Feature Articles

December 2003

A Christmas Murder In Hollywood

Part Two: The Bizarre World of Club Culture
also read Part One

By James Ridgway de Szigethy

     It has now been 4 years since the murder in Hollywood of Mafia reporter Susan Berman and two years since Johnny Depp's business partner Anthony Fox vanished without a trace. Authorities in California have given no public indication that a break in either case will come soon. Pressure on the law enforcement community to solve the murder of Susan Berman intensified recently after the stunning acquittal of New York real estate scion Robert Durst, who was found not guilty last month of murdering his neighbor in Galveston, Texas. Durst had admitted that his neighbor Morris Black died in his apartment and that he cut the body into pieces and dumped them in the bay, but Durst claimed it was a case of self-defense. A key piece of evidence that was missing - Black's head - may have played a role in the jury's decision.

     Durst had rented the run-down apartment dressed as a woman in an apparent attempt to create a refuge should he decide to flee the authorities in New York who were investigating the disappearance of Durst's first wife Kathy, who vanished without a trace in 1982. Even though Kathy Durst's body has never been found, it is still possible to bring about murder charges if the Prosecutors can convince a jury that the person has in fact been murdered and that the person or persons charged are responsible. California authorities have been reported to be investigating the possibility that Susan Berman was prepared to give information to the District Attorney's office in Westchester, New York that would implicate her lifelong friend Durst in the presumed murder of his wife. Susan Berman's murder on Christmas Eve dealt a serious blow to the Prosecutors determined to establish that Kathy Durst had in fact been murdered. Berman was the daughter of Mafia Associate David Berman, who, with his partner "Bugsy" Siegel, owned the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas.

     "Bugsy" Siegel also ran Mafia operations in California and Florida, in addition to his gambling empire in Las Vegas. In Hollywood, Siegel's crew ran gambling and drug operations out of a nightclub on the infamous "Sunset Strip," a place in the 1940s that was known as the 'Melody Room.' Decades later, the club was owned by one Anthony Fox, who was approached in 1993 by a young man with a curious yet impressive background. His name was Johnny Depp.

     A decade earlier, Depp had migrated to Hollywood hoping to become a rock star. Those dreams did not materialize but through the contacts Depp made in the Hollywood 'scene' he was offered a job as an actor in a television series on a minor, alternative 'Network.' The show, '21 Jump Street,' was an unexpected hit. In what would later be revealed as Irony, Depp portrayed an undercover cop committed to protecting young people from illegal drugs. Johnny Depp hated the role he played, hated the series, and was repulsed by how the Hollywood 'system' had thrust him into the role of a 'teen idol.' Depp was smart enough to know that 'teen idols' rarely have a career in show business past the age of 25. Once free from the television series, Depp vowed he would never again allow himself to be controlled by the entertainment establishment. Depp understood that he had the good looks to become a movie star, but that was not what he wanted; Johnny Depp wanted to be respected as a serious actor. Believing he possessed the talent to become one, Depp set out to take movie roles that few wanted, and turn down roles coveted by many, in order to achieve his goal. Depp's machinations hit pay dirt in 1990 when he starred in a critically-acclaimed motion picture that also performed well at the box office, 'Edward Scissorhands.' With this success came Power, the ultimate sought-after commodity in Hollywood, and Depp would exercise his fame and power to follow his own career course, dictated and controlled by no one but himself.

     In his early years struggling to make it in the music world, Johnny Depp became a veteran of the Hollywood nightclub scene. Clubs such as the Sunset Strip's 'Whiskey a-go-go' were legendary in the annals of contemporary music in terms of turning overnight an unknown into the latest rock and roll sensation. Depp understood the power of such nightclubs to rescue struggling musicians, and once he had the disposable income to invest in such a nightclub, Depp began to seriously consider delving into this risky and uncertain business.

     Thus, in 1993, Depp had the money and fame that Anthony Fox could not turn down as a business partner running a Sunset Strip nightclub. Depp envisioned the club as a place in which established rock bands would be given a venue with up and coming groups. Johnny Depp may have planned for his club to give the new 'Johnny Depp's' the break into the music business that he perhaps felt he deserved and never got. What Depp got instead was an immersion into a shadowy world of drugs and bizarre people, a world that could have easily cost him his life, just as it would one of his closest friends.

