Wednesday, September 21, 2011
How a 'net nerd in Lafayette turned an insipid business model into a public-shame machine, then ducked back into his cyber cave when the heat was on. By Heather Miller
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
How a 'net nerd in Lafayette turned an insipid business model into a public-shame machine, then ducked back into his cyber cave when the heat was on.
Acadiana's most popular fan page is gone. Busted in Acadiana, the Facebook page and website that published and archived mug shots from area law enforcement agencies for the public's viewing and tormenting pleasure, was shut down Sept. 9. Or was it?
When it began less than six months ago, Busted in Acadiana was no different than the services already provided by the Lafayette Parish Sheriff's Office website or The Daily Advertiser. Using public records already available online, any website can pool mug shots to a central location. The digital mugs available on the sheriff's office website are proprietary to the agency and should not be taken without permission, says Assistant District Attorney Danny Landry, but the mug shots are public record.
Neither the sheriff's office's online system nor the daily's web galleries can claim the phenomenon that became Busted in Acadiana, whose rapid rise to fame came primarily as the enabler of often shameless comments against Acadiana's accused. What started as a hub where those arrested earned nicknames like "crackhead barbie" and "java the hut" soon evolved into a multitude of media platforms - press releases from law enforcement agencies, links to crime stories from daily news outlets, polls gauging public opinion on hot-button issues. The mug shot mecca with a following of almost 45,000 "fans" was even threaded with occasional strands of advocacy, a voice from BIA urging followers to join the crusade against crime.
What Busted in Acadiana's mastermind tried unsuccessfully to conceal is an unoriginal business model, a quest for profit born of an industry of mug shot websites emerging nationwide. "Busted team" emails obtained by The Independent confirm that the profiteer behind the local mug shot market wasted no time in trying to capitalize on his growing base of followers.
But Acadiana's introduction to the mug shot market was like no other in the country, and a look at Busted's rise and fall unearths a twisted path to its own demise. With anonymity on its side, the "Busted team" went far beyond the realm of profiting from public records, often blurring the fine lines between enterprise, extortion, activism and assault.
|Christopher Hebert, at right in hat, in the web video believed to have outed him and led to BIA's demise|
BUILDING THE BRAND
Self-branded "the most popular website in Acadiana," Busted In Acadiana envisioned "a single source location to view arrest information and crimes being committed in our area."
"I felt this would be something special for the community and help bring a level of awareness of crime in our neighborhoods," the BIA administrator says in his final farewell.
Fans of the page lauded it as a community service, though not all of the 40,000-plus followers were Busted supporters. Facebook users must "like" the page in order to leave a comment. Detractors of BIA's mission, those who disagreed with the level of ridicule taking place, were publicly denounced for defending criminals before being banned from the site. Mug shots that garnered the most comments were recirculated through Facebook news feeds to draw more hecklers to the page.
It's no surprise that a large bloc of BIA critics came directly from its extensive collection of mug shots, arrestees who went online to find their image pictured above hundreds of comments from strangers taunting their physical appearance or character. And if they were brave enough to defend themselves, Busted and its followers upped the ante by posting personal information for the thousands of fans to read.
|Par for the coarse: BIA and its mug shots brought out the worst in people.|
For Sasha Vicknair, a mug shot and a little boost from Busted administrators were all it took for the 23-year-old cosmetology student to reach celebrity status. When her image appeared on BIA following a July arrest for theft and insurance fraud, Vicknair's photo received more comments than any other mug shot ever posted in Busted's short history. Unlike her picture, they weren't pretty.
Among those comments were numerous statements from a Busted in Acadiana page administrator informing the public of a prior arrest that wasn't available on Busted's page, then discrediting Vicknair's own self-defense by telling the world that she dropped out of business school.
Busted in Acadiana reposted Vicknair's mug shot for weeks, over and over, repeatedly bringing Vicknair's face to the news feeds of 45,000 people. Baton Rouge website tigerdroppings.com picked up the comment threads and reposted them on the site.
"When you get arrested, your business becomes our business!" BIA says in its Facebook page tagline.
Vicknair experienced the fallout from the catchy motto firsthand, though more than 100 other Acadiana mugs destined for public humiliation were spared. In Busted's world, privacy came at a cost.
THE BUSINESS OF BUSTED
According to BIA email correspondence obtained by The Independent, the local Busted entrepreneur began charging $39 for mug shot removal on April 25. On June 1, the price was upped to $49, and by July 1 the cost to delete a mug shot from Busted In Acadiana was $99.
