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How a Chicago Detective Found the Stolen Body of Elizabeth Taylor’s Third Husband, Mike Todd

When thieves stole the remains of the showman Mike Todd in 1977, Anthony Pellicano—later the “detective to the stars"—stepped in to solve a case that had baffled police. Turns out Todd and Pellicano had lots in common, especially a craving for the spotlight.

Elizabeth Taylor and Mike Todd
Elizabeth Taylor and Mike Todd

It had been years since the dark-haired woman with the violet eyes had visited her husband’s grave. But with a stopover at O’Hare International Airport on this early summer day, she finally had her chance. On Friday, June 24, 1977, the actress Elizabeth Taylor, one of the most recognizable people in the world, slipped unnoticed into a suburban Chicago cemetery and left a dozen long-stemmed roses and an American flag at the tombstone of her third husband, the Oscar-winning movie producer Michael Todd, killed 19 years earlier in a fiery plane crash.

One day after Taylor’s surreptitious appearance, Todd’s grave had other visitors, though their presence went unreported until shortly after noon on Sunday, June 26th. That’s when an elderly woman visiting a nearby gravesite noticed Todd’s toppled tombstone—inscribed with his given name, Avrom Hirsch Goldbogen—and his unearthed and emptied casket. She called police, and on Monday morning, the case of Mike Todd’s missing remains made headlines nationwide. Through a spokesperson, Taylor, then the wife of John Warner, the future U.S. senator from Virginia, said she was “very upset and as baffled as anyone over the motive.”

The local police were equally perplexed. The crime might simply have been an elaborate act of vandalism, a crude anti-Semitic protest—or perhaps the criminals meant to extort money from Taylor, though no one had contacted the actress with any demands.

Finally, on Tuesday, June 28th, a flamboyant private eye named Anthony Pellicano arrived on the scene and solved the case—without actually clearing up the mystery. Born in 1944 (as Anthony Joseph Pellican Jr.) and raised by a single mom, the PI had grown up in Cicero and dropped out of high school. “I’m a kid from the streets,” he told People magazine in 1993. “I could have been a criminal just as easily.” Propelled in part by the hoopla surrounding the Todd case, Pellicano moved to California in 1983, where for nearly 20 years the publicity-hungry sleuth enjoyed a reputation as the “detective to the stars.”

All that changed in November 2002 when FBI agents raided Pellicano’s Sunset Boulevard office and discovered military-grade plastic explosives inside a locked safe. The feds began investigating Pellicano’s business practices, and today the gumshoe languishes in a Los Angeles jail, indicted on 110 counts of illegal wiretapping, extortion, and other charges. Meanwhile, back in Chicago, testimony in the ongoing Family Secrets trial has tied Pellicano with one of the most notorious members of the local Mob.

Before he left Chicago for good, Mike Todd had his own entanglement with the Mob—just one of the parallels his life shared with Pellicano’s. Both men defied hardscrabble origins to create new identities for themselves, and both used their talent for talking a good game to help satisfy their hunger for fame. And both men understood the benefits of cultivating the press—although in Pellicano’s case, that voluble habit seemed to violate one of his principal tenets. During a 1978 interview with the Chicago Tribune, he had pointed to a plaque on his office wall that said, “Silence is a friend that will never betray you.”

Added Pellicano, “That’s the only way to guard your privacy.”

Born in Minneapolis around 100 years ago—his birth date is generally given as June 22, 1907 or 1909—Mike Todd moved to Chicago in 1918 after his Polish-born father became the rabbi of a Jewish congregation on the city’s Northwest Side. The family settled into a house on Le Moyne Street just west of Wicker Park, where young Avrom Goldbogen, the seventh of eight children, was known affectionately as Toaty or Toady. Though the nickname’s origins are clouded, it became the basis for his adopted surname, Todd. (“Michael” is the Anglicized version of his grandfather’s name, Moishe.)

