In the annals of Hollywood movie piracy, Russell Sprague won't go down as the biggest offender. But he may be remembered as the most slippery.
Federal authorities say he started copying movies illegally in the fledgling days of the home videocassette recorder, driving around Southern California in his 1975 Ford to deliver tapes of "Star Wars," "The Godfather" and James Bond movies.
For 25 years, he allegedly recorded and sold hundreds of movies a year, eluding a generation of law enforcement personnel, most of whom died or retired without catching him. Sprague's wife once told the FBI that her husband had an "addictive behavior toward movies."
Last week, the longest movie piracy career on record came to an end when Sprague, 52, was found dead in his cell at a federal jail in downtown Los Angeles. He had a history of heart problems, according to the coroner's office.
Sprague was awaiting sentencing this month on one count of copyright infringement. He had pleaded guilty to illegally making copies of 134 different movies. His arrest and conviction, while not the stuff of screaming headlines, brought a deep sense of satisfaction to federal authorities who, armed with tougher laws and more sophisticated technology, have made movie piracy a high priority.
"This case crystallized in our mind that pirates are not people who just make a mistake," said Ken Jacobsen, former head of the Motion Picture Assn. of America's anti-piracy efforts. "These are people who have been at it for a very, very long time."
Sprague was one of thousands of bit players in the piracy business, most so small they operate maddeningly out of reach of studios. There are virtually no entry barriers -- the Internet has free copies of almost every movie being shown in theaters, and a stack of fast DVD recorders can be bought for just a few thousand dollars. All told, studios say that bootlegged discs and tapes cost them more than $3.5 billion a year.
But many movie thieves, like Sprague, seem to be in it as much for the thrill as the money. It's doubtful that Sprague, who once described himself as an electrician, fattened his bank account in any substantial way by pirating movies. His wife, Roberta, told FBI agents that he was hooked on the rush of getting a movie onto the street before it hit the theaters. It made him feel "important and popular," she said.
In the end, he was important -- but not in the way he had hoped. Instead, authorities used his case to send a message to would-be pirates: No matter how insignificant or harmless the crime may seem, the penalties will be severe.
Sprague's lengthy cat-and-mouse game with authorities, as chronicled in court records, began on Aug. 17, 1979, when a burglar alarm was tripped at Home Video Center in Fountain Valley.
Sprague, who worked as a clerk at the video rental store, told a police officer that it was a false alarm. But the officer insisted on inspecting the store and reported finding half a dozen videotape machines churning out copies of the James Bond film "Moonraker."
Suspicious, police searched Sprague's Mission Viejo home and found a large stash of films that included pornography and mainstream movies such as "Fantasia," "The Deer Hunter" and "Towering Inferno."
It soon became clear to authorities that they had stumbled across a home-based business that was thriving as people were looking for films to watch on their newly purchased VCRs.
In one undercover operation in the early 1980s, an FBI agent paid Sprague $465 for tapes of "Star Wars," "Straw Dogs," "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," "Alien" and "Moonraker." According to the FBI, Sprague sometimes exchanged tapes for whiskey or pay-TV decoder boxes.
Back then, bootlegs were more expensive to produce and the retail was much higher than today. Sprague sold his wares for up to $100, according to court records. Today, a pirated DVD sells for about $5.
One informant told the FBI that Sprague's operation had grown so large that they'd need "a moving van and six more people" to cart everything away. In the home, authorities found 18 videocassette recorders and a walk-in closet full of bootleg movies, according to court documents.
Charges Never Filed
For reasons that present-day authorities have been unable to ascertain, bootlegging charges were not filed against Sprague at that time.
For years, the MPAA kept a thick file on him, only to see it put to little use. The crime wasn't considered a major financial threat to studios and it wasn't high on law enforcement's priority list.
What's more, it wasn't against the law to copy movies as long as they weren't sold for profit, and police couldn't seem to catch Sprague in the act of selling pirated movies.
As Sprague's operation grew in the late 1980s, he began shipping tapes to other parts of the country. One destination was was that of Sprague's dentist, Bernard M. Cole.