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Movie bootleg whiz gets 7 years

Johnny Ray Gasca is the first person to face federal charges for taping inside a theater.

December 02, 2006|Lorenza Munoz | Times Staff Writer

Johnny Ray Gasca, whose thriving bootleg film business earned him the nickname "Prince of Piracy," was sentenced Friday to seven years in federal prison for illegally taping movies in theaters and other crimes.

The sentence from U.S. District Judge Dean D. Pregerson in Los Angeles marks one of the most significant victories for the government and Hollywood studios in the stepped-up battle against movie bootlegs. As the first person to face federal charges for using a camcorder to tape inside a theater, Gasca, 36, had become the industry's anti-piracy poster boy.

The penalty was handed down 18 months after Gasca was found guilty of three misdemeanor counts for taping "Anger Management," "8 Mile" and "The Core" in 2002 and 2003. In addition, the jury found him guilty of four felony charges: witness retaliation, interstate communication of a threat, possession of false identification and fleeing the custody of his lawyer.

The government had asked for a 10-year sentence, but prosecutors said they were satisfied with the punishment.

"The prosecution, conviction and substantial sentence imposed on Mr. Gasca today shows the seriousness of his offenses and the fact that we take copyright infringement as a very serious crime," said Elena Duarte, head of the cyber and intellectual crime section of the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles.

Gasca has already served a little more than two years cumulatively. He was indicted on criminal copyright infringement charges in May 2003. The following January he went on the lam less than a week before his trial was to start by escaping his lawyer's custody at a Los Angeles drugstore.

Gasca was nabbed in April 2005 at a motel in Kissimmee, Fla. Recording equipment, DVDs and video cameras were found in his room.

Gasca's attorney, David Reed, could not be reached for comment. Pregerson on Friday denied Gasca's request for a new trial, rejecting arguments that the case was part of a government conspiracy.

Hollywood studios made the Bronx-born Gasca, who once dreamed of meeting such film luminaries as Miramax founder Harvey Weinstein, a central figure in an aggressive campaign against piracy.

The Motion Picture Assn. of America trade group blamed Gasca and others for costing the industry an estimated $3.5 billion a year. "We are pleased that the court recognized Gasca's crimes today with a fitting punishment," MPAA Chairman Dan Glickman said in a statement.

Prosecutors maintained that Gasca was a particular problem because few people could match his ability to make high-quality copies for duplication and computer downloading.

Gasca's sophisticated equipment included a remote zoom lens and monitor devices, a belt with a camera and an infrared sound receiver. Gasca's case was notorious in part because he kept a diary that chronicled his pirating exploits. He said he made as much as $4,500 a week selling movies and bragged that having movies before their release dates made him popular with women.

In September 2002, Gasca was thrown out of a screening of Paramount Pictures' "The Core" after studio employees noticed him taping the movie. He was arrested by Burbank police and charged with misdemeanor burglary, according to the court file. After being released on bond, he was caught again a month later at a screening of Universal's "8 Mile," starring Eminem, when a studio executive noticed the "glowing green light" surrounding him.

In January 2003, Gasca was nabbed at a Thousand Oaks theater while taping a Revolution Studios preview of "Anger Management," starring Adam Sandler. During the trial, prosecutors showed a tape of Gasca and two accomplices sitting in the front row taping.

Gasca maintained his innocence throughout his trial, arguing that his taping wasn't illegal when he did it and that he was just a collector of old kung fu movies.

Since the 2003 arrest, the government has successfully prosecuted one other felony camcorder case and numerous piracy cases. Gasca was one of several colorful bootleggers who populated Hollywood's most-wanted list.

Another key figure, Russell Sprague, is believed to have had a long career in movie piracy. In March of last year, he was found dead in his Los Angeles jail cell of what appeared to be a heart attack. At the time, Sprague was awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to illegally making copies of 134 movies.

lorenza.munoz@latimes.com

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