A BIA financial spreadsheet sent to KA Marketing's Kyle Ritter of Portland, Ore., details 102 mug shot removals from April 25 through July 7. In a little more than two months, BIA was paid roughly $4,600 through removals and declining to post mugs of people who paid before the damage was done.
Ritter, also known as Mug Shot Barry, owns a network of 35 mug shot websites, a mug monopoly that began last year when he was searching local law enforcement websites for booking photos of a friend. The sites were designed to be purely public data-driven and profit solely from advertising, but when Ritter was flooded with requests to remove mug shots for a price, he enabled an automatic removal system that charged $40 per mug.
The removal systems have since been disabled because of negative public response, Ritter says, and his sites are back to an advertising model meant to bring high levels of traffic to the data-only websites.
Unlike Ritter's sites, Busted's mug shot removal income wasn't directly linked to BIA. If someone requested a removal, the Busted team explained that "unfortunately, the only way we are able to remove mug shots from our network of sites is using a third party online reputation management firm."
Arrestees were given three tiers of third-party "reputation firms" from which to choose. Reputation management firms have forged a complex relationship with mug shot websites, though Ritter points out that there's a "distinct difference" between a bona fide reputation management firm and a company that scrubs mug shots.
"Reputation management firms do all kinds of things," Ritter says. "They help their clients build up their social network profiles, assist with pushing down negative feedback in Yelp, damaging news articles, things like that. Sites like removeslander are more of a specialized sub-niche of the reputation management industry - the focus is on mugshots. They have their work cut out for them. New mugshot sites are popping up every day. I don't know what the relationships are between other mugshot sites and removeslander. We ourselves have only directly dealt with a reputation management' company in an advertiser/publisher relationship," Ritter continues. "We have no ownership or interest in said company."
According to Busted's mug removal policy, the cheapest option was deletemymug.com, which charged $99 to ensure the photo wouldn't appear on any of Busted's affiliations. The other two, removemymug.com and removeslander.com, charged $299 and $399, respectively, which also guaranteed that the mugs wouldn't appear in Google searches. What Busted failed to disclose is that deletemymug.com is one of four websites linked to Busted in Acadiana. When someone paid the $99 removal fee, the PayPal receipt listed Busted in Acadiana as the recipient of payment.
It's unclear whether Busted's Facebook page had additional sources of revenue, though a July email BIA sent to Ritter does point to the company's drive for expansion. When BIA first contacted Ritter in April, the "Busted team" touted more than 8,000 fans on a page that "took off overnight."
"One bondsman wants to shift his entire online advertising exclusively to BIA from the local media sites," BIA writes in the July email. "Facebook does prohibit selling advertising to third parties because it interferes with their ability to sell advertising however, they can't prohibit a bails bondsman for co-sponsoring a site and you getting paid for it!"
Further correspondence between BIA and Ritter led to negotiations for Ritter to buy the Busted empire's "assets," the most impressive of which were the more than 40,000 fans on Facebook.
With an income based on automatic feeds that don't require much, if any, manpower, Ritter was curious as to why BIA was ready to sell.
When Ritter inquired, BIA emphasized "a close relationship with law enforcement."
As the bargaining for the Busted business continued, the market savvy Ritter had already purchased a domain name, LafayetteMugShots.com, a precursor to his own dive into the Lafayette region.
"Had the deal been completed we would have turned off commenting and diverted all of that traffic to lafayettemugshots.com," Ritter says. "That was our sole interest. We tried allowing commenting on our sites for a few days and it was an utter disaster. People were posting pictures of inmate's children, phone numbers, home addresses, spouses names, all kinds of terrible things. Racist comments were rampant. It was awful."
The dealbreaker for Ritter came when the Busted in Acadiana owner refused to release his name to Ritter's attorney.
"If I have to reveal my identity to anyone, the deal is dead," the BIA operator says in the email to Ritter.
For months, Ritter was known only as Mug Shot Barry and wouldn't confirm his own identity until Willamette Week, a Portland alternative weekly newspaper, published a story on his business and aggressively pursued his name.
"I don't really conceal my identity for my sake. I didn't want friends, family and other folks who have no affiliation with the company to be harassed," Ritter says.
