United Pacific Studios worked out of a nondescript, white-colored low-rise warehouse in downtown Los Angeles, offering a cavernous space for film shoots. Among Hollywood types, the studio space was known as a low-budget place for martial arts flicks or network shows.
The studio was also an apparent cover for an FBI sting. Located steps from the condo conversions and trendy cafes of the Arts District, United Pacific Studios served as a film set and an assumed front for the federal government's probe of state Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello.
While some media reports have described the company as a fake business, similar to the film "Argo," United Pacific Studios was a functioning production house at least since 2007, according to online records, friends and business associates. Executives at companies ranging from San Fernando Valley prop houses to film festivals worked or knew of United Pacific Studios, and news of the FBI investigation left many puzzled this week.
"They had pretty good rates as far as studios," said Ricardo Ramirez, a director who lives in La Habra Heights. "They did B films, indies."
A federal affidavit released last week by the Al Jazeera cable news network details how an undercover agent posed as a studio head, offering bribes to Calderon in return for new film tax laws that would benefit the studio. It's believed the agent went by the name Rocky Patel, and worked at United Pacific Studios.
Federal agents raided Calderon's Sacramento office in June, but until the release of the affidavit, it was unclear why the FBI was investigating the Montebello politician.
Calderon has not been charged, and his attorney has publicly dismissed the affidavit.
United Pacific Studios' owners are Crystal Wortman and Lorenzo Bavadi, friends say. Wortman told the Daily News she was out of town and unavailable for comment. Bavadi didn't return calls this week.
Wortman told KCBS (Channel 2)last week that a man calling himself Patel approached the studio several years ago. He brought in so much revenue that he was made president, she said. Wortman said Patel left the studio in early summer, saying he had a family issue. His departure came at around the same time as the Sacramento raid.
United Pacific Studios has had various locations around downtown, records show. One of its recent studio spaces was on 4th Street in the Arts District.
Pamela Armstrong, a producer at Universal City-based 33 Entertainment Group, is friends with the owners of United Pacific Studios, she said. Reached Thursday, she sounded mystified when told of the news stories. "They do a lot of studio rentals," Armstrong said. "They also did their own independent projects."
She also said Wortman recently sold a television pilot.
The company last year teamed with 33 Entertainment Group, to produce a web series, "Velvet Prozak." The series chronicles the life of a young Midwest man who moves to Los Angeles. "Outstanding!! I am hooked! TOO FUNNY!" wrote one YouTube viewer.
Ramirez shot a film "Double Tap," a thriller about an ex-cop whose wife is murdered, at United Pacific Studios in 2008-2009, he said. He also shot music videos at the studio as recently as 2011.
Greg Pritikin, a director who worked with United Pacific Studios to make the 2011 TV movie "Monster of the House," said the production company's former building was the perfect location for B movies and horror films, with multiple spaces and a "dang scary" basement.
"It was an industrial building with many, many rooms," he said. "Each room was kind of its own dirty cove of a set. You could build a classroom or a police precinct, whatever would fit."
Pritikin said he never met anyone there named Rocky Patel and had no reason to believe United Pacific Studios wasn't a real operation.
"I know for a fact that many legitimate productions used that space," he said. "It was an operational business just because of the sheer amount of people that shot there."
Henry Priest, who runs the Downtown Film Festival Los Angeles, met Patel in 2011 at downtown restaurant Perch, a spot known for its moneyed crowd and expansive roof deck. In an interview this week, Priest said the company was real. He dismissed any notion the studio was a front and churning out films just as a way for the FBI to conduct its sting.
"Lorenzo was bringing legitimate business to the studio," Priest said. "Knowing Lorenzo, they had been working on so many productions... I don't think he would have put this whole thing riding on the FBI."
United Pacific Studios was a sponsor in the downtown L.A. film festival in 2011, Priest said. Additionally interns from the festival worked on a 2009 production at Union Pacific Studios, Priest said.
According to the affidavit, the FBI sting involved at least three agents connected to the film company. There was the fake movie executive working with Calderon, as well as an agent posing as an investor in United Pacific Studios. Another official at the movie studio was also in on the sting, federal documents state.
Today, the company's status is unclear. United Pacific Studios is now located on Hill Street, near Angels Flight funicular, friends say, but it's not clear it still has an operating studio.
Its Arts District space was vacated around August, said Tim Krehbiel, owner of a nearby property.
Luo Enterprise, a toy company, moved in this summer. On one recent day, cardboard boxes of orange and pink-colored plush toys filled the former studio.
Staff Writer Brenda Gazzar contributed to this report. ___