Kicked out of the sixth grade for running a craps game, Todd held a variety of jobs before he and his older brother Frank founded the very successful Atlantic and Pacific Construction Company: according to A Valuable Property, Michael Todd Jr.’s biography of his father, Todd was worth $1 million by his 18th birthday. He married the daughter of a prosperous local grocer and built a townhouse for himself on Goethe Street. When his company’s bonding company went belly-up, Todd went broke, but earned—and, thanks to the Depression, lost—his second million soundproofing movie studios in Hollywood.

Eager to become the next Flo Ziegfeld, Todd began haunting the Chicago offices of Variety and kept a small office of his own on the 18th floor of the Oriental Theatre. In 1934, at Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition, he scored a hit with a titillating “flame dance,” which concluded with the flames of an oversize candle consuming the clothes of a comely ballerina. The act served as his springboard into the big time, and over the next two decades he produced a number of hits with music-and-comedy revues on Broadway.

Splitting his time between New York and Chicago, where he now served as the general manager of the Oriental, Todd took a onetime nightclub at Lawrence Avenue and Clark Street and transformed it into Michael Todd’s Theatre Café, a family-oriented place that showcased Gypsy Rose Lee in a G-rated striptease. Todd handed off the dining end of the club to someone else—a man, as it turned out, backed by Frank “the Enforcer” Nitti. When the Mob tried to muscle in on the club, Todd pulled his name from the project, and within a couple of months, the place closed down.

All this while, Todd had carried on an extended flirtation with Hollywood. Finally, in 1956, he produced his first full-length feature film, Around the World in 80 Days, filmed in Todd’s patented wide-screen format. (In Chicago, the movie had its première at the Cinestage at 180 North Dearborn, one of two local movie theatres—along with the Michael Todd—owned by Todd; today, the façades of both places are part of the Goodman Theatre complex.) At the Academy Awards ceremony in 1957, though competing against several strong movies—including George Stevens’s Giant, with Rock Hudson, James Dean, and Elizabeth Taylor—Todd’s movie won the Oscar for best picture. Surprised, Todd leaped from his seat and rushed toward the stage, stopping only long enough to plant a kiss on his wife of seven weeks: Elizabeth Taylor.

 
The grave of Mike Todd
Mike Todd’s Grave

A movie star since 1944, when she made National Velvet opposite Mickey Rooney, Taylor was only 24 when she married Todd on February 2, 1957. She had already endured two very public marriages: a troubled nine-month union with the hotel heir Conrad “Nicky” Hilton and five essentially loveless years with the British actor Michael Wilding that yielded two children. That marriage ended in divorce, and after only a few days she married Todd. Seven months later, their daughter, Elizabeth Frances—called Liza—was born.

In March 1958, as Taylor began work on the film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the Friars Club selected Todd as its Showman of the Year. Todd owned his own Lockheed Lodestar—the Lucky Liz—and he made plans to fly it from California to New York for the ceremony. Plagued by a terrible cold, Taylor canceled her plans to accompany him. The couple parted with a desperate kiss. “I’m too happy,” said Todd. “I’m afraid that something’s going to happen because I’m too happy.” Taylor later claimed that she too had a disturbing premonition about the trip.

While trying to fly through a storm, the Lucky Liz crashed in the Zuni Mountains about 75 miles west of Albuquerque, New Mexico, killing Todd and three others. On the morning of March 23rd, Taylor’s doctor, Rex Kennamer, and two others arrived at the Todd home and delivered the news to Taylor. “All I could do was scream ‘No, no, no!’” Taylor recalled, according to J. Randy Taraborrelli’s Elizabeth. Clad in a skimpy nightgown, she ran into the street and fell to her knees, still screaming. “No, not Mike. Not Mike. Dear God, please, not Mike.”

The funeral was two days later at Waldheim Cemetery in Forest Park, where Todd would be buried next to his father. The reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes had provided a TWA jet so that Taylor could make the flight to Chicago in private. Still in shock, she initially refused to make the trip, until the singer Eddie Fisher—he and his wife, Debbie Reynolds, were friends of the Todds’—convinced her she had the strength to get through the ordeal. (Fourteen months later, Fisher became Taylor’s fourth husband.)

