Who is Tony Castro?

CastroThe Daily News' new columnist, writer of the weekend piece about Mayor Villaraigosa's childhood and personal exaggerations, has been around Los Angeles journalism since he landed a column at the Jim Bellows-run Herald Examiner in 1978. Castro was a boy wonder coming off a Neiman fellowship at Harvard. He reported some notable pieces in more than five years at the Herald, but left under a cloud. Since then he has had a short stint at Sports Illustrated, briefly got in with "MIami Vice" producer Michael Mann, wrote for the National Enquirer, got busted inventing fake stories about Clint Eastwood and others, did time in federal prison, wrote a biography of Mickey Mantle and edited the Los Angeles Independent.

He is also the author of Chicano Power: The Emergence of Mexican America (1974), worked for the Eastside papers owned by Delores Sanchez, and has a rep in Villaraigosa circles as a tool of East L.A. cliques opposed to the mayor. While at the Herald, Castro secretly wrote campaign memos for a candidate, Steve Rodriguez, who ran in the 14th district against Councilman Arthur K. Snyder — and Castro wrote glowing stories about his candidate in the paper. He later wrote a piece for the Times about Nick Pacheco that was so favorable they still talk about it in the 14th.

The definitive Tony Castro story was published by the Columbia Journalism Review in 1993. Author Charles Rappleye later had Castro do some pieces for the LA Weekly, but he wrote then "at times, Castro's stories seemed too good, too colorful to be true." When his writing career struggled, Castro "began appearing as a female impersonator at a nightclub called Los Barrolitos, appearing under the name Raquel and collecting as much as $150 in tips a night." Asked Monday for his comment, Castro emailed:

My problems of a decade and a half ago were well-known then, as obviously they still are now. Ron [Kaye, editor of the Daily News] and the newspaper certainly were aware of them, knew that since 1994 I had worked on and/or edited several Los Angeles weeklies where my work won awards from the L.A. Press Club and/or other organizations, authored a well-received biography of an American hero, and had faith that I could make contributions to the Daily News, as I hope I have.

Here's Castro's website. Rappleye's story is flying around the email boxes of political Los Angeles, so I posted it after the jump. Makes a good, if long, read:

Copyright 1993 Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University Columbia Journalism Review

July, 1993 / August, 1993


A STAR REPORTER'S FALL FROM GRACE; Wherever he worked, Tony Castro's talents were recognized and encouraged -- even, finally, his talent for fraud

By Charles Rappleye; Charles Rappleye is a free-lance journalist living in Los Angeles and author of All-American Mafioso: The Johnny Rosselli Story.

Tony Castro's last line of defense was as ironic as it was cunning. Yes, he admitted to a federal district court in Los Angeles this past March, he had invented many of the stories he wrote for the nation's best-read supermarket tabloids. Yes, he had even invented the sources cited for those stories, and yes, he had authorized his employers to write checks to those sources, checks he had then cashed himself in bank accounts created for just that purpose, checks that totaled, over the course of four years, more than $ 200,000.

All that was true, Castro's attorney told the court, but justice in the case should take into account the fact that, in Hollywood, all the tabloids operated that way. Reporters were required to submit outlandish celebrity stories, true or not, stories substantiated by cash payments to sources, even if those sources were known to be bogus. While other reporters had authorized checks to roommates, hairdressers, and personal masseuses, Castro had simply gone one step further and pocketed the tip fees himself. His only crime was that, in the hall-of-mirrors world of the scandal sheets, where the boundaries of law and ethics were routinely traversed, Tony Castro had lost his way.

Castro's extraordinary defense was abetted by U.S. District Judge James Ideman, who was openly outraged at what he called a "criminal conspiracy to commit libel" on the part of the supermarket tabloids. On his own initiative, Ideman scheduled a full day of testimony that delved into the editorial methodology of the scandal sheets, highlighted by the courtroom appearance of tabloid target Clint Eastwood.

While the hearing shed new light on the tabloids, another remarkable story in the courtroom that day was all but overlooked. That was the tale of Castro himself, an accomplished writer who fell out of favor with mainstream journalism and gradually shed the trappings of personal and professional integrity until he was indicted by a federal grand jury.

Antonio Castro, Jr., grew up an outsider in Waco, Texas. His grandparents were illegal immigrants from Mexico, and Tony didn't learn English until the second grade.

A studious child, he worked hard to fulfill dreams of becoming a novelist in his adopted tongue. In high school he contributed columns to the school paper and covered sports for the local daily, the Waco News Tribune (now the Tribune-Herald).

