The Memorabilia King vs. the Studio Detective: The Never-Before-Told Account of an Epic Battle Over Stolen Movie Props

Back when the entertainment world was just getting wise to the value of their on-set assets, an LAPD cop embarked on a hunt for the man he claims led a sophisticated theft ring, selling items including Mr. Freeze's blaster and Marty McFly's jacket.

David Elkouby's trouble began with a missing gun, but since he deals in Hollywood memorabilia, it was a movie prop. Mr. Freeze's light-up cryogenics blaster, wielded by Arnold Schwarzenegger, had disappeared from the Warner Bros. set of Batman & Robin in the fall of 1996.

Security personnel and top brass alike had already grown irritated with the increasing raft of props vanishing off their lot. Now the problem had impacted an active production, delaying filming on a major feature.

An investigation into the fate of the intricately designed weapon soon widened. Police came to believe the pilfered item was just one of a number of such heists all over town, and that Elkouby was a mastermind working with insiders at the studios. They raided his home that November.

"They're just banging on my door at 6 in the morning: 'We're going to break it if you don't open it,' " he says, eyes wide in astonishment at the memory. "They put me in handcuffs and stood me in front of my house where all my neighbors could see. You would've thought that they were coming after some international terrorist."

Today, the pop-culture collectibles market grabs headlines and brings in between $200 million and $400 million in annual sales. In July alone, a space suit from 2001: A Space Odyssey sold at auction for $370,000 and a cape worn by Christopher Reeve during his Superman run went for $110,000. But back then, entertainment memorabilia was still a small-time game, with studios only starting to think about their productions' physical assets as valuable brand-building artifacts rather than garbage fetishized by marginal eccentrics.

Elkouby's strange saga — untold until now — marked a key turning point in that industry evolution. To hear him tell it, his downfall was the result of conspiring forces, including the studios requiring a fall guy as they collectively decided that they'd let too much IP out of their gates. One of the top players in the Hollywood memorabilia scene, he was charged with felony theft on Jan. 14, 1997, initially for property valued at more than $150,000. In all, according to court records, nearly 300 items were seized from his possession, including an Ewok costume, a sign from Jurassic Park, a plaque featured in Dead Poets Society and Tom Cruise's fangs from Interview With the Vampire. The Star Trek franchise alone was represented by everything from a Borg eyepiece and a Klingon head to Cardassian panels.

Michael Okuda, who worked on set designs and props for Star Trek: The Next Generation and testified for the prosecution in the Elkouby preliminary hearings, isn't surprised that this material provokes impulses from buyer frenzy to grand larceny. "Television and film are our modern mythology, and these artifacts are touchstones of those myths," he says. "The weight we attach to them is embodied by these objects."

***

Elkouby, a Sephardic jew who immigrated from Casablanca, Morocco, with his family in 1968 at the age of 4, portrays himself as a born hustler, the son of a Fairfax District garmento. "I was selling iron ore out of the sandbox, sitting there with a magnet," he jokingly recalls, adding that in grade school he began hawking baseball cards to classmates. "At an early age I was always business-minded."

When his entrepreneurial spirit turned to autographs, CBS Television City — around the corner from his father's fabric and clothing stores — became a prime early hunting ground. "Back then, you could run around anywhere, and the security guards all knew me," Elkouby says. "Dinah Shore, Mike Douglas, Sonny and Cher, John Davidson: All these people had talk shows and game shows, and I'd learn who'd be coming by in advance."