Despite the cold weather, thousands of people turned out at the cemetery to try to catch a glimpse of Taylor. They had packed picnic lunches and spread out blankets among the graves. Taylor came away with memories of Coke bottles littering the grounds and empty potato chip bags blowing through the air. Clad in black and supported by Dr. Kennamer and her brother, Howard, she made her way from the limousine to a tent that shielded the gravesite from the crowd. She flung herself on Todd’s bronze casket and cried hysterically: “Oh, no! No! No! No!” In front of 38 mourners, a local rabbi led the traditional Jewish ceremony, though occasionally ushers had to step outside and implore the crowd to be quiet. “He was not only a father but the greatest human being in the entire world,” said Mike Todd Jr. “I loved him so much, oh, so much,” sobbed Taylor.

On the day Michael Todd died, Anthony Pellican celebrated his 14th birthday in Cicero. Around two years later, having blossomed (by his own admission) into a street tough, he dropped out of high school, though he would earn his GED during a stint with the U.S. Army Signal Corps, where, he claims, he was trained as a cryptographer. Following his discharge, he got a job as a skip-tracer with the Spiegel Company—tracking down people who had not paid their bills. In 1969, he established his own detective agency. Around this time, he restored the “o” at the end of the family name; his Sicilian grandfather had dropped that final vowel after emigrating to the United States.

Pellicano had several strengths as a private investigator. Known early on as “the man of a thousand voices,” he could easily assume whatever character the situation called for. “I’m an actor,” he told the Tribune in 1978. “I let people underestimate me. I will act stupid, ignorant, emotional, but I never am.” Pellicano was also an expert in what he called “forensic audio”: voice identification, electronic surveillance, detecting eavesdropping devices. He exhibited the kind of flair usually seen in a Hollywood film noir. He owned twin Lincoln Continentals and decorated his office with samurai swords. For a time he employed the pulp-fiction nom de guerre of Tony Fortune. A slight man who eschewed firearms—“A gun is a physical solution to a mental problem,” he told the Tribune—he had a black belt in karate and was known sometimes to brandish a Louisville Slugger. “I can’t do everything by the book,” he insisted. “I bend the law to death in gaining information.”

Pellicano’s law-bending—and his association with reputed mobsters—may have been greater than he let on. Within a few years of opening his own agency, the detective had already garnered some good publicity—in 1973 he detected a listening device in the office of Illinois’s then secretary of state, Michael Howlett—and won a seat on the influential Illinois Law Enforcement Commission. Things took a downward turn the following year when he filed for bankruptcy protection. During that process, Pellicano admitted he had borrowed $30,000 from Paul DeLucia Jr., the son of Paul “the Waiter” Ricca, who had briefly led the Chicago Mob in the 1940s. Pellicano insisted that DeLucia, his daughter’s godfather, was “just like any other guy in the neighborhood,” but the information was enough to force Pellicano to resign from the commission.

Testimony in the ongoing Family Secrets trial suggests that Pellicano may have had closer links with the Mob—especially with Joseph “Joey the Clown” Lombardo. Among other things, prosecutors have alleged that Lombardo was behind the 1974 murder of Daniel Seifert, who had been scheduled to testify against Lombardo in an embezzlement case. Lombardo’s lawyers claim he has a “rock-solid” alibi—provided, as it turns out, by Pellicano, who collected evidence demonstrating that Lombardo was having breakfast in a Chicago pancake house at the time two gunmen shot Seifert outside his Bensenville plastics company.

Other damaging tales have emerged in the trial. This June, Alva Johnson Rodgers, a career criminal, testified that Pellicano had paid him $5,000 in 1973 or 1974 to torch an empty Mount Prospect house; at Pellicano’s urging, Rodgers said, he also vandalized a Chicago restaurant, but balked at burning the place down. Pellicano’s lawyer, Steven F. Gruel, has repeatedly denied that his client ever had any ties to the Mob. (Gruel and Pellicano declined to comment for this article.)

