by Mark Ebner and Jack Cheevers
New Times LA April 26, 2001
On a spring day in 1997, a veteran porn actor, bodybuilder and strong-arm man named Paul Barresi picked up a supermarket tabloid and spotted a 24-karat opportunity. What caught Barresi’s eye was an intriguing story about vice cops stopping actor Eddie Murphy just before 5 a.m. in a West Hollywood neighborhood known for its abundance of transsexual prostitutes. Sitting next to Murphy in the front seat of his Toyota Land Cruiser was a gorgeous, 21-year-old tranny streetwalker from Samoa. "Eddie Murphy’s Sick Obsession With Drag Queens!" shrieked the Globe. "H’wood Stunned by Superstar’s Secret Double Life as Cops Catch Him With Transsexual Hooker."
The article said a number of transsexuals and drag queens claimed carnal encounters with Murphy dating back to the early 1980s; the star, it said, had "disguised his shameful double life" for years. Drag queen Karen Dior dished that he and Murphy had performed oral sex on each other in the backseat of the actor’s limo. A transsexual called Summer St. Cerely opined that Murphy "seems utterly obsessed with men dressed as women and the way [they] live." Another tranny called Tempest gave a deliciously detailed account of her alleged dalliance with Murphy, saying he was particularly fond of feet and derived audible pleasure from licking her toes. "He was grunting and groaning, enjoying himself," Tempest told the tabloid. She further divulged that Murphy smelled of Drakkar cologne and wore "cream-colored briefs." Similar stories appeared on the same day, May 20, 1997, in the National Enquirer and the Star.
The Enquirer’s coverage included an interview with the preoperative transsexual who’d been stopped with Murphy. Atisone Kenneth Seiuli had been trolling for johns, dressed in tight bell-bottoms and a black tank top, when Murphy drove up. After Seiuli got in, she claimed, Murphy placed two $100 bills on her leg and asked if she liked to wear lingerie. ""I said yes," said Seiuli. "He said, "Can I see you in lingerie?’ I told him, "Whenever I have the time.’ He said, "I’ll make the time.’" Murphy also wanted to know what kind of sex Seiuli liked, and she replied that she was "into everything."
The stories in the three tabloids — which have a combined circulation of more than 4.5 million — amounted to a PR holocaust for Murphy, making him look like a sexual sicko just as he was trying to jump-start his flagging career with a string of family-oriented movies. The year before, he’d regained star status with The Nutty Professor and was in L.A. making another family-friendly movie, Doctor Doolittle, when the cops pulled him over. The actor’s explanation that he was merely doing a good deed by offering what he thought was a lone woman a ride home from a dicey neighborhood became fodder for comics and talk-show hosts across the land. His old colleagues on Saturday Night Live savagely mocked him in a skit titled "Eddie Murphy, Good Samaritan." According to the Enquirer, Murphy got little more sympathy from his wife, Nicole, a beautiful ex-model who had borne his three children. "Eddie, you’re dead meat!" she purportedly yelled after learning of his nocturnal jaunt with Seiuli. But in Hollywood, one man’s peccadillo is another man’s payday. And Paul Barresi quickly figured out a scheme to cash in on Murphy’s humiliation.
Barresi had worked in the porn business long enough to know how easily its denizens could be bought, and he’d dealt with tabloid news outfits enough to know they could be manipulated. After acting in or directing more than 50 porn movies, gay and straight, he was connected enough to know he could find the trannies who’d blabbed to the tabs faster than any private detective. Barresi’s plan was to reach as many of the tale tellers as possible and pay them to change their stories and say they’d lied about having sex with Murphy. The star’s lawyers could then mau-mau the tabloids to back off him since the papers’ sources, by recanting, would have forfeited what little credibility they’d had to begin with.
Barresi was well aware that nothing chills a publisher’s blood more than the threat of a libel suit. If any of the trannies were planning to write kiss-and-tell books about Murphy, those projects might be quashed, too. “My role was pretty much to neutralize [the transsexuals],” says Barresi.
He dialed Murphy’s lawyer, Marty Mad Dog Singer, a corpulent, pugnacious ex-New Yorker renowned in Hollywood for his brass-knuckles defense of celebrity clients. Barresi got the attorney on the phone and told him: “I’ve got the wherewithal, everything you need to save Eddie Murphy’s ass on this issue.” Singer listened.
It’s not for nothing that stars like Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Carrey and Sylvester Stallone pay the Century City lawyer $450 an hour to represent them. Singer handles contract disputes and other routine legal spats, but his unofficial specialty is trying to scare off journalists poking into celebrity scandals. By all accounts he’s pretty good at it.
Singer immediately went to war against the tabs on Murphy’s behalf. Just days after the Globe and Enquirer stories hit print, Singer slapped both papers with $5 million lawsuits, claiming that they’d libeled his client. Murphy denied in the Enquirer suit that he’d engaged in sex with transsexuals or transvestites, adding that the tab stories had so mortified him that he’d required medical attention.
Meanwhile, Singer hired Barresi to hunt down the trannies quoted in the tabs. Barresi performed well beyond expectations. He quickly located several trannies, offered them payoffs to reverse their stories and coached them to give false testimony. He personally squired two of them to Singer’s law office, where they declared under penalty of perjury that they’d lied to the tabs about having sex with Murphy. One tranny walked out with checks totaling $15,000. The game plan was to stamp out the Eddie-loves-trannies stories as fast as possible, and it was working like a charm.
