Feature Articles

November 2003

A Christmas Murder In Hollywood

By James Ridgway de Szigethy

     On January 4, 2001 the Los Angeles Police Department issued a press release, announcing the murder of one Susan Berman, who was found shot to death in her Hollywood home on Christmas Eve, 2000. The police report noted thus:

     "On December 24, 2000, at approximately 12:30 p.m., West Los Angeles patrol officers responded to a radio call of an "open door" on the 1500 block of Benedict Canyon. The officers entered the location and discovered the victim in a bedroom of the residence. The investigating detectives determined the suspect(s) shot the victim one time in the head. The motive for the murder is still unknown and no suspects have been identified. The victim has been identified as Susan Berman, the daughter of David Berman. David Berman and Ben "Bugsy" Seigal, were business partners who co-owned the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas until Seigal's death, leaving Berman sole ownership. Susan Berman was a book author, producer, investigative journalist, and screenwriter. She wrote several books including "Easy Street" and "Lady Las Vegas," and was a dual writer/producer at the San Francisco radio station KPIX. Berman also wrote as a journalist for the New York Magazine and the Francis Ford Coppola Magazine. Her latest work was a screenplay for Showtime's hit sitcom "Sin City."

     Given that Berman was the daughter of a Mafia associate, and that she had written extensively about the American Mafia, law enforcement investigators initially pursued that angle in the attempt to solve this murder. However, in October 2001 the story would take on a different twist, when Susan Berman's lifelong friend Robert Durst, the scion of a New York City real estate empire, was arrested for the murder of his neighbor Morris Black at a run-down apartment building in Galveston, Texas. Durst had rented the apartment dressed as a woman, apparently in an attempt to develop a hideaway from Prosecutors in the District Attorney's office of Westchester County, New York, who were aggressively pursuing the theory that Durst had murdered his young wife there two decades earlier.

     Durst's wife Kathleen had disappeared in January, 1982. Her body has never been found. In the months before her murder Susan Berman solicited from - and received - substantial gifts of cash from Robert Durst. To some, the money might appear to be that of a loan from a friend. To those in law enforcement investigating Berman's murder, such payments could be construed to be the result of blackmail. This sordid tale of the Mafia and murder is explored in the new book 'Murder of a Mafia Daughter' by acclaimed investigative reporter Cathy Scott.

     The trial of Robert Durst in Galveston, Texas for the murder of his neighbor Morris Black has been sensational, with obvious interest to crime aficionados nationwide. When dismissed, two alternate jurors told the Media they would have voted to convict Durst, who took the Stand and claimed his neighbor was shot in self-defense. After 5 days of deliberations, the trial came to a stunning conclusion when Durst was found Not Guilty of Murder. It can be expected that authorities in New York and California will now redouble their efforts to resolve the apparent murder of Kathie Durst and the murder of Mob writer Susan Berman.

     Another apparent crime that has captured the interest of California's law enforcement community is the mysterious disappearance of one Anthony Fox, who vanished without a trace around Christmas, 2001. Fox was a partner in a notorious nightclub that operated as a venue for drug dealers called The Viper Room. This club was located on Hollywood's Sunset Strip and had a history of being controlled by members of the American Mafia. In the 1940s, the club, then called the Melody Room, was a gambling and drug den, controlled by Bugsy Seigal and his associates including David Berman, the father of Susan Berman.

     Decades later, this nightclub, renamed The Central, was in decline, until owner Anthony Fox was approached by a rising star in Hollywood, Johnny Depp. Depp had first arrived in Hollywood a decade earlier after dropping out of High School, dreaming of becoming a rock star. As is typical in such cases, Depp struggled for several years at menial jobs until he got his big break as an actor in the Fox Television series '21 Jump Street.' Overnight, Johnny Depp became a teen idol. The calculating Depp would then move on to serious acting in motion pictures, most notably as the FBI agent who infiltrated the New York Mafia, 'Donnie Brasco,' the strung-out lead character in 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,' and the notorious drug dealer George Jung in 'Blow.' Depp has publicly called for the release of Jung from prison, where Jung is currently serving a lengthy prison sentence for drug trafficking.

     When Johnny Depp teamed up with Anthony Fox to form 'The Viper Room,' the timing could not have been more perfect. At that time, New York City nightlife was being catered to by Peter Gatien's LIMELIGHT, an abandoned Church that attracted celebrities and drug dealers. That club's most popular venue was 'King of the Club Kids' Michael Alig's Disco 2000 events, which came to a grinding halt after the heroin-addled Alig murdered and dismembered a Club drug dealer named Angel Melendez. Also during this time down South in Florida would emerge the Miami Beach equivalent of New York's LIMELIGHT, Chris Paciello's club called LIQUID, which he ran with his and Madonna's mutual friend Ingrid Casares. Paciello would eventually plead guilty to murder and agree to testify against his associates in the Mafia.

