years of arduous auditions, painful rejection, and a lot of luck. Yet, for many, that hope of being discovered never dies. Victor Paleologus preyed on that hope.
Paleologus, a career criminal with a 15-year history of luring women to phony auditions, pleaded guilty July 26 to first-degree murder in the death of 21-year-old actor Kristine Johnson, who disappeared Feb. 15, 2003, after telling her roommate she was going to meet a man who had approached her at the Westfield Century City mall about an audition for a James Bond movie. She was found bound and strangled in the Laurel Canyon hills March 3, 2003.
Since 1991, Paleologus had approached women at that mall, the Skybar nightclub, and Los Angeles International Airport. Posing as a Disney executive or a novelist with powerful connections, he told them he could arrange auditions for featured roles or publicity photo shoots that paid up to $200,000. According to witnesses, he lured women—naive and experienced, actors and nonactors—to neighborhoods in Laurel Canyon and abandoned commercial buildings where he had them pose provocatively in an outfit like the one found on Johnson's body: white button-up shirt, black miniskirt, nylons, and black stiletto heels.
Deputy District Attorney David Walgren, who lacked scientific evidence tying Paleologus to the victim, said the plea bargain occurred two weeks into the trial because of testimony from female witnesses, many of whom had contacted law enforcement after recognizing a police sketch of Paleologus on the news as the man who had approached them years earlier about a bogus 007 film. The witnesses later identified Paleologus through a police lineup when he was under arrest for auto theft. "They did such a great job, and they showed a lot of courage coming forward and telling their stories, and I just think that had a great impact on the defendant," said Walgren.
One of those witnesses was Heather Maher, who was 24 when Paleologus approached her and her friend, Kimberly Resnick, outside of Skybar on Aug. 28, 1998. He said he was a Disney producer who needed women to pose in marketing posters for a James Bond movie and told Maher he liked her legs. He invited her to meet him at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Marina del Rey two days later and told Resnick she couldn't come because it was a "closed set." Despite Resnick's warning not to trust him, Maher went to the 9 a.m. meeting dressed as Paleologus had requested—this time in a black shirt, black miniskirt, nylons, and black stilettos. At the hotel, he pressed her crossed legs together in a pose, emphasizing that her ankles should remain close together during the audition. He also showed her paperwork for the role that said she would earn $80,000–100,000. Paleologus then relocated the audition to a property on San Vicente Boulevard in Brentwood, the former location of Café Milano where he had worked, to meet a casting director.
There, Maher found an empty room containing three chairs and a light. Paleologus instructed her to pose again, having her cross her legs in front of her on the floor. He tied a ligature around her ankles and looped his tie around her wrist, attempting to restrain her other hand with it as well. Maher fought as Paleologus tugged at her nylons and unfastened his belt. She managed to free her feet and escape. Paleologus served three and a half years for the attempted rape before being paroled in 2003, a month before Johnson's disappearance and murder.
Los Angeles Police Department spokesman Mike Lopez said dangerous situations such as the one Maher found herself in can be avoided: Actors should refuse to go to sessions alone. "It's always good to have another person there with you to see what the individual's actions are going to be, if he tries to do something funny," he explained. Lopez also recommended that actors always verify whether new people are who they say they are. A call to the person's place of business can verify that the individual works there and is the same person who arranged the audition.
Working actor Cathy DeBuono, who was approached by Paleologus in 1999, did just that. Paleologus had identified himself as a Disney executive named Brian who was looking for models for a Bond movie poster. "He wanted me to leave the mall with him right then and there. I just felt I knew better than to do that," DeBuono said on the stand. She asked for a business card, and he handed her a tattered one. He wouldn't let her keep it because he said it was his last, so she jotted the information down. DeBuono, who at the time had a small role on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, gave the info to her agent, who contacted Disney and verified that the man was an impostor. DeBuono drove to Laurel Canyon to meet him anyway, but she brought a stuntman from Deep Space with her as a precaution. She waited in her car as Paleologus had instructed. Paleologus never arrived.
Santa Monica Police Department spokesperson Lt. Frank Fabrega said actors should be very cautious when anyone seems reluctant to give a business card, personal information, or details about the production he or she is purportedly representing. He also said actors should be wary of anyone who asks to meet in locations that are not generally visited by the public, such as isolated areas or residences.
Alice Walker had been pursuing acting in Los Angeles for only three months and believed that Paleologus, who had told her he was a novelist from New York, could procure an audition for the role of a dominatrix in a Bond movie. "I'm embarrassed at how stupid and naive I was," she testified at Paleologus' trial. She had met Paleologus on Jan. 25, 2003, a few weeks before Johnson's disappearance, while waiting on him at Houston's restaurant in the Century City mall. She agreed to meet him the following day at what turned out to be the other former Café Milano property, on La Cienega Boulevard, to practice—before attending the audition—for the role that would earn her $200,000. Once in the building, he had her pose on her hands and knees and also strut across the dirty Astroturf floors in a white shirt, black miniskirt, nylons, and black stilettos. When Paleologus wrapped and tightened a tie around her neck to complete the outfit, a nervous Walker shoved her thumb between her neck and the garment.
Fabrega said actors should listen to their gut. "There should never be any type of a touching, or there shouldn't be someone saying, 'Oh, we need you to wear specific clothing,' or 'We want you to disrobe.' Those things are all indicators that something is just not quite right," he noted. "[Actors] need to have their instincts be their guide. If they feel uncomfortable, then they should immediately leave, because no job is worth their safety."
Some of the women lured by Paleologus' offer escaped because of precautions they took to preserve their safety. The Los Angeles Times reported that actor Susan Murphy testified she brought her boyfriend to one of Paleologus' phony auditions and arrived not wearing the outfit Paleologus had requested. He angrily showed her the door. CourtTV.com reported that actor Elizabeth Buzzini, whom Paleologus approached at the airport in 1991, had a cocktail with him at a restaurant where producers of the Bond movie would supposedly meet them. When she noticed white powder on the top of her drink, she excused herself, saying she was headed for the restroom, instead reporting to the restaurant's manager that her drink had been drugged and asking him to call the police. Paleologus fled.
Fabrega suggested actors always tell someone responsible where they are going and leave an address and phone number with that person. Jotting down details about the new person's appearance and vehicle, including the make and color of the car and the license plate number, also doesn't hurt. He added that once actors arrive at an audition, they should mentally note the exact location and address because 911 operators receiving calls from cell phones will not have the location at hand. "Remember the main goal is not the job; the main goal is your safety," he said. "If it's too good to be true, it's too good to be true."
For the Johnson murder, Paleologus will serve 25 years to life in prison with the possibility of parole, which according to defense investigator G. Patrick Little indicates a victory for the defense. "If he had gotten convicted of the murder, then he would have gotten the death penalty. So we got him the best possible deal that you could possibly get a human being and still with a possibility that he might get paroled," said Little. The sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 15.
Walgren, who said the victim's family was pleased with the plea bargain, saw things differently. "Our victim's family, their main concerns were getting him off the streets forever and having him take some sort of responsibility. They were very pleased with the resolution, very pleased that they were able to bring some closure to this case, so we're very happy," he said. "He should serve the rest of his life in prison."