If Damon Runyon had lived in modern Hollywood rather than Depression-era New York, he might have written a short story about Paul Barresi. Barresi is a classic Tinseltown hustler. Like more than a few actor wannabes, he dreamed of becoming a star but wound up in a genre in which his best performances were delivered without benefit of clothes. Besides making numerous porn movies, he’s earned his daily bread as a fitness trainer, debt collector, tabloid gossip broker and self-styled private eye. Now 52, handsome and still buff, he lands occasional bit parts in mainstream TV shows. Hardened by years in the porn business, Barresi is smoothly cunning and almost cheerfully amoral. He’s of Sicilian descent and craves respect the way most people crave oxygen, which is perhaps understandable given his background.
Barresi was raised near Boston in a blue-collar Catholic household, the son of a shipyard welder who didn’t hesitate to smack him when he got out of line. Nor did the nuns at the parochial schools he attended. It took him two years to make it out of the seventh grade, leaving him convinced he was stupid. But he’s far from that. He enlisted in the Air Force out of high school and spent six years at various bases in the United States and the Philippines, rising to the rank of sergeant. He was discharged in 1973 at March Air Force Base near Riverside, where he promptly got a job managing a local gym.
Hanging around the elegant Mission Inn in downtown Riverside one day, the good-looking ex-serviceman stumbled across a film crew shooting Wild Party, a 1974 comedy based loosely on the Fatty Arbuckle scandal of the Roaring ’20s. Barresi, who’d dreamed since childhood of becoming an actor, was mesmerized. He struck up conversations with actors and stagehands and was soon hired as a gofer. “I found myself the next day running around town buying Raquel Welch nail polish and artichokes,” Barresi recalls. While on the set, Barresi also met the art director for Playgirl, who wanted him to pose for the popular women’s magazine that featured attractive men in soft-core layouts. Barresi agreed and was paired with a young actress named Cassandra Peterson (the future Elvira, Mistress of the Dark) for a pictorial fantasy of lovers in outer space. That gig opened the door to Barresi’s career in dirty movies. A porn producer loved the Playgirl spread and cast Barresi in Coed Fever, in which he pops out of a cake at a sorority party and paddles one of the excited girls.
Barresi, who’s married and has three children, also acted in or directed a string of gay porn films. Among their titles are Lusty Leathermen (An all star cast of Sex Soaked Studs) and Black Brigade (A chocolate-covered, licorice-licked, cocoa-crammed cum-a-thon that spins the Civil War into the 90s). Between porn jobs, he landed minor parts in TV shows and mainstream movies including Perfect, a 1983 hit about L.A. gym rats picking each other up that starred John Travolta.
By the early ’80s, Barresi had launched a parallel career as a fitness trainer, capitalizing on his Hollywood connections to attract such celebrity clients as David Geffen, Joan Rivers, Johnny Carson’s wife Alexis and Go-Go’s drummer Gina Schock. But his employers, he says, often wanted the muscular, hard-edged Italian to help them with matters that had nothing to do with pumping up their pecs. He found himself delivering summonses when his bosses sued someone, and collecting money for them from recalcitrant borrowers. He became, he says, a last-resort guy.
“Some of these high-powered people came to me to solve some of these problems,” says Barresi, sitting at a coffeehouse near his Studio City apartment. “The legal way didn’t work so they had to resort to desperate measures — measures that go against…what’s considered morally correct or politically correct. And that’s where I came in.”
In some cases, Barresi admits, he used strong-arm intimidation, hiring two burly fellow Italians from his gym to stand behind him, goon-like, when he visited a deadbeat’s house seeking payment. He insists he turned down some over-the-top requests to seriously terrorize people, including one from a celeb who wanted a foe’s Mercedes worked over with a sledgehammer. Did he ever resort to actual violence? Barresi grins and grows cagey at the question: “You trying to get me arrested? I’m not gonna answer that question. The key to audacity is knowing how far you can go without going too far. And to be perfectly honest with you, I took that to the limit. But not far enough that it would have landed me in prison. I was too good at it. For the most part it was all bluff, it was all show. It was acting!”
Barresi moved sharply higher on the Hollywood notoriety scale in 1990 when the National Enquirer ran a front-page story showcasing his claim that he’d had a two-year love affair with John Travolta. Barresi told the tabloid he’d met Travolta in 1982 when the actor followed him into the shower room of an L.A. health club. They later had sex dozens of times, Barresi said. The star, he said, often showed up at his apartment for bedroom calisthenics, implored Barresi to tell him dirty stories over the phone, and told the porn actor he was sexier and more macho than Burt Reynolds and Clark Gable combined. Barresi said he’d gone to bed with other celebrities, too. “From time to time I’ve let them use me in hopes of furthering my acting career,” he said. But several months later Barresi retracted his story, saying in a letter to Travolta’s attorney that he’d never engaged in homosexual activity with Travolta.
Barresi said in subsequent interviews that his life had been turned upside down when copies of the Enquirer piece were sent anonymously to his parents, brothers and fitness clients. At one point, Barresi blamed the Church of Scientology, of which Travolta has long been a high-profile member, for the mailings.
In the early ’90s, Barresi’s career morphed again, as he became an unlicensed private eye and a retailer of tabloid news. In 1994, he got involved in the Michael Jackson child-molestation scandal when he was approached by two of Jackson’s servants who claimed they’d seen the performer rubbing a young boy’s thighs in an inappropriate way. The couple wanted Barresi’s help in selling their story to the tabloids, and Barresi says he obtained a $150,000 offer from the Enquirer. He was to receive a 10 percent commission. But the servants, Barresi says, screwed him by hiring a Beverly Hills lawyer who promised he could get them much more tabloid cash, as well as book and movie deals. Angry at being cut out of the action, Barresi decided to sell the couple’s story without them. He taped them several times as they related their tale of supposed celebrity perversion. Two of the tapes were made surreptitiously, with Barresi slipping a recorder into his pocket before joining the Jackson hirelings at their lawyer’s office. But with each retelling, Barresi says, the details of the alleged molestation grew more lurid. “Every time they told the story, they would add a little more,” he says. “[Jackson's] hand went from outside the kid’s pants to inside the kid’s pants. It was outside the kid’s pants when they were offered fifty grand, and inside the kid’s pants when they were offered a hundred thousand.”
