The man accused of luring 21-year-old actor Kristine Johnson to a phony audition for a James Bond movie and strangling her to death in 2003 spent most of yesterday's deliberations in Los Angeles Superior Court staring at the defense table as female witnesses testified he had also approached them with similar offers.
Prosecutor David Walgren used the witnesses' testimonies to paint the suspect, career criminal Victor Paleologus, 43, as a predator who used public places like the Century City mall and L.A. nightclub Skybar to find potential victims such as Johnson, who purchased clothes at that mall on Feb. 15, 2003. Later that day, the aspiring actor told her roommate that she had an appointment to meet a man about a role in a James Bond movie. Johnson never returned.
Her body was found on Mar. 3, 2003 at the bottom of a ravine in the Hollywood Hills wearing a miniskirt, white shirt, nylons, and black stilettos — the same outfit witnesses who testified on July 19 said Paleologus asked them to wear to their "auditions" and "photo shoots" for the movie.
Actor Cathy DeBuono, who appeared as "M'Pella" on the television program Deep Space Nine, testified that Paleologus approached her during late 1998-early 1999 at the Century City mall. She stated that Paleologus told her that his name was "Brian" and he worked at Disney. He complimented DeBuono's legs then told her she would be a perfect model for the new James Bond movie poster. DeBuono offered to give him her agent's phone number, but Paleologus told her he would rather not deal with an agent and that she could make more money if she garnered the role on her own.
DeBuono was suspicious. At the time, a James Bond movie had just been released. She asked for his business card. Paleologus produced a tattered Disney business card, then took it back because he said it was the last one he had. "He wanted me to leave the mall with him right then and there. I just felt I knew better than to do that," said DeBuono, who jotted down the information on the business card and later gave it to her agent. The agent contacted the man whose name was listed on the card. He said the person DeBuono met was an impostor. Despite her agent's warning, the actor went to meet Paleologus in the Hollywood Hills, bringing a stuntman from Deep Space to accompany her. She parked her car in Laurel Canyon across from a residence and waited in her vehicle as Paleologus had instructed. He never arrived.
DeBuono didn't report the incident to police because her father, an officer in the New York City Police Department, said no crime had been committed. But when DeBuono saw a news story about Johnson's murder on Mar. 5, 2003 with a photograph and police sketch of the suspect, she recognized him as the man who had approached her at the Century City mall years earlier. DeBuono called the police on her way to work.
Defense attorney Andrew Flier questioned DeBuono about her inability to remember the exact date that she met Paleologus and whether she ever told police the incident happened in 2000â€”when Paleologus was serving a jail sentence for the attempted rape of Heather Maher whom he had also promised an audition for a James Bond film. Kimberly Haro, who was with Maher when Paleologus solicited her outside of Skybar on Aug. 28, 1998, testified yesterday that Maher met Paleologus the next day at a hotel in Marina Del Rey wearing the black shirt, miniskirt, and stiletto heels he had requested. He then took her to an abandoned property on San Vicente Blvd. where the attack took place.
Flier questioned Haro's ability to identify Paleologus from a line-up because she stated he was wearing glasses when she met him outside of Skybar, and it was dark. Haro asserted that the suspect's "droopy eyes" and "cleft" chin were clearly visible in the various streetlights on Sunset Blvd.
Actor Alice Walker had a much different experience with Paleologus in late Jan. 2003, just weeks before Johnson disappeared. While waiting tables at Houston's at the Century City mall, she served a man who said his name was "Victor" and had just moved from New York to publish his book. Walker, a former English major who had just moved to town three months prior from Chicago, took an interest in his novel and met him for coffee at the nearby Century Plaza hotel at midnight after her shift ended.
At the meeting, Paleologus told her of his novel in which a major plot point involved the strangulation of a woman in a car. He also offhandedly mentioned his friend, the director of the new James Bond movie, was seeking a strong, Jennifer Garner-type actor for a role. "At first it seemed like he was just talking about it," Walker testified. "Of course, in my mind, I hoped he was offering it." Paleologus had Walker strut toward him, then touched her calves. "I assumed at the time he was feeling my calves to see if I was as strong as I said I was," said Walker, a former ballerina. Paleologus promised to arrange an audition and mentioned that the pay included $200,000 as well as Donna Karan and Maybelline endorsements. He told her she needed to wear a white shirt, mini-skirt, black stilettos, and nylons that "sparkled like diamonds." Excited, Walker agreed to meet Paleologus the following day for the audition.
