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The Talented M. Despallières


The Talented M. Despallières

Photograph by Alex Majoli for Bloomberg Businessweek

Rock stars loved Peter Ikin. P.I., as everyone in the music business knew him, was as close as it gets to an Australian Clive Davis. A gregarious, world-traveling executive for Warner Music, he brought major acts like Fleetwood Mac, Elton John, Billy Joel, and Rod Stewart to Australia. In 1983 he co-founded Australia’s annual music awards show, the ARIA Awards, and got Elton John to emcee. Billboard called him one of the “chief architects” of Warner Music’s Australia business.

On Nov. 12, 2008, at age 62, eight years into his retirement, Ikin was found dead in a Paris hotel room. His many friends around the world were stunned. He’d seemed in fine health and, just a month earlier, had gotten married in a civil ceremony in London, to a much younger Frenchman.

Ikin’s body was cremated two days after his death. A small, quiet ceremony was held a week later on an overcast day at Père Lachaise, the Paris cemetery where Jim Morrison is buried. Only a few of Ikin’s entertainment industry friends were able to attend, including John Reid, Elton John’s former manager, and the Australian actor Simon Burke. Among the mourners was Ikin’s spouse, Alexandre Despallières, who sat on one of the fold-out chairs in the dank ceremonial chamber and wept.

A French coroner recorded the cause of death as heart failure and hepatitis. For a while, that explanation stuck, and Ikin’s death seemed just another premature passing in the rock ’n’ roll family. Then his friends grew suspicious. Ikin’s remains were not returned to his native Australia, as he’d once requested, and donations to his favorite Australian charities, specified in a previous will, were not made. And the widower, whom the rest of Ikin’s inner circle barely knew, appeared to quit mourning rather quickly and in luxurious fashion.

When Ikin first encountered Despallières in 1987, the Australian was at the height of his influence, splitting his time between homes in Sydney and London. Despallières, born in 1968 and raised in Bois-Colombes, a middle-class suburb north of Paris, had been determined to make it in show business since he was a teenager. He recorded a French single, L’Amour à Mort (Love Unto Death), and landed a bit part in a TV series.

The two met at a music conference in San Francisco and began an affair. They took cruises, traveled the world, and partied with pop royalty. After a few months, according to Ikin’s friends, the couple broke up, and Despallières disappeared. Brian Flaherty, a friend of Ikin’s in Australia, says he didn’t hear Ikin utter Despallières’s name for almost 20 years.

Despallières’s subsequent travels have since been scrutinized by the Australian and European media. According to a variety of news accounts, he lived in Bois-Colombes with his parents, who both died within a span of 12 months, in the early 2000s. Soon after, he moved to the U.S. with friends and spent time in Los Angeles, working for an Internet company. Everywhere he went, people seemed to gravitate toward Despallières, and afterward, they had interesting stories to tell. They say Despallières characterized himself as extraordinarily wealthy, a member of the moneyed European Rothschild clan. Some say he claimed to have a fatal illness. None of it, it seems, was true. Peter Ikin wasn’t the only person enchanted by Alex Despallières. Over the years he duped executives, lawyers, police, an heiress, and at least one journalist: me.
 
 
The U.S. Bank Tower in Los Angeles is the tallest building west of the Mississippi. From its top floor, the view stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the San Gabriel Mountains and all the way south to Long Beach. In July 2007, a year before Despallières moved to Australia and allegedly reestablished contact with Ikin, he brought me there to prove a sensational claim: that his employer, a then-popular social networking site for teenagers called Stickam, was secretly owned and operated by a Japanese pornography company.

At the time, I was a reporter for the New York Times, and Despallières’s tip, in an out-of-the-blue e-mail I received that summer, sounded intriguing enough to warrant a visit. Despallières’s friend Jeremy Bilien, young, shy, and speaking with a thick French accent, was waiting for me at the baggage claim at LAX. We exchanged a few awkward words as he drove to the Versailles condominiums in L.A.’s Mid-Wilshire district, where we met Despallières and the woman he introduced to me as his wife, Letty Nail.

