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Pre-Dawn Note Launched Letterman Extortion Case

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 3, 2009

The sun was not yet up when David Letterman stepped into a limousine outside his home and saw the one-page letter that threatened to reveal the secret details of his personal life.

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It was 6 a.m. on Sept. 9, and the CBS star immediately saw that whoever was trying to extort him had the goods. The person knew that the married comedian had done terrible things, that he'd had sex with women who worked for him at "Late Show." And, the letter warned, he had just two hours to respond.

What followed was three meetings at New York's stately Essex House, the last of which, on Wednesday, was secretly recorded by detectives in an adjoining hotel room. And in an undeniable black eye for the network, prosecutors said Friday that the extortionist was a veteran CBS News producer who proceeded to deposit the bogus $2 million check handed him by Letterman as part of the undercover sting.

Robert "Joe" Halderman, a veteran staffer at CBS's crime series "48 Hours," warned in the note that Letterman's world was "about to collapse around" him unless he paid a substantial sum, prosecutors said. By their account, Halderman wrote that he needed "to make a large chunk of money" or Letterman would face a "ruined reputation" -- through the release of a screenplay with the embarrassing details.

Halderman, 51, who was indicted Friday on attempted first-degree grand larceny, pleaded not guilty in a Manhattan courtroom and was freed on $200,000 bail. The charges carry a prison term of five to 15 years.

The extraordinary spectacle of one of America's best-known comics facing an alleged shakedown -- and confessing to sexual misbehavior before a national audience -- began Thursday after a seemingly routine monologue. Letterman, 62, revealed the plot and acknowledged that he had engaged in what he called "creepy" behavior.

Stephanie Birkitt, a Letterman assistant and on-air sparring partner, emerged Friday as a figure in the case. Birkitt, 34, had lived with Halderman in Norwalk, Conn., but no longer does.

She has periodically appeared in skits, dressed up in costumes, given out prizes and even served as a correspondent for Letterman, conducting interviews at such events as the Olympics. "He's the best boss I ever had," she told Entertainment Weekly in 2002.

Birkitt, a New Hampshire native and 1997 graduate of Wake Forest University, also worked for a time at "48 Hours," the newsmagazine that employs Halderman. TMZ.com reported that Halderman had possession of her diary, correspondence and photos.

The case thrust Letterman into a white-hot spotlight just weeks after he gained the upper hand in the late-night comedy wars, pulling ahead of NBC's "Tonight Show" after Jay Leno moved to prime time and handed the reins to Conan O'Brien. Letterman also scored a coup by hosting President Obama last month.

Letterman openly had a long-term relationship with Merrill Markoe while she was a producer and writer on his NBC program, "Late Night." Letterman, who moved to CBS in 1993, has been dating Regina Lasko for two decades. The two had a son, Harry, in 2003 and were quietly married in March.

Current and former CBS colleagues described Halderman as a smart, aggressive and fun-loving producer who was capable of great work but could also be difficult when he was unhappy or uninterested in an assignment. The colleagues, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the criminal investigation, said he wasn't afraid to argue with superiors and was often picked for high-profile assignments around the world. Some said Halderman liked to drink while on the road, generally with his buddies, and that his periodic problems with women were well known. CBS said it suspended Halderman in the wake of the probe.

Halderman's lawyer, Gerald Shargel, told reporters: "This story is far more complicated than what you heard this afternoon."

Prosecutors outlined a sting operation that unfolded after Letterman held an initial meeting with Halderman at Essex House, after which Letterman contacted the district attorney's office. Detectives recorded two subsequent meetings at the hotel.

Halderman had left Letterman a one-page "screenplay treatment" that mentioned Letterman's success and "beautiful, loving son," prosecutors said. At their first meeting, prosecutors said, he demanded the $2 million as his price for not going public with the screenplay. The indictment provided no information on the names of Letterman's paramours or when the liaisons took place.

"The message of this indictment should be clear: New York City will not tolerate the coercion or extortion of anyone, be the victim rich or poor, famous or anonymous," Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau told reporters.

TMZ, citing a 2004 divorce agreement between Halderman and his ex-wife, Patty Montet, said the producer was required to pay $6,800 a month in child and spousal support for three years, an amount later reduced to $5,966. Credit card bills totaling about $13,500, were split down the middle. The agreement also said the court could order either parent to pay for college for the couple's two children, now 18 and 11. Montet, who now lives in Colorado, filed for divorce on grounds that the marriage was "broken down irretrievably."

Letterman, who is chief executive of the production company Worldwide Pants, remained mum Friday, having taped that night's show a day earlier.

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