When officials retrieved the remains of Mike Todd from the wreckage of the Lucky Liz in 1958, they didn’t come away with much. Todd was charred beyond recognition, and officials could identify him only through dental records. His wedding ring survived, and police returned it to Taylor. The rest—basically a handful of dust and what was likely part of a nylon seat belt—was scooped into a rubber bag and buried in Forest Park’s Waldheim Cemetery. There it rested until the weekend of June 25, 1977, a few days after what would have been Todd’s 68th or 70th birthday.

To get to Todd’s remains, thieves first had to move a 300- to 400-pound granite tombstone about ten feet. They then dug a four-and-a-half-foot-deep hole and unearthed the bronze coffin. They pried open the coffin’s lid, smashed a glass case, and extracted the rubber bag containing Todd’s remains. Police, who estimated the entire operation took at least five hours, said that the thieves—because the tombstone was so heavy, there had to be at least two—had dragged some tree branches around the grave to shield themselves. A search of the cemetery later turned up a shovel likely used by the thieves. There were no other clues.

For a couple of days, police remained stymied, while the media speculated about the who, what, and why of the whole affair. That’s when Anthony Pellicano showed up with some of the answers. On the morning of June 28th, he called Bill Kurtis, then the popular TV news anchor at WBBM/ Channel 2. Pellicano’s company—Voice Interpretation & Analysis—had recently performed some acoustical studies for a U.S. House of Representatives committee investigating the John F. Kennedy assassination, and Kurtis had reported that story. Now, over the telephone, Pellicano told Kurtis he thought he knew the location of Todd’s remains. “I got a tip,” he said (as Kurtis remembers the conversation). “Want to go out and look?”

Kurtis grabbed a cameraman and rushed out to Forest Park. At some point—he can’t recall exactly when—he also called police. At the cemetery (which Kurtis describes as resembling a savanna, with thickets of ash and oak trees and only a few graves), Pellicano and Kurtis headed for Todd’s grave. Pellicano recited aloud the instructions he had received and began pacing off distances from the grave. Finally, when he had walked about 75 yards, he cried out. “He yelled, ‘I think this is it!’” recalls Kurtis. “I came running over, and sure enough, it was.”

Though Kurtis aired the story that night, he says he was already “a little leery” of Pellicano—as were the police. “They had looked all over the cemetery,” says Kurtis, “and now [Pellicano] walks right up to it. It must have been embarrassing to the policemen [who had conducted the search].”

According to news stories at the time, Pellicano found a rubber bag containing the remains beneath a pile of branches, leaves, and dirt. He told the Sun-Times he had relied on a tip he had received from someone likely acting on behalf of the thieves. “I think they felt they made a tremendous mistake,” he said. “The information was volunteered to me. I’m a public figure, and I’ve handled many, many missing figures.”

Pellicano went on to reveal a possible motive. Other sources, he said, “told me the reason these people perpetrated this horrendous act is they were looking for a ten-carat diamond ring that allegedly was given to [Todd] by Elizabeth Taylor.” As it turned out, no ring or other valuables were in the grave with Todd. “I think [the crime] was very, very silly,” said Pellicano.

So exactly who looted Mike Todd’s grave? And how could Forest Park police have overlooked the remains? A 1993 profile of Pellicano in the Los Angeles Times cited a 1983 government sentencing report that claimed “a mobster-turned-informant told authorities that two Mob figures were the ones who exhumed Todd.

“But,” the article went on, “the story making the rounds in Chicago even today is that Pellicano orchestrated the event to gain publicity in hopes of being hired to help find Chicago candy heiress Helen Brach, who disappeared in 1977.” According to the Times, the PI’s critics—including Ernie Rizzo, another colorful Chicago private eye—“gleefully” referred to Pellicano as “the grave robber.” Pellicano, reported the Times, dismissed Rizzo as “a fruit fly.” (Rizzo died in 2006.)

