A onetime street vendor who allegedly turned from selling bags of mangos to running a growing bootleg DVD operation was arrested in Los Angeles early Tuesday as police seized movies worth an estimated $500,000.
Javier Monfil Hernandez, 35, was taken into custody after four simultaneous raids aimed at hitting a variety of points in the bootleg-DVD distribution chain.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 28, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 64 words Type of Material: Correction
DVD raid -- An article in the June 15 Business section about a DVD piracy raid by Los Angeles police said two employees of Digital Color Copy in downtown Los Angeles were arrested. In fact, only one employee was arrested. The other suspect, Juan Cobatzin, was identified in the article as a part-time Digital Color Copy employee. Cobatzin has never worked for the company.
In addition to Monfil, two employees of Digital Color Copy on Hill Street in downtown Los Angeles were arrested, including one who allegedly downloaded copyrighted movie publicity images from the Internet and reproduced them for the DVD covers.
The raids by 20 LAPD detectives and a group of Motion Picture Assn. of America investigators was one of the largest aimed at pulling back the curtain on the city's growing and perplexing network of individuals who trade in illegally reproduced movies.
Local, state and federal law enforcement have stepped up efforts to combat the illegal manufacturing of DVDs, many of which are taped in theaters using hidden camcorders. The MPAA estimates piracy costs major studios more than $3.5 billion annually in lost sales.
By late Tuesday, detectives had tallied 26,100 DVDs worth $496,128 and 4,503 music CDs worth $58,493. Films included such recent releases as "Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith" and "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."
Police confiscated nearly 19,000 DVDs, a professional copy machine, 10 DVD burner towers, hundreds of spindles with master copies of films such as "Bambi" and scores of blank DVDs at Monfil's one-bedroom Pico-Union apartment and in a nearby self-storage facility.
"This is probably one of the largest of the raids we've done," said Det. Dondee Stout, lead investigator on the case for the anti-piracy unit in the Los Angeles Police Department's Vice Division. "It was very successful. They were all cooperative."
Police traced the operation to Monfil after observing Juan Cobatzin, 35, a part-time employee of Digital Color Copy. While under surveillance, Cobatzin was allegedly seen by detectives going in and out of Monfil's residence with DVDs.
"We saw raw product going in and finished product coming out," Stout said. "That gives you a good idea it was a lab."
Cobatzin was arrested Tuesday at his home on 33rd Street in Los Angeles, where police found 7,412 DVDs and about 1,000 sleeve inserts.
According to police, Monfil would reproduce the DVDs in his home, then sell them directly to vendors who trade their wares in downtown L.A.'s counterfeit haven, Santee Alley.
Police said they observed Monfil and his associates drop off DVDs at the storage facility. They also allege that Monfil would get the movie publicity art from the print shop.
Police detectives also arrested 33-year-old Maria Betancourt on Tuesday, a print shop employee accused of downloading the movie publicity art.
In an interview, Monfil, from Puebla, Mexico, said he started selling pirated movies four months ago to support his wife and four children. "We needed the money," Monfil said.
A onetime taxi driver, Monfil had his license revoked. That led to his becoming a street vendor, selling mangos and hot dogs.
Monfil said he was introduced to the DVD business by Gonzalo Arista, who served 16 months in jail after pleading guilty to misdemeanor copyright infringement in a separate bootleg case. Monfil said Arista gave him his copying equipment and DVDs when he was released from jail, telling Monfil that he was getting out of the business.
Even though he knew the risks involved, Monfil said, he decided to launch his own illegal trade because he wanted out of poverty. Monfil said Arista in a single week could sell about 20,000 DVDs for $1 to $5 each.
At the apartment, police found DVDs stored in crates and boxes crammed into the attic and scattered around the residence amid children's toys, a fish tank, a small couch and a bunk bed.
Monfil said he had hoped to save money from the illegal DVD operation to move to a larger place. His plan was to continue renting his apartment and turn it into a convenience store.
"It's better to work at something on the up and up," Monfil said as the police placed handcuffs on him and led him away.