On Sunday, Mark Ebner (HollywoodInterrupted.com) showed me the Los Angeles of his new book. (I did a previous interview with Mark and his then co-author Andrew Breitbart on Feb. 20, 2004.)
I’ve long admired Ebner for his hard-hitting journalism. I first met him on RAME (rec.arts.movies.erotica) in 1997 where he had a run-in with retired porn actress Brandy Alexandre. We exchanged a couple of emails.
Sunday we took a drive around Hollywood and did a video interview.
At 11 am, we met at House of Pies on Vermont and Franklin.
Mark gets behind the wheel of my van and starts talking. "Let’s just call the House of Pies my office. This is where I did a lot of my static interviews. Cops enjoy it. If I’m meeting some high falutin’ source, it kinda brings them down to a certain level where we can meet as one."
"Luke, a lot of people are going to ask me… I have a guy doing ten years, eight months in prison (with Sirhan Sirhan and Charlie Manson) as my main source for this book. They are going to say — that guy can’t be the most credible source. Well, the story started with him, Darnell Riley, and he started telling me his story. It was my job to put my gumshoes on and hit the streets and see how it checked out.
"Let’s have a look at some of the places in my book. I assume we’re in Drive here."
Luke: "If it doesn’t go, move it up one."
Mark: "I ran into Paris Hilton the night before last."
He pulls into Vermont in front of oncoming traffic. "I hope this bastard will let me go," he says.
The bastard doesn’t.
Mark: "That’s all right. Here we go."
We drive north on Vermont. "I ran into Paris Hilton at Carrie Fisher’s house in Coldwater Canyon. It was a party for Milk. Colleen Camp, a B-movie actress, and Carrie co-hosted celebrating the cast and filmmakers of Milk. Paris was texting a friend of mine at the party saying, ‘Is the party good? I’m on my way.’ She finally showed up. I ran into her. She said to my friend, ‘I was thinking of suing Mark Ebner.’ She’s caught wind of the book through the viral nature of it. But she said, ‘I’m afraid Darnell Riley will kill me and I just want Darnell Riley out of my life."
Luke: "You can turn the indicator off."
Mark: "We’re going up to Stevie Wonder’s former mommy-baby or concubine named Melody McCulley. She has a son named Mumtaz. Stevie has another nephew who owed Darnell some money for things they were involved in, gambling or whatever. Darnell, in one of his last acts of retribution, staged a fall at Stevie Wonder’s ex’s house up here and attempted to extort Stevie Wonder for a lot of money. While the negotiations were going on, Darnell Riley got snatched and was taken into custody."
Mark: "I thought you’d like to see where one of Stevie Wonder’s ex’s lives. He’s littered babies all over town, I guess."
Stevie has seven children from three women.
Mark tells me his residence is a 1969 VW Bus.
In 2006, I ran into Mark at E! in Santa Monica where I was being interviewed for a show on celebrity blackmail. I was telling him about my awful car and he showed me his infamous VW Bus.
Mark says as we drive uphill: "This place is creepy."
Luke: "It’s like that movie Sunset Blvd."
Mark reaches into his pocket and pulls out his PI card. "The one thing you need when you do what I do is a PI license. This is how I’m able to find places like this. This is how I am able to get into prisons to do interviews. When you go into a maximum security prison, Luke, they don’t let you take so much as a pencil in to take notes. I’m not Truman Capote although…"
Mark picks up his book while driving and shows me the back cover. "Jerry Stahl was nice enough to compare me to him. I liked that. He went way over the top. I’m not Truman Capote. I don’t have the so-called photographic memory. As I started visiting up there at Corcoran State Prison, I got my PI license and that allows me to go in as a lawyer’s representative, where you get a room and you’re allowed to tape your interviews."
"I recommend any enterprising journalist, especially with the state of journalism today, you have to pull out all stops to get the job done."
Luke: "How difficult is that to obtain?"
Mark: "If you have a PI friend, he can godfather you in. That’s what I did. It gets you into all the necessary databases.
"Let’s go meet Darnell Riley’s co-conspirator Jerry Rosenberg. He’s quite a character. I’ve known him for about 20 years. He’s been in and out of prison. He used to have a big blonde mohawk. Now he’s completely bald. He’s an excellent fight trainer. He fully admits to being a criminal but he at the same time ain’t going back to the joint. Darnell’s his boy. Jerry Rosenberg was helpful in putting this book together.
"At this point, you can ask me anything you want."
Luke: "I’d like you to talk as it comes to you about your place in Los Angeles. I’ve got my little place in Los Angeles. I used write about the porn industry. Now I mainly write about Orthodox Judaism. I wondered if you could ruminate about your place in Los Angeles. You play a part in this town."