     Depp and his lifelong pal Salvatore Jenco formed a business partnership with Anthony Fox which they named Safe in Heaven Dead Productions, Incorporated, according to Civil Court proceedings reported by the Los Angeles Business Journal. The name of the company came from the work by author Jack Kerouac, a drug advocate Depp had admired since his teen years and sought to emulate. Kerouac and his pals Neal Cassady and poet Allen Ginsberg had led a rebellion against Authority in the 1940s and 50s when they created the 'Beat Generation' that dared to take illegal drugs and engage in other illegal behavior, which, in Ginsberg's case, included advocating pedophilia. Kerouac died in 1969 from years of alcohol and drug abuse. During his life Ginsberg was the target of intensive investigation by the FBI due to his associations with avowed Communists and their cohorts in the Labor movement. Once Johnny Depp became famous he befriended Ginsberg and the two remained close until Ginsberg's death in 1997.

     Johnny Depp became acquainted with another of Allen Ginsberg's drug culture associates, Dr. Timothy Leary, through another source, his then-fianc� Winona Ryder, with whom he co-starred in 'Edward Scissorhands.' Ryder was the godchild of Dr. Leary, who became famous in the 1960s when he urged young people to "turn on, tune in, and drop out!" by taking the new designer drug LSD. For this, U. S. President Richard Nixon had called Leary "the most dangerous man in America!" Winona Ryder stayed loyal to her godfather Dr. Leary, moving in with him in his final days of life while succumbing to prostate cancer. Johnny Depp stayed loyal to his former fianc� Winona Ryder, publicly standing by her during her criminal trial after which she was convicted of shoplifting thousands of dollars of goods from the Saks Fifth Avenue store in Hollywood.

     When Johnny Depp and Anthony Fox opened their nightclub The Viper Room, their vision was a case of perfect timing. With Fox's knowledge of how to run a nightclub and Depp's celebrity, the Viper Room quickly became the hottest nightclub on the West Coast, rivaled in America only by Peter Gatien's LIMELIGHT in New York and what would become Miami's LIQUID Club run by Chris Paciello and his girlfriend Ingrid Casares. Paciello understood the necessity of celebrities in running a nightclub and used Casares' pal Madonna to attain the gossip column mentions that brought in the paying customers who actually kept the place afloat. Peter Gatien also understood this and hired employees whose specific job function was to attract and entertain celebrities. One such was Fred Rothbell-Mista, who would later gain fame on MTV as the lounge lizard "Rocco Primavera." Two other Gatien employees turned the nightclub experience in the opposite direction, using their employment at Gatien's clubs to make the contacts they needed to enter the show business industry. Those two were Chazz Palminteri, who worked at the LIMELIGHT as a doorman, and Mark Vincent, a Bouncer for Gatien who would later become action film star Vin Diesel.

     The LIMELIGHT became famous - and later notorious - because of another employee that Gatien took a chance on, Michael Alig, who pitched to Gatien dreams of throwing parties that would be 'fabulous.' Michael Alig and his friends launched a new phenomenon which announced the creation of the 'Club Kids.' Among the founding members were performance artist Joey Arias, the Lady Bunny, Phoebe Legere, Lypsinka, RuPaul, Keoki, Allison Wonderland, and Larry Tee. The party that revealed this to the club world was called the "Changing of the Guard." Perhaps prophetically, the event was a huge success, and each of the participants did in fact soon attain their '15 minutes of fame' - and then some. Keoki and Larry Tee would become famous DJ's, with Tee producing a hit record, 'Supermodel' with transvestite model RuPaul. The Lady Bunny and Lypsinka would also attain fame in the world of men dressed as beautiful women.

     The Club Kids wanted everything 'new' and they got it; their costumes were futuristic, as were many of their names, and they danced to futuristic music, notably Techno, a computer-driven version of House Music best promoted in America by "Lord Michael" Caruso, a close friend of LSD advocate Dr. Timothy Leary. To get high, the ClubKids turned to new 'designer drugs' advocated by Lord Michael named Ecstasy and Special K. And, in a chilling return to the 1960s Hippie movement, the Club Kids turned to the drug heroin.

