The French connection

Australian music executive Peter Ikin died in Paris more than three years ago. Brad Stone interviewed the man accused of murdering him and forging his will.

Australian music executive Peter Ikin died in Paris more than three years ago. Brad Stone interviewed the man accused of murdering him and forging his will.

ROCK stars loved Peter Ikin. He was as close as it gets to an Australian Clive Davis. A gregarious, world-travelling executive for Warner Music, he brought major acts like Fleetwood Mac, Elton John 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 November 12, 2008, at age 62, eight years into retirement, Ikin was found dead in a Paris hotel room. His many friends around the world were stunned. He had seemed in fine health and, just a month earlier, had married a much younger Frenchman in a civil ceremony in London.

Ikin's body was cremated two days after his death. A small, quiet ceremony was held a week later at Pere 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 Despallieres, who sat on a fold-out chair in the dank ceremonial chamber and wept.

A French coroner recorded the cause of death as heart failure and hepatitis. For a while, that stuck, and Ikin's death seemed just another premature rock'n'roll passing. Then his friends grew suspicious. Ikin's remains were not returned to his native Australia, as he'd once requested, and donations to his favourite 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 met Despallieres in 1987, the Australian was at the height of his influence, splitting his time between homes in Sydney and London. Despallieres, born in 1968 and raised in Bois-Colombes, a middle-class suburb north of Paris, had been determined to make it in show business. He recorded a French single, L'Amour a 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, travelled the world and partied with pop royalty. After a few months, according to Ikin's friends, they broke up, and Despallieres disappeared. Brian Flaherty, a friend of Ikin's in Australia, says he didn't hear Ikin utter Despallieres' name for almost 20 years.

Despallieres' subsequent travels have since been scrutinised 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 US with friends and spent time in Los Angeles, working for an internet company. Everywhere he went, people seemed to gravitate towards Despallieres, and afterwards, they had interesting stories to tell. They say he characterised 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 him. Over the years he duped executives, lawyers, police, an heiress, and at least one journalist: me.

In July 2007, a year before Despallieres moved to Australia and allegedly re-established contact with Ikin, he brought me to Los Angeles 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 Despallieres' out-of-the-blue tip was intriguing enough to warrant a visit. His friend Jeremy Bilien, young, shy, and speaking with a thick French accent, was waiting for me at Los Angeles airport. We drove to the Versailles condominiums in LA's Mid-Wilshire district, where we met Despallieres and the woman he introduced to me as his wife, Letty Nail.

He was charming and could have passed for a male model. He wore an expensive-looking suit with an open-collar shirt and a gold Piaget watch. He said that several months earlier he went to work for Stickam, taking an unpaid consulting role as he negotiated his formal position. He said the site's owner began cultivating him to run the site. In these conversations, he said, he learnt about the company's links to Japanese pornography.

Stickam allowed members to talk to each other, face to face, online. Since there is high potential for abuse during live online conversations, Despallieres said that Stickam's pornographic connections undermined its ability to protect its young users.

He offered to take me to the heavily guarded office building to see the situation for myself. He greeted the guards by name and even exchanged hugs with some of them. On the 72nd floor, he showed me the section devoted to Stickam, and around the corner, a similar space for DTI Services, the operator of the Japanese porn sites.

Then we went one flight up to the top floor, which was decorated in blond wood paneling. This was some of the priciest commercial real estate in all of LA and it was mostly empty. Despallieres, 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.

They dropped me off at the airport later that afternoon. It had been a bizarre day, and their story was full of complications. With Flivor, Despallieres seemed to have an interest in breaking from Stickam and competing with it, so perhaps he was deliberately sabotaging the competition.

His 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. After the story ran, Flacks and several of his former colleagues say now, they never saw Despallieres again.