Most journalists would shy away from basing a news story on taped voices that couldn’t be positively identified. But the tabs were in frenzied pursuit of Jacko, and Barresi figured out a clever way to assuage any qualms they might have about the recordings. He called the Globe and said he was going to present the tapes as evidence to the L.A. County district attorney’s office. Did the paper want copies? Did it want to assign a reporter to accompany him downtown when he delivered the tapes? It sure as hell did.
On the day the Globe story came out, Barresi met again with the servants and their lawyer, his recorder again whirring quietly in his pocket. The woman retainer angrily confronted him, demanding to know if he was the source of the Globe story. Barresi smoothly lied through his teeth. “I already got fifteen grand in my pocket from [selling the story], but I say, ‘Of course not,’” he recalls happily. “The attorney jumps in, [saying] ‘Of course not, he wouldn’t be sitting here right now if he did.’ And I’m so calm. I’m just sitting there. I go, ‘Search me.’ And I had the recorder going.
Meanwhile, Barresi contacted noted Beverly Hills private investigator Anthony Pellicano, who was working for Jackson to try to quash the scandal. Barresi told Pellicano about the tapes, saying they contained inconsistencies that would help undercut the servants’ allegations. “It was great because after that I took all the information to Pellicano and just discredited the shit outta them. They didn’t make a dime.”
Working both sides of the street proved highly lucrative for Barresi. By first spreading ugly rumors about Jackson and then casting doubt on them, he pocketed nearly $60,000. He got a sweet bonus, too: revenge on two people who’d dissed him.
“It’s very simple,” says the Sicilian welder’s son. “If someone’s not gonna give me respect, I’m not gonna respect them. If someone fucks with me, I’m gonna fuck with them.”
It didn’t take Paul Barresi long to find the transsexual ex-dominatrix who once went by the handle of Carnal Candy.
Carnal had made herself a major player in the Murphy/she-males scandal. A sort of den mother to local transsexuals, she’d been incensed when Murphy claimed he didn’t know that Atisone Seiuli, the tranny hooker he’d been stopped with, was actually a tranny hooker. Carnal’s girlfriends had been telling her of their alleged liaisons with the actor for years. She’d heard so many such anecdotes, in fact, that she was writing a book, In the Closet With Eddie Murphy, which she later published online.
These days Carnal goes by the name Candace Watkins and lives in a small, dingy house in Altadena with three enormous black royal standard poodles. She’s articulate and shrewd, if not altogether convincing, with her broad shoulders and six-foot-plus height, as a feminine specimen.
After running away from home at 16, she became a prostitute on the streets of Chicago. She later moved to New Orleans, where she tended bar, worked as a stripper, turned tricks and had an oil-field roustabout as a boyfriend. In the early ’80s she relocated to L.A. and got involved in blue movies, rising to underground stardom as a transsexual dominatrix, then a new porn genre. In 1983, she underwent surgery to make her, as she puts it, a complete woman.
Following Murphy’s little spin with Seiuli, Candace put several transsexual friends — including Tempest, who’d described the actor’s cologne, underwear, and toe-licking habits in such engaging detail — in touch with the Globe. Candace got dolled up as a streetwalker and, she says, posed for two staged photos that accompanied the Globe piece. The tab paid Tempest $1,500, which she split with Candace. Candace also made introductions for Sylvia Holland, a black transsexual porn actress (“I look like Diahann Carroll”) who claimed to have trysted with Murphy. Holland subsequently surfaced in the Enquirer story, in which she boasted of two sex encounters with the star — once in an alley, and the second time in his car.
Through his porn-biz connections, Barresi soon located Candace at the North Hollywood apartment building where she then lived. She had moved there to be close to another tranny pal, Valerie Gale, who also claimed her share of frolics with Murphy. Candace was in the process of interviewing Valerie for her e-book about Murphy. Valerie was seriously ill with HIV and, according to Candace, a bit flighty, and Candace wanted easy access to her. The two girlfriends were together in Valerie’s apartment when Barresi called. His objective was simple and nefarious: to pay the trannies to reverse their stories and swear Murphy had never had sex with them or any other transsexuals.
The actor’s lawyer, Marty Singer, was evidently cranking up for a courtroom showdown with the Enquirer and the Globe, and the stakes for both sides were high. Sworn statements from the trannies saying they’d lied about Murphy would give Singer the legal equivalent of a B-52 bomber in his battle with the tabs. “If he had affidavits from the people who were our sources, at first blush you’d have to say we have a truth problem,” says one tab lawyer, who asked not to be identified. “You’d have to worry about how could it be that these people told our reporters x’ when they’ve just sworn not x,’ unless they’re talking out of both sides of their mouth.”
With their sources’ credibility shot, the tabs might have to run up a white flag, paying Murphy big bucks to make the libel suits go away and even pledging to write no more stories about him and trannies. Perhaps more important, no other media outlets would ever believe the trannies again, and the Murphy/kinky sex scandal would come to a screeching halt. Barresi fully understood all this. “I think that was [Murphy's lawyers'] goal, to just simply discredit them,” he says. “Although the actor had already taken a serious PR hit, his camp wanted to make sure there would be no further damage,” says Barresi.