The autograph scene introduced him to a then-nascent realm of celebrity street photography. Soon he, too, was a pioneering paparazzo, dropping out of Fairfax High in 1980 in the 11th grade. "I thought, 'This is costing me money staying here in school.' That didn't go over too well with the parents. But I'm like, 'This is going to be something — you'll see.' They thought I was crazy: 'Why are you running all over, chasing these people?' "

For the next dozen years, he sold pictures everywhere, including People, The National Enquirer and the European tabloids. His fond reminiscences include hanging out in a trash bin near West Hollywood's Pacific Design Center, then lifting the lid to catch a pregnant Tatum O'Neal, and shooting Madonna's 1985 Malibu wedding to Sean Penn from a helicopter. His occupational fisticuffs are recollected with wistful affection: "Ryan O'Neal and I went a few rounds when he was with Farrah [Fawcett]. He punched me one night outside of La Scala — or, no, it was the old Morton's. Crazy stuff. There's been a lot over the years. One time I got too close to Frank Sinatra, and his bodyguard, Jilly Rizzo, just laid one right in my stomach at Jimmy's Restaurant. It's gone. Now it's a big apartment building right next to Beverly Hills High School."

Elkouby got into retail in 1983, opening his first storefront on Hollywood Boulevard at an address that used to specialize in headshots. Star World was the first of several entertainment memorabilia shops he'd open around town, including ones in Westwood and Santa Monica. He flourished during the collectibles scene's early, pre-eBay heyday.

His local newspaper ads during those years netted treasures, often from relatives of crewmembers. "We were pawn stars before Pawn Stars," Elkouby says, beaming. "People walked in with incredible stuff all day long. The Shakespeare bust that led to the bat pole in the original Batman TV series? I bought it for $800. It recently sold for around $200,000. You know what I walked away from for $400? The tablets from The Ten Commandments! I don't know what I was thinking. One time this girl comes in with this bag and pulls out Bruce Lee's Game of Death jumpsuit. There was a letter from the studio, too, saying it'd been presented to him. She says, 'A hundred dollars too much?' I go, 'Can I get you a limo home?' That's now probably a $100,000 item."

Elkouby claims he's currently a co-owner of one of the four known surviving original pairs of Wizard of Oz ruby slippers — "for me, the holy grail." His set was purchased at auction from Christie's in 1993 and, he says, is now valued at a minimum of $3 million. He checks in on the footwear once a year at an L.A.-area bank vault, when an insurance representative makes an annual pilgrimage for policy verification.

Elkouby also maintains he's bought and sold Oscars (Shirley Temple, Ginger Rogers), Grammys (Michael Jackson, James Taylor) and Golden Globes ("so many") over the years. Margaret Barrett, a senior executive at Julien's who has run the entertainment memorabilia departments at most of the major auction houses specializing in the sector, has known Elkouby for decades. "From my perspective," she says, "he's a legitimate player." Elkouby notes that two of his biggest clients during his Star World prime were the Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood, which festooned their restaurants — and, later, hotels and casinos — with his pop-culture relics: "Oh my God, they were good to me."

Appraiser Warwick Stone, who curated the Hard Rock's collections, remembers first seeing Elkouby at silent auctions around L.A., where they'd compete with each other on bids. Stone, who needed volume as his employer rapidly expanded across the country, says, "He got some rather too-good-to-be-true autographs, like all the members of Queen on a $50 guitar." He adds: "We didn't ask too many questions at the time. [The items] passed the smell test. You look at them, and you put them up on the walls."

But that doesn't mean Stone believes all of what Elkouby sold was legitimate. In fact, Stone, who believes his relationship with the Hard Rock suffered as a result of his purchases — "They think we got a bunch of fake shit out of Elkouby" — notes: "I've never been close to Elkouby and I've never wanted to be close to Elkouby." For his part, Elkouby denies a pattern of specious sales: "There was one time where one Bonnie Raitt item might have been an issue. I said, 'Bring it back to me.' "

***

Elkouby, who now lives with his esthetician wife in a Studio City home a canyon over from the one that was raided, says he was "set up, more or less" by "a guy that used to sell me stuff at the store, odds and ends" — a sticky-fingered relative of a high-profile director who was caught filching items from the Warners Bros. lot and later turned in by the Burbank Police Department. "That's how they ended up coming with a search warrant to my house, and that's when the whole nightmare started. This guy's saying I'm the big fish." Elkouby takes a deep breath, puffs his cheeks, slowly exhales. "That I live up in the hills and am calling all the shots. I'm like, 'What are you, nuts, with all this craziness?' I buy things from people! That's the way it is."

