By Albert Samaha
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When he starts evangelizing about his unfair treatment at the government's hands, LaRocco reveals the focused, obsessive side that allowed him to build the nation's largest bootlegging business. A former criminal associate said it was that drive and a paucity of career alternatives that kept LaRocco peddling illegal CDs. "This is what he knows how to do," said the source, who himself was convicted in a related smuggling case.
Amazingly, LaRocco has operated essentially as a one-man enterprise. Using a network of U.S. contacts, investigators said, LaRocco would secure tapes of live concerts or recording studio sessions by headline acts. He would then have a variety of production facilities in Europe including well-known firms like Swinging Pig and Why Not produce CDs of these performances. The records were then shipped to New York, where Charlie packed them into jewel boxes carrying four-color insert cards, many of which he designed. The finished product was then distributed to LaRocco's domestic customers, who paid around $10 for CDs that would later retail for around $25 to $30."For what he was doing, he could have been written up in Entrepreneur Magazine," said Edward Dempsey, a Customs Service group supervisor.
And like any accomplished smuggler, Charlie dealt only in cash and postal money orders. Along with several personal aliases (apparently including "Pookie"), he operated under an array of business names, none of which were incorporated or registered in New York State. LaRocco used a series of drop boxes to receive mail and filed fraudulent Customs declarations to sneak bootlegs into the country. He never paid taxes and used a series of phony social security numbers. When investigators recorded some of his telephone conversations, he spoke in code, referring to CDs as "magazines." While he has claimed to have been unaware that selling bootlegs was illegal, LaRocco sure operated as if he had something to hide.
For LaRocco, the ongoing law enforcement scrutiny has been a major annoyance and a disruption to his regular routine. That regimen basically revolves around his hunt for records at tag and garage sales and his daily postmidnight trips into Manhattan for bicycle rides and three-mile runs. "It's like an oxymoron, but I strive for contentment. I'm content with the way things are. So I just look for no changes. I got great equilibrium." That balance, however, was thrown off again last month.
Though on bail and awaiting sentencing for his previous bootlegging activity, LaRocco was nabbed in a first-of-its-kind Internet sting launched by World Trade Centerbased Customs agents. LaRocco was caught selling bootlegs on eBay, the popular online auction site. Aided by the anti-piracy unit of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and a confidential witness, Customs agents successfully bid for Byrds and Beach Boys albums offered for sale by LaRocco, who is known by several eBay handles, including "groupsound" and "harmonysound." Investigators presented Roger McGuinn with the Byrds CD a recording of a 1978 reunion show in San Francisco and the group's founder announced that those ringing Rickenbackers were recorded without permission.
Together, the two winning eBay bids cost Uncle Sam $96. In an additional $100 transaction conducted via e-mail, LaRocco also sold the federal source four other bootlegs, including Alice in Chains and Tool performances. Normally, a measly $196 illegal sale would not be worth the effort of Customs agents and federal prosecutors. But when it comes to LaRocco, the government has a zero-tolerance policy in light of Charlie's lengthy pirate pedigree.
Strangely, the great majority of items LaRocco has sold on eBay appear legitimate, like Al Green and Sly Stone singles and a variety of old Stax 45s. Feedback posted from nearly 100 LaRocco customers is almost uniformly positive. "Five *****'s Charlie!" and "Charlie's a fab dealer" are typical examples of such praise. It is unclear why, among all these old r&b and soul offerings, LaRocco decided to chance slipping in some stray bootlegs, a decision that could lead to more jail time and revocation of his current bail package. But for Charlie, jail is just not an option (as if he has a choice): "There's no possibility of that because there was no wrongdoing on my part." This, of course, is coming from a guy who stood before a magistrate last year and copped to three felony counts. When his sentencing day arrives, LaRocco is sure the judge will realize the case against him is "a joke."
LaRocco believes that the federal bootlegging statute enacted in late 1994 as part of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) is unconstitutional and will eventually be overturned. Along with two criminal defense attorneys, LaRocco has also hired a copyright lawyer and an intellectual property expert to research possible legal challenges to the bootlegging law. Of course, along with already pleading guilty to that statute, LaRocco also admitted that he violated separate smuggling and currency reporting laws. And nobody's arguing that those sections of the federal criminal code are particularly flimsy.
As LaRocco finances a multiple-member legal team, Customs agents are left to wonder whether the bootlegger successfully hid large sums of money earned by his illegal operation (in places other than the hamper or cookie jar). Investigators believe that Charlie made far too much money to have spent most or all of it. "I live like an impoverished guy," said LaRocco, who added that he has taken one vacation in his life. And that was only a brief record-buying expedition down South in 1976. "I don't need an escape from anything," he said, "because I'm content with the environment that I'm in."