Feds Nail Top Movie Pirate

Los Angeles- Johnny Ray Gasca, a Los Angeles resident whom the FBI has called the poster boy of movie piracy, said taping movies in theaters wasn’t illegal at the time he was arrested.

Gasca, 35, is accused of taping movies, including Sony Pictures’ “Anger Management,” at screenings before they were released and selling copies he made over the Internet. Piracy costs the movie industry about $3.5 billion a year in lost business, according to the Motion Picture Assn. of America.

President Bush on April 27 signed a law that made it a federal crime to videotape movies in theaters. Although Gasca is the first person to be tried on allegations of stealing movies using a camcorder, he is charged with criminal copyright infringement and isn’t on trial for breaking the law adopted this year.

“I didn’t want to plead guilty because I’m innocent,” Gasca said in an interview before jury selection began in his case Tuesday in federal court. “It’s true that I used my camcorder in a theater, but there weren’t any laws against that at the time. When they raided my apartment, all they found were copies of old kung fu movies.”

Gasca, who has a previous criminal record including a conviction for assault in 1992, was supposed to go on trial in January 2004 when he fled while freed from jail to help his attorney prepare for the case. After more than a year on the run, he was arrested in Florida on April 5. Now, Gasca is conducting his own defense.

He’s also charged with witness retaliation, threatening movie industry officials and using a false identification. Gasca faces as many as 25 years in jail if convicted on all counts.

“What sets him apart is that he raised movie piracy to a much more significant criminal level with his seriously violent tendencies,” said Ken McGuire, the FBI agent whose cyber crime unit conducted the investigation of Gasca.

Gasca attended screenings that movie studios use to poll audiences’ responses before a picture is released, court documents said. In September 2002, he was caught taping Paramount Pictures’ “The Core” at a screening in Burbank, according to court documents.

A month later, he was allegedly involved in an illegal taping of Universal Pictures’ “8 Mile,” although security officers didn’t find a videodisc on him. At a screening of “Anger Management” in January 2003, a video recording of the audience shows Gasca and two accomplices sitting in the front row, with Gasca taping the movie and later passing the tape to one of his accomplices, according to court documents.

When FBI agents searched Gasca’s home, they found 15 video recorders hooked up to make multiple copies from one source and editing equipment, authorities said. They also allegedly found diaries in which Gasca claimed to have made as much as $4,000 a week from selling bootleg movies over the Internet.

Gasca said Tuesday that the diary entries weren’t accurate.

According to the MPAA, when 20th Century Fox’s “Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace” opened in Asia in 1999, attendance was below expectations because the market had been flooded with illegal copies of the movies created by camcorder pirates. Gasca told FBI agents he sold illegal copies of the movie for $100 apiece.

“Gasca isn’t your average copyright infringer,” said Kori Bernards, a spokeswoman for the MPAA in Los Angeles. “He is a repeat offender who has schmoozed his way into many screenings of movies before they were released.”

About 90% of pirated movies are taped in theaters with camcorders, Bernards said.

The MPAA, she said, has been working with theater owners to identify where illegal taping is frequently done and to train attendants in spotting people with camcorders.

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