He posed as a Hollywood hotshot. He was actually a ‘master manipulator’ with a dark fantasy.

One woman set out on a mission to keep an L.A. predator behind bars and coaxed Victor Paleologus into telling her incriminating secrets.

Victor Paleologus often portrayed himself as a well-connected figure in Southern California’s entertainment industry — a record company executive, a movie producer, someone with links to the James Bond franchise.

In reality, he was a failed restaurant owner and “master manipulator” who faked those credentials and, from 1989 to 2003, lured nine women into vulnerable and sometimes terrifying situations, prosecutors alleged at the time. Some of the women said they were choked. Others said they were tied up. Four accused Paleologus of trying to rape them.

Paleologus, 61, pleaded guilty to reduced charges in two of the cases and was convicted of assault with intent to commit rape in a third. Then, in 2006, he pleaded guilty to the murder of Kristi Johnson, 21, and was sentenced to 25 years to life. Five of the women who said they survived encounters with Paleologus testified at his murder trial.

los angeles predator dateline
Victor Paleologus, left, with his lawyer, center, is interviewed in 2005.Dateline

Despite pleading guilty, Paleologus continued to claim innocence, saying he never forced himself on anyone or posed as an entertainment figure.

As the years ticked by with Paleologus behind bars, one of the women who’d crossed paths with him, Cathy DeBuono, believed he might eventually become eligible for parole. So she launched an improbable and far-reaching effort to see if the man she’d long understood to be a serial predator had changed.

DeBuono’s effort, first reported by “Dateline,” may have answered that question — and uncovered important details about Johnson’s murder. And it left DeBuono and other survivors — as well as Johnson’s family — preparing for the day when Paleologus will appear before California’s parole board, where they can argue against his possible release. Paleologus is scheduled to go before the panel next year.

Cathy DeBuono.Dateline

Red flags 

DeBuono, 54, told “Dateline” that she met Paleologus a few years before Johnson’s killing, when he approached her at a mall near Beverly Hills. He was wearing an expensive-looking suit, she said, and identified himself as “Brian,” a producer from Radio Disney.

He appeared disarming and gentle, she recalled, and asked if she’d be interested in appearing on a James Bond poster.

At the time, DeBuono, an actor who later became a clinical psychologist, had a recurring role in “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” and was taken aback at how much money he offered for the job. But she kept listening, she said, and told him to contact her agent. He told her an agent would slow down the process, DeBuono recalled.

“That was a big red flag to me,” she said. “So now I’m just taking notes of the red flags. And I wanted to continue to talk to him, to suss out — who was this guy? What is he about?”

Victor Paleologus in Criminal Courts, Dept. 30, Wednesday, is charged with capital murder in the deaSet featured image
Victor Paleologus in criminal court, in Los Angeles, in 2003.Carlos Chavez / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images file

At the time, DeBuono had no idea about Paleologus’ decade-plus “continuous crime spree,” as prosecutors described in sentencing documents in Johnson’s murder. In 1989, he was charged with trying to rape and assault a woman in a hotel room after he identified himself as an executive with Columbia Records and invited her to a “Hollywood party,” the documents show.

“He’s trying to kiss me, and I pushed him away and then he just attacked me,” Christine Kludjian told “Dateline.” “He grabbed me, he threw me on the bed, he tried to rip my clothes off and in that moment, he pulled ropes from behind the headboard.”

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Kludjian, then 21, said that she tried to escape but he dragged her back to bed and began choking her. Kludjian said she managed to flee after biting him in the crotch.

Paleologus claimed innocence and took the case to trial. He was acquitted of the most serious charges — attempted rape and assault with intent to commit rape — and pleaded guilty to the remaining count of false imprisonment.

The jury foreman in the case told “Dateline” that Paleologus, who was given probation for the crime, didn’t look like a rapist. The conclusion prompted Kludjian to issue a warning.

“This guy’s done this before. He’ll do it again, and he will kill someone because he almost killed me,” she told “Dateline.”

The California Institution for Men facility where Victor Paleologus is being held in Chino, Calif.Google Maps

In 1996, Paleologus was accused of breaking into the home of a woman he had briefly dated and lunging toward her with a ligature, according to the sentencing documents. She blasted him with pepper spray and he fled, the documents say.