Mark: "I made my bones in this town as a journalist with balls. A guy who was willing to infiltrate. You know the story that made my career — when I infiltrated Scientology. The way I pitched that story — who are all these people in sailor suits running around Hollywood? I didn’t know what Scientology was so of course I had to join. Spy magazine back in the day allowed me to do that.
"I guess my place is someone who has nurtured and developed participatory journalism. If I’m going to do the story, I’m going to get inside of it. I’m not going to be trolling the web. I’m not going to be phoning it in like so many daily papers do. In the process of getting the story, I’m going to make the editors of daily papers scratch their heads and yell at their reporters and say, ‘Why didn’t you get there first? Why didn’t you pull up your bootstraps and go get the story?’
"I guess I’m pretty old school in that I believe you’ve got to have a beat. Los Angeles is my beat, Luke. Someone said there are eight million stories in this naked city. It’s absolutely true. I don’t know about you, but my ideals lie elsewhere. I’m an East Coast boy. I would love to be retiring on the coast of Rhode Island in the next ten years, but for f—’s sake, I can’t write my way out of this town. There are just too many stories.
"So who’s going to pay me? Moving into non-fiction books was a smart move for me. Right after 9/11, I realized that my days were numbered in print journalism. I give you ‘Six Degrees of Paris Hilton.’"
Luke: "What are the major ways that people see you?"
Mark: "The duplicity of Hollywood. People see me as a troublemaker, a rabblerouser. Those two things are putting it mildly. A lot of people think I’m a gossip and a hack. I am a hack. I do write for commercial purposes. I do want to get paid. When I do write a big story, these are the people on the side congratulating me. ‘Ebner, great job exposing Scientology.’ Or, ‘Good job exposing these scumbags in Hollywood.’
"But if it looks like their admiration for me is going to inhibit anything they have planned, they don’t know me. Well, I wouldn’t want to know them to begin with. It cuts both ways.
"My friends? I could count on one hand. To have five really good friends puts me ahead of the game."
Luke: "If I were to ask you, ‘What’s Ebner like to work with?’"
Mark: "My editors would probably say, ‘Ebner is the biggest headache to work with.’ I’m a high school dropout. As a writer, I couldn’t tell you where to put a semicolon. At the same time, I report report report and report my stories to death. If I’m willing to put that much effort into it, my writing speaks for itself. What I pour on to the page has the heart and soul of what you would want to have on the story like the ones I tackle. A headache is a small price for an editor to pay for the content I’m going to deliver."
"I was fated to chronicle the underworld. I come with a certain understanding of that, having in my lifetime been a liar, a cheat and a thief myself. It’s sorta that takes one to know one thing except I’m living the clean and narrow now. The genesis of ‘Six Degrees of Paris Hilton’ comes from my looking at her purloined T-Mobile sidekick messages and phone numbers and everything that was hacked and thrown out there. Everyone’s looking for the famous people in her instant messages and phone list. That’s not where the story is. It’s the people you don’t know. Darnell Riley is on her phone list. He murdered two people by the time he was 15 in a brutal double-homicide at a jewelry store in Pasadena…and became the basis for this book."
"Part of me identifies with the criminal element and part of me is a born reporter who knows where to look for the story."
Luke: "What effect does it have on your psyche to be immersed in such a world?"
Mark: "It’s exhausting. Fortunately, I don’t drink or do drugs because at the end of the story, the first thing I want is a drink or a shot of dope. It’s extremely stressful. I’m constantly looking over my shoulder. This book put me in the hospital when my blood pressure shot up to almost stroke levels. I found myself at Kaiser Permanente. it is not a healthy way to live. The only thing missing from my life is balance. I can find that if I take the time to settle down and breathe a bit and appeal to the angels of my nature rather than the baser levels."
Luke: "How much do you need the excitement that being around this world provides?"
Mark: "And therein lies the problem. It’s almost like transferring one addiction to another. The way I chased that high almost 24 years ago. That’s the same way I chase these stories… It is exciting. There is a lot of adrenalin. I wouldn’t trade it in for anything. I’ve sacrificed a lot to be an investigative journalist but every day I find fulfillment."
"I’m a high-flying adrenalin junkie. It’s what gets me going in the morning. That and a cup of coffee and I’m good to go."
Luke: "How does this life you’ve chosen of chronicling the underworld affect your relationships?"
Mark: "My father is 84 years old. He’s proud of me now. His son is a New York Times best-selling author. My family relationships are better than ever. I keep my friendship circle small. As far as marriage, kids, the white picket ideals, I’m 49 years old, Luke. I don’t know. I think I sacrificed a lot of those things. I’ve definitely put those kind of ideals on hold because there is no way I can sustain a relationship, certainly not a marriage, doing what I do."
Luke: "How do women you are interested in relate to the life you’ve created?"
