The dealer met the undercover detective inside a dark warehouse in Northeast Washington. Money changed hands. Soon after, in the parking lot of a nearby liquor store, the dealer handed over a black bag containing the illegal goods.
Over the next few months, three more buys were made. But this wasn't the usual undercover sting, targeting trafficking in drugs and guns. The detective was buying Jodie Foster in "Flightplan," Charlize Theron in "North Country" and Viggo Mortensen in "A History of Violence." She bought bootlegged movies, hundreds of them, at the warehouse, which served as a hub for a thriving area piracy ring, law enforcement officials said.
Most of the bootlegged DVDs came from secret recordings of hit movies that were illegally made in theaters. They were mass-produced on DVD burners within weeks -- even days -- of box-office premieres, authorities said.
The recording and music industries each lost nearly $300 million to such pirated products in the United States last year, business groups say. Premieres of blockbusters, including "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," draw a flurry of activity, and pirated copies can appear on the Internet within hours, with bootleg DVDs right behind.
FBI agents and D.C. police raided the warehouse Nov. 10, seizing more than 3,000 bootlegged DVDs, hundreds of labels for DVD cases and 1,000 music CDs, according to papers filed in U.S. District Court in Washington. Among other things, the raid turned up 40 copies of the movie "Get Rich or Die Tryin' " -- which had just opened in theaters the previous day, court papers reveal.
The warehouse purportedly was the home of Y Y Enterprises Inc., a commercial retail distributor. Police and FBI agents arrested three people on federal charges of conspiring to traffic in counterfeit goods: Qiyao Yuan, 43, of Lanham; Ping Chen, 45, of Falls Church; and Cecilia Rodriguez, 24, of Silver Spring. Authorities described the three as "owners and agents" of Y Y Enterprises and said they took part in the undercover deals. The conspiracy charge carries a maximum prison term of five years.
A black-market network of distributors got the DVDs to the brick building in the 1200 block of Fourth Street NE, authorities said. The undercover detective was given a list of titles that could be purchased, typically for less than $3 apiece, they said.
"When you go to Blockbuster, don't they have a list of the new releases?" asked Michael Mines, special agent in charge of criminal investigations for the FBI's Washington field office. Same with the movie pirates. "It's like a menu."
Law enforcement agencies are working with the entertainment industry to thwart piracy on a number of fronts. Although much attention is given to the booming trade of pirated movies and music over the Internet, police and industry officials said the warehouse operation represents another problem: the sale of bootlegged "hard copies."
Recent raids in New York and other cities have turned up massive caches of bootlegged movies in residences and small businesses. Police recently seized more than 18,000 pirated movies in a Bronx barbershop, authorities said.
The Washington area is more apt to be a market than a manufacturing place for bootlegs, and investigators believe that the warehouse's goods came from New York. The warehouse, they said, had steady traffic and probably was being used as storage for other sales. Bootlegs are also sold on the street, near Metro and subway stations and at flea markets, malls and curbside vending stalls. On some D.C. streets, hawkers even walk up and down the median, copies of a dozen DVDs in their hands.
Industry executives and law enforcement officials blame cheaper technology for fueling the trade and moving pirated copies to the streets more quickly.
"Modern technology has made this ubiquitous," said Dan Glickman, president and chief executive of the Motion Picture Association of America. "It is just easier and easier to steal the content of music, films and television."
Much of that thievery takes place in New York, a hotbed for pirates who raid movie theaters. Known in the industry as "cammers," they slip into a theater -- sometimes as part of a team -- and pull out a digital camcorder and start recording, authorities said. Later, using a home computer, the pirate or an associate will create several master discs of the film and sell them to dealers for about $150 each.
The dealers then make thousands of copies of the film, using DVD duplication devices known as "burners." Then they sell the discs for about $3 to street peddlers, who often sell them for about $10 each.
Timing can be everything.
"Big-event films like 'Harry Potter' are very sought after by movie pirates because they are much anticipated and provide the opportunity for making a quick buck," said Gayle Osterberg, an MPAA spokeswoman.
The bootlegging operations are far more nimble and efficient than a decade ago, when mini-factories were required for mass production. Today, a few hundred dollars buys a decent digital camera and several thousand dollars buys enough burners to churn out thousands of discs a month -- all fitting easily in an apartment living room.
Although the quality of the bootlegged DVDs is generally poor, sometimes grainy or choppy, experts said that the thieves are using better camcorders and even buying devices that allow them to tap into the theater's digital sound -- eliminating coughs, laughter and the crinkling of candy wrappers from their recordings.
The packaging of pirated movies is also sharper. With laser printers and a digital camera to snap a photograph of a movie's poster, they can create slick DVD packaging. If they have time, some pirates are even adding extra feature tracks to their products.
The MPAA and the Recording Industry Association of America have hired private investigators to comb the streets in search of peddlers. They share leads with the police and FBI. The investigation of the warehouse, for example, was aided by industry investigators.
This month's raid marked the second time this year that the warehouse was targeted. D.C. police raided it April 20 and seized more than 24,000 pirated DVDs, calling it one of the biggest hauls in the city's history.
Yuan and Chen were arrested in that raid, but charges were dropped about a month later. Law enforcement officials said they wanted to build a stronger case -- this time with the help of the FBI. Within weeks, D.C. police and federal agents were making undercover purchases at the warehouse, authorities said.
It didn't take long for the broader case to emerge. The first undercover purchase, in June, took place in the liquor store's parking lot, according to a court affidavit. The other three were made in October. The undercover deals totaled about $1,000 for more than 300 movies.
The final purchases covered numerous box-office draws, including "Domino" and "Two for the Money," both of which had just arrived in theaters the week before.
"They allegedly turned right around and continued the operations pretty brazenly," said Kenneth L. Wainstein, the U.S. attorney for the District. "The fact that after getting arrested, they turned around and persisted, even with law enforcement looking at them, it suggests they were sorely tempted by the profits that are available."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.