January 8, 2016 / 11:15 PM / 2 years ago

Bahamian pleads not guilty in U.S. to hacking celebrities' emails

A man types on a computer keyboard in Warsaw in this February 28, 2013 illustration file picture. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Files

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Bahamian man pleaded not guilty on Friday to charges that he hacked into celebrities’ email accounts to steal unreleased movies and television scripts, personal information and sexually explicit videos that he then tried to sell.

Alonzo Knowles, who was arrested last month after allegedly trying to sell an undercover agent 15 scripts for $80,000, pleaded not guilty in Manhattan federal court to criminal copyright infringement and identity theft charges.

He had also offered to sell a recently finished script for a hip hop artist biopic, court papers said. The script was for “All Eyez On Me,” the upcoming biopic of Tupac Shakur, who died in a 1996 shooting, the film’s production company has said.

In court, Clay Kaminsky, Knowles’ lawyer, urged U.S. District Judge Paul Engelmayer to allow his client to be released on bail after spending nearly three weeks in jail following his Dec. 21 arrest.

Engelmayer denied the request, saying the Bahamas resident faced an estimated three to five years in prison if convicted, which gives him a “compelling penal interest in fleeing.”

According to court papers, Knowles, 23, maintained a list of at least 130 celebrities’ emails and phone numbers. His victims included movie and TV actors, a casting director, a popular singer-songwriter and a hip-hop artist, authorities say.

The investigation began in December, after a “popular radio host” received an unsolicited offer from someone for scripts of the upcoming season of a TV drama, according to court papers.

The radio host, who like others in the case was not identified in court papers by name, then contacted the show’s executive producer, leading to an investigation by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, authorities said.

The investigation led to Knowles, who in video conference calls told an undercover agent that he had “exclusive content” that was “really profitable” and worth “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” prosecutors said.

Knowles later traveled to New York, where he met the agent and provided the 15 scripts along with social security numbers for three professional athletes and an actress, authorities said.

At the meeting, Knowles told the agent he accessed the celebrities’ email accounts by sending a virus to their computers or by emailing a fake notification that their account had been hacked and asking for their passcodes, prosecutors said.

Following the meeting, Knowles was arrested. His next court hearing is March 11.

Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker

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