She met him outside an abandoned Pilates studio on La Cienega Blvd. and Romaine St. When Paleologus told her to park behind his silver Mercedes, Walker said a warning sign went off in her head — the previous night he said he didn't have a car and had only been taking limousines and taxicabs. Walker ignored her instincts and followed him inside. Dirty astro-turf covered the floors. A small leather couch and old countertop filled the rooms. Walker showed Paleologus the outfit. He expressed her approval, then she went into the bathroom to change with her foot pressed against the door because, she testified, she felt scared. "I told a friend of mine at work if I didn't show up [that night] to call the police," she said.
After she changed, Paleologus complimented her on her appearance and said she had a great chance of snagging the role. He then instructed her to position her body into a provocative pose with her legs crossed on the edge of a chair. "He said the muscles in my thighs would be shown in a certain way," she testified. She then followed his instructions to walk seductively "oozing sensuality" while pretending to have a gun in her hand. The final posed required Walker to get on all fours on a counter. Paleologus circled her as he said the camera would. Walker, who said she felt uncomfortable with the poses, told him she had to get work and needed to know if the audition was happening. Paleologus made a phone call, then told her it had been cancelled because Sean Connery was sick. Before Walker changed back into her regular clothes, he persuaded her to try on the necktie he provided. She shoved her thumb between the tie and her neck as he tightened it.
Despite her fears, Walker made another appointment with Paleologus a few days later. "I really wanted to earn this role," she testified. This time Paleologus had her enact a scene with him in which he grabbed her hair and pretended to kiss her. After rehearsing it 15 times, Walker got angry. Paleologus persuaded her to try it again. This time he kissed her. Walker shoved him across the room and said, "That's not in the confines of our relationship. I don't feel comfortable with that." He apologized and told her, as he had in their previous meeting, that she had an "80% chance" of landing the role. Again, Walker allowed him to place the necktie on her, planning to knee him in the groin and hit his face if he tried to harm her.
"I remember asking him, 'When are we going to have this audition?' and he kept passing it off," she testified. To confirm her suspicion that Paleologus was lying, Walker asked him to dinner at a deli at the Century City mall. During the meal, he accidentally told her his real last name, which differed from the name Walker remembered him telling her at the Pilates studio. "I didn't believe him anymore, and I didn't understand why he was lying to me," she testified.
Some witnesses doubted Paleologus' credibility earlier in their interactions. Maribeth Lucidine was approached by a man she later identified as Paleologus at the Century City mall while making a call from a pay phone Feb. 12, 2003 — three days before Kristine Johnson's disappearance. He told her she had the look of a Bond poster girl. She asked him to produce a business card and Paleologus fumbled through his pockets, failing to produce one. Lucidine told him she didn't do business with people without business cards and Paleologus walked away. She brushed off the incident until she saw a news program on Mar. 6, 2003 that contained a composite sketch of a suspect she recognized as Paleologus.
Flier questioned Lucidine on her statements that the sketch both did and did not resemble Paleologus. Flier pointed out that Paleologus never asked her to wear specific clothing and never touched her or followed her to her car. Walgren asked her whether she had any doubts that the man who approached her was Paleologus. "Not a doubt in my mind," she testified.
Johnson's mother, Terry Hall, also took the stand. She verified that Johnson had initially pursued a career as a makeup artist before landing gigs in independent films and eventually enrolling for evening classes at Santa Monica Community College. Hall testified that she had a close relationship with her daughter, speaking with her on the phone once and often twice a day by telephone. Hall last spoke with her daughter the day of her disappearance at around noon. During their conversation, Johnson said she was going to the mall. The conversation ended with the mother and daughter expressing their love. Hall said, "We always ended every conversation telling each other we loved each other." She tried to call her daughter again that evening and throughout the next day, which was a Sunday, and received no response. When Johnson's employer confirmed she was not at work on Monday, Hall filed a missing persons report.
Proceedings continue today.