At Waco's Baylor University his writing, and his reputation, flourished. "He was recognized early on as a journalism prodigy," recalls fellow student Tom Kennedy, now assistant managing editor at The Houston Post. "I thought he would be a n Ernest Hemingway kind of guy."

Straight out of school he joined up with the Dallas Times Herald, and from there made a series of right moves. He was accepted for a fellowship at the Washington Journalism Center, where he made close contacts among congressional staff and strung stories for The Washington Post. He returned to the Times Herald, moving over, after a year, to the Morning News, where he parlayed his Washington connections into several front-page stories on Watergate and a lengthy article on Nixon's Chicano strategy. That research in turn led to a book titled Chicano Power, published in 1974 by the Saturday Review Press and reviewed around the country.

Tony kept moving. From Dallas he went to The Houston Post, where editors gave him unusual leeway and encouraged him to exercise his gifts. Castro encountered hostility from other reporters, who resented his youth and free-wheeling style of story selection -- sent to the hospital to cover the arrival of the dying Howard Hughes, Castro turned in a thick-piece on the billionaire's life that ran on page one. And there was skepticism about his methods. Says Dave McNeely, a colleague of Castro's at the Morning News and now a political columnist at the Austin American-Statesman, "He tended at times to go for the dramatic without making the extra phone call to see if it was true."

Troubling to some was Castro's lifestyle. He wore flashy clothes, drove a Porsche, dated a series of striking women, and spent late nights at discotheques, all anathema to the rumpled sensibilities of the beat reporter. And beneath it all, there was the question of race. "Tony blew in from Dallas touted by management as some kind of super-Hispanic reporter, and that kind of upset the staff," recalls former Post county reporter Gary Taylor. "He had advantages without portfolio. Tony hadn't paid his dues."

In 1976, at the age of twenty-nine, Castro trumped his critics, landing a Nieman fellowship. Yet even at Harvard, it seemed to his fellows in the Nieman program that something was amiss. "He was kind of dreamy, like he was in another world," Dolores Katz remembers. He had trouble finding his bearings, and print journalism began to seem somehow insufficient. He told one friend he wanted to go into television; to another, he said he planned to join a seminary.

When the fellowship ended in June 1977, Castro returned to Houston but lasted only a day. A new editorial regime had been installed at the Post, and when Castro was informed that he would be kept on a short leash, he quit and went back to Cambridge. His colleagues had all departed, but Tony lingered for months, until in October he was arrested for charging more than $ 100 on a false credit card at a Harvard bookstore. But if Castro had stalled, he was still marketable, and in early 1978 he was asked by Jim Bellows to join the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald Examiner.

Recruited by the Hearst company from The Washington Star, Bellows had been commissioned to turn around a moribund paper, one struggling for identity in a market dominated by the Los Angeles Times. "We want a far more lively, with-it, warm, human-interest newspaper," Bellows said at the time. "We've got to somehow increase the enthusiasm and quality output as we bring in some people who will inspire the staff." Tony Castro was part of that formula.

There was another element in hiring Castro. "he was a good writer and he was Hispanic," says Don Forst, then executive editor at the Herald Examiner and now New York editor of New York Newsday. "He could bring us particular insight into the Hispanic community. We were trying to attract a younger crowd, a more diverse crowd."

This seemed to be the opportunity Castro had been waiting for since Baylor. He was given a column that ran routinely on page three and was occasionally pushed up front. He was given free reign, "encouraged," Castro said later, "to go undercover, if necessary, to get a story."

Over the next several years, he produced a brash, wide-ranging, occasionally amazing column for the Her-Ex. His topics included poor retarded children in southeast Los Angeles, jet-setting shoppers on Rodeo Drive, and everything in between. They were columns with attitude. In one, about two players in a Raiders football game, Castro concluded with "The Mexicans do the dirty work, and the white people always find a way to mess it up again."

Besides the columns there were frontpage pieces that made an impact, like a series profiling a south-of-the-border smuggler who traded shipments of guns for loads of drugs, all in cahoots with American intelligence operatives; or one tracing illegal immigrants from the Mexican border to Los Angeles. They were stories that only Castro could get, featuring passages like this one:

I shared a cigarette with the man. His name was Rogelio.

"Eres Americano?" he asked.

Had I been born in the United States was what he meant.

Yes, I said.

And my parents? he asked.

Yes, they, too.

There was silence. Rogelio looked away from the glaring headlight and declined another puff of the menthol.

"But my grandparents," I said to him in Spanish. "They were Mexican. Born in Mexico. Yes, they came into this country illegally."