Fabian Ospina, the LAPD sleuth who led a multi-jurisdictional effort to investigate Elkouby, is largely amused when discussing what he regards as a quirky, long-ago case. But he's no-nonsense when it comes to what was right and what was wrong. "I think he minimized it — rationalized it — that he wasn't really committing a crime," Ospina says of Elkouby. "That he was just hoarding historical artifacts that people would appreciate at a later date. That he was saving Hollywood."

To this day Elkouby remains perplexed by Ospina's fervor in pursuing him. "He just felt that I was some warlord of memorabilia, a John Gotti of movie props," he says, adding: "When this started, he knew nothing about this stuff — but boy, oh boy, did he study up."

Todd Melnik, Elkouby's attorney, contends that his client "was the easiest guy to go after because he had a storefront on Hollywood Boulevard — a sitting duck." He outlines what had been his intended trial strategy: "These weren't stolen items. These were discarded items picked up by people who worked on the sets and then sold for a little bit of money. [Elkouby] turned around and sold them for a little more."

According to Elkouby, investigators and the district attorney's office "would've let me go" if he'd named names of individuals who sold to him. "Some of the guys that worked at the studios or on films would call me and say, 'Please don't — this [their production job] is my livelihood.' I was pretty torn, but I never did."

***

Ospina is unsympathetic: "David Elkouby, for the most part, got away with it." A veteran street cop in South L.A., Ospina was put on the Elkouby case less than a year after being transferred to the Hollywood Division as a detective. When problems arose that required police assistance, the studios were known to be demanding. More seasoned detectives at the precinct forced novices to handle what, to outsiders, might otherwise appear to be a glamorous assignment. "The studios want everything to revolve around them," Ospina explains, with palpable exasperation even decades on.

John Dilibert, who ran the Burbank Police Department's initial probe into what became the Elkouby investigation, recalls similar difficulties with the majors. "It was a pain in the ass," he says. "If the studios had some issue that was a property crime, they wanted all the detectives on it. They would want jail time." He notes that it often was hard to determine the valuation of such singular stolen items, and therefore whether they might merit misdemeanor or felony penalties, since the missing material often held only perceived value: "Who is the expert to determine that, with the exception of the person who made the costume or the prop?"

Ospina's other closed cases during his Hollywood Division tenure as its "studio detective" included one involving a courier who stole wallets from dressing rooms and trailers — "he was strictly cash-and-carry" — and another concerning a prostitute who took off with one of the master reels of DreamWorks' then-unfinished animated film Prince of Egypt from a postproduction facility as revenge against an employee whom the sex worker had serviced there and who subsequently refused to pay up. (The studio thanked Ospina for returning the reel by hosting a private screening of Antz: "At the time my kids were little, so it was great.")

Ospina suggests that Elkouby oversaw an extensive network of below-the-line Hollywood crewmembers — production assistants and associate producers, set dressers and prop fabricators, rigging electricians and assorted grips — who supplied him with goods, or information about how to get them. He claims the raid on Elkouby's home turned up evidence of his parallel involvement with the adult entertainment industry: VIP tickets to the AVN Awards, pictures of the suspect "banging a couple of young porn actresses." Elkouby denies the existence of the tickets — "What is he talking about?!" — and notes that the imagery in question was merely proofs left by a photographer friend from a recent Playboy pictorial shot at his home: "It was a girl posing on a sofa."

