A federal judge this week granted a reprieve to a former audio executive and Hollywood agent accused of hiring his bodyguard to kill a documentarian who was focused on his alleged life of fraud.
Fereidoun “Prince Fred” Khalilian was accused of using interstate commerce to facilitate murder for hire, but U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer agreed with his lawyers that prosecutors didn’t prove the case belonged in the Los Angeles-based Central District of California because Khalilian wasn’t there when he brokered the plot.
The finding led Fischer to dismiss Khalilian’s charges on Monday, after 2 1/2 days of testimony that ended Friday and one day before jurors were to hearing closing arguments. The judge wouldn’t let Khalilian out of jail, however, and she’s to consider prosecutors’ request for continued detainment next Monday.
UPDATE: Prosecutors have charged Khalilian via complaint with one count of witness tampering, so he’s being held on that charge.
Khalilian, 51, is the former chief operating officer of the Beats by Dre headphone company Monster Store and a former business partner of socialite Paris Hilton who has claimed to be a Middle Eastern prince. His Instagram account includes photos with Drake, Akon, Mally Mall, Kevin Hart, Tyga and Carlos Santana. Jurors saw a photo of him with Sylvester Stallone, Usher and Bruce Willis during opening statements last week.
The unusual dismissal of Khalilian’s federal indictment during trial disrupts a prosecution that’s been unusually speedy: Trial began little more than six months after charges were initially filed. Opening statements on Oct. 24 were roughly eight minutes apiece.
Before Monday’s dismissal, prosecutors had asked Judge Fischer to allow them to reopen their case to present evidence of regarding the location of the crime and to continue questioning an FBI agent, which prompted Khalilian’s lawyers to write in their opposition: “Trial is not a test run to see how things go and then adjust after the close of evidence.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office alleges Khalilian was so intent on stopping an unflattering documentary that he masterminded a plot to kill its maker. The alleged would-be victim, Juan Esco, helped the FBI thwart the plan by staging his own death and photographing it, and the bodyguard sent Khalilian the photos while secretly working with authorities to ensure his arrest.
Khalilian “wasn’t shocked” by the photos, Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Vargas said in her Oct. 24 opening statement.
“The defendant used CashApp to send money for the bodyguard for the murder. And he did that less than 60 seconds after getting photos of the filmmaker’s body on the floor,” Vargas said.
Prosecutors believe Khalilian was overseas in Paris when he used WhatsApp arranged for the bodyguard, Michael Sherwood, to kill Esco in exchange for $20,000 and lifetime financial assistance.
Sherwood was in Las Vegas at the time, but Esco was in Los Angeles, and prosecutors argued Khalilian’s indictment “allows for defendant to have committed the crime here, but it does not require him to have been here.” They said Sherwood also later discussed the plot with Khalilian while in Los Angeles.
“A person can use facilities of interstate and foreign commerce that reach into the Central District of California without being here; that is the nature of interstate behavior, which is what the indictment alleges,” according to a brief filed Sunday by Vargas and Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeremiah Levine. “For example, defendant placed a phone call to Sherwood in Las Vegas, who then called Esco in Los Angeles, thereby using facilities of interstate commerce in the Central District.”
Khalilian’s lawyers argued prosecutors “cannot establish venue (or convict Mr. Khalilian) based on actions taken by others.”
“The government has charged Mr. Khalilian with personally using facilities of interstate and foreign commerce in this district,” according to the brief from Deputy Federal Defenders Adam Olin and Jonathan C. Aminoff. “Causing another person to travel or use facilities of interstate commerce are separate crimes with which Mr. Khalilian has not been charged.”
Judge Fischer on Monday granted Olin’s and Aminoff’s motion for judgment of acquittal under Rule 29 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. She hasn’t issued a written ruling, but her decision to keep Khalilian in jail signals she may believe prosecutors will be able to try him again on a superseding indictment or transfer the case to another federal court district.
Khalilian’s lawyers will have another chance to win his freedom next Monday, when Fischer holds a hearing on prosecutors’ request for continued detention.
Ciaran McEvoy, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Central District, said prosecutors are “reviewing the court’s decision” to decide how to proceed. Prosecutors charged Khalilian with witness tampering on Monday night, related to his post-arrest contacts with Sherwood.
If prosecutors were to transfer the case to another district, the only obvious option is the District of Nevada because that’s where Sherwood was when Khalilian allegedly used WhatsApp to arrange for him to murder Esco. The defense said in a filing on Sunday that prosecutors “charged this case in the wrong district.” Prosecutors disclosed on Sunday that Khalilian was in Paris at the time.
The unusual jurisdictional dustup and unusual trial derailing comes in a case that Khalilian’s lawyers essentially say was a money and publicity scam to bolster Sherwood’s finances and Esco’s struggling documentary.
Esco told Sherwood “how much better” his movie about Khalilian would be “if Mr. Khalilian tried to hurt him,” Olin said in his Oct. 24 opening statement.
