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A Fugitive From Hollywood

Johnny Ray Gasca, now on the lam, fancied himself a screenwriter. Authorities say he made movies -- by pirating them with a camcorder.

January 23, 2004|Lorenza Munoz and Li Fellers | Times Staff Writers

Like countless other dreamers, Johnny Ray Gasca came to Hollywood with a screenplay to pitch and a list of moguls to schmooze.

Unlike most of the others, he quickly grabbed the movie industry's attention -- but maybe not quite the way he had in mind.

Gasca, a Bronx native and convicted felon, is believed to be the first person charged in federal court with violating copyright laws by videotaping movies at pre-release screenings. Earlier this month, just days before his trial was to start, he bolted from the custody of his lawyer at a Long's drugstore in West Los Angeles and is now a fugitive.

His escape is the latest twist in a "Get Shorty"-style saga of an ex-con trying to break into the movies while playing cat-and-mouse with authorities hoping to crack down on the industry's piracy problem.

Gasca's personal diary, which prosecutors view as a key piece of evidence in their case, describes in colorful detail how Gasca sought to get close to industry bigwigs while developing a lucrative sideline illicitly taping films.

But there's a kicker. In an interview before he fled, Gasca, 35, said that his "diary" was a work of imagination. He wanted to turn it into a movie.

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Gasca's journey from Hollywood wannabe to Hollywood's most wanted began in August 2002, when he arrived in Los Angeles and took a room at the Mark Twain Hotel on Wilcox Avenue near Hollywood Boulevard.

At first, times were hard. He wrote in his diary that he was living "dollar to dollar."

On the other hand, hardship is a relative thing. Back in New York, Gasca had been convicted in 1986 of grand larceny and possession of stolen property, as well as a string of other gambling-related misdemeanor convictions in the early 1990s. In 1992, he was sent to Rikers Island state prison for attempted murder. According to the court file, Gasca and a friend were arguing about money when Gasca shot his friend in the face with a .38 Special.

In Hollywood, he tried a more subtle approach. He said he had read nearly 50 how-to books on the art of schmoozing.

By early September 2002, he appeared to be getting into a steady stream of screenings, which studios use to gauge audience reaction and build word-of-mouth for films weeks or months ahead of official release. In some cases, Gasca simply hung around theaters where marketing research groups were known to sign up audience members.

At a screening of Paramount's "The Core" that September, a theater employee reported that he caught Gasca taping the film, and Burbank police were called out. He was later charged with misdemeanor burglary and released on bond, according to the court file.

Gasca was unperturbed, if his diary entry is to be believed:

"All is well. I'm going to change my setup and go very hi tech (spy-glasses camera)," he wrote.

A month later, Gasca was spotted by a Universal Pictures executive with a "large bundle on his lap with a shoulder strap and a green light" as he watched a screening of Eminem's movie, "8 Mile," according to court documents. Security guards searched his belongings but were unable to find a videotape and released him, according to the court file.

Gasca had come to town just as Hollywood began tightening anti-piracy security. Federal authorities fear that career criminals and organized crime are supplanting Internet groups as the biggest threat to industry copyrights.

Certainly there is money to be made. The Motion Picture Assn. of America estimated that the industry lost $3 billion to pirates in 2003. In many cases, criminals would transfer their illegally recorded movies onto DVDs and then sell the copies for about $100 each. Quality varies widely, but piracy-monitoring firms say advancing digital camcorder technology is yielding dramatic improvements.

"I'm not sure if I'll make it out of this drama," Gasca wrote in October 2002. "But if I don't, it was one hell of a ride."

By December, Gasca claimed in his diary to be making it big selling his videotapes. In one week, he wrote, he made $4,000: "Wow! I don't even get the chance to spend any money; yet, it keeps stacking up."

It wasn't apparent by his lifestyle. Gasca had moved to a studio apartment on North Vine Street in Hollywood with his collection of more than 1,000 kung fu movies. He traveled around Los Angeles by bus or subway.

Still, he pursued his dream of selling his script, "Between Heaven and Hell," which he described as a science-fiction/martial-arts tale about five border patrol agents.

Though there's no evidence he succeeded, he seemed to know exactly whom he wanted to meet: studio executive Michael De Luca, formerly of New Line Cinema, now with DreamWorks.

"One meeting with him is all I need," he wrote.

Apparently Miramax Chairman Harvey Weinstein did not impress Gasca. "[He] is not high on my list of producers I want," he wrote.

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