Barresi began what he describes as a gradual courting process of Candace in mid-July 1997. “I knew she had a powerful influence over the others,” he says. “She’s like the queen bee. If she wanted them to jump, they would say, ‘How high?’ She’s the leader; she had the strength. She was more intelligent than the rest. She was their protector, their guardian, their adviser. But the irony here is that she always had her own interests at heart.”
After a couple of phone conversations, Barresi visited Candace at her apartment and began laying on the sweet talk -and the money. He told her he’d seen her movies and praised her as an absolute star. “I remember this line,” he says. “This is a good one; you should use it sometime. I said, ‘Candace, you’re younger and more beautiful than you’ve ever been.’ I got her guard down.”
Barresi moved cautiously. He was too slick to bluntly offer Candace and Valerie bribes right out of the box. Instead, he suggested ways they could rationalize lying, or at least make their recantations sound plausible. The tabloids, he said, were infamous for embellishing stories; maybe that had happened in Murphy’s case. But the two trannies, he says, insisted that what the tabs printed was true. Then Barresi took another tack, trying to appeal to their sense of decency. Murphy’s career and marriage, he said, could be ruined by the stories the trannies were telling. But that approach didn’t work, either. Finally, Barresi got to his bottom line. “In the same way that the tabloids were able to offer you money for your story, I am in a position to offer you money,” he told them. “How much?” asked Candace. As soon as he heard that, says Barresi, “I knew I had her.”
Barresi freely admits offering the trannies money to lie under penalty of perjury. “Sure it was a payoff,” he says. “I was very, very direct with [Candace]. I don’t know if we used the word payoff, but I know it was about her being paid to change her story around.”
They quickly arrived at a price, in the five figures. But when Barresi phoned Singer for approval, he says, the attorney went through the roof, saying, “I’m not gonna give those things that kind of money!” Barresi went back and bargained for lower fees, and the deal was on. Barresi promptly began coaching Candace and Valerie on how best to lie when they were interviewed by Murphy’s lawyers. The investigator worked from a list of questions he drafted himself. “I said, ‘OK, let’s do a practice run,’” he recalls. “Let’s talk a little bit about the tabloids. Who interviewed you for the tabloids?’ They said the [reporter's] name – Blackman, I think his name was. I said, ‘Did at any time you feel that Blackman was pressuring you to embellish your story?’ ‘Yes.’ Were you told that unless you exaggerated your story that there wouldn’t be a story?’ ‘Yes’… And then I just flat out said, ‘Did you just sell this story to the tabloids for the money?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘So you never did have sex with Eddie Murphy, did you?’ ‘No. Never.’
Barresi says he typed up his questions and the trannies’ answers and sent the transcript to Brian G. Wolf, one of Singer’s partners. Barresi also claims he sent Wolf a memo indicating that Sylvia Holland was willing to change her story and outlining what she would say. Barresi says he never told Singer or Wolf he was coaching the trannies to lie, nor did the attorneys ever order him to obtain perjured testimony. Indeed, Barresi says, Singer specifically told him to get the truth. Barresi says he ignored that admonition because I understood what [the attorneys] wanted to hear. “I never used the words ‘look, Marty, if we pay her this hush money, she’ll lie and change her story,’” says Barresi. “I never had that kind of dialogue with the attorneys… What I presented to the attorneys I always presented as truthful and legit. And what I discussed with Candace was completely the opposite.”
On July 17, Barresi drove Candace and Valerie to Singer’s office, where, in signed declarations, they took back everything they’d told the tabs. Candace wrote that she’d referred Valerie and Tempest to the Enquirer purely for money; that the two other trannies had lied about having sex with Murphy, also for money; and that an Enquirer reporter had coached and intimidated them to make false statements. “I have never met Eddie Murphy, nor do I know anyone who has had sex with Eddie Murphy,” Candace declared in her statement.
Despite the coup of obtaining Candace and Valerie’s recantations, “Singer couldn’t wait for the two trannies to leave,” Barresi says. “Singer was thoroughly disgusted, felt like creepy crawlers were going up his neck,” recalls Barresi. “I could tell he was very shaken and disturbed. Just being in their presence repulsed him. And he conveyed that to me outside the office: ‘Just get this over with, get them outta here!’”
For her efforts, Candace was paid $15,000 by Singer’s firm, according to an IRS document she provided to New Times. Valerie says she was paid $5,000. Sylvia Holland, who gave Barresi a videotaped statement at her West Hollywood apartment denying any sexual relationship with Murphy, says she received $2,500.
Asked about Barresi’s tactics, Singer initially insisted that Paul Barresi has in no way been employed by our firm. Told later that Barresi provided New Times with pay stubs indicating he received at least $3,451 from Singer’s firm for work on the Murphy/Enquirer account, the attorney conceded that Barresi had been retained as an investigator. Singer also acknowledges hiring Barresi despite knowing of the porn actor’s deceitfulness in the Travolta case, which was handled by Singer’s firm.
Indeed, Barresi lied in his first phone contact with Singer, giving him a phony name. He did so because he feared Singer might recognize his real name and not hire him since the attorney’s firm had represented Travolta at the time Barresi disavowed his story of having been the star’s lover. Barresi eventually came clean about his true identity. “He did discuss with me the Travolta issue,” says Singer. “He says, ‘you know, I’m sorry, I never should have done that.’”