Paleologus was taken into custody after a standoff with authorities three weeks later, when he barricaded himself inside a trailer with a young boy. The boy was unharmed. Paleologus, who was charged with stalking, false imprisonment and burglary, pleaded guilty to the last charge and was given probation.

Two years later, Paleologus was accused of approaching a woman at a Hollywood bar and presenting himself as a Disney producer looking for women to promote a new James Bond movie. The woman agreed to wear a black miniskirt and black high heels to what he described as a “closed set” audition, the documents say.

During the supposed audition, Paleologus bound the woman’s ankles and tried to strangle her with a necktie, according to the documents. As he tried removing her underwear, the documents say, she escaped and alerted police.

Paleologus denied wrongdoing, saying that the meeting was the woman’s idea and that she was lying about the attack. He was convicted of assault with intent to commit rape.

But before he was sentenced, he approached DeBuono at the mall in Century City.

A familiar situation 

According to DeBuono, the man who she said identified himself as Brian told her there was a photo shoot happening in the Hollywood Hills and he’d give her a ride. DeBuono declined, she said, “and he handled that beautifully. He wasn’t offended. He didn’t skip a beat.”

They arranged for her to audition another time, DeBuono recalled, and he told her what to wear — a man’s white button-down shirt, a black miniskirt, black stilettos, stockings and a necktie. He also told her where to meet, she said — a big house in the Hollywood Hills where she was to park across the street.

He’d be watching from inside, she recalled him saying, and he’d let her in when she arrived.

DeBuono didn’t bring the outfit — “I knew it was B.S.,” she said — but for safety, she brought along a burly friend who was a stuntman on “Star Trek.”

When they parked, DeBuono said, no one came out. They waited about 20 minutes, then left. DeBuono was disappointed but wasn’t sure what else to do, she said.

“I would just have to move on and hope that no one fell for his ruse,” she said.

Dateline Kristi Johnson
Kristi Johnson, 21Dateline

Roughly four years later, in 2003, DeBuono learned of Paleologus’ connection to Kristi Johnson’s killing. That January, he’d been released from prison. Weeks later, on Feb. 15, Johnson disappeared, and by March, her body had been discovered and he’d been charged with murder.

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Authorities learned from Johnson’s roommate that Paleologus had pitched Johnson — who aspired to work in the film industry — on appearing in a James Bond movie, the Santa Monica police detective who investigated the case, Virginia Obenchain, told “Dateline.” Among the items he told her to bring to a supposed audition: black high heels, a miniskirt, a white dress shirt and sheer pantyhose.

When DeBuono saw his image in the news in connection with the killing, she immediately dialed police and described her own similar experience. She testified at the murder trial about her own encounter with Paleologus, as did several other women.

Dateline Kristi Johnson
Kristi Johnson had hoped to work in the film industry. Dateline

David Walgren, then a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney who prosecuted the case, said that because there was no forensic or direct evidence linking Paleologus to the killing, the women’s testimony was critical.

“Without them, we most likely would not have had a case,” he told “Dateline.”

Paleologus told “Dateline” he had nothing to do with Johnson’s killing. The women who testified against him weren’t relevant and had nothing to do with Johnson’s murder, Paleologus’ defense lawyer, Andy Flier, said.

After roughly two weeks of testimony, the two sides announced that Paleologus had agreed to plead guilty to first-degree murder if prosecutors did not seek the death penalty. Shortly after, Paleologus tried to back out, telling the judge in an 11-page letter that he had been sleep-deprived when he agreed to the plea.

The judge denied his request and sentenced Paleologus to 25 years to life in prison. He told “Dateline” that he wasn’t responsible for the death and had only agreed to the plea because he’d been facing the death penalty.

Dateline Kristi Johnson
Kristi Johnson (left) with her mother, Terry Hall.Dateline

Digging deep 

In 2013, seven years after Paleologus’ guilty plea, DeBuono was moving into a new house when a friend — an indie filmmaker — came across a book about the case and suggested she make a documentary about it.

DeBuono was intrigued. She’d always believed it was important for women to understand what she viewed as the case’s key takeaway: “One at a time we get lost in the shuffle, but if you think about the nature of a predator, for every one predator we necessarily outnumber them,” she said.

