SAN FRANCISCO — The young Joe Hunt once used his intelligence, a high-energy salesman's patter and powers of persuasion to get wealthy friends to invest in his Billionaire Boys Club to fuel an opulent lifestyle that abruptly ended with a first-degree murder conviction and a prison sentence of life without the possibility of parole.
Now he's using those same skills in to try to close the biggest deal of his life.
He's calling on California Gov. Jerry Brown to make him eligible for parole and give him a chance to leave prison after spending 34 years behind bars.
A Los Angeles County jury convicted Hunt in 1987 of killing Ron Levin, who disappeared in 1984. Prosecutors have said Hunt killed Levin over a false promise to rescue the financially struggling "club," which purported to invest members' money in commodities but was mostly a Ponzi scheme that relied on new cash infusions to keep it afloat.
Hunt argues Levin faked his own death to escape a pending fraud case. Levin's body has never been found.
Hunt, 59, is hoping to capitalize on Brown's desire to burnish his gubernatorial legacy during his last two months in office. The termed-out Democrat took office eight years ago vowing to reduce the prison population and reform harsh criminal justice laws, which includes reconsidering some life without parole sentences.
Brown's office said the governor has given 42 inmates with those sentences a chance at parole during his two terms in office.
With time running out on Brown's final term, Hunt and his family have launched a publicity blitz to sway the governor.
For most of an hour-long telephone interview with The Associated Press, Hunt displayed the same confident, enthusiastic and articulate hustle that he used to convince his wealthy high school buddies to join his "investment club" with their families' money. Hunt originally named the group after a favorite restaurant — Bombay Bicycle Club — but it became known as the Billionaire Boys Club because of the hedonistic gang's larger-than-life presence in Los Angeles.
During the interview, Hunt discussed prison culture, what he believes are inherent inequities in the legal system and — most of all — his claim of innocence.
But Hunt went quiet when asked what would happen if Brown turns him down. He tenaciously but fruitlessly fought for three decades to win his freedom in the courts. He said he had resigned himself to never leaving prison when he lost his final appeal in 2016 but that his hope was renewed after inmates serving the same sentence walked out of prison because of Brown's intervention.
"I see other men similarly situated getting commutations and figured 'Why not me, too?'" he said.
Brown's spokesman Evan Westrup declined comment on Hunt's appeal, saying the governor does not comment on commutation applications.
But Leslie Zoeller, the retired Beverly Hills police detective who led the Levin murder investigation, is opposed to Levin's release, saying "a man like that doesn't reform overnight." Zoeller said he remains convinced that "Joe Hunt did a great job of disposing of the body."
In 1984, the then 24-year-old Hunt was elated he had met Levin, who was 18 years older. Hunt thought Levin was the financial savior for a scheme badly in need of new investment. Hunt had squandered most of the original investments on luxury condos, sports cars and Armani suits.
"With high overhead, lavish personal spending and little income, the BBC was essentially a pyramid scheme," Hunt's attorney Charles Carbone wrote in his client's application to the governor.
Levin gave Hunt access to a $5 million commodities trading account and the two agreed to split profits. Hunt quickly racked up $13 million in profits, but when he went to cash out he discovered the account was not real.
Levin, who operated a video news agency, had convinced a brokerage house to open the dummy account. Levin told the brokerage firm he was working on an investment documentary, that Hunt was his subject and needed to believe the account was real for the project to work.
Prosecutors argued that Hunt was angry and humiliated when he discovered that summer that he was the target of Levin's hoax.
Levin went missing in the summer of 1984 and has never been found. Kevin Spacey played Levin in the 2018's financial flop "Billionaire Boys Club."
The jury convicted Hunt on the strength of club members' testimony that Hunt had bragged he killed Levin — and a macabre "to-do list" Hunt wrote that was found in Levin's home.
"Closed blinds, scan for tape recorder, tape mouth, handcuff, put gloves on, explain situation, kill dog," the note read.
Hunt said he wrote the note and left if for Levin to find to scare him. Hunt has always maintained his innocence and argued that Levin faked his death to evade a pending fraud case.
But now, he's changed tactics with Brown and is highlighting his stellar prison record of volunteer work, religious service and good prison behavior. His commutation cites his legal work with other inmates, helping them write briefs and fill out court forms.
Hunt's application also discusses in depth his embrace of yogi and meditation and a brand of Eastern religion as practiced by the Ananda Church of Self-Realization.
He was recently transferred so he could work helping other inmates at the California Health Care Facility at Stockton, a medical prison and much less stressful place for inmates than the maximum-security lockup where he spent most of prison time.
Hunt filed his commutation application in January, but has not heard back.
So he and his family recently launched a publicity campaign, with a website, FreeJoeHunt.com and accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. His family has hired a publicist to arrange phone calls with reporters and he eagerly recounted his story.
"Was I a catastrophic, world-class jackass in in 1984? No doubt," Hunt said. "But it's not right that I get to be the garbage dump of everybody's peccadillos."