Ospina is a broadly built father of three who was once a lineman on Burbank's John Burroughs High football team and now coaches the squad when not on duty as a senior sergeant in Central Division (his unit responded to the downtown L.A. racial justice protests in June: "We had to deal with the crowds"). He came to believe that some Elkouby associates moonlit on adult entertainment films. "You don't want the union to know you're working porn for a certain number of hours a week on top of the hours you're working for the studios," he explains. "We believe he'd extort them or blackmail them. 'If you find something [that might be valuable], let me know.' "

Told of Ospina's theory, Elkouby says: "Wow, that's a stretch. Beyond false." He takes a beat. "This guy is really something."

***

Ospina's investigation led him to the L.A. auction house Butterfield & Butterfield (today known as Bonhams), then and now a specialist in Hollywood memorabilia. "Their attitude was, '[Elkouby]'s beyond reproach. He's brought forth documentation,' " he says. "I told them it's forged." Ospina has a jaundiced view of auctioneers — "just because you guys wear tuxedos and bow ties doesn't mean you're not one step above pawnshops, which are notorious for buying stolen stuff." He remembers that the studios, by then "very active" in the investigation, "ensured that whatever TV [news] affiliation" across their respective corporate structures would send crews to be present for the Butterfield & Butterfield raid. "We were told we'd be the lead story that evening," Ospina recalls, before shaking his head. "But there was a little shootout in North Hollywood that happened that same day," referring to the Feb. 28, 1997, televised spectacle often compared to the movie Heat, in which a pair of automatic-weapon-wielding bank robbers were shot dead, but not before their confrontation with cops resulted in injuries to 20 people, including a dozen police officers.

For his part, Ospina disputes Elkouby's contention that, at most, he unwittingly purchased stolen property. "He was doing all sorts of crazy things," Ospina argues, explaining that a Universal wardrobe employee admitted to police he'd allowed Elkouby to rent out costumes as a fictitious production company entity, and then participated in the falsification of documentation that stated they'd been returned to the lot when they had not been.

Elkouby acknowledges that he checked out pieces and simply gamed the system via a studio policy that allowed for fees to be paid in exchange for damaged or unreturned items. "Yeah, that happened, it's true — it was the norm then," he says. "It wasn't a big deal."

He views his subsequent prosecution as a consequence of both his unwillingness to name those who sold him props and the studios' close ties to then-District Attorney Gil Garcetti (father of current L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti), who went on to serve as consulting producer for the Warner Bros. Television procedurals The Closer and Major Crimes.

"Gil Garcetti was beholden [to studio money]," he says. "I had to be made an example." (Garcetti, two decades out of office, responds, "I know nothing about this case.")

Elkouby ultimately pleaded to one count of receiving stolen property. He spent three nights in jail in 1998, then logged nearly a year at a halfway house in South L.A., which he was allowed to leave during the day solely to work at his store. "We were four to a room, with close to 100 people," he says, explaining that when he told the others at the halfway house what he was in for, "mostly they just didn't understand. They'd call me 'Hollywood.' "

After Elkouby got out of custody, he laid low for several years. "Everybody was like, 'We saw you in the news.' I'm like, 'Oh, well, here we go.' Even celebrities were like, 'Dave, what happened?' I'm like, 'You wouldn't believe me if I told you.' "

When Ospina executed a search warrant on Elkouby, he also alerted the IRS. "I knew he wasn't going to get a whole lot of time," the cop explains. "So, if I can't hurt you by putting you in jail, I'm going to hurt you in the next best place — your pocketbook. He was hit with a multimillion-dollar tax lien for failure to report income that he had made from all these sales. I want to say they were able to hit him with the double-digit millions." Elkouby confirms that, between money and inventory taken from him, the figure is accurate.

According to Elkouby, he was simply a scapegoat for an industry that had suddenly grown wise to the value of its productions' physical assets. "For their first 80-something years, they didn't care," he says. "It was a very gray area, and it still to this day is a gray area." He goes on: "How it went is that a production would wrap, a studio would break down the set, and they'd get rid of everything. Then they saw auction houses and others selling this stuff and they'd go, 'Oh my gosh, maybe there's value here!' "

Colin Greene, vp archives and production assets management at Sony, echoes the history. (The studio's legal department reclaimed Julia Roberts' Tinkerbell costume and Robin Williams' Peter Pan outfit from Hook in the Elkouby matter.) "Things used to 'walk off' in a bag or a pocket all the time," he explains. "That was before studios realized there was a monetary value to these artifacts and focused on securing them. They came to understand that these are appreciating assets."