Rogelio looked back up at me. A smile, almost one of recognition, crossed his face. He asked for another puff of my cigarette, and we talked until they were led away for detention and deportation the next day. . . .

Castro made waves in the office by adding a shortwaisted black mink coat to his high-style wardrobe and arriving for work in a steel-gray Mercedes 450 SL. At one point his editors felt compelled to run a background check on Castro to see where the money came from, but found nothing illegal.

Meanwhile, among the reporters, the grumbling began again, as it had in Texas. At times, Castro's stories seemed too good, too colorful to be true. A column about the disco scene in Beverly Hills described a crowd as including "a man with a baby boa around his neck, a man pretending to be a Palestinian guerrilla with an Arabian sword, a woman wearing a silver-plated brassiere, another woman looking the part of a harem harlot . . .," and so on. A copy of that column found its way back to Texas, where colleagues recalled a similar story that had been spiked by the Post copy desk; it described the crowd at a Houston boutique opening as "a safari-suited man with a baby boa around his neck, a man pretending to be an Arab guerrilla with a large Arabian sword, a woman wearing a silver-plated brassiere, another woman looking the part of a harem member. . . ."

Some of the columns seemed indulgent, pointless, even leering. One began by describing "the tall brunette wearing a red fox jacket and fashionable brown velvet skirt slit almost to her waist." he writes that he sees the woman crumple up a fistful of dollar bills and throw them at a Vidal Sassoon salon window. He then informs his readers: "I had been following Brown Velvet for almost two blocks because of infatuation. Now I followed her out of curiosity."

Denis Hamill, another columnist recruited by Bellows and who now writes for the New York Daily News, recalls that "Castro was getting his personality too mixed up with writing the column. I talked with him about it at t he time. You want to have a voice, but ultimately a column has to tell you something about the city. Tony couldn't get the idea that the story is about the people in Los Angeles, and not about him.

"He was in love with the idea of being a columnist in Los Angeles," Hamill adds. "I think he thought the glamour was bigger than it was."

But this was the new-wave Herald Examiner, Jim Bellows's answer to the steady drumbeat of daily journalism, and Castro's excesses fit the mold. Other columnists, especially Ben Stein, made frequent fare of sleek women and chance encounters, and it would take something more, something extraordinary, for Castor to lose favor.

That something took place in 1982, during a city council campaign, when, unbeknownst to his editors, Castro volunteered to assist Steve Rodriguez, a political novice running against a longtime Anglo incumbent representing a largely Hispanic district. " He said he was from Waco and he'd been thinking about this election and how we could win it," says Rodriguez, now an attorney employed by the city's Community Development Department. "He came off as trying to help an Hispanic candidate, like his roots were coming out. We were totally flattered."

Castro did help, advising on the design of campaign literature, penning internal memos under the alias Lance DeNiro, and writing glowing stories on Rodriguez in the Her-Ex. Al Juarez, a member of Rodriguez's staff, told a reporter soon after Castro's involvement came to light that he recognized the risk Castro was running, "how it could jeopardize his credibility as a journalist. I said, 'Tony, why are you putting yourself on the line like this?' He just giggled."

Rodriguez ultimately lost the election by a narrow margin, but Castro was not through with him. Word began filtering back to Rodriguez that Castro had turned on him and was preparing an investigative series that would include campaign improprieties and alleged CIA connections among the staff. Rodriguez was stunned. "It was a nightmare. We welcomed him with open arms, and he tried to bury us."

Alarmed at the prospect of an insider smear, Rodriguez called Mary Anne Dolan, a former assistant managing editor under Bellows in Washington who had followed him to Los Angeles. Dolan, who went on the become editor of the paper in 1981, declined to comment for this story, but Rodriguez says she told him that she would stand behind her writer; that Castro was a columnist and therefore not bound by the same rules as reporters. Frustrated, Rodriguez turned to the Los Angeles Times, which reported the affair in its metro section.

Despite the exposure, Castro continued to pursue his story, and after assigning a second reporter to check his facts, Dolan decided to run a scaled-down version of the investigation, a page-one piece reporting that Rodriguez had accepted laundered funds from backers fearful of exposure as opponents of the incumbent. Still, Castro's veracity had begun to be questioned and his stature had shrunk. "There was a year of What-do-we-do-with-Tony Castro," one editor recalls -- and Castro decided to move on.

