Video After The Jump
With the business acumen of a Wharton grad and what authorities describe as the recklessness of a common thief, local YouTuber Bill Omar Carrasquillo went, in the span of just three years, from slinging drugs on a North Philadelphia street corner to running a multimillion-dollar streaming TV empire.
He documented every step of that journey in videos posted online, advertising his subscription service and flaunting his newfound wealth in slickly produced footage of high-end sports cars and diamond-encrusted bling set to hip-hop beats.
But all that came crashing down this week as federal authorities accused Carrasquillo — better known to the nearly 800,000 who subscribe to his YouTube channel as “Omi in a Hellcat”— of heading one of the most brazen and successful digital piracy schemes of the last decade.
And, as is only fitting for an internet celebrity who has made a career out of sharing his life online, his arrest early Tuesday at his Swedesboro home was livestreamed on social media.
Photos of Carrasquillo, shirtless and in neon boxer-briefs as agents handcuffed him in his foyer, quickly circulated on Instagram. A video of the arrest shows agents milling around, as a woman streaming it live to the internet repeatedly asks: “What is going on?”
The 62-count indictment charges Carrasquillo, 35, and two business partners — Jesse Gonzales, 42, of Pico Rivera, Calif., and Michael Barone, 36, of Richmond Hill, N.Y. — with counts including conspiracy to commit copyright violations, tax evasion, and fraud that could send them to prison for decades.
It describes their company, run at various points under names like Gears TV and Gears Reloaded, as a media streamer’s paradise. Subscribers had access to hundreds of on-demand movies and television shows, like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, as well as access to dozens of live cable channels and pay-per-view events, for a subscription as low as $15 month.
But all of it, authorities say, was stolen from the encrypted set-top box signals of legitimate services like Comcast, Verizon FiOS, and Direct TV and illegally streamed to his thousands of subscribers online.
Prosecutors have moved to strip him of nearly $35 million in assets, including 57 luxury cars — Lamborghinis, Porsches, Bentleys, and McLarens — and a portfolio of more than four dozen properties he has amassed across Philadelphia and the suburbs.
“You can’t just go and monetize someone else’s copyrighted content with impunity,” said Bradley S. Benavides, acting head of the FBI’s Philadelphia office. “Theft is theft, and if you’re going to willfully steal another party’s intellectual property, the FBI stands ready to step in and shut you down.”
The case sits at the cutting edge of digital copyright law and the recent proliferation of services offering cheap streams of protected intellectual property.
So-called illegal IPTV services have grown into a $1 billion-a-year industry in the U.S., according to recent studies, with as many as 7% of North American households subscribing through hardware widely available online and preloaded with apps to access copyrighted content.
Carrasquillo’s service shut down in 2019 and Congress took steps last year to more clearly define such businesses as illegal.
But Carrasquillo’s lawyer, Donte Mills, maintained Wednesday that at the time Gears TV was up and running, there was no law explicitly prohibiting how it operated.
He likened his client to tech innovators Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs — whose 2015 biopic, as it happens, was available to stream on Carrasquillo’s network.
“There were no regulations when he did it,” Mills said. “We will prove the charges he received do not apply to his conduct.”
Still, Carrasquillo made no attempt to hide the money he was making. His service netted him and his partners more than $34 million between 2016 and 2019 alone, according to the indictment.
His Instagram offers a steady stream of luxury — photos of custom jewelry and the latest additions to his car collection interspersed with photos of his family, including one of his son holding stacks of cash.
He posts multiple YouTube videos a week with titles like “Giving $1,000 to a pizza delivery guy,” “Omi in a Hellcat makes over $1,100,000 in one week” and “Omi in a Hellcat buys a $500,000 Lamborghini”
In court filings, prosecutors said, he filed no personal or corporate tax returns for any of that wealth and that before his streaming service the only legitimate income he made was roughly $550 a year in advertising royalties from his YouTube page.
His arrest this week did not entirely come as a surprise.
For months, Carrasquillo has openly discussed his status as the target of an FBI investigation on his YouTube channel, admitting in videos — alternatively morose and defiant — to tax violations he says he committed in ignorance and predicting that he’ll end up in prison.
“You gotta be humble in victory and humble in defeat,” he said in one posted after a 2019 FBI raid of his home. “I’m gonna do a couple of years off of this. I’m going to go to jail for a couple of years.”
In others, like an interview with YouTuber “Say Cheese!” posted last year, Carrasquillo reflected on his rise from a 9-year-old boy who learned the drug trade at the hand of his father in North Philadelphia into a man who, at 28, swore off dope dealing to launch the venture that made him millions.
He has accused the feds of taking an interest only because he is a Black man from North Philadelphia who grew up poor and then struck it rich.
And consistently, Carrasquillo has maintained he is not guilty of copyright crimes.
“I hit a … gray area and exploited it, and they just didn’t like it,” he said in a 2019 video posted under the title “THE FBI SEIZED EVERYTHING FROM ME.” “I made a ton of money … I’m only guilty of making money. I ain’t guilty of nothing else.”
Carrasquillo says he legally paid for subscriptions to all the cable services whose content he is accused of sharing. He likens what he did to inviting friends who don’t have cable over and taking up a collection to pay for a pay-per-view event.
But in a similar case the Justice Department filed in 2019 against eight men behind the IPTV piracy site Jetflix, defense lawyers sought to have the charges tossed, arguing that simply sharing legally obtained DVDs and television shows with others was not illegal.
Prosecutors pushed back, noting that the men weren’t charged with sharing the copyrighted content but rather reproducing it online without permission for their 30,000 subscribers.
The judge declined to dismiss the case. The next test of their argument will come when the case goes before a jury next year.
As he awaits his turn in court, Carrasquillo appears to like his odds. Within hours of his arrest, he was released from custody pending trial.
And he’s expressed confidence that even if he loses the cars, his home and his once-flush bank accounts, he can climb back to the top.
“I became a millionaire once,” he said in a recent video. “I can do it 150 more times.”
Source: The Philadelphia Inquirer