In 1988, the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department held a truly spectacular press conference to announce that they were investigating Hustler publisher Larry Flynt for an alleged attempt to assassinate Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner, Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione, magazine tycoon Walter Annenberg, and also Frank Sinatra for some reason. The key evidence was a $1 million check written by Flynt to a former CIA agent, mercenary, weapons trafficker, drug smuggler and genuine weirdo named Mitchell WerBell. The case was ultimately dropped and Flynt strongly denied the charges, but the story only gets weirder from there.
Just how did Larry Flynt meet Mitchell WerBell? And why would he want to murder Sinatra? And if he was innocent, who framed him? The answers have never been entirely clear, but they involve poisoned cocktails, combat scuba training, American flag diapers, a gold-tipped sword cane, and an invasion of Haiti by CBS News. Let's just start with Hollywood's most famous cocaine murder and work up to Dennis Hopper being blasted into the air with dynamite.
The Flynt allegations grew out of the Cotton Club murder trial, which shocked Hollywood in 1987. Movie legend Robert Evans, who produced classics like Chinatown, The Godfather and, uh, Popeye, was trying to relaunch his career following a 1980 conviction for cocaine trafficking. (Evans insisted that the trafficking charge was bullshit, since he was definitely planning to do all the cocaine himself.) He pinned all his hopes on his longtime passion project, The Cotton Club, set in New York's famous Prohibition-era speakeasy. But the film went insanely over budget and Evans struggled to find funding, until his former girlfriend/drug dealer Karen Greenberger introduced him to wealthy theatrical producer Roy Radin, who came on board as financier. Production then went smoothly, aside from a minor hiccup when Radin's bullet-riddled corpse was discovered dumped in a creek.
The investigation concluded that Karen Greenberger (a.k.a. Lanie Jacobs) suspected Radin was trying to cut her out of the movie's profits, and was stealing drugs from her to boot. Enraged at potentially losing out on millions at the box office, she hired three of Larry Flynt's bodyguards to murder Radin. Robert Evans was strongly suspected of involvement, but ultimately cleared. Greenberger herself insisted that the murder was really orchestrated by her other ex-boyfriend, a notorious Miami cocaine smuggler. Seriously, the behind-the-scenes extras of this movie are basically indistinguishable from Scarface. In any case, The Cotton Club ended up being a massive flop and nobody really made money from it anyway. So great plan there, Karen.
The prosecution's key witness in the Cotton Club case was William Rider, who was Larry Flynt's brother-in-law and former security chief. Rider provided tapes of the bodyguards discussing the Radin murder, then apparently threw in the murder of Hugh Hefner as a bonus. Rider told the cops he had seen Flynt give WerBell, who taught courses in "assassination," a $1 million check in exchange for the Hefner-Sinatra murders. However, WerBell died shortly afterward, before the murders could be carried out. The check itself was recovered from WerBell's son, who had discovered it among his father's effects and was busy suing Flynt after a failed attempt to cash it. However, Rider's credibility as a witness then came into question ... when he was accused of murdering Mitchell WerBell.
During the Cotton Club trial, the defense produced a private detective who often worked for Flynt. The PI testified that Flynt and Rider had murdered WerBell by slipping poisonous dioxin into his drink during a cocktail party at Flynt's lavish Hollywood mansion. Rider supposedly bragged about the murder, saying he hoped to take over WerBell's counterterrorism training camp. The PI added that Rider tried to hire him to assassinate an FBI informant and had also bragged about murdering a guy in the bathroom of an Ohio Hustler Club (no evidence of that murder could be found). Jesus, could everyone stop accusing each other of murder for ten seconds!
Okay, we're like a third of the way into this article and we're already up to about nine murder allegations. Plus the social media guys say if we type the word "cocaine" one more time Google automatically bumps the article down to the dark web. So let's take a step back and ask, just who was Mitchell WerBell?