In 1985, he landed a staff writing job with Sports Illustrated, but he never regained momentum. Based in Los Angeles, he was an enigma to his editors in New York, and they to him. While he awaited assignments, they watched to see where his enterprise would take him, and both were disappointed. With nobody offering direction, Castro floundered, and his byline appeared only twice in the course of a year. More intriguing than the stories he submitted were those told about him -- that he had once shared an apartment with a transvestite, and that he was experimenting with cross-dressing. In any event, Sports Illustrated let him go i n early 1986.

Briefly, Castro tried his hand at show business. Over the course of a weekend, he knocked out a spec script for Miami Vice that impressed producer Michael Mann, and he was assigned to work up a story for the nascent series Crime Story. Castro shared credits for two episodes, but the story meetings were stormy, and there were no new assignments.

Castro was bottoming out, personally as well as professionally. By this time he was married, to model Renee LaSalle, who had given birth to their first child. Desperate for cash, Castro began appearing as a female impersonator at a nightclub called Los Barrolitos, appearing under the name Raquel and collecting as much as $ 150 in tips a night. The club soon closed, and Tony was back on the street.

Castro's capacity for impersonation does not strike journalists who worked with him as anomalous. Indeed, they felt that while his editors sought to capitalize on his identity -- his ethnicity as well as his skill -- Castro himself had only a tenuous hold on who he was. Flashes of that amorphous sense of self surfaced in a story he wrote for the Los Angeles Reader in 1988. In "My Life As A Woman," he quipped: "[A shrink] asked if I wanted a six-change operation. No, I said, but from time to time I have considered an ethnic-change procedure."

In his book Chicano Power, written fourteen years before, Castro was already grappling with the dilemmas of assimilation when he quoted a poem popular among barrio youth in the early 1970s that opened with the passage: "I am Joaquin. I am lost in a world of confusion,/Caught up in the whirl of an Anglo society. . . ./I must choose/Between the paradox of victory of the spirit/Despite physical hunger/Or to exist in the grasp/Of the American social neurosis,/Sterilization of the soul/And a full stomach. . . ."

As his own career progressed, Castro's version of Joaquin's paradox left him ill-equipped to handle the pressures of journalism. Says Dave McNeely, who helped guide Castro's book research, "This is a difficult profession in which to find your bearings if you don't already have a pretty good compass. I'm not sure Tony's compass had a heavy enough gyroscope."

With financial pressures mounting, Castro returned to journalism, this time at the bottom. In 1986, he started writing for the supermarket tabloids.

At first pass, working for the National Enquirer, the Star, the Globe, and most of the other tattler sheets is not so far a leap from the normal routines of straight journalism. Most of the reporters and editors come from careers in journalism -- the Globe's then editor, Paul Levy, spent eight years as a national and foreign correspondent for the Philadelphia Bulletin, for example -- and for the most part their jobs require reporting, development of sources, and careful writing in the breathless, colloquial tone that the papers cultivate. Headlines like SPACE ALIEN MEETS PRESIDENT BUSH! or KITTY COUGHS UP FLAMING HAIRBALLS! are generally left to the Weekly World News, the most ludicrous of the papers published by Enquirer/Star Group. Inc.

What distinguishes these tabloids is the hell-bent way they go after stories that involve the rich and famous. Stakeouts, undercover operations, payoffs, and outright bribes are standard tools in the tabloid reporter's kit. And if the story isn't there, they will inflate one, blowing a dispute over a restaurant menu into a failing marriage.

It is in the Hollywood bureaus, close by the film and television stars that are their standard fare, that the tabloids routinely go overboard. Reporters are expected each week to come up with startling news that will shock millions of readers already inured to the sensational. To ensure a steady flow of gossip, each of the tabloids has developed an extensive network of informants -- publicists, waiters, valet parking attendants, and hospital clerks -- who can expect a hundred dollars or more for the price of a phone call.

When that isn't enough, reporters are expected to fabricate stories. They lay the groundwork for libel defense by paying off tipsters even though no relevant information was provided; after the stories are published, when attorneys for the defamed start calling, the tabloid lawyers can point to the check stubs and show that the reports were based on "sources." Tabloid executives like Enquirer editor-in-chief and president Iain Calder have emphatically denied that the practice of "false sourcing" exists, attributing the allegation to "a powerful group in the entertainment industry that wants to muzzle the Enquirer." But Los Angeles writer Rod Lurie, formerly a reporter with the New York Daily News, proved the existence of the practice with the aid of internal ledgers slipped to him by Enquirer employees. Lurie's story on false sourcing appeared in Los Angeles Magazine in 1990, but Tony Castro learned it by doing it.