Elkouby observes that Disney's retail stores began selling original and replica film props — "whereas they never did before" — after his imbroglio, and Warner Bros.' own shops peddled goods "they took back from me," including, he believes, Riddler canes. (The Mr. Freeze gun sold for more than $5,000 at a live auction in September 2017; it included a certificate of authenticity from the studio.)

In 2014, Elkouby had his attorney intervene when he learned that the LAPD was working with an auctioneer to sell off property it had confiscated in its raids against him. He'd long claimed they'd unfairly seized assets beyond the scope of the case. "They were looking into doing some reality show at the time, like a police Storage Wars," he says. A multiparty tussle involving the department as well as the studios followed.

Ospina — who went on to a lengthy tenure with the department's elite Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau before taking on his current role at Central Division as he nears retirement — was displeased to be pulled back in: "I go, 'You do realize my kid was a baby when this case started and he's in college right now?' " He met with a working group of top security officials at the major studios, which had first formed after the Elkouby saga to discuss theft issues and had gone on to exchange ideas about dealing with everything from stalking to terror threats. Long-missing pieces were accounted for. Paramount, for instance, recovered a Pink Lady jacket worn by Didi Conn, who played Frenchie in Grease. (She donned it again in 2016 for NBC's Grease: Live!)

Elkouby lost out on most of the disputed material — "Damned Ospina tried to block every move" — although he did lay claim to some treasured objects, including a couple of Terminator heads created for the franchise by legendary VFX artist Stan Winston. He contends that his three Marty McFly jackets from the Back to the Future series, "the most important of the items that I did get back," were ruined by improper care. "You could put your finger through 'em, they were so badly damaged and scrunched and tattered," he says. "It was just horrible. Terrible condition. They were worthless. I put them in a box and sold them to a guy for a couple hundred bucks."

***

Since 2008, Elkouby has run the Hollywood Show, an autograph-signing and selfie-taking confab at the Burbank Marriott, where his lineup ranges from Richard Dreyfuss, Linda Blair and Morgan Fairchild to That Actor From That Thing. His perpetual challenge is how to accommodate relative popularity and assuage egos in convention hall table assignments. "If someone's line is going to be out the door," he says, "you don't want them blocking others, because then you get complaints: 'Nobody can get to us!' " His proud specialty is booking reunions: The adult daughters from late-'80s NBC sitcom Empty Nest, castmembers of the 1978 surfing film Big Wednesday or the stars of Starsky & Hutch. ("Guys were bawling — one who couldn't make it sent me his car hood by UPS in a crate to get it signed.")

Elkouby's memorabilia ordeal has turned him off the collectibles market, even as its value has blown up in the intervening decades. "I'm not really in it anymore, just because of everything that I went through," he says. In the past few years, he's begun downsizing his rented empire of storage units, an archipelago scattered across the San Fernando Valley. "I've trimmed it down from 14 to 12 units," he explains, wearily. "I'm making a lot of progress." He adds: "When you're a collector and a dealer, you tend to hold on to things longer than you need to. Some things I just wish I sold years ago, and now I can't get a nickel for them."

A few of his favorite items still in his personal collection include a guitar signed by all four Beatles when they appeared on Top of the Pops, a hubcap from the Porsche that James Dean was driving when he fatally crashed ("It somehow ended up with the president of his fan club") and a chair from Rick's Café in Casablanca. He also possesses a prized pair of Harry Houdini's handcuffs. Elkouby keeps the shackles in a framed display in his home office. He's never had the desire to try them on.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.


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