Despallières was charming. He could easily pass for a male model, and there’s nothing like a French accent to give one an air of worldly sophistication. On that day he wore an expensive-looking suit with an open-collar shirt and a gold Piaget watch. He said that several months earlier, at the Beverly Hills Hilton, he was introduced to the executive running Stickam. Recognizing the site’s potential, he went to work for the company, taking an unpaid consulting role as he negotiated his formal position. He said the site’s owner, a six-and-a-half-foot-tall Japanese Internet tycoon named Wataru Takahashi, known as “Mr. T” inside the company, began cultivating him to run the site as president. In these conversations, Despallières said, he learned about the company’s links to Japanese pornography.

Stickam, a precursor to video chat sites such as Chatroulette and Airtime, allowed members to talk to each other face to face online. Since there is high potential for abuse during live online conversations, Despallières said that Stickam’s pornographic connections undermined its ability to protect its young users.

Photograph by Newspix/Rex/Rex USA

He offered to take me to the heavily guarded office building so I could see the situation for myself. Despallières greeted the guards by name and even exchanged hugs with some of them. On the 72nd floor, he showed me the section of the office devoted to Stickam, and around the corner, a similar space for DTI Services, the operator of the Japanese porn sites. A whiteboard specified that one of the sites was bringing in $220,000 a month.

Then we went one flight up to the top floor, which was decorated in blond wood paneling left over from the previous tenant, a law firm. These offices were some of the priciest commercial real estate in all of L.A.—clearly not the natural digs of an unprofitable Web startup—and they were mostly empty. Despallières, Bilien, and Nail worked there with a small group of young Stickam employees; they told me they were working on a mobile service they were calling Flivor. We walked around the offices, taking in the views.

“I’m actually scared for myself and people I brought to the company,” Despallières said later, back at his condo. Nail chimed in, saying she found Stickam’s connection to pornography “disgusting,” adding, “I am actually kind of ashamed to be involved in it.” They dropped me off at the airport that afternoon.

It had been a bizarre day, and their story was full of complications. With Flivor, Despallières seemed to have an interest in breaking away from Stickam and competing with it, so perhaps he was deliberately sabotaging the competition. Oddly, he also requested to be identified in the article as “Alex Becker,” using the surname of a local woman who had adopted him.

Despallières’s central assertion checked out, though. Stickam’s top executive in those days, Scott Flacks, later confirmed that Stickam was owned by DTI, the adult-site operator. The article, “Accuser Says Web Site for Teenagers Has X-Rated Link,” was published on July 11, 2007, with a photo of Despallières standing proudly in front of the U.S. Bank Tower. After the story ran, Flacks and several of his former colleagues say now, they never saw Despallières again.
 
 
In 2008, Despallières resurfaced in Australia and rekindled his romance with Ikin. This time, Despallières was no longer the striving wannabe pop star—now he was an Internet entrepreneur and had a New York Times article to prove it. “Alex kept it on his résumé,” says Ikin’s old friend Flaherty. “He was showing everyone, saying, ‘Look at how exciting I am.’” Despallières said he was rich and that he had sold a startup to Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim. He also said he was dying, specifically from two inoperable brain tumors, and that he would not live to see his 40th birthday. According to Ikin’s friends, Despallières declared that he didn’t want his family to be his heirs. He wanted Ikin to have his fortune—and persuaded his older lover to enter into a civil partnership that fall.

Ikin had doubts about the sudden turn in his romantic prospects. In an e-mail to Flaherty that year, obtained by British newspaper the Daily Mail, Ikin said Despallières wanted him to replace his long-standing will with a new one that named Despallières as sole beneficiary. “His existing will,” Ikin wrote, “has been destroyed and he wants me to cancel my will which doesn’t mention him and do a new one here (I am not sure about all this).” Flaherty recalls that Ikin was growing annoyed by the constant presence and nocturnal habits of Despallières’s entourage, which included two people he called his personal assistants—Jeremy Bilien and Letty Nail.

