A man awaiting sentencing in Los Angeles in the biggest federal Internet movie piracy case to date was found dead in his jail cell Monday morning, the U. S. Marshals Service said.
Russell William Sprague, 52, may have died of a heart attack, authorities said. An autopsy was scheduled for today.
"The whole matter is under investigation," said Brian Hoyt, associate warden of the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown Los Angeles. "But all indications are that it was a normal passing."
Sprague, who lived in the Chicago suburb of Homewood, pleaded guilty in April to one count of copyright infringement. He was to have been sentenced March 21.
Sprague faced as many as three years in federal prison for copying 134 "screener" movies that studios sent to members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to solicit their votes for last year's Oscars.
Investigators determined that Sprague received the films from Carmine Caridi, a Los Angeles actor. Caridi, 70, was never charged by federal authorities and denied knowing about Sprague's criminal activities. He was expelled by the academy.
The pirated titles included "The Last Samurai" and "Something's Gotta Give." In December, Sprague was ordered by a federal judge to pay $309,600 to Sony Corp.'s Columbia Pictures unit for illegally copying two of its movies and distributing them via the Internet.
Sprague obtained videocassettes that had been encoded with digital fingerprints. That allowed investigators to trace them back to Caridi, who gave authorities Sprague's name.
Sprague's attorney, Anthony Brooklier, said his client might have had a history of heart problems.
"It's so sad," Brooklier said. "He was upbeat. He had already served nine months. He may have only been looking at a maximum of eight more months."
Sprague was originally scheduled to be sentenced in December. He was supposed to be sentenced Monday, but the date was postponed last week.