As to the local investigation, Pellicano insisted police might easily have missed the bag containing Todd’s remains on their sweep of the cemetery. “You couldn’t see it coming up on it,” he said. Sgt. Richard Archambault, head of the Forest Park police investigators, concurred, pointing out that, in the wooded cemetery, “it would be possible to miss [the bag] on the first search.”

But in 1994, Joseph Byrnes, a Forest Park police lieutenant, told Los Angeles magazine a different story. “Seven patrolmen and I, walking shoulder to shoulder, searched every inch of that small cemetery, and we found nothing,” he said. “The very next day, Pellicano makes a big deal of finding the remains in a spot we had thoroughly checked.”

Kurtis, too, thinks it unlikely that police could have missed Todd’s remains. “The police had to have gone over that ground,” he says. “Whoever took [the remains] must have returned them. They were getting too hot to hang on to.”

That doesn’t mean Kurtis thinks Pellicano was the thief, although he hasn’t entirely dismissed that possibility. But he has difficulty accepting a scenario that involves Pellicano stealing Todd’s remains with the intent of later returning them to the cemetery where he could dramatically “find” them. To Kurtis, that just seems like too much work.

One thing Kurtis doesn’t doubt is Pellicano’s craving for the limelight. He notes that 30 years ago, in the pre-cable era, the local nightly news on Channel 2, which paired Kurtis with Walter Jacobson, was the biggest show in town. “Maybe the reason Pellicano called me is that we were so hot,” says Kurtis. “It would give him maximum exposure. He loved the publicity—and it was a hell of a story.”

Six years after finding Todd’s remains, Pellicano turned his back on Chicago and headed for California, where—according to Jeannette Walls’s Dish: How Gossip Became the News and the News Became Just Another Show—“a grateful Elizabeth Taylor introduced Pellicano to her Hollywood friends.” The high-powered L.A. attorney Howard Weitzman hired Pellicano to help him successfully defend the automaker John DeLorean on cocaine-trafficking charges. After that, Pellicano became the go-to guy for Hollywood’s A-list stars; most memorably, he was front and center in Michael Jackson’s 1993 counterattack against a 13-year-old boy who accused the singer of sexual molestation. His role in that case prompted a series of profiles that further thrust the detective into the public spotlight. Somewhere along the way, Pellicano had forgotten the advantages provided by silence.

Things began going wrong for Pellicano in 2002 when someone left a dead fish and a threatening note on the silver Audi owned by an L.A. Times reporter working on a story about the actor Steven Seagal. The petty crook convicted of those actions claimed Pellicano had hired him to scare the reporter—an assertion that led to the raid on Pellicano’s office and the discovery of illegal explosives and some interesting recordings.

Pellicano pleaded guilty to the explosives charge and received 30 months in prison. Before he finished serving that sentence, federal prosecutors indicted him on another 110 counts of illegal wiretapping and racketeering. This past May, a judge pushed Pellicano’s trial back to February 2008 so his lawyers would have time to review the government’s evidence: 150,000 pages and hundreds of telephone recordings. (Those recordings have much of Hollywood very worried, as stars, producers, and other entertainment heavyweights wonder what the tapes will reveal and whom they might implicate.) Pellicano awaits the trial in jail.

As for Mike Todd, his remains were returned to his original grave, and he lies for eternity in lot 66 of the Beth Aaron section of Waldheim Cemetery—presuming some fool with a shovel doesn’t concoct another harebrained scheme about digging for nonexistent diamonds. In the Jewish religion, death marks the end of the story; there is little emphasis on an afterlife. But ten years ago, anticipating surgery on a brain tumor, Elizabeth Taylor—nearly 65 and, after eight marriages, single once again—recalled the time she had nearly died of pneumonia in London a few years after Todd’s death. “I went through the tunnel and saw the most wonderful light at the end of it,” she told Life magazine. “And I longed to be there. But Mike Todd was at the end of the tunnel, and he told me I had to go back—and live!”

 

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