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Three weeks ago, Charles Larocco, the embattled King of Bootleggers, found himself in a Brooklyn holding cell waiting for the third time in 30 months to be arraigned on federal criminal charges. Just like in June 1996 and May 1997, the 42-year-old had been arrested that late-January afternoon by an all-too-familiar posse of agents from the U.S. Customs Service. Among these veteran New York investigators, Charlie was somewhat of a legend, only the second guy they had ever arrested three times for the same crime in this case, the illegal sale of bootleg CDs featuring groups like Nirvana and Garbage.
Until January 27, when Charlie hit the trifecta, the three-arrest record was held solely by some Queens recidivist who could not fight the overwhelming urge to manufacture crack pipes.
But it seems that LaRocco the legendary "Mr. Big" of bootlegging circles will not, or cannot, stop selling illegal CDs. His multimillion dollar operation, which manufactured and sold bootleg albums to many New York City record shops and hundreds of retailers nationwide, has been crippled by federal investigators, so LaRocco who has been free on bail recently had to test a new distribution tool. But he was quickly collared again, this time in cyberspace on one of the Web's most popular sites.
Facing several years in prison, LaRocco appeared defiant and also a bit delusional during three Voiceinterviews last week. Asked about his January bust, the slender and soft-spoken LaRocco said, "I was happy it happened. Because to me it's like an exciting adventure. Because when you feel you did nothing wrong and they're coming and accosting you under those circumstances, I feel I got nothing to lose."
LaRocco actually spoke fondly of his latest legal scrape. "I mean, when I go in the cell with all these drug dealers, it's an experience for me." While waiting to be arraigned, he showed off his Latin music chops to two impressed DEA detainees. When his cellmates then asked about his case, Charlie lied, claiming that his charges were rather serious. "Of course, I'm embarrassed to tell them all I'm in there for is CDs."
An ascetic character who hews to a weird, quotidian schedule, LaRocco has already pleaded guilty to charges filed in connection with the first two arrests. But he scoffs at the notion that he will actually be punished for those crimes, though federal guidelines call for a prison term of 30 to 37 months when he is sentenced on March 19. He expects investigators to soon admit they were wrong about him and return the nearly 1 million bootleg CDs. The albums, seized from two Queens warehouses in 1996, are now being stored in a Customs Service depot. For Charlie, it is as if a member of the family has been held hostage for more than two years.
As they had done twice before, Customs agents traveled to Valley Stream, where they arrived in the early afternoon at the modest ranch home LaRocco shares with his 82-year-old mother. They were again carrying an arrest warrant for Charlie and a search warrant for the premises. But since both Luna LaRocco and her son suffer from sleep disorders and live the lobster shift, they had to be rousted awake by the raiding party. As agents took Charlie from the house, he had a parting message for his mother, who was enduring the third court- ordered raid of her home. "Mom," he whispered, "watch 'em so they don't steal anything."
As it turned out, the 1999 canvass netted little, unlike a 1996 search that turned up $490,000 in cash. Charlie had hidden wads everywhere: $4900 in the microwave, $46,620 in a credenza, $193,600 in the laundry hamper, even $220 in the cookie jar. The rubber bands on some stashes were dry and brittle, leading investigators to theorize that Charlie who suffers from short-term memory loss as a result of a serious car accident may have forgotten where he once hid the loot. He does not trust banks, LaRocco explained, because "If something's not in my possession, I'm not comfortable. I need to be in control of everything."
On his first two trips through the system, LaRocco had been charged with distributing large caches of CDs featuring live performances by artists like Jimi Hendrix and Pearl Jam. When it came to bootleggers, Charlie was the recording industry's chief nemesis, No. 1 with a bullet. After analyzing LaRocco's meticulous business records which were kept in small spiral notebooks and on pieces of cardboard federal investigators were able to quantify the remarkable scope of Charlie's business. Customs officials figured LaRocco earned more than $15 million selling swag from 1990 up until his first arrest in mid 1996. And that figure would have been higher, a former LaRocco associate said, if a "placid" and "very generous" Charlie had aggressively pursued unpaid bills. This assertion is supported by LaRocco's own financial records, which listed many accounts payable.
And Charlie was making this mountain of cash even though he did not like rock and roll.
LaRocco prefers gospel quartets and old r&b to Smashing Pumpkins and Bruce Springsteen. In fact, when he was younger and his peers were plugging in, Charlie sang tenor in an a cappella group on the Lower East Side, where Charles Cyril LaRocco grew up the youngest of three children on Monroe Street. This harmonizing was an "anachronistic sound for the time," he recently recalled. But while his customers' tastes may have run counter to his own, LaRocco never let that affect his bootleg operation. Charlie understood that Marilyn Manson, not the Marvelletes, moved product.