A small-town boy from Washington state, Jason James Murphy has spent much of the last decade working his way up in the world of Hollywood movie casting. He's helped place actors, including children, on a variety of movies, from small independent films to last summer's science fiction hit "Super 8."
But few of the power players he encountered knew his secret: He is a registered sex offender who was convicted of kidnapping and molesting an 8-year-old boy in suburban Seattle 15 years ago.
This week, J.J. Abrams, the director and co-producer of "Super 8," one of the most prized titles on Murphy's resume, found out. On Thursday, Los Angeles police began looking into whether Murphy was in compliance with state registration requirements for sex offenders.
"It's shocking and it's devastating, not just as a filmmaker but as a father and someone who is entrusted to make sure that everyone I work with, especially children, are safe," Abrams said. "To think that someone like this was among us is unthinkable."
Murphy, 35, who uses the professional name Jason James, also placed young actors in the forthcoming film "The Three Stooges," according to those who have worked with him. He also worked on "Bad News Bears," "The School of Rock" and "Cheaper by the Dozen 2."
After serving five years in prison for the 1996 crime in the Seattle area, Murphy underwent sex-offender counseling. When he moved to California in 2005, the state performed an evaluation and required him to register as a sex offender, making his name and photo publicly available. But the listing is under his original last name, in effect screening it from those who know him only as Jason James.
California law prohibits sex offenders whose victims were younger than 16 from "working directly and in an unaccompanied setting with minor children on more than an incidental and occasional basis or have supervision or disciplinary power over minor children." The law also requires offenders to notify law enforcement within five days of any name change.
A spokesman for the state attorney general said the statute requires offenders to tell law enforcement about any aliases so that they can be added to the public database. "Any name that a person uses needs to be the name that they are registered under, otherwise they are in violation," spokesman Nicholas Pacilio said.
There are no known complaints that Murphy acted inappropriately with any minor in his casting business. Murphy did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Abrams said in an interview that he was unaware of Murphy's background until this week, when he was tipped by his manager, David Lonner, who recently learned of the conviction. He informed the studio that released "Super 8," Paramount Pictures, which in turn notified authorities.
"Bad Robot had absolutely no knowledge of his real name, nor of his status," said Abrams, referring to his production company. "He applied for the job under an alias."
The casting directors on "Super 8," April Webster and Alyssa Weisberg, said they were unaware of Murphy's criminal conviction when they hired him as an assistant who helped cast children in the film. Webster said she was "shocked and disturbed" when she learned of Murphy's past. She said he was never alone with children while in their offices.
Pamela Fisher, who heads the youth division at Abrams Artists Agency in Los Angeles, which is not affiliated with J.J. Abrams, said she has worked extensively with the man she knew as Jason James. She said he helped her line up auditions for young clients. As recently as Wednesday, Fisher said, Murphy sent her an email "looking for 12-year-olds for a USC student film."
"I had no idea. I'm completely shocked," Fisher said Thursday. "We've worked together over the years on many projects and had a lot of contact. He's always been very professional, and there was never any reason to think there would ever be a problem with projects where my clients were auditioning."
Murphy was the focus of an intense manhunt when he abducted the boy from his elementary school in early 1996 and flew with him to New York City. According to court records and contemporary news accounts, Murphy, then a 19-year-old college student with acting aspirations, was already out on bail awaiting arraignment on charges of molesting the boy, whom he had met while working as a camp counselor. He disguised himself as a woman in a white dress and wig to kidnap the child.
Three days after he fled with the boy, the TV show "America's Most Wanted" broadcast a segment on the kidnapping and a New York hotel clerk recognized Murphy and the boy as guests. Authorities found Murphy, the boy and more than $8,000 cash in a Manhattan hotel room.
A prosecutor described Murphy in court papers as "obsessed" with the boy and cited a police interview in which a female friend said Murphy "was in love with" the child and had talked openly of taking him to live in London or Australia.
Murphy pleaded guilty to child molestation and kidnapping charges and was given the maximum prison sentence under state law by a judge who called him "a sick young man."
"I understand how much pain I have caused," Murphy said at his sentencing. "I will work so hard to get the help I need."
Shortly after he pleaded guilty, however, Murphy was caught trying to pass messages to the victim, according to police. The attempts outraged the victim's family and earned Murphy an additional five months behind bars.
After his 2001 release, he sought specialized counseling for sex offenders, according to the prosecutor who handled his case. He also dropped his last name and pursued a film and television career in casting.
Directors and producers cast lead roles but rely on casting directors — sometimes from outside agencies — to assemble their supporting casts. Those agencies in turn often rely on independent casting associates to organize a pool of available actors. Murphy, whose credits read "casting director" on some films and "casting associate" on others, appears to have worked mostly in this sort of independent capacity.
Twentieth Century Fox Studios, which will release "The Three Stooges," issued a statement that "we have only just learned of this information; we take it extremely seriously and have commenced an immediate investigation.... We have as yet no basis to believe any improprieties occurred during his work on the movie."
Paramount said Murphy was hired as a freelancer and added that it has received no reports of "any criminal or inappropriate behavior" while he worked for the studio.
Paramount said it would change its screening process. "Moving forward, we … will also conduct background checks on all freelance employees, full time and part time, who work with minors on our productions," the studio said.
The prosecutor who put Murphy behind bars 15 years ago remembered Murphy as a "bright kid" from a "good family" and said people should take note of his crimes but not jump to conclusions.
"The mere fact that he is convicted of this and is a registered sex offender should not in and of itself cause people phenomenal concern. It should get people's attention, and people should pay attention just as you would if you hire a babysitter or go to Penn State University," said Paul Stern, a deputy prosecuting attorney in Snohomish County in Washington, who has prosecuted sex crimes for 30 years.
Times staff writers Claudia Eller, Joe Flint and Richard Verrier contributed to this report.