Child sexual abuse cases in Hollywood attract attention
In his private journal, Jason Michael Handy once described himself as a “pedophile, full blown.”
Handy snapped more than 1,000 photos of girls at the elementary school across the street from his house, using a camera with a telephoto lens, according to court documents. He volunteered at a Malibu church, where he worked with 6-year-olds. And his job as a production assistant at one of the nation’s most prominent producers of children’s television programs, Nickelodeon, gave him access to child actors on and off the set, and allowed him to exchange email addresses and phone numbers with them.
He used the hopes of at least two girls who dreamed of careers in TV to sexually exploit them.
Handy was sentenced to six years in prison after pleading no contest in 2004 to two felony counts, one of lewd acts on a child and one of distributing sexually explicit material by email, and to a misdemeanor charge related to child sexual exploitation. His arrest and prosecution received scant media attention at the time but are attracting renewed interest now, after the recent arrest of a talent manager on molestation charges and reports by The Times that a registered sex offender was working with children as a casting associate.
The Handy case, which in part prompted Nickelodeon to toughen its background checks for all employees, is among at least a dozen child molestation and child pornography prosecutions since 2000 involving actors, managers, production assistants and others in the industry, according to court documents and published accounts.
Advocates and professionals who work with victims of child sexual abuse say predators exploit the glittery lure of Hollywood to prey on aspiring actors or models. They assert that the problem is more widespread than the industry is willing to acknowledge and have called for tougher laws and better screening of those who represent or work with children.
“Unlike other settings, such as Little League, Scouts, day care and school volunteers, where adults who have unsupervised access to children are required to comply with fingerprinting requirements, there are no such standards in the entertainment industry,” said Paula Dorn, co-founder of the BizParentz Foundation, a nonprofit group for families of child actors.
The most recent case involves Martin Weiss, a longtime talent manager who specialized in representing young actors. He was arrested Nov. 29 and charged with eight felonies stemming from his alleged abuse of a boy who came to him for help in pursuing a music career. He is being held on $800,000 bail.
Weiss’ arrest came within weeks of a report that a man who was convicted of child molestation and abduction 15 years ago had been helping to cast young actors in major Hollywood films, using a different name than the one listed in the sex offender registry . Jason James Murphy, 35, faces felony charges of failing to file name and address changes with authorities.
The recent arrests prompted a bill, expected to be filed this month with the California Assembly, that would require licensing and criminal background checks for those who work with actors under age 16. It would prohibit registered sex offenders from serving as child managers, photographers, career counselors or publicists.
“Under the existing law, talent agents are regulated; however, casting directors, managers and photographers are not. This loophole makes it very easy for a predator to gain access to children working within the entertainment industry,” said the bill’s sponsor, Assemblywoman Nora Campos (D-San Jose).
Experts say addressing the problem is overdue.
“This is just like the Catholic Church pretending that priests never molested people in the past,” said Dr. Daniel D. Broughton, a pediatrician at the Mayo Clinic and expert on child sexual abuse. “What’s surprising to me is why it hasn’t come out even stronger and sooner.”
Some instances of child sexual exploitation have received considerable attention, such as the one involving Oscar-winning filmmaker Roman Polanski, who pleaded guilty in 1977 to having sex with a 13-year-old girl but fled to Europe before sentencing.
A number of other cases involve lesser-known assailants employed at all levels of the industry — from the set tutor in Vancouver, Canada, who worked on nearly 50 films and was convicted of child sexual assault to the acting coach from Georgia who contacted an 11-year-old girl over the Internet and enticed the aspiring actress and her sibling to meet him in Los Angeles, where he molested the girl.
Some of the cases illustrate how a more rigorous screening process could have detected adults who posed a danger to young actors.
The Los Angeles Police Department had been monitoring child manager Bob Villard even before 1987, when he was among nine people indicted by a federal grand jury in New Jersey on charges of transporting child pornography, according to published accounts. He was convicted but, upon appeal, the charges against him fell apart because prosecutors had been unable to produce the sexually explicit images at trial.