In November, Despallières, Ikin, and Bilien vacationed in Paris, staying at the Abba Montparnasse Hotel, where Ikin was found dead. The precise circumstances of Ikin’s death remain murky. Earlier that week, according to press reports, Despallières texted Ikin’s former assistant to say that the former music executive had fallen down a flight of stairs but was refusing medical treatment. To Ikin’s friends back in Australia, that seemed odd—Ikin tended to seek medical attention at the slightest sign of illness.

Soon after the funeral, Despallières’s lawyer submitted a will that named him sole beneficiary of Ikin’s $15 million fortune. The document was a single-page photocopy witnessed not by an attorney but by Bilien and another friend, Vincent Bray. Despallières then moved with his pals into Ikin’s Victorian home in London’s swanky Cheyne Place, threw lavish dinner parties, and bought three Porsches—one each for himself and his new housemates.

Photographs by Newspix/Rex/Rex USA(3)

Despallières’s flamboyant arrival on the London scene immediately angered Ikin’s family and friends. Over the years, Ikin had meticulously revised several wills that divided his wealth between charities and his extended family. His family in Australia challenged the will in British court. The ensuing legal confrontation received ample attention from the tabloids. (“Young gay husband Alexandre Despallières gets Peter Ikin millions in will” read one headline in the Telegraph, a Sydney paper.)

In late 2009 the British court ruled that the will was a forgery and restored bequests to Ikin’s family and to Australian charities. Around the same time, Reid, Elton John’s former manager, paid for a toxicology report on tissue samples preserved by the hospital before Ikin’s cremation. The results indicated there were potentially lethal levels of an over-the-counter painkiller called paracetamol in Ikin’s system when he died.

In the spring of 2010, Despallières was arrested by the French police and charged with murder and forgery. The police also arrested Bilien, Nail, and Bray, though it’s not clear whether they were ever formally charged. According to press reports, Bilien admitted to helping forge the will two months before Ikin’s death. Bilien’s lawyer, Solenn Le Tutour, says her client acted on Alex’s instructions. Attempts to locate Bray were unsuccessful.

French prosecutors, who seem to work on geologic time, are still investigating, according to Despallières’s attorney, Laure Heinich-Luijer. Ikin’s family and friends allege that Despallières is a gifted confidence man: Like the talented Mr. Ripley in the Patricia Highsmith novel, he insinuated himself into Ikin’s life and then slowly and meticulously poisoned him. There have been other allegations. Petra Campbell, the former domestic partner of Despallières’s older brother Marc, believes Ikin was not Despallières’s only victim. In 2008 she wrote to the police to voice suspicions that Despallières had not only murdered Ikin but may have been responsible for the death of his own parents and grandmother, who died in the “same mysterious way” and were similarly cremated almost immediately. Chris Hutchins, a British author working on a book about the case, calls Despallières “the most dangerous, duplicitous man I think I’ve ever come across.”
 
 
Late last year, unaware of the drama unfolding in France, I sought Despallières’s help with another article. When my e-mails weren’t returned, I googled him and was stunned to see a flurry of lurid overseas headlines about the charming Internet executive I’d interviewed in 2007.

Retracing the steps on my earlier story, I spoke to some of the executives of Stickam, which is still operating. It turns out they had their own unusual experience with Despallières. They laughed at the suggestion that Takahashi was recruiting the Frenchman to take over the company. Despallières told them he was a Rothschild and was interested in buying the site or licensing its technology. On the day I visited, he told the company I was his banker. Scott Flacks, the former Stickam exec who’s now the head of operations for a healthcare technology startup, says that by the time of the article, the company was already beginning to suspect Despallières and his two associates weren’t who they said they were. “I almost want to call them grifters,” says Flacks. “They are bright and found a way to ingratiate themselves. Alex is a handsome, charming guy.”

