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Molester helped cast child actors

News that a registered sex offender worked under another name raises questions for studios and police.

November 17, 2011|Dawn C. Chmielewski and Harriet Ryan, Los Angeles Times
  • Jason James Murphy spent five years in prison.
Jason James Murphy spent five years in prison. (Washington Corrections…)

A small-town boy from Washington state, Jason James Murphy has spent much of the last decade working his way up in the world of Hollywood movie casting. He's helped place actors, including children, on a variety of movies, from small independent films to last summer's science fiction hit "Super 8."

But few of the power players he encountered knew his secret: He is a registered sex offender who was convicted of kidnapping and molesting an 8-year-old boy in suburban Seattle 15 years ago.

This week, J.J. Abrams, the director and co-producer of "Super 8," one of the most prized titles on Murphy's resume, found out. On Thursday, Los Angeles police began looking into whether Murphy was in compliance with state registration requirements for sex offenders.

"It's shocking and it's devastating, not just as a filmmaker but as a father and someone who is entrusted to make sure that everyone I work with, especially children, are safe," Abrams said. "To think that someone like this was among us is unthinkable."

Murphy, 35, who uses the professional name Jason James, also placed young actors in the forthcoming film "The Three Stooges," according to those who have worked with him. He also worked on "Bad News Bears," "The School of Rock" and "Cheaper by the Dozen 2."

After serving five years in prison for the 1996 crime in the Seattle area, Murphy underwent sex-offender counseling. When he moved to California in 2005, the state performed an evaluation and required him to register as a sex offender, making his name and photo publicly available. But the listing is under his original last name, in effect screening it from those who know him only as Jason James.

California law prohibits sex offenders whose victims were younger than 16 from "working directly and in an unaccompanied setting with minor children on more than an incidental and occasional basis or have supervision or disciplinary power over minor children." The law also requires offenders to notify law enforcement within five days of any name change.

A spokesman for the state attorney general said the statute requires offenders to tell law enforcement about any aliases so that they can be added to the public database. "Any name that a person uses needs to be the name that they are registered under, otherwise they are in violation," spokesman Nicholas Pacilio said.

There are no known complaints that Murphy acted inappropriately with any minor in his casting business. Murphy did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Abrams said in an interview that he was unaware of Murphy's background until this week, when he was tipped by his manager, David Lonner, who recently learned of the conviction. He informed the studio that released "Super 8," Paramount Pictures, which in turn notified authorities.

"Bad Robot had absolutely no knowledge of his real name, nor of his status," said Abrams, referring to his production company. "He applied for the job under an alias."

The casting directors on "Super 8," April Webster and Alyssa Weisberg, said they were unaware of Murphy's criminal conviction when they hired him as an assistant who helped cast children in the film. Webster said she was "shocked and disturbed" when she learned of Murphy's past. She said he was never alone with children while in their offices.

Pamela Fisher, who heads the youth division at Abrams Artists Agency in Los Angeles, which is not affiliated with J.J. Abrams, said she has worked extensively with the man she knew as Jason James. She said he helped her line up auditions for young clients. As recently as Wednesday, Fisher said, Murphy sent her an email "looking for 12-year-olds for a USC student film."

"I had no idea. I'm completely shocked," Fisher said Thursday. "We've worked together over the years on many projects and had a lot of contact. He's always been very professional, and there was never any reason to think there would ever be a problem with projects where my clients were auditioning."

Murphy was the focus of an intense manhunt when he abducted the boy from his elementary school in early 1996 and flew with him to New York City. According to court records and contemporary news accounts, Murphy, then a 19-year-old college student with acting aspirations, was already out on bail awaiting arraignment on charges of molesting the boy, whom he had met while working as a camp counselor. He disguised himself as a woman in a white dress and wig to kidnap the child.

Three days after he fled with the boy, the TV show "America's Most Wanted" broadcast a segment on the kidnapping and a New York hotel clerk recognized Murphy and the boy as guests. Authorities found Murphy, the boy and more than $8,000 cash in a Manhattan hotel room.

A prosecutor described Murphy in court papers as "obsessed" with the boy and cited a police interview in which a female friend said Murphy "was in love with" the child and had talked openly of taking him to live in London or Australia.

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