Frankly, he was kind of a hilarious goofball, albeit one who was genuinely involved in some creepy CIA-linked mercenary operations. WerBell was an outrageous liar who liked to pretend to be descended from Russian nobility, strutting around in a beret, tailored suits and often a kilt, or else in the uniform of an Afghan general, but always with a gold-topped swagger stick tucked under one arm. He never went anywhere without a case of Islay scotch and a cut-crystal glass set. His inventions included a bestselling diaper and an equally successful line of submachine gun silencers. In 1975, he was charged with smuggling 50,000 pounds of marijuana into the US, but beat the charges after the key witness died in an extremely mysterious plane crash. Things like that tended to happen around Mitchell WerBell.
By the 1980s, he was running a "counterterrorism and survival training school" in Powder Springs, Georgia, where gullible clients paid huge prices to learn "commando skills" including how to kill a man by throwing screwdrivers and scissors, and how to fashion deadly weapons out of old tin cans and sticks. WerBell advertised the school as a place where retired assassins would teach you how "to kill and hurt" (all in self-defense, obviously) and deluded Soldier of Fortune readers flocked to learn "quick-kill" shooting, combat scuba, and evasive driving. The resident martial arts sensei claimed he could walk upside down on the ceiling and catch bullets. The course was aggressively non-refundable.
But WerBell was more than a fraudster. He started out as a secret agent during WWII, serving with the OSS South-East Asia division, a breeding ground for future CIA sleazeballs, including Vietnamese coup mastermind Lucien Conein and money launderer Paul Heliwell (and worst of all, TV chef Julia Child). Basically, if various maniacs on the Internet think you killed Kennedy, you were probably close buds with Mitchell WerBell around this time. WerBell himself stuck around for a while after the OSS became the CIA, then officially struck out on his own (feel free to put as many question marks after "officially" as you'd like). In the private sector, he developed an incredible talent for worming his way into every deranged scheme going.
When Wall Street super-crook Robert Vesco wanted to bribe the Nixon administration into blocking his prosecution, it was WerBell who was the go-between, arranging a $200,000 "donation" of untraceable cash, which was used to fund the Watergate coverup. WerBell was later arrested for smuggling machine guns to Vesco, who had fled the country and was building a private army in Costa Rica. When the libertarian Phoenix Foundation plotted to stage a revolution in the Bahamas and create a new country, free from virtually all laws, it was WerBell they hired to oversee a propaganda campaign and train their "revolutionary army."
*Guitar music* "Unaccountable private mercenaries, ohh yeah!"
He was also hired by Australia's Nugan Hand bank to threaten the Haitian government into letting them open an offshore Caribbean branch. Nugan Hand was a massive fraud and money-laundering operation founded by a number of former CIA and defense department guys (Rear-Admiral Earl Yates was bank president). Shortly after hiring WerBell, the bank collapsed when one of its co-founders apparently committed suicide with a high-powered rifle, at which point co-founder Mike Hand threatened to murder his employees unless they destroyed all the bank's records. Hand then fled Australia in a fake beard. He theoretically remains one of the country's most wanted men, although an Australian newspaper recently had no trouble tracking him down, living quite happily in small-town Idaho.
WerBell was also the chief trainer for a plot by anti-Castro Cuban general Rolando "El Tigre" Masferrer to use his army of Cuban exiles to invade Haiti and overthrow Papa Doc Duvalier, then use Haiti's resources to declare war on Cuba. The invasion plan was financially backed by CBS News, who were allowed to film an exclusive behind-the-scenes documentary in exchange (Masferrer insisted on wearing pantyhose over his head during his sit-down interview to "protect his identity"). The "CBS invasion" eventually collapsed after the camera crew decided they were doing something very illegal and went to the feds. WerBell's training apparently wasn't great, since a mercenary lost an eye in an accidental explosion, then sued CBS for workplace compensation, claiming they were his true employer.
In the late '80s, WerBell was hired as a security consultant by Larry Flynt, who had been understandably paranoid over his personal safety ever since a white supremacist serial killer shot him in the spine as revenge for publishing interracial porn. The attack left Flynt paralyzed from the waist down, prompting a downward spiral of painkiller abuse. As the decade progressed, his behavior became more bizarre than ever. He went to court in a homemade American flag diaper, then went to the Supreme Court wearing a T-shirt reading "Fuck This Court." When Dennis Hopper had a drug-induced breakdown and blasted himself into the air by taping four sticks of dynamite to the legs of his chair (yes, really), Flynt let him hide out at his house, then ran for president on his advice. When TV stations refused to air his X-rated presidential campaign ad, he sued, saying networks were banned from censoring political broadcasts.