Citing lawyer-client privilege, Singer at first declined to say if Candace Watkins or any other transvestites were paid by his firm. He also suggested that Watkins’ IRS document might have been forged. But to help insure that it wasn’t, New Times asked Watkins to request a fresh copy from the government and then dispatched a reporter to witness her opening the envelope when it arrived at her home. Pressed further, Singer acknowledged that Candace had been employed by his firm as a consultant to help Barresi find the other trannies who’d been interviewed by the tabs. Singer declines to discuss whether his firm paid Valerie Gale or Sylvia Holland. But Barresi confirms he delivered $5,000 and $2,500, respectively, to them. Sylvia says she knew the money was intended as a bribe but took it anyway. “I needed the money,” she says. “When someone offers you $2,500 to say you don’t know someone, you just think about the money.”
Singer says neither he nor his partner, Wolf, knew that Barresi was soliciting the trannies to lie for money, or that they were doing so. “If they committed perjury and he knew it, we certainly had no knowledge of it,” says Singer. “If I had known that Barresi wanted to suborn perjury or get false statements, I would never have used him.” Perjury (knowingly making false statements under oath) and suborning perjury are federal crimes punishable by fines and up to five years in prison. But Candace says she has no qualms about having lied under penalty of perjury. “We were telling lies because they were giving me $15,000,” she says. “I never had that much money together at one time… After discussing it with my mother, she says, ‘Why did you take the money?’ I said, ‘They were stupid enough to give it to me.’ That was my attitude. I’ve had bad breaks in life because of being born transgender. I can do a lot with $15,000, especially when I’m running a personal ad for $60 for a half-hour massage, and trying not to contact [sic] AIDS.” Of Singer and his associates she adds: “Honey, they were hungrier than a bunch of Hollywood whores lookin’ for a trick. When I walked out of that room I thought, ‘Woo, they go to school to do this?’”
Donald Tripp was dead, but that didn’t stop Paul Barresi from capitalizing on the gay thief and con man’s life. Tripp had made his living stealing designer-label clothes and selling them for a fraction of their retail worth. Barresi had once bought a $1,000 suit from him for $100. “I didn’t ask him where he got it,” says Barresi, even though I had an idea where he got it. Besides sticky fingers, Tripp had another interesting physical asset: He was a dead ringer for Eddie Murphy. For years, he used his striking resemblance to cadge free drinks, restaurant meals, concert tickets and even sex from gullible Murphy fans from L.A. to New York. “He had doormen [and] bouncers let him in clubs, he had people buy him drinks, he was running all over New York,” Barresi recalls.
Barresi realized he could use Tripp to create a cover story that would make the trannies’ abrupt denials of their relationships with Murphy seem less suspicious. They may have thought they were having sex with the Beverly Hills Cop star, but they were actually doing it with Tripp.
Conveniently, the impostor had lived in West Hollywood and frequented nearby drag clubs. It was the perfect explanation of why the trannies gave such dramatically different stories to the tabs and to Singer. It was also an excellent way for Barresi to keep working for Singer, and billing his law firm $75 an hour. “Hey, my wheels were turnin’,” says Barresi. “I thought of all kinds of different angles… I tried to keep my position with [Singer] alive as long as I could.”
There was just one fly in the ointment: Tripp had died of AIDS a number of years before the tranny scandal erupted. He thus couldn’t be bribed to say it was he, not Murphy, who’d had all those tranny flings. But Barresi figured a way around that problem, too. He lined up a young gay man named James who’d hung out with Tripp. James, too, was a petty criminal, who, among other things, wrote bad checks. He could attest that he’d been with Tripp when the impostor picked up trannies for sex. Trouble was, James was too young to have gone to clubs and otherwise served as Tripp’s high-life sidekick during the early to mid-’80s, when some of the trannies claimed they’d been with Murphy. James had been in grade school during that critical period. That didn’t faze Barresi. He simply didn’t tell Singer that Tripp was dead, and lied to his partner Brian Wolf about James’ age. “James marched into Singer’s office, back-dated his association with Tripp in a sworn statement and was paid $3,000,” says Barresi. “The foundation of [James'] deposition was false,” Barresi acknowledges. (Singer says he doesn’t recall anything about a guy named James.)
The impostor story came in handy when the trannies gave their statements to Singer. Candace swore with absolute certainty that she’d had sex not with Murphy but with a well-known impersonator and Eddie Murphy look-alike who frequented transsexual clubs in the Hollywood area, according to her declaration. (This even though she’d never claimed to have trysted with Murphy herself; she said friends had.) Valerie Gale lied similarly. “They paid us to say it was an Eddie Murphy impostor,” she says. Asked if her sex partner might actually have been Tripp, Valerie adds: “Oh, please. I dated the man three different times. I don’t date impostors, honey. The first time he came up, alone, [he] was in a cream-colored Rolls. I dropped the keys down to him and he came up to our apartment, and we got busy. It was definitely Eddie Murphy.”
But as Barresi continued down his list of talkative gender benders, he began running into people who wouldn’t accept payoffs. One was Atisone Seiuli, the Samoan transsexual the cops had stopped with Murphy. Atisone went by the street name of Shalimar (“After the perfume — it’s so sweet,” she told the Enquirer) and performed at local drag clubs, sometimes as a dominatrix nun complete with chains and snakes. She told friends of schmoozing with Charlie Sheen, Demi Moore and other film stars who came to see her, and boasted that she’d someday be bigger than drag sensation RuPaul. Atisone had made herself a prime target for Barresi by giving an interview to the Enquirer following the police stop. “Eddie’s claim he was just giving me a lift makes me laugh!” the tab quoted her as saying. “I’m a transsexual hooker and he knew that!”
