Feature Articles

December 2004

A Christmas Murder In Hollywood

Part Three: Another Tragic Anniversary
also read • Part OnePart Two

By James Ridgway de Szigethy

     Another Holiday season is upon us and yet Justice is still nowhere in sight for Mafia writer Susan Berman, who was murdered in Hollywood on Christmas Eve in 2000, and Anthony Fox, actor Johnny Depp�s business partner who disappeared during Christmas, 2001 and is presumed murdered.

     Susan Berman was the daughter of David Berman, who with Mafia figure �Bugsy� Siegel co-owned the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas during the 1950s. Susan Berman was a book author, producer, investigative journalist, and screenwriter. Berman 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 New York Magazine and the Francis Ford Coppola Magazine. At the time of her murder Berman was working on 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. California authorities have been reported to be investigating the possibility that Susan Berman was prepared to give information to the authorities that would implicate Durst in the presumed murder of his wife. Susan Berman's murder on Christmas Eve dealt a serious blow to the Prosecutors determined to solve this case.

     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 book 'Murder of a Mafia Daughter' by acclaimed investigative reporter Cathy Scott.

     The murder trial of Robert Durst in Galveston, Texas was sensational, with obvious interest to crime aficionados nationwide. After 5 days of deliberations, the trial came to a stunning conclusion when Durst was found Not Guilty.

     Durst was then held on charges including improper disposal of a body - Durst had chopped his neighbor into pieces which he discarded in Galveston Bay. Then, just as Durst was to be released after finishing a plea-bargain sentence in that second case, Federal authorities hit him with weapons charges regarding the handguns he was carrying when arrested for shoplifting in Pennsylvania while on the lam for the original murder charges in Texas. Under a plea bargain negotiated by Durst�s criminal attorneys, Durst will spend up to 9 more months in jail before being returned to walk the streets of America.

     Another apparent crime that has captured the interest of California's law enforcement community is the mysterious disappearance of 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 Siegel and his associates.

     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. Down South during the 1990s 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.

     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 drugs 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. He was 23 years old.

     As the 1990s drew to a close Federal authorities took action against those involved in the operations of THE LIMELIGHT and LIQUID nightclubs. LIMELIGHT owner Peter Gatien was charged with drug trafficking but was acquitted in a Federal trial. Gatien later pleaded guilty to income tax evasion and was deported to his native Canada. LIQUID owner Chris Paciello pleaded guilty to several crimes, including his association with members of the American Mafia as well as his role in the murder of a Staten Island woman during a botched robbery. Paciello is currently in the Witness Protection Program and may testify against Mafia associates in upcoming prosecutions.

     Authorities in Los Angeles never took action against drug dealers operating out of The Viper Room, allowing them to operate with impunity as they had for decades. The only legal case that emerged by the end of the decade was 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 Brothers website, the Judge in this case ruled 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. It would seem odd to some that Fox, the single parent of a daughter to whom he was deeply devoted, would 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 out with his pals Roman Polanski, who is Hollywood's favorite Oscar-winning pedophile, and Marilyn Manson, the Devil's Advocate.

     Although Johnny Depp received considerable Media attention in the past year for anti-American statements, as well as his claim that he would procure drugs for his children when they came of age, the Media has almost completely ignored the disappearance of his business partner. Depp has appeared in celebrity-friendly venues for interviews, which of course have not approached the subject of the drug dealing in his nightclub that left young people dead, nor the fact his business partner appears to have been murdered.

     Attorneys for Depp have now very quietly settled their lawsuit, signing over Depp�s interests in the Viper Room to Anthony Fox�s daughter. The Holiday season will undoubtedly be a pleasant one for Johnny Depp and his family, but for the daughter of Anthony Fox, not only will she face another Christmas without her father, but in his place she now owns a notorious nightclub which is named after a poisonous snake.

to be continued
Related stories:
A Christmas Murder In Hollywood, Part One

A Christmas Murder In Hollywood, Part Two:

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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