In 2008, Despallieres resurfaced in Australia and rekindled his romance with Ikin. This time, Despallieres was no longer the striving wannabe pop star now he was an internet entrepreneur and had a New York Times article to prove it. Despallieres said he was rich and had sold a start-up to Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim. He also said he was dying, specifically from two inoperable brain tumours, and would not live to see his 40th birthday. According to Ikin's friends, Despallieres 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 autumn.

In November, Despallieres, Ikin, and Bilien holidayed 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, Despallieres 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, that seemed odd Ikin tended to seek medical attention at the slightest sign of illness.

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

Despallieres' 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.

In late 2009, the court ruled the will was a forgery and restored bequests to Ikin's family and to Australian charities. Around that 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 over-the-counter painkiller paracetamol in Ikin's system when he died.

In 2010, Despallieres was arrested by French police and charged with murder and forgery. The police also arrested Bilien, Nail, and Bray, although 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.

French prosecutors are still investigating, according to Despallieres' lawyer. Ikin's family and friends say Despallieres is a gifted conman who insinuated himself into Ikin's life and then slowly and meticulously poisoned him.

Late last year, unaware of the drama unfolding in France, I sought Despallieres' help with another article. When my emails 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. They had their own unusual experience with Despallieres. Despallieres 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.

The more I looked into Despallieres' history, the more bizarre it became. I called Marcelle Becker, an elderly widow in Beverly Hills whom Despallieres had befriended, and who had formally adopted him in 2005. The French TV news show Sept a 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 search for "Alex Despallieres" and L'Amour a Mort, his pop single from the '80s. There were no music videos, but several clips popped up promotional segments on in its impressive-looking LA offices. I was caught off guard by one of these videos: There I was back in 2007, following Despallieres through the familiar blond-wood decor, taking a glass of water from Letty Nail, laughing at something Despallieres was saying. He had secretly taped the whole thing.

After his arrest in 2010, Despallieres spent two years in and out of jail. In February, he was released from La Sante 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.

"Alex, what happened to Peter?"

"He died because, there were two reasons," Despallieres said. His English had deteriorated, and he kept switching to French. A 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."

Despallieres 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.

When his relationship with Ikin began in the 1980s, Despallieres said, it was mostly one-way declarations of love from the older man. The romance lasted years, and never dropped off, as Ikin's friends suggested. They lived in London together in the early '90s, and only stopped seeing each other for one year in 2002, when Despallieres' parents died and he was depressed.

He denied killing Ikin. They'd had a joint account at Barclays Wealth and Investment Management, so why kill for money he already had? Plus, he said, he didn't care about money. After Ikin died, Despallieres got sick with an unknown illness and while he was hospitalised and on morphine, Bilien concocted the forged will because he stood to inherit money from Alex. "Jeremy is a pain in the ass," said Despallieres. "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 disputes this account. "It's clearly Alexandre Despallieres who initiated it, to get the money," she says. Nail could not be reached for comment.)

Despallieres 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 Despallieres to buy them Porsches, and Despallieres claimed he was too disheartened to resist. So he bought three. "My state of mind was: 'Who cares?' I wanted to die."

"There are two possibilities here," I finally told Despallieres. "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," Despallieres 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. 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 minutes he was gathering his suit jacket and walking off into the Paris afternoon.

Weeks later, I received an email from Francois Davoust, a financial adviser who lives in Calvados, a region of Normandy famous for its apple brandy. He wanted to talk about Alex.

Davoust said Despallieres 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 and then spent 10 days at the home of a factory worker who says Despallieres declared himself a top executive of Facebook and stole some clothes.

Most recently, Despallieres 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 Despallieres into a customer's mansion, where he filmed a YouTube video and gave another interview to the news show Sept a 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.

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

Davoust dropped Despallieres at the Bloomberg offices and waited in the lobby of a hotel across the street. Afterwards, Despallieres 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 mobile phones, and that someone had used them to make calls to Malaysia. Davoust tried to reach Despallieres but his calls weren't returned. He, too, has filed a complaint with the police. He has yet to meet Lady Gaga.

The Zone will appear later this week.

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