Barresi says Singer wanted a sworn denial from Atisone because she was thinking about writing a book on her encounter with Murphy. (Singer says he can’t recall if he sought Atisone’s denial.) At Barresi’s urging, Candace contacted Atisone and passed along his offer to pay her if she’d switch her story. But Atisone wanted nothing to do with Murphy or his money, Candace says. “After I told her that they wanted to talk, she said no,” recalls Candace. “She was afraid to talk to him. She wanted to just drop him. They wanted to give her $10,000 to never talk about it again.” Barresi confirms Candace’s account.
Barresi then approached Karen Dior, the drag queen whose given name is Geoff Gann. Gann grew up in a Missouri farm town, where he learned the art of makeup by peddling Mary Kay cosmetics as a high school senior. The farm wives he doted on loved him, and he earned $100 an hour lugging his wares around town in a distinctive pink case. His father, a Republican state legislator, was horrified. “He said, ‘Can’t you at least have brown cases, instead of the pink ones?’” recalls Gann, laughing. “My parents said, ‘What are we gonna tell our friends?’ I said, ‘Tell your friends that I’m making more money than you are.’”
At 21, Gann moved to L.A., got a job at a Beverly Hills beauty salon and began performing in drag shows at a West Hollywood bar. A fellow drag queen was also a porn director, and Gann soon found himself acting in bisexual and transsexual videos. (His first role was in a flick titled Sharon and Karen.) He’s also appeared in numerous TV commercials and shows, including an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess, in which he plants a long, soulful kiss on Lucy Lawless. The scene caused a brief stir in fanzines and the tabs since Gann has AIDS.
In drag Gann makes a very convincing woman, and the Globe ran a fetching photo of him on its cover on May 20, 1997, alongside the headline Eddie Murphy’s Drag Queens Tell All. In the accompanying story, Gann claimed a 1990 assignation with the star in his limo. “I asked Eddie what he liked,” Gann told the tab. “He said: ‘I’m straight, but I like girls like you.’ And I said: Well, girls like me are boys.’”
At the Globe’s insistence Gann took a lie-detector test, which he passed, according to a copy of the examiner’s report obtained by New Times. “I have this annoying habit of telling the truth,” says Gann, 33, sitting in his West Hollywood apartment. “And I guess I’m still kind of naive. I didn’t really think it would be a big deal.” It was a big deal, however, to Marty Singer, who swiftly named Gann a co-defendant in his $5 million libel suit against the Globe. That scared the bejesus out of Gann, who was very ill at the time. “I was spending a lot of money on medicine and doctors’ visits,” he says. “I’d had AIDS since 1995. So at times I’d been really well and at times I’d been really sick. He’s suing me for $5 million, and really all he could hope to get from me would be my dresses and the rest of my T cells.”
Barresi was acquainted with Gann from the porn business and phoned the drag queen under the pretext of helping him broker his Murphy story to a tabloid TV news show. Barresi eventually revealed he was working for Murphy’s lawyers and asked if Gann was willing to recant for money. Gann was, says Barresi, but insisted on $100,000 — a fee Barresi knew Singer would never agree to. Gann tells a different story. He’s known Barresi since the early ’90s. “He was known in the gay porn industry as being kind of…unpredictable,” says Gann. “He would get mad at the models and scream at them and throw the camera at them. He saw a picture of me somewhere in drag and started calling me up and wanted me to go on a date with him or have sex with him. And I’m like, ‘Well, thanks but no.’” Gann says Barresi first offered to pay him to simply shut up about Murphy, which Gann was more than willing to do. “I said, ‘You know what? He doesn’t have to pay me. I have no desire to talk about it anymore.’ Anytime anybody writes anything about me, it starts out with, Karen Dior, the drag queen that slept with Eddie Murphy…’ Then it goes on to say whatever the story is. I’m tired of hearing it. I’m almost as sick of it as he is, probably.” But later, says Gann, Barresi insisted he sign a statement saying he’d lied to the Globe. Gann refused. “I looked deep within myself and I said, ‘You know, I just can’t do that, because it’s not true,’” he says.
Gann says Barresi then tried to pressure him by claiming Murphy’s camp had hired a private eye to spy on him. The investigator supposedly learned Gann was turning tricks and found evidence of illegal drug use while sifting through his trash. “And I’m like, ‘Well, if they’re watching me, then they know that the only drugs in my garbage would be my AIDS drugs bottles that I’m throwing out,’” Gann says he retorted. Barresi denies saying a P.I. was watching Gann, but admits making a veiled threat that the drag queen was walking on thin ice because of all of the skeletons in his closet. Such skeletons, Barresi added, could easily be dug up by an investigator — and badly damage Gann’s lucrative acting career. Gann, however, stuck to his story.
Stung by the horrendous publicity from his tranny pickup, Eddie Murphy launched a charm offensive in the media. At the time the scandal blew up, the actor had been trying to revive a career that had stalled in the early ’90s. Following his rise to fame as a Saturday Night Live regular in the early ’80s, he moved on to movies, becoming one of the world’s biggest stars with hits like 48 Hrs. and Beverly Hills Cop. Later flicks, such as Metro, bombed. In 1996, Murphy’s prospects improved noticeably with the success of The Nutty Professor. By the time of the Seiuli scandal, he was in the midst of a remake of the children’s classic Dr. Doolittle, which earned him a reported $17 million. Murphy had a very big incentive to make sure Middle America didn’t conclude he was some kind of wife-ditching night crawler with a taste for freaky sex.