At first, according to colleagues at the Star and then the Globe, Castro relied on the skills and techniques of a straight reporter, backgrounding his stories, chasing down sources, sticking with the facts. but his editors were unimpressed: whatever innate tendency Castro had to take short cuts, to embellish, to exaggerate, was encouraged.

As detailed in testimony in Castro's federal trial, the system worked as follows: editors at the head offices of the tabloids would dream up grabby headlines for the Los Angeles bureau reporters to flesh out. The reporters would then put word out to their network of tipsters that they were looking for material on a particular "story." The tacit understanding was clear -- that the right answer was worth quick cash -- and, sure enough, by the end of the day the anonymous, corroborative quotes were phoned in.

As the months turned to years, Castro dropped all vestiges of his former incarnation as a legitimate journalist. "Tony really did have the heart of a journalist, he just got sidetracked by all that was going on," says Dave Thomas, who worked with Castro at the Star and the Globe, and who is now hoping to sell a television show based on his experience. "It became clear that nothing was going to change. Tony and others, including myself, we just let the system wash over us. We lost the sense of our better selves."

Castro learned to play the game, dreaming up stories about whatever celebrities came to mind -- Magic Johnson, Sylvester Stallone, Michael Jackson, Cybill Shepherd, and others -- and inventing sources to back them up. And then he began treating his employers with the same contempt they trained on their story subjects. With his wife, Renee, he developed an elaborate scheme to siphon off tip fees through a series of fraudulent identities and bank accounts. Instead of paying fees to tipsters, he collected the money himself. Without informing them, Castro used his friends' names as sources, putting entertainment careers and personal reputations in jeopardy.

Despite the infusion of hundreds of thousands of dollars in tip fees, on top of a hefty staff salary, the couple's spending outstripped their income. Castro lost his mortgage, and ultimately was forced to file for bankruptcy.

Finally, in 1990, he went too far, publishing a story naming Clint Eastwood as the target of a death warrant by the Aryan Nation. The likelihood that some aspiring skinhead might take the story literally apparently meant nothing to Castro -- it was just another byline, just another stop at the cashier's window. The story was entirely false, and Eastwood sued for $ 20 million. "I was furious that any kind of publication could print an article like that," Eastwood said when he took the stand in the sentencing phase of Castro's federal trial. "I had no idea where it had come from, because I had never heard of any of these people involved in this, I had never heard of any of the quotes stated in the article, and [the photo] obviously isn't a real picture but is a mock-up picture of me in the [crosshairs of a rifle] scope."

When it became clear in the course of depositions for Eastwood's civil suit that Castro had created his sources from his imagination, the Globe attorneys and editors claimed to be astonished and turned the case over to the U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles.

Castro's final act was to turn on the tabloids. According to sources close to the negotiations, he began cooperating with Eastwood's attorneys, helping build a case that allowed the actor to name his settlement price with the Globe. At the same time, Castro continued doing business with the tabloids, but now on his own terms. The night that actress Annette Benning gave birth to a baby, Castro peddled a photograph of another baby to two of the supermarket sheets. Both thought they had exclusive pix of the star's newborn -- both had been snookered.

In October 1992, a federal grand jury returned an indictment against Castro and his wife for tax violations, conspiracy, and mail fraud; a month later, they pled guilty. His only defense, offered during sentencing hearings last March, was that false sourcing was routine, and his crimes were thus mitigated by the contributory misconduct of the victims of his fraudlent check cashing -- the tabloids themselves. The judge proved sympathetic, departing from federal guidelines to reduce Tony's sentence from the two years requested by the government to five months in prison and five months in prison and five months' house arrest. Renee Castro was also sentenced to five months' home detention.

By May 3, when Tony Castro began serving his sentence at the minimum-security federal facility at Boron, California, he had declined two requests to be interviewed for this story -- a third, phoned to him at the prison, was not answered. Castro's Baylor journalism professor and mentor, David McHam, now on the faculty at Southern Methodist University, also declined to be interviewed, citing his continuing friendship with Castro. McHam added that Castro told him he plans to write a book about his story. "Tony asked me not to talk with reporters, and I'm going to honor that," McHam said.

To some of Castro's victims. Castro's conviction was justice done. "It couldn't have happened to a better guy," Steve Rodriguez comments. "The person is evil, and there are not many people I would say that about."

But his former colleagues in journalism regard Castro's downfall with mixed emotions. "I felt sad when I read about the indictment," says Don Frederick, an editor at the Los Angeles Times who was a tennis partner of Castor's when both worked at the Herald Examiner. "For one thing, he was a friend once, and now he was in a heap of trouble. And for another, he had talent."

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