     On the West Coast, no such club existed in the same league as the LIMELIGHT and LIQUID, but the opening of The Viper Room quickly filled this void. At that time in 1993 Johnny Depp's career was taking off and he would use his celebrity to turn 'The Viper Room' into the hippest and trendiest nightclub on the Sunset Strip. From the beginning, as in its previous incarnations, The Viper Room was a place where drug dealers flourished. To this day the Viper Room's website features as its logo a female snake seated atop a pair of dice, in a posture that seemingly allures her prey to be injected with her poison. On Halloween night, 1993 Johnny Depp's friend River Phoenix took such a 'roll of the dice' and died after injecting heroin into his veins inside the Viper Room. Depp was among the Viper Room employees and patrons that watched as Phoenix lay dying on the sidewalk outside the club. The only witness who appeared to act responsibly was a celebrity photographer, Ron Davis, who chose not to document the event, a decision he knew would deprive him of the thousands of dollars such photographs could bring. Phoenix, the young star of such films as 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade' was just 23 years old.

     For some men, the death of a friend from drugs would serve as a 'wake-up' call as to the dangers of such activity. In Johnny Depp's case, however, he increased his intake of drugs in the years after River Phoenix' death. Johnny Depp would move through the 1990s involved in heavy drug taking while pursuing his relationships with fianc�e Winona Ryder and later fianc�e Kate Moss. When Winona Ryder was later arrested for shoplifting thousands of dollars of merchandise from a Saks-Fifth Avenue Department Store, she was also charged with illegal drug possession. After the relationship between Johnny Depp and 'SuperModel' Kate Moss was over, Moss checked herself into a rehabilitation clinic to confront her years of drug abuse, that, like Depp's, had begun in their teen years.

     As Johnny Depp's self-destructiveness escalated with his intakes of drugs, he became increasingly violent and by the end of the decade he had an arrest record in three different countries; in New York City, for trashing a $1,200 a night hotel room; in Canada, for assaulting a Hotel Security Guard, (the charges disappeared); and in England, where he was arrested for assaulting a celebrity photographer.

     With the new decade and millennium came Anthony Fox's lawsuit alleging that Johnny Depp had conspired to divert profits from The Viper Room. According to the Celebrity Justice section of the Warner website, the Judge in this case ruled earlier this year that: "Defendant Depp . . . breached his fiduciary duties to the corporation and to Fox as a minority shareholder. The facts establish persistent and pervasive fraud and mismanagement and abuse of authority."

     While lawyers for both sides were battling it out over the lawsuit, two things happened; Johnny Depp moved to France and Anthony Fox disappeared. Fox, the single parent of a now 18 year old daughter to whom he was deeply devoted, seems an unlikely candidate to just vanish on his own, particularly given that it appeared he would win his legal battle with Depp. In Depp's case, he had met a woman with whom he wanted to start a family. Depp and his partner Vanessa Paradis settled into a new life in Paradis' home country, France, where Depp hangs with his pals Roman Polanski, who is Hollywood's favorite Oscar-winning pedophile, and Marilyn Manson, the Devil's Advocate.

     With friends like these it's perhaps not surprising that controversy has followed the brash Hollywood star to his overseas refuge. In August, GQ Magazine published an interview with Depp in which he stated that he would procure drugs for his children in order to ensure that they would not be harmed by "something laced with PCP!" A month later the German Magazine STERN published an interview with Depp in which Depp was quoted as saying he wanted his children to "see America like it's a kind of toy, - a broken toy maybe. Investigate a little bit, check it out, get this feeling and then get out!" The GQ and STERN interviews created a firestorm of criticism within the Media in the United States. Depp apologized and claimed his quotes in the STERN interview had been taken out of context. STERN Magazine issued a statement standing by its story.

     Johnny Depp's next career moves may include his desire to make a movie portraying the life of heavy metal rock star/drug zombie Ozzie Osbourne. Depp's anti-American remarks should have no impact on his ability to retain employment in Hollywood, especially given that his recent movie 'Pirates of the Caribbean' performed well at the box office. In the meantime, Depp has created a new life for himself in a new country, thousands of miles away from his drug den whose name and logo is that of a poisonous snake.

     However, here in America, the passage of time has only intensified the need for an answer to the following question, a question that is amplified each day among those in Hollywood, among those in law enforcement, and among those who follow the on-going sagas of the drug dealers and other criminals involved with the American Mafia: 'What has become of Johnny Depp's business partner Anthony Fox, part-owner of Hollywood's infamous Viper Room?'

to be continued

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J. R. de Szigethy
New York


James Ridgway de Szigethy can be reached at

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