Villard was again accused of child pornography in 2001, after searches of his home uncovered thousands of photographs of boys in skimpy bathing suits posed in sexually suggestive positions, police said. He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor and was sentenced to three years of probation.
Throughout this period, Villard touted his work with aspiring young actors, some of whom would later become major Hollywood stars — among them Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio and Danny Nucci. Villard boasted on a company website that as a manager he had “guided the careers of dozens of successful film and television actors.”
In 2005, Villard was back in court and pleaded no contest to the felony charge of committing a lewd act on a child. The victim was a 13-year-old boy who sought him out as an acting coach. Villard is serving an eight-year prison sentence.
“People like this are predators who prey on little kids who want to be the next Justin Bieber — and they’re told, ‘That’s what’s done, this is all normal in the industry,’ ” said Katie Albracht, the Los Angeles County deputy district attorney who prosecuted the 2005 Villard case.
Another case involved Ezel Ethan Channel, a registered sex offender on probation from a 2003 conviction when he got a job as a temporary production assistant at Nickelodeon Animation Studio. He had been working for nearly seven months when he was arrested in December 2005 on suspicion of molesting a 14-year-old boy, according to court documents.
The boy testified that Channel had befriended him, bought him gifts and took him to Six Flags Magic Mountain. But the biggest thrill of all, the boy told the court, were the numerous visits with Channel at the studio.
Although the boy described Channel as “a weird character,” he said visiting the studio was “very cool.”
One Sunday in November 2005, Channel picked the boy up at his home and brought him to the studio under the guise of helping him with a school project. Once there, Channel asked the boy to watch a pornographic movie, according to testimony. The boy refused and asked to go home. While in the parked car on the Nickelodeon lot, Channel molested him, the boy told the court.
“He told me not to tell — not to ever say anything to anybody (or) he would be arrested and ... get in a lot of trouble,” the boy said in testimony during a preliminary hearing.
A jury found Channel guilty in 2009 of misdemeanor battery and a felony count of attempting to show harmful material to the boy. He was sentenced to serve six months in Los Angeles County jail for battery and 16 months in state prison for the pornography count. The felony conviction was thrown out on appeal, for lack of evidence that the movie Channel offered to show the boy was pornographic.
Jason Handy had no criminal record when the Los Angeles Police Department’s Sexually Exploited Child Unit opened an investigation in 2003, after being contacted by police in Michigan.
The Nickelodeon production assistant had allegedly lured a 14-year-old girl via the Internet with the promise of a television career, and had flown to Michigan to meet her, according to court documents and a person familiar with the case. He reportedly met the victim at her middle school, engaged in “inappropriate” acts and invited her to his hotel room, court documents said.
The LAPD said its investigation revealed that Handy was also attempting to prey on children at his church, in his neighborhood, over the Internet and in the workplace. A search of his Sherman Oaks home turned up thousands of images of child pornography and erotica, as well as other evidence.
Handy was arrested in April 2003 and ultimately charged with five felony counts of committing lewd acts on a child, child sexual exploitation, sending harmful material via the Internet and possessing child pornography.
Court testimony revealed that during the taping of the TV series “Cousin Skeeter,” Handy befriended a 9-year-old girl and began visiting her at her home. On one occasion, while playing video games in her bedroom, he repeatedly kissed her, she told the court. He also emailed naked photos of himself to an 11-year-old child he met on the set of another program, “The Amanda Show,” according to her testimony.
Handy pleaded no contest to multiple charges, and was ordered to serve a six-year prison sentence.
The Handy and Channel cases helped prompt Nickelodeon to toughen its employment screening policies.
“Once those very unfortunate incidents took place, we made it even more stringent to include every employee who works for us — a full background check on anybody that works for Nickelodeon,” spokesman Dan Martinsen said. Even the parents of young actors must submit to a screening, he said.
The problem of child predators is hardly unique to the entertainment business. However, Hollywood provides predators potent bait to attract young victims, according to experts.
“Wanting fame is huge and it is a huge inducement,” said Broughton, the pediatrician. “The people that are in Hollywood who want to do this to kids are armed with one of the very best instruments to get kids in.”
Researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.