The more I looked into Despallières’s history, the more bizarre it became. I called Marcelle Becker, an elderly widow in Beverly Hills whom Despallières had befriended, and who had formally adopted him in 2005. The French TV news show Sept à Huit reported in 2010 that she annulled the adoption after suspecting he’d tried to poison her. “He’s so dangerous,” she told me over the phone. “I was lucky to get out of it. I don’t want to get involved.” Out of curiosity, I did a YouTube (GOOG) search for “Alex Despallières” and L’Amour à Mort, his pop single from the ’80s. There were no music videos, though several clips popped up—promotional segments on Flivor.com in its impressive-looking L.A. offices. I was caught completely off guard by one of these videos: Suddenly, there I was back in 2007, following Despallières through the familiar blond-wood décor, taking a glass of water from Letty Nail, laughing at something Despallières was saying, shaking hands in a conference room. The video was shot upward, from a hidden camera. Despallières had secretly taped the whole thing.
 
 
After his arrest in 2010, Despallières spent two years in and out of jail. In February, he was released from La Santé Prison in Paris on procedural grounds: An appeals court ruled he had not been sufficiently advised of his rights when taken into custody. We had exchanged some letters while he was behind bars and he agreed to meet to discuss his case. In March he sat down for an interview in a conference room at Bloomberg News’ Paris bureau. He was wearing a blue suit and, at 43, still looked improbably boyish, his hair covering his ears and forehead. On his left ring finger was a plain wedding band. He regarded it with disinterest when asked about it.

“Alex, what happened to Peter?”

“He died because, there were two reasons,” Despallières said. His English had deteriorated, and he kept switching to French. A Bloomberg colleague translated. “For a long time, he used too much stuff like cocaine. And he had an infection, something he caught in the hotel because of the air conditioning. Something very bad.”

Despallières claimed he took Ikin to the hospital three times, and each time he was released. “He knew he was going to die. I don’t know what happens in the brain. It was very painful to me. And then all those accusations.” He said he had Ikin cremated in France with the full knowledge of Ikin’s friends because logistical challenges made it too difficult to transport his body to Australia.

Despallières wove a convoluted tale that was hard to believe, though perhaps impossible to disprove. He said he contracted HIV in 1985, when he was 16, and was given six months to live: “I thought, if I have six months, they have to be the most beautiful six months in my entire life.” He traveled, took his medications, and waited for the end to come. It never did.

When his relationship with Ikin began in the 1980s, Despallières said, it was mostly one-way declarations of love from the older man. The romance lasted for years, and never dropped off, as Ikin’s friends had suggested. They lived in London together in the early ’90s, and only stopped seeing each other for one year in 2002, when Despallières’s parents died and he was depressed. (Ikin’s friends say Despallières had no significant contact with Ikin in those intervening years.)

He denied killing Ikin. They’d had a joint account at Barclays Wealth and Investment Management, so why would he kill for money he already had? Plus, he said, he didn’t care about money. After Ikin died, Despallières got sick with an unknown illness—and while he was hospitalized and on morphine, Bilien concocted the forged will because he stood to inherit money from Alex. “Jeremy is a pain in the ass,” said Despallières. “He had a very sad childhood. His father beat him. You want to help him, but the more you help him, the less it helps.” (Bilien’s lawyer Le Tutour, disputes this account. “It’s clearly Alexandre Despallières who initiated it, to get the money,” she says. Letty Nail could not be reached for comment.)

“Ah,” I said, “so Bilien was the criminal mastermind?”

Despallières bristled at this. “Jeremy was not a mastermind. He did stuff, but not properly. If he wanted to make a will he could have at least made a proper will. This will looked like nothing. It did not look professional. He’s not a mastermind. What he’s doing, it’s bad. It’s very bad to take advantage of someone sick or someone with no money.”

Despallières said he sank into a depression after Ikin’s death. “I had nothing left in my life. My life was broken. When Peter passed away, and 10 years ago I had lost my parents, that was too much for me.” Then, he said, he “did something stupid.” Bilien and Bray, the other witness to the forged will, asked Despallières to buy them Porsches, and Despallières claimed he was too disheartened to resist. So he bought three. “My state of mind was, ‘Who cares?’ I wanted to die.”

