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Inside Dateline: Hollywood dream turned nightmare

Keith Morrison: How a young woman with Hollywood dreams was sucked into a predator's web.

Nov. 9, 2006 |

Hollywood dream turned nightmare (Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent)

NBC's Keith Morrison

The man was attractive, unthreatening. He was clearly impressed by her look (and she knew — or had been told — that she was an uncommonly pretty young woman). He seemed to pick up on something basic about her, something the rest of the sprawling city she’d adopted hadn’t yet seemed to notice: she was remarkable, she had possibilities.

Her name was Kristi Johnson.  She had been shopping at L.A.’s trendy Century City mall for a Valentine’s gift from her mother (‘Buy something nice,’ her mother had told her when she called from the Bay Area, ‘It will be a present from me.’).

Just what the man did or said to get her attention we can’t know.  But his offer to her, once he had her under his spell, is as clear as the list of credit card receipts that followed.

And we know, of course, that he had used the same trick before, had used variations of it again and again, on bright and attractive young women who carried around the secret hope that someday the world would notice. The man told Kristi, if past behavior is an accurate guide, that he held a significant position in a Hollywood production company. There was, said the man, a new Bond movie coming up.  And there she was, just walking through the mall, and the moment he saw her he knew she would be the perfect ‘Bond girl,’ perhaps to appear in the movie, certainly in the billboard campaign. There was big money involved. 

Had she suddenly been ‘discovered’?  Wasn’t this the perpetual Hollywood fantasy-dream?  Was the man’s suggestion merely a come-on, or could she actually believe this was a genuine opportunity?

The man’s instructions would have been detailed and specific: she was to wear a plain white shirt (men’s style), a black micro-mini skirt, sheer-to-the-waist panty hose, and stiletto heels. There was an address where she was to meet him in a few hours.  It was a house up in the Hollywood Hills, he would have told her, and he might have promised that two actors who have played Bond would be there to meet her.

Was she excited as she stormed the mall, buying the shoes, the skirt, the rest of the Bond girl outfit?  We only know (through the credit card receipts) that she bought those things.  And we know — because a denizen of Laurel Canyon saw her — that she drove up into the Hollywood Hills toward her doom.

The story of Kristi Johnson is so deeply affecting in part because it pokes around in some central American myths, especially the one about being ‘discovered.’  Lana Turner at the drug store lunch counter, Kristi Johnson at the Century City shopping center. Only trouble is, as Detective Obenchain of the Santa Monica Police told us, it really is just a myth.  And the man who tells a girl otherwise just might turn out to be someone named Victor Paleologus.

Victor is the other affecting character in the story.  Victor— or whatever other name he offered to a parade of young women over almost two decades of predatory behavior. The ‘Bond girl’ scam was a favorite. Authorities say he used ropes to assault one of his victims, tried drugging another. 10 years ago, a SWAT team was called to pry him out of a house he’d holed up in.  He called himself Victor Thomas, Brian-from-Disney, John Maroni, etc, etc.

What did he promise Kristi Johnson? What did he do to her?  And what happens in the brain of a man like Victor Paleologus?  He is, we discover, an example of another enduring Hollywood myth. But that one ends badly.  And unhappily, sometimes that myth is true.

Keith Morrison reports on the murder of a young woman living in Hollywood who ends up dead after meeting a conman she thought had "discovered" her. The report includes an interview with Victor Paleologus himself. Airs Nov. 11, Saturday, 8 p.m. on NBC.