“Esco thinks it would be the most amazing documentary in the world if Mr. Khalilian tried to kill him, that it would be great for the documentary if Mr. Khalilian hired people to intimidate,” Olin told the jury. “Because that’s also who Juan Esco is: obsessed with trying to get his movie to finally happen.”
Olin said Esco and Sherwood plotted to scam Khalilian out of money by turning what was essentially an intimidation-for-hire plot into a murder plot through staged photos, then telling Khalilian “things went badly and the men brought into intimidate Esco had killed him.” When they told Khalilian to send money, “Khalilian did.”
“What else can you do at that point?” Olin asked rhetorically.
Before Esco contacted the FBI, he went to the Los Angeles Times “to get a story written about him and his movie.”
“These are the things he does instead of going to the police,” Olin said.
The article published on July 10, five days after prosecutors filed a grand jury indictment charging Khalilian with one count of use of interstate commerce for murder for hire. Khalilian pleaded not guilty to the charge that day and has been in jail ever since. Prosecutors originally charged him via complaint in March, but he wasn’t arrested until June 22.
In her opening, Vargas told jurors the case “is about ego and the lengths that one man went to protect his image.”
“Throughout his life, the defendant made himself out to be a wealthy businessman,” Vargas said. But he “wasn’t careful” and “told lies so big and so often that some people found him out.”
“Sometimes he was an Emirati prince. Sometimes he was the prince of some other country,” she continued. “And sometime he was an Iranian refugee who fled oppression.”
Rejecting a defense motion, Judge Fischer also allowed prosecutors to tell jurors of alleged witness tampering by Khalilian that attempted to influence Sherwood’s testimony. This involved also informing them of Khalilian’s incarceration, which is typically off limits for juries.
“While a defendant’s custodial status should typically be kept from the jury, Defendant’s custodial status is too intertwined with the details of the witness tampering allegations to be excluded,” according to Fischer Oct. 23 order. “The fact that Defendant is incarcerated is key to explain his use of other prisoners’ PINs when making phone calls and his need to use associates and family members to talk to M.S., rather than simply doing it himself. A limiting instruction can be given to eliminate any unfair prejudice that might result.”
Khalilian opened a nightclub in Orlando in 2004 with Hilton called Club Paris. It closed in 2007.
He worked at Monster Store from January 2017, according to his LinkedIn profile, to July 2018, when he was “successfully exited out of the company” after being accused of making “threats of mutilation, death, and threats to family,” according to a company press release. The company also accused Khalilian of fraud, theft and conspiracy.
Khalilian met Esco in 2009 when Esco was a computer technician in Florida and Esco hired him. He went to work for Khalilian but departed after Khalilian was ordered in 2011 to pay a $4.2 million Federal Trade Commission civil judgment for misrepresenting car warranties to unsuspecting customers.
Esco moved to Los Angeles a few years later to pursue a career in film, and he eventually set out to make a documentary about his former boss.
“At first, defendant wanted to do the documentary. He liked the idea of a cameraman following him around, showing off his lifestyle. but then he learned that the filmmaker couldn’t be so easily controlled,” Vargas told jurors last week.
The jury watched a 15-minute trailer for the documentary that featured a litany of unflattering commentary about Khalilian and his business and social practices.
Olin said Esco harassed Khalilian, including by making prank calls with him intended to provoke a reaction.
He and Aminoff raised the venue issue in an Oct. 28 memo that said prosecutors “pivoted to a new theory” during trial that doesn’t allege Khalilian was in the Central District of California during his March 16 “murder call” with Sherwood “or any other days reasonably near then.”
“Instead, the government pivoted to a new theory of venue: that venue is proper in this district because the “murder” of Mr. Esco was to take place in Los Angeles,” according to the filing. “The government’s argument is wrong twice over.”
Not only can prosecutors not back away from the venue theory alleged in the indictment, Esco’s location “is irrelevant to the issue of venue.”
“Although the government has colloquially referred to the charge as “murder for hire,” the crime Mr. Khalilian has actually been charged with is “usi[ing] facilities of interstate and foreign commerce . . . with the intent that the murder of victim [Juan Esco] be committed,” Olin and Aminoff wrote in the memo, which supported an oral Rule 29 motion made in court on Friday.
Prosecutors said in their written request to re-open the record that the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals “has held that one purpose of a Rule 29 motion for acquittal is to alert the government to a deficiency in its case and allow it to reopen to correct the deficiency.”
They asked to continue questioning FBI Special Agent Ramel More and enter as evidence to exhibits regarding Khailian’s phone calls and his WhatsApp messages, including the message he received from Sherwood with the staged photo of Esco’s fake murder and a message Sherwood sent him previously that said, “Leaving at 430 pst to head to La.”
“The government’s request to reopen testimony was initially based on a mistaken belief that it had inadvertently elicited incorrect testimony in one of its re-direct examinations. Upon further examination of the Court Reporter’s draft transcript, both parties agreed that the witness’s testimony was true and accurate,” according to a footnote.
“However, the government continues to believe that the questions government counsel asked were misleading, and requests leave to supplement the record.”
The issue was mooted when Fischer dismissed the case instead.