Satellite Juice

Ecstasy use and TV-signal piracy are as common as jaywalking

What a difference a war makes. Back in 1995 CNN devoted no fewer than 388 breathless hours to the daily murder-trial proceedings of OJ Simpson. On Tuesday, December 4, however, as news broke of Simpson's alleged connection to an accused member of an Ecstasy smuggling/money-laundering/
satellite-television piracy ring
(talk about a criminal trifecta!), CNN was all leers and knowing winks.

Outside Simpson's Kendall home, a CNN reporter nodded toward the federal agents still searching the premises and then turned back to the camera with a goofy grin. Simpson had driven away in his SUV hours earlier, he announced, and his current whereabouts were "unknown."

Inside CNN's Atlanta studios, the two co-anchors snickered, rolled their eyes, and delivered a few one-liners. They too seemed to be relishing this diversion from the Afghanistan battlefields. Even as they cut to Cape Canaveral for the impending space shuttle launch, the light mood endured. Fearing a terrorist strike on the shuttle, the Kennedy Space Center was on high alert: bomb-sniffing dogs and SWAT teams on the prowl, gun-laden helicopters hovering just a dozen feet off the ground, and F-16 jets streaking overhead. But none of this seemed to faze the CNN reporter there. "If I see a white Bronco, I'll let you know," he quipped.

Fred Harper

By that afternoon the FBI announced that in executing "Operation X," it hadn't found a single Ecstasy pill inside Simpson's home. The only thing seized was some satellite TV equipment that Yale Galanter, Simpson's attorney and spokesman, insisted was completely legal.

"The only reason this is centering on Simpson is because he's Simpson," Galanter told the restless scrum of reporters camped across from Simpson's front lawn. Which may be true. Of course we'll probably never know for sure. As Galanter grudgingly admitted, a news crew had tipped him off the night before about that day's raid, theoretically giving him plenty of time to warn Simpson and allow the Juice to flush anything incriminating down the toilet. Visibly uncomfortable, Galanter refused to say if he had in fact warned Simpson, citing attorney-client privilege.

Still, the real story here wasn't Simpson's latest public misstep, or even the questionable behavior of Galanter and a Miami newsman. It was the reminder of just how pervasive both casual Ecstasy use and satellite-TV piracy are among South Florida's monied classes. Although law enforcement obviously disagrees, for the area's hedonists, these hallmarks of leisuredom are the legal equivalent of jaywalking. If, as Simpson has continuously protested to the press, he's hell-bent on becoming just another six-figure-earning, golf-playing, nightclub-hopping Miamian, then his home should contain a weekend's supply of Ecstasy and a bootleg satellite-TV card.

The numbers only confirm what anyone who socializes on South Beach can attest to: Customs officials seized 9.3 million Ecstasy pills last year, barely a tenth of what the Drug Enforcement Agency estimates successfully crossed America's borders. Do the math -- there just aren't that many ravers out there.

Obviously Ecstasy use is no more limited to glow-stick-wielding teenagers than marijuana is to shaggy-haired Woodstock survivors. Doctors, lawyers, stockbrokers, and young professionals of all stripes are regularly partaking, concluding that the government hysteria equating Ecstasy with heroin and crack is just that: woolly-headed hysteria. And given that all these respectable Ecstasy users are treating their patients, arguing their court cases, and trading their stocks without managing to foam at the mouth and hurl themselves out their windows, one wonders if there isn't at least a little merit in their belief. Moreover, this thinking may go, if "the law" is wrong on Ecstasy, maybe it's also wrong about the so-called stealing of satellite TV signals.

Little wonder then that the Floridian -- the swank 34-story South Beach high-rise that saw two of its units raided as part of the FBI's Operation X -- also is a good place to find out about the gray areas of satellite TV.


Carlos Alberto Braga, Jr., and his brother-in-law Eric Hinz allegedly dealt huge quantities of Ecstasy out of their Floridian apartments, even bragging to a government informant that they had seven million dollars in cash stashed inside a safe there. Considering that Braga and Hinz were charged last week with regularly buying hundreds of thousands of pills for $1.80 apiece and then retailing them for upward of $20, that claim may be more than just idle boasting.

In any case none of the Floridian residents with whom Kulchur spoke recalled anything particular about Braga and Hinz, and in comparison to the notorious penthouse parties Shawn Lewis once threw there, the pair appears to have led relatively low-key lives. Yet a host of these same residents had black-market decoder cards for their satellite-TV systems -- the type Braga and Hinz are accused of selling -- enabling them to watch a wide range of channels for free, from HBO to Al Jazeera. "I don't know a single person who has a legitimate satellite hookup," shrugged one 30-year-old physician who was losing little sleep over the matter. "It's like speeding on the highway. If everybody else is doing 80, why should I drive 65?"

This phenomenon may be new to the mass media, but within the satellite-TV industry it's considered a crisis that threatens to cripple future growth. Analysts say nearly a million people currently obtain their satellite signals fraudulently, an annual revenue loss of $340 million.

In fact some believe DirecTV (the leading satellite TV provider with about 10.3 million subscribers) has been purposely ignoring "signal theft" in order to boost sales and market share. At this past summer's Satellite Broadcasting & Communications Association's annual conference in Nashville, Charlie Egren, head of EchoStar (with 6.4 million subscribers, DirecTV's chief rival and, if current congressional antitrust hearings go its way, its new owner), said as much.

"We've done some stupid things as a company but not that stupid [as DirecTV]," Egren told reporters at the conference, angry that his competitor continued to allow chains such as Wal-Mart and Kmart to sell its dishes without simultaneously requiring consumers to become DirecTV subscribers. Why else would people buy the equipment without any service, Egren wondered, unless they were going to use a black-market access card? "We could sell a lot of systems too, if we don't make people hook them up and pay for them," he concluded wryly.

Back at the Floridian, Kulchur was provided with several reliable sources only too happy to bring Egren's fears to life. One helpful gentleman -- we'll call him Mr. Big -- even cheerfully offered to drive out to Kulchur's apartment and hook up the whole shebang for an additional $75.

"Most people can install it themselves though; it's real simple to do," Mr. Big explained, admitting that he felt a bit sheepish about charging a $75 labor fee for something he was sure Kulchur could do on his own in about ten minutes. Instead, if Kulchur was willing to drive out to Big's North Miami space (as several of Kulchur's referrals had done), he would provide the pizza-sized dish, the receiver, an access card, and easy-to-read instructions, all for $250. Best of all, if DirecTV rescrambles its signals (as it already had done twice this past fall), Mr. Big would reprogram the access card for $30.

"If the card goes down, you can bring it back to me, or" -- and this would no doubt be convenient for the corporate man on the go -- "send it by mail. I'll fix it, no problem."

Unless it was fewer than 30 days since the last rescrambling. In that case it fell under Mr. Big's warranty program and was free.

Um, Mr. Big, is it okay to talk about all this on the phone?

"Just be brief," he reassured Kulchur, adding in a soothing tone: "Whenever you're ready to do this, you've got my number, just let me know."

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