US YouTube star sentenced to 5.5 years in jail, ordered to forfeit US$30mil

Carrasquillo, 36, apologised to his family, his employees, and the cable companies he’d cheated through his business, which illegally sold content hijacked from cable boxes to thousands of online subscribers paying fees as low as US$15 a month. — Screengrab from YouTube/@omiinahellcatverified

PHILADELPHIA: A YouTube star who built a sizable following with slickly produced videos flaunting his fleet of luxury and sports cars, collection of diamond-encrusted bling, and his spacious Swedesboro, New Jersey, home will be forced to give up nearly all of it after he was sentenced on March 7 to 5 1/2 years in prison for the illegal business that allowed him to amass those trappings of success.

Bill Omar Carrasquillo – better known to his more than 800,000 online followers as “Omi in a Hellcat” – pleaded guilty last year to running one of the most brazen and successful cable TV piracy schemes ever prosecuted by the US government.

As part of his sentencing on March 7, he was ordered to forfeit more than US$30mil (RM135.63mil) in assets, including nearly US$6mil (RM27.12mil) in cash; cars including Lamborghinis, Porsches, Bentleys, and McLarens; and a portfolio of more than a dozen properties he’d amassed across Philadelphia and its suburbs.

“Thirty million dollars is a lot of money (but) tangible objects aren’t everything,” US District Judge Harvey Bartle III said in announcing the punishment during a hearing in federal court. “You have a large following and there may be people who think if you can get away with it, they can too.”

Carrasquillo, 36, apologised to his family, his employees, and the cable companies he’d cheated through his business, which illegally sold content hijacked from cable boxes to thousands of online subscribers paying fees as low as US$15 (RM68) a month.

“I really didn’t know the significance of this crime until I was picked up (by the FBI) at my home,” he said. “I feel like I let everybody down.”

But while prosecutors described Carrasquillo’s crimes – which included counts of conspiracy, copyright infringement, fraud, money laundering, and tax evasion – as serious, much of Tuesday’s hearing focused on Carrasquillo’s remarkable rags-to-riches story.

A product of North Philadelphia, he was raised as one of 38 children. His mother was deported and died of an overdose when he was still a child. His father dealt drugs and trained Carrasquillo at age 12 to cook crack cocaine.

He ping-ponged between relatives’ homes and foster care, including a stint with one caretaker who intentionally had him committed to a mental health facility for access to prescription narcotics he could later sell on the streets. He spent much of his teenage years and early 20s in and out of prison for drug and other offenses.

Still, his attorney Donte Mills told the judge, once Carrasquillo swore off that life, he – without a high school diploma and little financial support – was able to build a multimillion-dollar business based on what at the time was considered cutting edge technology in the entertainment field.

The company, launched in 2016 and known at various points by names like Gears TV and Gears Reloaded, was a leader among so-called illicit IPTV services – a US$1bil (RM4.45bil)-a-year industry in the United States.

It provided its subscribers hundreds of on-demand movies and television shows as well as access to dozens of live cable channels and pay-per-view events at cut-rate pricing – all of it stolen from legitimate services like Comcast, Verizon FiOS, and DirecTV.

The service proved wildly successful attracting more than 100,000 subscribers and amassing more than US$34mil (RM153.71mil) in revenue by the time federal investigators shut it down in 2019.

“There’s something to be said for someone who never had a chance but made one for themselves and who did everything in their power not to be that person they were expected to be,” Mills said. “That’s Omar.”

Despite his guilty plea, Carrasquillo and his lawyer both suggested at various points during Tuesday’s proceedings that Gears TV had at least initially operated within a legal gray area.

US Congress moved last year to more clearly define the type of business Carrasquillo ran as illegal and Carrasquillo in videos posted to his YouTube channel over the last year has argued he’d legally paid for subscriptions to all the cable services whose content he was accused of pirating.

In one, posted under the title “THE FBI SEIZED EVERYTHING FROM ME”, he likened what he did to inviting friends who don’t have cable over to your home and taking up a collection to pay for a pay-per-view event.

“I’m only guilty of making money,” he said in the video. “I ain’t guilty of nothing else.”

Prosecutors begged to differ.

“This was illegal the entire time,” said Jason Gull, a senior attorney in the Justice Department’s Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section.

He noted that Carrasquillo had made more money from his operation than “virtually every other copyright defendant I’ve ever seen”, adding: “The message to the general public and Mr. Carrasquillo’s many, many fans is that this was a serious offense that should yield significant punishment.”

And as he stood before the judge Tuesday, Carrasquillo acknowledged he’d since had a change of heart – one inspired, ironically, by a television show produced by Disney, a company whose content he had been accused of stealing.

He described viewing a behind-the-scenes documentary on Pixar and the work of thousands of employees that goes into making each of its animated films.

Thinking about those workers and the millions it costs their employers to produce even a half-hour television show, he said, he realised that he had not committed a victimless crime.

He did not fight prosecutors’ request that he pay nearly US$11mil (RM49.73mil) in restitution to the cable companies and an additional US$5.7mil (RM25.76mil) to the IRS for unpaid taxes.

And he swore that once released from prison he intended to focus on his family and legitimate ventures like his YouTube channel and online marketing business.

As Tuesday’s hearing concluded, he paused to address the judge.

“This sentence,” he said, “saved my life.” – The Philadelphia Inquirer/Tribune News Service

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