Mark: "My last girlfriend, Lisa Altman, is a television exec. She was always fond of saying, ‘Ebner gives me street cred.’ It’s fine. I can hold my own at a Hollywood party."
Luke: "I read all of ‘Six Degrees of Paris Hilton.’ I just felt depressed. Out of every major character in this book, aside from the author, not one of them would I want in my life. These are all dangerous exciting interesting people. It’s like reading a true-crime book. There’s a pornographic thrill to how bad these people are. Reading this book took a toll on me. It’s not an Oprah-feel-good book."
Mark: "There’s no question that ‘Six Degrees’ is a challenge to read. Yes, it is depressing, and yes, the characters outlined in this book are despicable. In what other book could the hero of your book be Darnell Riley, be a double-murderer who shook down Hollywood? He’s like an anti-hero. That said, I only hope that the appeal factor for people is in reading this book and understanding it as a book about New Hollywood, or Young Hollywood and the Nightclub Scene, they can feel a lot better about themselves. They can, at least my life ain’t that bad, and maybe they’ll be glad they read it as a result."
"We’re pulling up to Fortune Gym. When I was here for an interview with arch-criminal fight trainer Jerry Rosenberg, guess who I saw walking up in tights? Reese Witherspoon. She was coming in to train as a boxer."
"OK, Jerry’s not here. That’s unusual. He’s usually here training up a storm and plotting his next caper. We’ll roll on. Union Bail Bonds will be our next stop."
Luke: "What are some of the things you do to gauge when people are telling the truth?"
Mark: "When you sit and it’s not a transactional thing for them. When they have nothing to gain and yet they are still willing to talk to you, those are the people who are going to tell you the truth. If you are working for a tabloid and you give them money, then the truth is going to be shaded. And if you really care about the truth, which the tabloids do not, then you have to dig deeper.
"If you meet them at the House of Pies and you’re sitting down with them one to one, and you realize that they are talking to you because they want their story told and they have nothing to gain by it, and in fact they may have something to lose, those are the people that are telling you the truth."
Luke: "I find that writing a book is a huge advantage over writing a story. People are so much more eager to talk to you for a book and they are so much more open and less agenda-driven. If it is an article, and it is a movie director or producer you’re talking to, they’re going to push their movie."
Mark: "I’d say that six out of my ten primary sources in this book were wondering when I was going to do their book. Everybody’s got a story to tell. There’s a certain prestige element that comes with working on a big non-fiction book. They all want to sit down again. All of those people, I’m willing to hear them out because there might be a book there."
"People are willing to talk because they feel like they are becoming a part of history."
"Fortunately, I have a good agent and I command enough advance money to carry me through the year it takes me to write the book. Do I get rich writing books? Hell no, but I’m focusing on one story for an entire year rather than being out there and being a two or three dollar a word print journalism whore chasing stories every other week to stay ahead of the rent."
Luke: "If I may ask, what’s the most amount of money you’ve made in a year?"
Mark: "I’m only going to answer…as long as you also ask me, what’s the least amount of money I’ve made in a year as a professional? I’d say the most I’ve made in a year is around $200,000. Now ask me…"
Luke: "In the last 15 years, what’s the least amount of money you’ve made in a year?"
Mark: "Thirty seven hundred."
Luke: "What have you averaged over the past ten years?"
Mark: "This is fine with me answering this because I don’t base my self-worth on what my income is. I’d say I’ve averaged between $50,000 and $60,000."
Luke: "I’ve never made more than $50,000 in a year and over the past ten years, I’ve averaged about $32,000 a year. When I’m poor, I think about money as much as sex. How about you?"
Mark: "I don’t think about money per se. During the rough spots in life, I’m sad to say that I think about my debts as much as sex. And that’s just not a comfortable place to be. Financial insecurity sucks. I’ve managed to pair down my life to such a degree whereby I consider my 1969 VW Bus with a bed in the back to be homeless insurance. If the bottom falls out, I’m fine. I’m fine living beside a park in Santa Monica or Venice as long as I have my gym membership at 24 Hour Fitness so I can shower every day."
Luke: "I lived out of my vehicle for about four months."
Mark: "We’ve both been down that road. How was it for you?"
Luke: "It wasn’t that bad. I’m real grateful I haven’t had to do it in the last 13 years."
"When I was homeless, I once went two weeks without a shower. I’d wash in the basin at Roxbury Park. The attendant once yelled out at me because I spilled water all over the floor from washing my hair in the sink."
Mark: "I’m thinking my next book might evolve out of the prisons too."
Luke: "It’s interesting how the criminals you deal with in this book are highly interested that you be an honorable person with them and live up to whatever undertakings you make. No matter how low the criminal, it is very important to them that other people treat them justly."
