Press Box

The Case of the Pinched Copy

Who, exactly, did the New York Times’ Bernard Weinraub plagiarize?

“What can I tell you?” says New York Times Hollywood correspondent Bernard Weinraub. “I screwed up … I’m sorry.”

Weinraub’s apologies, given hurriedly in a very brief telephone conversation, are for lifting a paragraph from another source to use inhis Monday, Nov. 11, bylined story about Hollywood private investigator Anthony Pellicano (“Talk of Wiretaps Rattles Hollywood“). Weinraub confesses to having plagiarized the passage, although identifying the precise party he plagiarized isn’t simple.

According to Times editor Paul Fishleder, Weinraub believes he got the passage from a Web page about Pellicano at Weinraub wrote:

Mr. Pellicano came to Hollywood under strange circumstances. In 1977, he found the body of Elizabeth Taylor’s third husband, Mike Todd, which had been stolen from a Chicago cemetery. In front of a television camera crew, Mr. Pellicano walked about 75 yards from the excavated grave, reached under some leaves and revealed a plastic bag containing Mr. Todd’s remains. Mr. Pellicano’s rivals claimed he had staged the episode for publicity.

On, Luke Ford had previously written, typo and all:

In 1977, Pellicano found the body of Elizabeth Taylor’s third husband, Mike Todd, which was stolen from a Chicago cemetary. In front of a camera crew from a local news station, Pellicano walked over to place seventy-five yards south of the excavated grave, reached under some leaves, and revealed a plastic bag of Todd’s remains. Pellicano’s rivals claimed he’d staged the entire episode for publicity.

But where did Ford get the information? And who is he? In 1998, the Online Journalism Review described Ford as “the Matt Drudge of porn,” and though Ford still writes about the business, he sold his porn-news site in 2001 and began devoting himself more to the greater entertainment industry. * Ford calls his Pellicano page a clip job, assembled from a variety of sources, which he credits, often paragraph by paragraph. But Ford originally neglected to attribute the source of that information. After a brief source search, Ford concluded he got the information from Jeannette Walls’$2 2000 book Dish, which he cites elsewhere on the Pellicano page. A friend of Ford’s who had a copy of Dish read the passage to him this afternoon; he recorded it and transcribed it thusly from Pages 276-277:

In 1977, the body of the actress’s third husband, Mike Todd, was stolen from its grave in a Chicago-area cemetery. After police searched and found nothing, Pellicano showed up at the cemetery with a camera crew from a local news station, went to a spot about 75 yards south of the excavated grave, reached under some scattered branches and leaves, and produced a plastic bag containing Todd’s remains.Pellicano insisted that “underworld sources” had told him the body’s whereabouts but rivals snickered that the private detective had staged the entire episode for publicity.

Ford’s version doesn’t plagiarise Walls’, but as he acknowledges, he should have cited her as he does throughout his pages. He apologies for his blunder.

The next question then is, Where did Walls get her information? Efforts to reach the gossip columnist by phone at her offices did not succeed, but the Dish bibliography cites a February 1994 Los Angelesmagazine feature about Pellicano by John Connolly. That story contains the following passage:

Pellicano first hit the headlines in June 1977, when the remains of producer Mike Todd, Elizabeth Taylor’s third husband, were discovered missing from his grave in a Chicago cemetery. A few days later, Pellicano, accompanied by a local news crew, found them just 75 yards from Todd’s open grave. He said an anonymous tipster had told him the location. … According to Chicago P.I. Ernie Rizzo, a longtime rival of Pellicano, it was supposedly “common knowledge” Pellicano engineered the whole thing. (Ellipses added.)

The bibliography credit and the rewording of Connolly absolve Walls of any charges of plagiarism.

According to Weinraub’s editor Fishleder, Weinraub had a copy of Connolly’s story on his desk along with other research material. The New York Times is preparing an Editors’ Note about the plagiarized paragraph, which could appear as early as Friday’s edition. I wish them better luck than I had in determining the absolute provenance of its information and wording.

Meanwhile, Weinraub offers no excuses for the incident, saying it happened “through carelessness on my part. It was stupidity.”

Addendum, Friday, Nov. 14, 2003:An “Editors’ Note” in today’s New York Times confirms the “Press Box” account. The editors write, “That paragraph [about the Todd grave-robbing] was reproduced nearly verbatim from a Weblog compiled by a Los Angeles journalist, Luke Ford, who adapted it from a passage in the 2000 book Dish, by Jeannette Walls. In February 1994, a similar account appeared in Los Angeles magazine.”

A still earlier account of the grave-robbing that shares certain similarities with Weinraub’s, Ford’s, Walls’, and Connolly’s versions was published in the Sept. 11, 1993, Los Angeles Times. Times reporters James Bates and Shawn Hubler write:

Then there was the matter of producer Michael Todd’s bones, which disappeared in 1977 from a Forest Park, Ill., cemetery. Todd had been married to actress Elizabeth Taylor when he died in a 1958 plane crash.The grave robbery made headlines. Police scoured the cemetery in vain. Then a phone rang in the detective division. Pellicano said he had an informant; he knew where the bones were buried. Police met him at the graveyard. Pellicano had an anchorman in tow.Todd’s remains—a few bones and a melted belt buckle—were right on the cemetery grounds, under a pile of leaves and dirt about 75 yards from the grave. The grave robbers, Pellicano told police, had been after a 10-carat diamond ring, a gift from Taylor that they mistakenly had believed was inside Todd’s casket.A 1983 government sentencing report maintains that a mobster-turned-informant told authorities that two mob figures were the ones who exhumed Todd. But 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.”I’ve been hearing that story for years. It’s a great story, but there’s no way I would know if it’s true. The guy is a legend here,” said lawyer Glen Crick, former director of enforcement for the state agency governing private investigators.But Pellicano’s critics—Chicago archrival Ernie Rizzo among them—gleefully refer to him as “the grave robber.” And police say the story has become part of the city’s detective lore although there is no evidence linking Pellicano to the disappearance.Pellicano—along with his defenders in Chicago—says the tale is fueled by professional jealousy.”Ernie Rizzo is a fruit fly,” Pellicano said in one of his more printable comments about the man.

Connolly’s Los Angelesfeature, which swells with original reporting, does not appear to have plagiarized the Los Angeles Times version in any way. In fact, Connolly’s piece cites the Los Angeles Times, but I deleted that passage in favor of ellipses for reasons of economy. My original efforts to find the Los Angeles Times story in Nexis failed until reporter Bates provided a pointer.

The Los Angeles Times appears to have published the Ur-version of the grave-robbing tale, as my extended efforts to raise an earlier account in Chicago papers has failed. But perhaps a Chicagoan has dusty clips from 1977 he’d like to share with me. If so, my e-mail address is


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