Soon after the Seiuli business hit the newspapers, Murphy gave a lengthy interview to People magazine, claiming: “This is an act of kindness that got turned into a f–king horror show.” His wife and children were visiting her parents in Sacramento on the night in question, he said, and he’d been unable to sleep. In the course of looking for something to read at an all-night newsstand, he spotted Seiuli and — not knowing she was arguably a he — offered a ride home.
Murphy said he often drove around at night when he felt restless, sometimes handing out wads of cash to hookers and street people. Murphy also appeared on TV’s Entertainment Tonight, saying he was embarrassed by the whole mess and denying he’d picked up Seiuli for sex. “I love my wife and I’m not gay,” he said. “If I was soliciting, I would have picked this girl up and pulled over to some dark corner or dark alley and did whatever I was going to do.” He ended by pledging to never, ever, ever play good Samaritan again.
Meanwhile, Singer’s multimillion-dollar lawsuits against the tabloids had been widely reported in the mainstream media. But only a few months after filing them, the attorney quietly dropped the suits. Murphy publicist Arnold Robinson said in August 1997 that the Enquirer suit was withdrawn because the paper did not publish its article about Mr. Murphy with malice and recklessness — legal elements that must be proved for a libel action to succeed in court. What Robinson didn’t say was that Murphy had not only dropped his suit against the Enquirer, but had agreed, after secret negotiations, to pay the tab’s legal fees — an extremely rare concession in such circumstances. “You can’t win bigger than that when you’re defending against a lawsuit,” crows Enquirer attorney Gerson Zweifach, of the influential Williams and Connolly law firm in Washington, D.C. “To have the other guy agree to go away and pay your fees — it’s a happy day in the tabloid wars!” Zweifach refuses to say how much Murphy paid or to reveal other details of the confidential out-of-court settlement.
Singer dropped his suit against the Globe so quickly that the paper didn’t have time to file a response in court, one of its attorneys says. Gann, a defendant in that suit, never even received an official notice that he was being sued. And two tabloid lawyers say Singer never threatened to use the trannies’ false declarations against them in court.
What in the name of Axel Foley was going on here?
“Only about 1 percent of all lawsuits are settled with the plaintiff paying the defendant’s legal costs,” according to USC law professor Daniel Klerman, an expert in civil procedure. “Usually in the settlement of lawsuits, money flows from the defendant to the plaintiff,” he says. “Singer’s cancellation of the suits,” adds Klerman, “suggests that Eddie Murphy realized somewhere along the way that [the lawsuits were] harming him more than helping him.”
Loyola Law School professor Lawrence Solum agrees and suggests two possible explanations for why Murphy backed off. One is that the libel suits may have been frivolous — that is, that the actor knew he couldn’t prove his allegations against the tabs. “Murphy could have faced hefty financial penalties for filing such a suit,” says Solum. (Singer vehemently denies that the suits were meritless.) The other possibility is that the actor worried that the tabs had more trannies lined up to testify against him or some other ammunition to use if his case actually went to trial. (Indeed, Murphy’s suit against the Globe contains the intriguing statement that he has not paid for sex with transsexuals for more than ten years — implying he might have trouble warding off allegations that he’d done so prior to that.) And a trial, of course, would have triggered more gleeful tabloid coverage — not to mention stories in the mainstream press — and kept the scandal alive that much longer. Singer refuses to discuss his motives for withdrawing the lawsuits, saying only: “We made resolutions that were satisfactory to my client.”
Although Murphy flack Robinson claimed the Enquirer suit was dropped because the tab hadn’t published its Murphy story recklessly, Singer says the trannies’ declarations demonstrated exactly the opposite. “Their about-faces,” he says, “proved they would say anything for money and therefore were unreliable sources. And for both tabs to have relied on them in printing their Murphy stories indicates a high degree of recklessness.” “When we interviewed these transvestites, reliability is not one of their strong suits,” the lawyer says. “You give them a sandwich, they’ll tell you anything. You don’t have to give them $5,000; you can give them lunch.”
But several tab sources say they believe the lawsuits were merely a PR tactic to help Singer knock down the tranny scandal as quickly as possible. “If an embarrassing story were published about someone, and that someone didn’t want the public to believe it, a good way to defuse the situation is to file a lawsuit, get a lot of publicity about the lawsuit on TV, so that everyone says, ‘Oh, that story’s not true,’ and then dismiss the lawsuit very quickly so that you don’t have to defend it,” suggests one tabloid attorney, who requested anonymity. “Because it’s a good way to have all the tabloid television shows report on your lawsuit and the fact that the story is probably not true.”
A former Globe editor insists the libel suits didn’t intimidate the paper into shying away from additional articles on Murphy’s accusers. “I don’t recall that any stories were killed,” says the editor, who also requested anonymity. But neither did the Globe or the other tabs print anything more about the Murphy/tranny imbroglio in 1997. The scandal was, for all practical purposes, over.
Nearly a year after she triggered a media uproar by stepping into Eddie Murphy’s Land Cruiser, Atisone Seiuli was found dead on the sidewalk outside her Koreatown apartment. A collective shiver passed through L.A.’s tranny community. Candace Watkins created a memorial Web site for Atisone, writing that she’d been pushed out of a window in her five-story building and was a victim of foul play. Candace also tipped the Globe, hoping news coverage of Atisone’s demise would forestall possible foul play against other trannies — especially her. The Globe quickly weighed in with a story headlined Eddie Murphy Drag Queen Murdered. It said the Murphy scandal had shattered Atisone’s life, turning her into a pathetic paranoid who feared she was being pursued by hit men. Atisone’s brother David told the tab that she grew hysterical at the mere mention of Murphy’s name, and had recently traveled to New York and New Orleans under the noms de drag Gina Addison and Linda GoLightly.
