SAN FRANCISCO — Jack Palladino, the flamboyant private investigator whose clients ranged from presidents and corporate whistleblowers to scandal-plagued celebrities, Hollywood moguls and sometimes suspected drug traffickers, died Monday at age 76.
Palladino suffered a devastating brain injury Thursday after a pair of would-be robbers tried to grab his camera outside his home in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district.
He held on to the camera but fell and struck his head, and the photos he took before his attackers fled were used by police to track down two suspects. They were charged with assault with a deadly weapon and other crimes.
“He would have loved knowing that,” his wife, Sandra Sutherland, told The Associated Press on Monday. She added that she had told her husband while he lay unconscious in the hospital: “Guess what, Jack, they got the bastards, and it was all your doing.”
In a career spanning more than 40 years, Palladino worked for a who’s who of the famous and the sometimes infamous, alternately hailed as a hero or denounced as a villain, depending on who his client was at the time.
He was hired by Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign to put a lid on women who were coming forward to claim they had had sex with the future president.
He was also the investigator for the family of a 14-year-old boy who won a multimillion-dollar settlement from Michael Jackson after accusing the entertainer of molesting him. Jackson was never charged with a crime in that case.
Two of his most prominent clients were former tobacco company executive and whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand and former automotive executive John DeLorean.
In the Wigand case, Palladino uncovered a deliberate campaign by Big Tobacco to smear the former executive for Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corp. after his allegations became public that tobacco products were spiked with chemicals to make them more addictive. Palladino also went on to play himself in “The Insider,” the 1999 film about the case.
For DeLorean, he discovered that the former General Motors executive had been set up by authorities, who had charged him with trafficking millions of dollars in cocaine in what they said was a failed effort to prop up his failing DeLorean Motor Co. DeLorean was acquitted.
“Jack was a pillar of the legal and professional community. He was a firm believer in due process, First Amendment rights, particularly freedom of speech and freedom of the press,” Palladino’s lawyer, Mel Honowitz, said in an emotional statement confirming Palladino’s death.
Although he still took the occasional case, Palladino had largely retired a year ago, his wife said, adding that the two were looking forward to traveling and pursuing photography, which was a passion for both of them.
The couple married in 1977, the same year they founded Palladino & Sutherland Investigations.
While many in their business keep a low profile, they did anything but. They publicly took on high-profile cases while the media sometimes compared them to Nick and Nora Charles, the fictional, wisecracking, high-society husband-and-wife detective team in the Dashiell Hammett potboiler, “The Thin Man.”
Their clients included everyone from the Black Panthers and Hells Angels to celebrities like Courtney Love, Robin Williams and Kevin Costner. They once recovered a truckload of stolen equipment for the Grateful Dead, and Palladino spent years investigating the mass suicide of the Jonestown cult in Guyana.
Some celebrity clients, like Williams and Costner, were the targets of fan or tabloid abuse. In Love’s case, she was being linked to unfounded allegations that she played a role in the suicide of her husband, Kurt Cobain.
“I am somebody you call in when the house is on fire, not when there’s smoke in the kitchen,” Palladino told the San Francisco Examiner in 1999. “You ask me to deal with that fire, to save you, to do whatever has to be done to the fire — where did it come from, where is it going, is it ever going to happen again?”
Over the years, some people, including the women who brought accusations against Clinton, complained that Palladino sometimes threatened and harassed them, their families and friends.
Although he would acknowledge he wasn’t afraid to ask tough questions, Palladino denied ever crossing the line either ethically or legally.
All he was ever after was the truth, he said, adding that he was better at getting it than most other private eyes.
“I’m not a self-effacing individual,” he told the Examiner. “I am a driven, arrogant person who holds himself and everyone around him to incredibly high standards.”
John Arthur Palladino was born in Boston on July 9, 1944, the son of a pipe fitter.
After graduating from Cornell University with a degree in English, he studied law at the University of California, Berkeley, passing the state Bar exam in 1978. But by then, he had already found that his true passion was investigations.
While still a student in 1971, he had himself incarcerated in New York’s Nassau County as part of an undercover operation exposing rampant crime in the county’s jails. In 1974, the family of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst hired him to help investigate members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, the ragtag band of young revolutionaries that had kidnapped her.
“I was planning to be a lawyer,” he once told People magazine of his law school years. “I didn’t know in those days that investigations would make everything else seem dull, unchallenging and uninvolving.”