No stranger to the desire for anonymity, Ritter respected BIA's request, but "someone's name has to be on the legal dotted line to make it a binding agreement."
"In retrospect, I'm damn glad the deal fell through," Ritter says. "There is something sinister going on there."
CROSSING THE LINE
When Busted in Acadiana announced to its followers that the page was shutting down Sept. 9, its creator claimed personal threats made to him and his family as the reason for backing down.
"These pages call me a scumbag' who extorts money from people and also allege that if you were found innocent that your mug shot would not be removed from BIA," says the BIA administrator when defending his empire in his final statement. "These are only accusations and malicious at that. Plenty falsely accused or innocent people have been removed from BIA."
And he's right. Innocent people's images have disappeared from the page. At least one man arrested July 5 for unauthorized use of an access card eventually was removed from BIA's radar. Though arrests are public record, for this story The Independent chose not to identify the man initially accused of unauthorized use of an access card because his arrest was a misunderstanding and he was released within minutes of being taken to jail. He was never charged with a crime, but like countless others, his mug shot landed on the BIA pages for 45,000 people to see.
When his wife emailed Busted in Acadiana to explain what happened and request that her husband's mug shot be removed, Busted in Acadiana began flooding her inbox with messages. The Busted page administrator then proceeded to publish the email she sent to Busted in its entirety, including her name, place of employment, email address and work phone number.
One of BIA's faithful fans urged other followers to call her at work. The Busted in Acadiana page owner acknowledged on his site that he contacted her company's IT department. She lost her job.
BIA kept its word and eventually took down her husband's photo.
The virtual scene unfolding over Busted's few months in existence was "downright despicable," says one UL Lafayette student, so disturbing that the 2003 St. Thomas More graduate and former military officer spent two months on a fact-finding mission in an effort to expose BIA's identity. He requested that his name not be published.
"One day I saw BIA had posted a kid's information and his girlfriend's picture just for the sake of harassment," the UL student says. "The kid simply said that he thought Busted In Acadiana was distasteful and that he disagreed with it. The BIA admin started posting information off of the kid's facebook page, such as his address and work info, and then encouraged people to call him and harass him. Then the BIA admin went to the kid's girlfriend's page and took her profile picture and posted it on BIA. That is when I was determined to be very outspoken against BIA. My goal was originally to expose the identity of the admin of BIA if at all possible."
On Sept. 4, hours before BIA announced that it was going out of business, a YouTube video was posted on a Facebook page created for Busted's nonbelievers. A home-made video of three men dancing appeared. After months of hiding behind a computer screen, Busted in Acadiana's creator and key administrator was exposed.
Busted in Acadiana is Christopher Hebert, the unemployed husband of Lafayette Police officer Amanda Hebert.
Christopher Hebert, through his personal Facebook page that has since been unpublished, denied his involvement in BIA in a comment posted under the YouTube video. The video was erased from YouTube minutes after its appearance on Facebook.
The statement announcing BIA's final chapter started with an anecdote about the page creator's lifelong dream of owning his own business. The same day Busted posted the statement, Christopher Hebert published a personal message on his Facebook page, thanking his family and friends for their support.
"I am sorry if I have disappointed any of you by pursuing my dreams," he says. "Unfortunately when my family becomes threatened, I must set aside my dreams."
The first time The Independent heard Christopher Hebert's name linked to BIA was through an anonymous email sent July 25 to the paper's general news inbox, firstname.lastname@example.org. The email tipster identified Christopher Hebert as the man behind BIA and offered glimpses of Hebert's employment past and spousal ties to law enforcement, all of which we were later able to confirm.
A search done by the UL student reveals four websites with identical Web hosting from a California company, TierraNet. The first three, bustedinacadiana.com, wantedinacadiana.com and deletemymug.com, use the same domain protection service to protect the identity of website owners. The fourth site that came from the California company is gotchamug.com. The registrant for the site is Christopher Hebert. His email address is listed as email@example.com.
Two other Lafayette residents who know Christopher Hebert personally have confirmed his identity to The Independent, but only on the condition of anonymity. When Busted in Acadiana sent its first email to Ritter in Portland inquiring about his business model, it was signed "Chris."
"We found out everything we needed to know by finding every mistake Chris made when trying to remain anonymous," says the UL student who did his Hebert homework. "It was very easy to do. All information obtained was done so through public record. Public record is what Chris Hebert clung to in order to justify why what he was doing was OK. It was because he was simply using public record' to extort people, that's why I wanted to show him how public record can be used effectively against someone."