Despite the Globe’s headline and Candace’s assertions, there was exactly zero evidence that Atisone was murdered or that Murphy was in any way involved in her April 22, 1998, death. But that’s not to say the circumstances of her demise weren’t pretty weird.
Atisone died in a predawn fall from her apartment house on Berendo Street, where she’d been sharing digs with a man then visiting his mother in El Salvador. Her body was found in a pool of blood, clad only in a black bra padded with silicon pouches and a black leather bikini thong. (Both garments, noted an apparently fashion-conscious investigator from the coroner’s office, were from Frederick’s of Hollywood.)
The young tranny struck the pavement with such force that her nasal bone was driven through her skull into her brain. The coroner’s report said a towel was found tied to a railing atop Atisone’s building, just above an open window in her fifth-floor unit. The towel ended about two feet short of the window, and fingernail scrape marks trailed eerily down the building’s facade. Neighbors reported that Atisone and her roommate sometimes accidentally locked themselves out and entered the apartment by climbing down from the roof on a fire escape and through a living-room window. But the landlord had recently nailed that window shut following a burglary.
On the night of her death, Atisone, who’d worked at a local club until 4 a.m., had left her keys inside the apartment and apparently tried to lower herself to the open window with the towel. “Supposedly, this had happened before, and what she would do was go up to the roof and climb down to an open window on her balcony, but this time, that window was shut,” says LAPD homicide detective Andy Cicoria, who investigated the death. “So she had to try to swing into the other window, by a towel. The distance into the window was a few feet less than the length of the towel, so when she swung down, she missed, and she fell.” An autopsy found no drugs or alcohol in Atisone’s blood, and the coroner ruled the death an accident.
A memorial service was held at a Hollywood mortuary. Two grieving transexuals who called themselves Chocolate and Visa filed past Atison’s open casket as soft church hymns filled the air, reported the Globe, using the feminine spelling of her first name. Visa softly touched Atison’s hand and commented how pretty she looked in a simple white gown. Eddie Murphy, ex-good Samaritan, did not attend.
In the end, Barresi got no respect from Marty Singer and his button-down Century City colleagues. And that made the Sicilian welder’s son mad. He wanted to ride the Singer gravy train as long as possible. But to do so, he needed to cook up another Murphy-related job he could perform. Geoff Gann inadvertently suggested one.
Gann mentioned that a gay friend of his, Frank Sanello, a writer of quickie Hollywood bio books, was working on a Murphy volume that prominently featured his she-male troubles. Barresi decided to snoop on Sanello, provide Singer with sufficient information to launch a legal preemptive strike on Sanello’s book, and then sit back and wait for the bonus check to arrive in the mail. But things didn’t work out that way. Barresi resorted to his usual tactics: trickery and lying. He called Sanello, claiming he was looking for a ghostwriter to pen his autobiography, and later visited the author at home, a tape recorder secretly rolling in his pocket. “It was on a pretense. That’s my m.o.,” says Barresi. “I’ll go in on a pretense and get people to talk about stuff.” After flattering Sanello on his looks, Barresi asked him about the Murphy book, which the writer was happy to discuss. He eagerly provided the name of his publisher and even showed Barresi a draft, which began with Gann’s tale of mutual oral copulation with Murphy. “He was totally open,” says Barresi, grinning. “Boy, I’m good, aren’t I?”
Barresi later transcribed his interview with Sanello and sent it to Singer’s partner Brian Wolf, figuring the attorneys could write Sanello’s publisher a threatening letter and perhaps torpedo the book.
“I gave them the publisher, I gave them verbatim what the book had to say,” says Barresi. “I had everything recorded. I said, ‘This is so damning I got to put this together and bring it to Wolf.’” But Wolf, says Barresi, acted like it was no big deal. The lawyer refused to pay for the Sanello information, but Barresi, miffed, billed a little bit of it to Singer’s firm anyway. “If that didn’t deserve a bonus…” Barresi says, his voice trailing off. He brooded angrily on why the Century City suits had apparently ended their relationship with him. Had Singer and company thrown him more work, he says, “they certainly would have had my allegiance forever.” “But in the same way that they demonstrated that they had no respect for me, that’s how I felt about them. I gotta tell you, that plays on my emotions. Quite heavily. Because I put myself in harm’s way, is really what I did.” And that’s why, when a New Times reporter came calling much later, Barresi gladly turned over his records on the Murphy case. The documents included copies of paychecks from Singer’s law firm to Barresi, transcripts of his coached trial run interviews with the trannies, and memos to Singer and Wolf outlining some of Barresi’s activities.
Once again, Barresi exacted revenge on people he felt had screwed him.
“How much risk does a person have to take, how much crow does a person have to eat, before they’re gonna win some respect?” he asks rhetorically, reflecting on his handiwork. “I feel that as much as I did for them, they really didn’t give me a fair shake. My wife has brought this up many times. She says, ‘Eddie Murphy is probably completely oblivious as to what you did for him.’”
Barresi adds that he’s been reading lately about the great French general Napoleon, who grew up on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, not far from Sicily. “He would go into the trenches and talk to his men. He would know the officers on a first-name basis. He would know who they all were. He would find out who the most courageous man was in the trenches, and he would take the medals of honor that he was wearing on his breast and he put them on [that soldier's] breast. And I’m wondering, once [Eddie Murphy] finds out who I am, if he would do that. I think I already know the answer.”
In 1999, “The Bagman” won the runner-up prize for “Best Hard News Story” at the American Society of Journalists and Authors/Los Angeles Press Club Awards.