     In a very short time, a new culture was established in New York, London, Miami, and Los Angeles, which would spread around the globe and influence the young people of the world. The movement was dubbed 'Club Culture,' and it advocated that young people experiment with drugs and also bizarre lifestyle and religious practices. The movement was centered in the nightclubs and there would emerge lifestyles such as the 'Goth' scene, in which practitioners dressed in black and listened to Occult-themed rock music, and the 'Vampire' scene, in which practitioners drank each others blood - not exactly a safe practice in the age of AIDS and other blood-born diseases. Michael Alig added his own twist to bizarre Club behavior by drinking his own urine at his parties in front of his guests. Alig also bragged on the Geraldo Rivera show that he had given the drug Ecstasy to his own mother. The result of such public outrage on Alig's part was that his parties became increasingly popular, attended by public figures such as actress Elizabeth Taylor.

     One musician who appealed to the 'Club Culture' denizen's then-growing movement was a man who calls himself 'Marilyn Manson,' taking his name from two American icons, Marilyn Monroe and cult murderer Charles Manson. Marilyn Manson has also been an open advocate of the practice of Satanism and had met with Anton LeVay, the founder of the Church of Satan in America and the author of 'The Satanic Bible.'

     The Club Culture that emerged in the mid 1990s at The Viper Room, LIMELIGHT, and LIQUID also focussed on the art of body tattooing and body piercing, both of which had been popularized in the 'punk rock' movement of the 1970s and 1980s. While most of those in the Club world who delved into these often bizarre practices did so only out of boredom or for the shock value, many young people took their exploration of drugs and the Occult very seriously. Members of America's law enforcement community responded accordingly.

     The study of body art tattoos by law enforcement began with the Marielitos experience in the early 1980s. This began when law enforcement professionals nationwide suddenly had to deal with crimes committed by the 'Marielitos,' the thousands of criminals and mental patients that the government of Fidel Castro had dumped into the United States during the infamous Mariel boatlift during the Jimmy Carter Administration. Many of the Marielitos were violent and dangerous, bringing with them an eagerness to commit murder and traffic drugs. Many of them practiced 'Santeria,' an Afro-Cuban religion that mixes African Animism beliefs with Roman Catholicism. Eventually the U. S. Supreme Court would rule that practitioners of Santeria have the Constitutional right to sacrifice animals during their rituals.

     The Marielitos were also active practitioners of body tattooing and law enforcement professionals began to catalogue the various tattoos of inmates which helped identify and understand the culture. This same technique was developed in the 1980s and 1990s regarding street gangs in major American cities. Also, the FBI has developed this technique in the prosecution of American Mafia cases; in October of this year, the Feds in New York obtained a conviction against Gambino soldier Thomas Carbonaro after the jury was shown photographs of tattoos that the Prosecution claimed proved his membership in the Mafia. Carbonaro was convicted for plotting to murder former Gambino Underboss Sammy 'The Bull' Gravano.

     Such techniques were utilized by members of the law enforcement community investigating the drug trafficking taking place within the LIMELIGHT and The Tunnel nightclubs in New York. Long before the arrests of numerous ClubKids in 1996, law enforcement had compiled photographs of those involved in drugs, and, where possible, photographs of the tattoos and body piercings of the individuals as well. Registered Informants supplied to authorities descriptions of tattoos of suspects in areas covered by clothing. While many such tattoos of those in the Club Culture were deemed of little significance, the body markings and religious practices of one 'ClubKid' were extensively investigated. The person in question was a young fashion designer whose real name was Robert Riggs but who called himself "Freeze." "Freeze" was a close associate of Michael Alig, with both being heroin addicts. "Freeze" was an open advocate of Satanism who often dressed as Mephistophiles. Among his tattoos was an Occult symbol from ancient Egypt.

     Why this was important to the law enforcement community was because an associate of Alig's and Freeze, Angel Melendez, had suddenly vanished. Angel was one of the drug dealers who plied his trade at the LIMELIGHT. His real name was Andre, but Michael Alig had renamed him 'Angel' after viewing with him one of his favorite Occult movies, 'Angel Heart,' the Mickey Rourke thriller about ritual murder in which Robert De Niro portrays 'Mr. Lou Cipher,' - 'Lucifer.' After Angel vanished, Alig began bragging openly that he and Freeze had killed Angel by beating him in the head with a hammer and then pouring Drano in his mouth and taping it shut with duct tape. Alig claimed that Angel's body then lay in his bathtub for a week until Freeze ran down to Macy's one day to buy some meat cleavers, which were used to hack Angel into pieces, which were then thrown into the Hudson River.

