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crimesider

Murder-for-hire: A crime made for TV, or a real threat?

LOS ANGELES -- In the fall of 2013, two men sat down to enjoy a lunch of spicy mint chicken, and noodles at a nondescript Thai luncheonette in Los Angeles. One of them, Dino Guglielmelli, discussed an $80,000 business proposition--the murder of his wife.

What Guglielmelli did not know is the biker sitting across the room was actually undercover Det. Michael Staley of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, running a sting operation to find out if the millionaire businessman was serious about murder. The would-be hit man with whom he was sharing the meal, Richard Fuhrmann, had tipped police off to the plan.

In 16 years, Det. Staley says he has investigated 128 cases of murder-for-hire. National statistics are elusive because few organizations keep records of this particular crime. The FBI keeps track of certain types of these crimes, but only those that rise to the level of a federal offense -- averaging 26 a year from 2010 to 2015.

Dr. James Black, a former sociology professor at the University of Tennessee, is one of the few criminologists to seriously examine murder-for-hire. He researched roughly 30 cases between 1998 and 2002. What he found was that this type of crime affected all communities and people, and that solicitors were as likely to be women as men.

He also learned it takes far less than the $80,000 Guglielmelli was offering to have someone killed. He discovered that as little as $500 could get the job done.

"It is a problem that has been here since the beginning of the country, and it is persistent," says Dr. Black.

Det. Staley says investigations often reveal more talk than action, but in his experience about one out of six times murder is a real threat.

"Very few go to the deal. Many after a few weeks change their mind, or they just want the person hurt," say Det. Staley, "As far as Guglielmelli, I have no doubt he was all in."

Guglielmelli, who became a millionaire manufacturing dietary supplements, decided during his divorce to have his fashion model wife, Monica Olsen, killed rather than pay $25,000 a month in alimony. He was caught on tape discussing the crime at that Thai restaurant outside Los Angeles.

"This crime is a crime of words. It's all words. (Guglielmelli's) whole voice changes," Det. Staley says, "It's like checking into his soul."

"These things usually happen in situations where the defendant doesn't have much criminal background at all," says Tony Brooklier, Guglielmelli's defense attorney in this case. "Judges usually say you have good people, who do things they wouldn't usually."

Brooklier has successfully defended several murder-for-hire cases, and says that often an accused solicitor for murder can fall prey to their emotions, and that investigators have to prove intent in order for the charge to become attempted murder. He says intent is not always clear.

"You have to take actual steps forward," says Brooklier."A lot of them are in between. It's up to the jury whether people really meant it."

Guglielmelli would ultimately decide not to face a jury, and pleaded guilty in 2014 to a nine-year prison term for attempted murder in the second degree.

"I think my life is worth more than that," Monica Olsen told "48 Hours." "The intent shows the criminal mind. If I try to kill you, and the bullet misses you by half an inch, am I less of a criminal because I don't have good aim? Is he less of a criminal because [the hit man] came forward?"

One man who understands the effects of these crimes is Jack Ballentine, a former investigator for the Phoenix Police Department.

"It's very tragic," says Ballentine. "It's hard to see the collateral damage that these cases cause."

Ballentine, author of "Murder for Hire: My Life As the Country's Most Successful Undercover Agent," has truly had success investigating these crimes--all 24 of his murder-for-hire cases that went to court were brought to indictment.

"Only thing that was consistent was that they wanted something so bad that they didn't care if someone lost their life," Ballentine says of the solicitors he faced. "Greed drove every one of them."

Ballentine posed as a would-be hit man and met with potential solicitors in order to investigate the alleged plots. He prides himself on his ability to research what a possible solicitor believes a hit man should look like, and to create specialized personas for each case.

"You bought into me, the moment you saw me," says Ballentine, who explains he played the role people expected to see from movies and television.

"I was a war-lord, a motorcycle gang member, a mob guy," says Ballentine. "Everything they see on TV is what they believe to be true."

Much along the same lines, Guglielmelli's real-life Hollywood crime story reads like a script.

"This story is definitely ripe for a made-for-TV movie where you have the ex-model-turned-housewife, with the millionaire husband who is cheating on his wife and tries to hire a hit man because he's not winning his divorce,"Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Emily Cole told "48 Hours." "It's ready to go."

Det. Staley himself has had requests to do a TV show, or mini-series, because of his undercover work, and the unbelievable cases that he has encountered. He does not do TV interviews in order to protect his identity, and the lives of informants.

"I can't do it," said Staley, "even though it would be absolutely riveting TV."

  • Troy Roberts

    Correspondent, "48 Hours"