Mark: "I give them all the respect I can muster. I let them tell their story. If all the victims of the extortions and sex tapes and scandals and robberies and shakedowns, if they had chosen to speak to me, it might’ve been a different book. Nicky Hilton’s publicist had the gall to ask me, ‘What does my client gain by participating?’ I said, maybe this kind of thing won’t happen again, maybe she won’t get burglarized again because she talked to me about it which led me to finding these criminals.
"What happened? Less than two months ago, Paris Hilton’s home was knocked off for $2.5 million in cash and jewels. She just got robbed again. This could’ve put a stop to it. I’m not saying I’m Mr. Crime Fighter and I’m going to shut down crime but maybe it won’t happen again if you are willing to talk about it.
"As for the other thugs and miscreants who wouldn’t talk to me, they get written about in this book and they come off looking like the scumbags they truly are. If they had spoken to me, they would’ve had a chance to write their own story, to show me a part of them which may be interesting or romantic or something other than the boilerplate scumbaggery that I have on them. Whether you are famous or whether you are just lowlife scum, it serves you to talk to someone for a book."
"We’re coming up on Union Bail Bonds. This is where Russian bail bondsman Alex Vaysfeld was doing his business. Look at that — it’s gutted."
Mark yells out of the van, "Hello?"
I’m mortified. I don’t have his chutzpah to yell.
Mark: "Alex is the guy in Russia who ran into Joe Francis and started getting him girls and drugs and claims that Joe Francis asked him to get him a 12-year old girl. This is one kneecap-busting motherf—er. Unfortunately, he’s doing a couple of years in jail now too. Something about some stolen goods coming in off a ship."
A Mexican-looking guy comes out and says the bondsman left two months ago.
Mark yells at him: "He was a good guy — the Russian dude."
Luke: "One thing I was struck by in the sex industry is that everybody is obsessed with morality in their own way. Strippers look down on porn stars. Porn stars who don’t do anal look down on porn stars who do do anal. Porn stars who do anal look down on porn stars who do interracial. Women who pose for Playboy look down on women who pose for Hustler. And same in your book. All these different criminals, they all look down morally at some other criminal because he wanted a 12-year old girl as opposed to getting 18-year old girls to take their tops off. Isn’t it interesting how the lowest of the low, these scumbags, everyone is still still obsessed with morality in their own way. Everybody has things they object to and think are wrong and think disqualifies someone’s humanity. I’m thinking about that Russian guy who was so offended that Joe Francis was supposedly interested in a 12-year old girl."
Mark: "Right. And at the same time, he’s all mobbed up and breaking kneecaps."
Luke: "And he’s providing five [adult] women for Joe Francis and friends to [use sexually]."
Mark: "You’re making a great point. I reserve the right to judge and condemn a pedophile.
"Let’s look at Darnell Riley. By the time he was 15, he had murdered a jewelry store owner and his 11-year old son. It was hard to get a handle on that. How could I even talk to this guy? How could I even use him as a resource? In the book, you’ll find this passage where Heavy D the rapper says, ‘I didn’t know about that double homicide with Darnell, but he was 14 years old, you can’t judge him on that. That’s between him and God.’ He’s got a point. Which adult handed him that gun?
"There’s some television that addresses this kind of morality — The Wire — which I love. Who am I to judge? How did he wind up firing shots in a jewelry store at age 14? It all depends on where you are dropped off. If he was dropped off at Harvard, he would be a different guy."
"In the course of writing this book, I looked right in the face of evil. Will Wright, this character still running around Hollywood, is a straight-up sociopath in my mind. I don’t think he can differentiate truth from false. He’s such a pathological liar, I wouldn’t classify him as evil but as institionalizable. Evil was finding the guy who handed Darnell Riley that gun. I found him down in Orange County and seeing a guy who escaped the death penalty twice.
"One of his hooks for escaping the death penalty, when he was on trial, he brought practically the entire Muslim community of Los Angeles in their robes praying in the courtroom. The DA was a conservative old-school guy, Sterling Norris, he couldn’t fight with that. They had blacks on the jury. Between the Muslim influence in that courtroom and the seductive nature of this stone-cold killer on trial… Talk about evil. He’s using religion to escape the death penalty on a crime he was surely guilty of."
"We’re coming up on a little nightclub in the book, The Belmont. There was a karaoke night at this club. It became incredibly popular. This is where Darnell administered a major beat down, pistol-whipped a guy to the point where he was begging for his life. On the other hand, we’re in friendly party town West Hollywood."
"The arch-criminals in this book would eat me for lunch. I would be their dinner… I tip-toe over into that world, I dig in and get in deep, then hightail it over to that world. I don’t live in that world."
"People will need to read the book and figure it out for themselves. That’s part of the fun of reading a true-crime book."
Mark signs his book to me, "To the best interviewer anywhere."