     Also disturbing to those investigating the disappearance of Angel was the "Bloodfeast" poster produced by Alig a year before to celebrate his birthday. The poster, drawn up as a gory horror movie advertisement, featured Michael Alig laying on the floor dead, his brains having been bashed out by a hammer laying nearby. Pictured with a fork cannibalizing Alig's brains was a ClubKid named Jenny Talia. In the background was Freeze's name, along with the terms "buckets of blood" and "legs cut off!" Thus all of the elements of the alleged murder were present in a movie poster Michael Alig had created a year before Angel's disappearance. Members of law enforcement, looking at all available evidence, concluded that Michael Alig and Freeze had in fact murdered Angel and that a combination of drug abuse and involvement in Occult practices were responsible. This theory was further cemented when Angel's torso was found in a box that floated ashore on Staten Island. The New York Post would report that Angel's body had been sexually mutilated.

     Exactly what Michael Alig and Freeze did to Angel's body would never come out in Court, as both pleaded guilty to murder. A third person, Daniel Auster, who was overdosing on heroin in Alig's apartment while the murder was going down, pleaded guilty to lesser charges. Auster is the son of screenwriter Paul Auster. This gory story was the subject of the recent movie 'Party Monster,' with Macaulay Culkin in the role of Michael Alig.

     The investigations by the various members of law enforcement into the bizarre world of Club Culture led to the arrest of LIMELIGHT owner Peter Gatien on federal drug trafficking charges. Among those testifying against Gatien was his former employee, Dr. Timothy Leary disciple "Lord Michael" Caruso. Gatien was acquitted but later pleaded guilty to income tax evasion and was ordered deported back to his native Canada. Chris Paciello, the owner of LIQUID in Miami pleaded guilty to his role in the murder of a Staten Island woman and is now hiding out in the Witness Protection Program after agreeing to testify about his interactions with members of several Mafia families.

     It can be assumed that after actor River Phoenix died outside the Viper Room on Halloween, 1993 that members of law enforcement launched their own investigations as to what was going on inside the club. However, no legal action has resulted in the numerous incidents that have taken place at the club over the years. Club Manager Sal Jenco, a recovering alcoholic, has gone public in noting the steps he has taken to keep his patrons safe and sober. Jenco and Johnny Depp were named in the lawsuit filed in 2000 by their partner Anthony Fox in which Fox alleged that profits that should have gone into Safe in Heaven Dead Productions, Inc. were instead diverted into a company owned solely by Jenco and Depp. A preliminary ruling by the Judge in this case earlier this year indicated Fox would prevail in the suit. Fox, however, vanished without a trace in Christmas, 2001.

     Johnny Depp, in the meantime, cleaned up his act, his salvation coming in the births of his two children. He has continued with his career, appearing in the year 2000's 'From Hell,' a movie about serial killer Jack the Ripper. Depp escorted his pal Marilyn Manson to the movie's premiere. Since then, law enforcement officials in Switzerland have announced the possibility that they may file criminal charges against Marilyn Manson for allegedly inciting violence during a concert, this according to the Marilyn Manson website. The investigation into Manson was prompted by a complaint from the Swiss-based organization 'Christians for Truth.'

     Depp's movie FROM HELL was followed by 'Pirates of the Caribbean,' which propelled Depp into the status of both movie star and respected actor. This was followed up with People Magazine naming Johnny Depp the 'Sexiest Man Alive' for 2003. While the People profile failed to mention Depp's missing business partner the magazine did note the Club Culture influence on Depp; the two human skull rings on his fingers, the Egyptian amulet he wears around his neck, in addition to a charm honoring the Communist drug dealer Che Guevara, and the 12 tattoos on his body. One Depp tattoo was originally 'Winona Forever,' a tribute to his then-fianc� Winona Ryder. It has now been altered to read "Wino Forever."

     Depp now spends most of his time with his kids and their mother in France, where he has made anti-American statements that have enraged citizens here in the United States. Except for the People Magazine profile, the Media in the U. S. has been very hostile to Depp. For his part, Depp has apologized, expressing his love for his country, and indicating that he considers himself lucky to have survived his years of life in the drug and club culture.

     The question that remains is this: Can the same be said for Johnny Depp's business partner Anthony Fox, co-owner of Safe in Heaven Dead?

to be continued

Related stories:
A Christmas Murder In Hollywood, Part One

The Agony of Ecstasy: The Fall of Sammy Gravano and Peter Gatien

J. R. de Szigethy
New York


James Ridgway de Szigethy can be reached at

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