Of Marcelle Becker, the L.A. widow who adopted him: “She’s a little bit nuts. Unfortunately for me, I met a lot of beautiful people who were also crazy.” Despallières denied ever trying to poison Ms. Becker. He also rejected Petra Campbell’s accusation that he killed his parents and grandmother, pointing as proof to the fact that his own brothers never leveled that accusation.
 
 
Despallières’s stories and explanations spilled forth for an hour and a half. He married Letty Nail twice in Las Vegas, the first time for a green card so he could work in the U.S., the second time “because it made her happy.” He claimed he was a close friend of Bertrand Delanoë, Paris’s longtime mayor, who is openly gay. He spoke of entering another affair, with a high-profile Paris attorney even as he carried on with Ikin. “They both knew about each other,” Despallières said. “They both loved me to death.” Improbably, he positioned himself as a helpless pawn in high-stakes battles between powerful lawyers, politicians, and corporate interests.

The conspiracies were almost impossible to follow. “There are two possibilities here,” I finally told Despallières. “One is that all these people—Peter’s friends, his family, your family, all these famous people—are manipulating the truth. The other possibility is that you are manipulating the truth, particularly about Peter’s death. Frankly, that is easier to believe.”

“So I manipulated Peter for 20 years? That’s so silly and stupid,” Despallières said. “They are all connected together. They are all going to Sydney at the same time, and they are talking about the same s–t. They were all trying to get attention from Peter, and Peter and I were very discreet. We were living our life; we were not allowing anybody to get inside.”

Why, I asked, had he secretly recorded my visit to the Stickam offices in 2007 and put the video on YouTube?

He seemed taken aback, his eyes darting back and forth. Finally a string of excuses tumbled out. He insinuated that Bilien might have done it, then claimed ignorance, and then said “we were recording everything.” Finally, he settled on a plea to help him get YouTube to take those videos down. I noted that the videos had been uploaded from a YouTube account bearing his name. He claimed not to be able to access it.

Within a few minutes he was gathering his suit jacket and walking off into the Paris afternoon, saying that a friend was waiting nearby to pick him up.
 
 
Several weeks later, I received an e-mail from François Davoust, a financial adviser who lives in Calvados, a region of Normandy famous for its apple brandy. His English was rudimentary, but good enough to communicate his intention: He wanted to talk about Alex.

Davoust said Despallières had been living in and around the Normandy town of Lisieux, and had already come to the attention of the local authorities. After getting out of prison, he stayed briefly at a small hotel downtown, whose owner complained to police that he hadn’t paid his bill. Then he spent 10 days at the home of a factory worker who says Despallières declared himself a top executive of Facebook (FB)—and stole some clothes.

Most recently, Despallières had been living on a horse farm where he shared a cottage with a Malaysian-born friend from prison and a 59-year-old cleaning woman. The woman had allowed Despallières into a customer’s mansion, with stunning views of the Normandy coast, where he filmed a YouTube video and gave another interview to the news show Sept à Huit. The mansion’s owner, a Paris businessman who spoke on condition of anonymity, saw the program, fired the cleaning lady, and called the police.

Despallières claimed he was going to be the subject of a Hollywood film and asked Davoust to be his agent. They signed a contract, and Despallières asked to be driven to Paris for a meeting with the movie producer: me.

Davoust dropped Despallières at the Bloomberg offices and waited in the lobby of a hotel across the street. Afterwards, Despallières said the project was on track and promised to fly Davoust and his family to California, where he had arranged a meeting with Lady Gaga. Soon after, Davoust discovered that the SIM cards had been removed from two of his cellphones, and that someone had used them to make calls to Malaysia. Davoust tried to reach Despallières but his calls weren’t returned. He, too, has filed a complaint with the police. He has yet to meet Lady Gaga.

With Carol Matlack
Stone_190
Stone is a senior writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in San Francisco. He is the author of The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon (Little, Brown; October 2013). Follow him on Twitter @BradStone.

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