Lafayette Police Cpl. Paul Mouton says the department has received information regarding Busted in Acadiana's possible ties to law enforcement. The department has looked into those allegations, Mouton says, noting he can't confirm the officer named in the complaints because it's a personnel matter.
Amanda Hebert's position with the police department has raised numerous questions over whether Christopher Hebert used his wife's work computer or police clearance to further his business. Though most criminal information is public record, Busted often posted the arrest records of argumentative commenters on his page within minutes. Mouton says he cannot discuss a specific employee's access levels or whether Amanda Hebert was able to bring her work computer home. But Amanda Hebert has only been employed with LPD since January, Mouton says, and the first three months are spent in the academy and training, both of which prohibit officers from accessing records. Typically, he says, the next three months of field training are done with supervision from a field training officer. The investigation is ongoing, Mouton says, and so far there has been no evidence of wrongdoing.
"We want to make sure no one is accessing or releasing information that's not authorized," Mouton says. "The info they have access to, at some point or time does become public record, but there's only a limited number of people in the agency who can release information. Everything our employees do on our computers is documented."
On several occasions, Busted in Acadiana urged its followers to come forward with information on the "Wanted" list, those with warrants out for their arrest. Busted frequenter "Victor Fontenot" was one of the most outspoken defenders of BIA, often mentioning his role as a law enforcement officer. On at least one occasion, Fontenot told two Busted fans that he works undercover for the department. Mouton says there is no one on staff named Victor Fontenot.
"What is your husband's name?" Fontenot says in one thread. "I believe I have arrested him before and he has a warrant in Lafayette Parish."
"Just wait till you see what the girls dug up," Victor Fontenot says to another woman on Busted's page. "You rubbed many people the wrong way in your lifetime."
Victor Fontenot is widely believed to be an alias of Christopher Hebert.
|Top: A screenshot confirms Busted in Acadiana assumed the identity of a rival company after BIA was shut down. Bottom: "Victor Fontenot" is believed to be an alias of BIA.|
BIA LIVES ON
Two days before BIA was gone, its page began posting links to Ritter's website LafayetteMugShots.com. The site is owned by Ritter's marketing company and has no affiliation with Busted in Acadiana.
The same day, a Lafayette Mug Shots Facebook page appeared, complete with Ritter's website logo and a daily dose of mugs and comments from fans. Ritter was unaware the page existed. Busted in Acadiana repeatedly denied any involvement with the new Facebook mug shot page when Ritter inquired, but Ritter knew better. Using a clever trap that coerced the Lafayette Mug Shots operator to click on Ritter's website, he was able to track the IP address that clicked the private link. The IP address is the same as the emails sent from Busted in Acadiana.
That same IP address is listed on The Independent's server with three comments posted to our website. The first was under a June 28 blog about Busted in Acadiana. The second was tied to "A Black Heart of Revenge," our rebuttal to developer Glenn Stewart's attack against Ind Co-Publisher Cherry Fisher May after the newspaper published a story about exploiting the state's agricultural loophole to avoid paying property taxes. Busted in Acadiana heavily criticized The Independent during the Stewart saga and highly publicized the ordeal on its page, at one time publishing a photo album chronicling Stewart's battles with The Ind.
The third comment is tied to a story The Independent posted online about City-Parish Councilman Brandon Shelvin's back to school fundraiser. The same day, Busted in Acadiana also posted the story on its page.
Busted was on The Independent's radar for weeks before the Stewart drama unfolded, starting with the June 28 blog and continuing when the paper received numerous tips about BIA's payment system and Hebert's marriage to a police officer.
Lafayette Mug Shots' Facebook page removed Ritter's website logo from the page the same day Ritter contacted Busted, despite denying any involvement. A day before that, Lafayette Mug shots had reposted the mug shot of "busted beauty" Sasha Vicknair, referring to it as one of the site's most popular mugs.
"Unfortunately this is a business where few can be trusted... We still have 45,000 fans on BIA," Busted says in an email to Ritter on Sept. 17. "The site is only unpublished at the moment. I will re-publish the site when the time is right. Let's just say you haven't heard the last of us!"
Reached by phone, Hebert adamantly denies any involvement with Busted in Acadiana.
"You print whatever you feel like you have to print, but you better make damn sure you know what you're doing," Hebert says.