Here's one clean enough to stay up on YouTube.
Flynt had been born in a Kentucky log cabin in 1942 and grew up to be possibly the most gleefully crass man in American history, which is certainly saying something. Together with his wife Althea, he turned Hustler from a strip-club newsletter into one of the bestselling magazines in America. While Playboy and Penthouse liked to present themselves as literary "gentlemen's magazines," Flynt figured that most readers probably just wanted to jerk off and didn't feel much need to get Gore Vidal involved in that process. Playboy's spreads may not have been tasteful, but they had at least heard of taste as a concept. Hustler was just porn, and the more explicit, the better.
Under Flynt's leadership, the magazine adopted a brand image hovering somewhere between "gross" and "soul-crushing." He broke a million sales by publishing long-range paparazzi photos of former First Lady Jackie Kennedy sunbathing nude, then went on to publish a concentration camp-themed photoshoot. A comic strip called "Chester the Molester" ran for over a decade, at which point the author was arrested for being an actual child molester. When feminists complained, Hustler printed a front cover promising to stop treating women "like pieces of meat," along with an illustration of a woman being shoved into a meat grinder. There was a brief attempt to class up the place after Jimmy Carter's sister talked Flynt into becoming a born-again Christian ("Chester the Molester" was ordered to rebrand as "Chester the Protector"), but then Flynt got shot, lost his new faith, and went right back to depravity.
Flynt's single-minded insistence on shock value briefly united feminists and conservative Christians in condemnation, but made him something of a hero to the free speech crowd, who respected his willingness to fight every single lawsuit that came his way. Most famously, he spent years locked in battle with "Moral Majority" leader Jerry Falwell, who sued all the way to the Supreme Court after Flynt published a fake ad claiming the reverend had lost his virginity to his mother in an outside toilet (which was "not too cramped...after I kicked the goat out"). At one sentencing hearing he had to be gagged in his wheelchair after he started spitting at the judge. Ungagged to go serve his nine month sentence, he started yelling "give me more!" The judge obligingly added another six months.
After leaking tapes of the highly controversial sting operation that snared car designer John Delorean on cocaine trafficking, Flynt paid his daily $10,000 contempt of court fines by having local hookers trundle in wheelbarrows full of dollar bills. An interview with him could start by describing him as a self-confessed chicken rapist, move onto his "battery-operated penis implant," and end in a discussion of the ethics of Auschwitz porn, by which point the interviewer was probably missing Hugh Hefner and his little sailor hat. He only ever really denied two things: molesting his daughter (also strongly denied by his other children, for whatever that's worth) and hiring Mitchell WerBell to massacre all his enemies. Which brings us back to the other maniac.`
WerBell was initially hired as a security consultant, but he and Flynt hit it off great, especially after WerBell was arrested at the courthouse for trying to pass through a metal detector with a razor-sharp dagger concealed in his gold-topped cane. WerBell soon entered Flynt's circle of friends and house guests, who also included LSD advocate Timothy Leary, Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy, former child preacher Marjoe Gortner, Frank Zappa and Madalyn Murray O'Hair, a prominent atheist known as "the most hated woman in America," who would herself go on to be the victim in a famous murder case.
WerBell died after a few short months of hanging out with Flynt. The official cause of death was a heart attack, not obviously poison-in-the-cocktail related. He left behind a check for $1 million and a lot of unanswered questions. Flynt, for his part, says he gave such checks out to guests at dinner parties, as a joke, and that his bank was instructed not to pay them out. He added that his brother-in-law, Rider, was suing him at the time, and therefore had reason to lie. It also seems a little unlikely that WerBell, an portly and unwell old man, was particularly likely to vault through a skylight and slice Frank Sinatra's head off in a single katana blow. Probably the only people who ever really knew the truth are Larry Flynt and Mitchell WerBell. Oh well, perhaps the real murder allegations were the friends we made along the way.
Top image: Glenn Francis/Wikimedia Commons, Surachai/Shutterstock