DeBuono began interviewing other women who’d encountered Paleologus, she said, and started looking into whether there were unreported victims. One possibility was in the Philadelphia suburb where Paleologus had family connections and where, in 1988, the remains of a pregnant woman were found behind a distillery.

What stood out, DuBuono said, was what the woman was found with. She was clothed, but buried with a second outfit — a skirt, high heels, fishnet stockings and a shirt.

DeBuono also wrote Paleologus in prison asking for an interview. She was upfront about who she was, and though he declined, he said he’d be open to corresponding via letter, she recalled.

That correspondence lasted years, DeBuono said. He revealed little about himself but seemed happy to talk about the restaurants and apartments he’d owned. DeBuono, meanwhile, said she wanted to figure out how to “lull” him into a sense of security so she could elicit real information.

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Paleologus had been granted the possibility of parole and DeBuono wanted to know if he still coupled sex with violence — or if he was on a path to rehabilitation and healing.

Eventually, DeBuono said, she asked Paleologus what he really wanted to talk about. He quickly responded with a violent sex fantasy that seemed to echo his real-life crimes and left her believing he was still dangerous, she said.

But she now had evidence to confront what she called the potential “spin” that Paleologus could put forward at a parole hearing. Although Walgren, the prosecutor, said in 2006 that he believed Paleologus would never be paroled, it had begun to seem more plausible.

A decade ago, California established a program that sought to help relieve its overcrowded prisons by granting early release to older offenders deemed to no longer pose a danger. By 2022, state officials had lowered the standard for parole eligibility to inmates who were over 50 and had served more than 20 years.

‘There to get a job done’

DeBuono had also reached out to a cold case detective in Pennsylvania about the woman found behind the distillery. The investigator, Chris McMullin, was receptive to examining a potential link to Paleologus and had a theory that the killer was the fetus’ father, he told “Dateline.”

Trying to establish that connection would require Paleologus’ DNA, McMullin said, but authorities in California declined to provide it without stronger evidence.

In 2016, DeBuono decided to get it herself with a trip to the California Institution for Men, the prison roughly 40 miles east of Los Angeles where Paleologus is incarcerated. In addition to obtaining Paleologus’ DNA, she said, she wanted an actual account of what he’d done to Johnson.

During a three-hour visit, she bought Paleologus a drink and then collected his empty can. With a fabric Band-Aid wrapped around one of her fingers, she rubbed his arms when she noticed that he’d shaved them, she said, and she let him kiss her on the cheek — then made a mental note of where to swab later.

“It was strange,” she said. “But at the end of the day, it was just a kiss on the cheek and I felt it was worth it. I was in there to get a job done.”

Dateline Kristi Johnson
Kristi Johnson, with her mother, Terry Hall, at concert in 2001, was 21 when she was killed.Dateline

After DeBuono asked him about Johnson, Paleologus requested that she not tell anyone what he was about to say, she recalled, and then described how he’d met Johnson at the mall and invited her home.

They smoked some weed, she recalled him saying, and tried erotic asphyxiation during consensual sex. When Paleologus couldn’t wake her, DeBuono recalled him saying, he panicked, wrapped her in a sleeping bag and rolled her down a hill. Paleologus did not respond to a request for comment from “Dateline.”

DeBuono didn’t believe his account. But to her, the disclosure was significant because it was the first time Paleologus had admitted to killing Johnson, she said.

The documentary that this revelation would have likely appeared in stalled. And the DNA DeBuono obtained didn’t end up matching the fetus in Pennsylvania, though McMullin still believes Paleologus is a “viable candidate” in the mother-to-be’s killing. But he’s not the only one, McMullin said.

Still, DeBuono said, the other evidence she gathered may soon be useful. While checking the state’s corrections website, she learned that Paleologus became eligible for parole last year.

She contacted Johnson’s parents and the other women who’d survived their encounters. Together, DeBuono said, they developed a plan to approach his parole suitability hearing, and they launched a website — Justice for Kristi — advocating for his continued incarceration.

Then, a couple months before his hearing date, DeBuono learned that Paleologus had voluntarily waived the hearing.

A spokeswoman for California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said Paleologus wanted more time to complete additional self-help programs and relapse prevention and parole plans. His hearing is now scheduled for November 2025.

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