Gone Wild and Gone All Wrong
THE multimillionaire creator of “Girls Gone Wild” sits in a jail visiting room here, wearing a uniform of orange shirt and gray pants and looking pale but rested from eight months of incarceration. He talks to a visitor through glass, often yelling, sometimes tapping on the glass with his index finger for emphasis, railing into a handset against “evil” and “vengeful” government officials and vowing to sue them all.
“Enough is enough,” he spits out. “I am not a criminal.”
Joe Francis, 34, has long been a polarizing figure, having made his riches enticing young women at Spring Break locations (many of them drunk) to bare their breasts for the cameras for his popular videos. He has not been scoring brownie points by calling local officials in Florida — where Spring Break 2003 in Panama City Beach went terribly wrong for him — “Nazis” and “cockroaches.”
But, stuck in jail in Reno, Mr. Francis is now desperately trying to drum up public sympathy, if not win release, to expose how unfairly he believes authorities have treated him. For the last two and a half months, he has taken out ads, sent out news releases, appeared on dozens of radio and TV talk shows and used a Web site, www.meetjoefrancis.com, to relate his convoluted story while his lawyers file motions charging prosecutorial misconduct and ask for investigations.
And as he goes about trying to transform his image from soft-porn entrepreneur to victim of vindictive officials, support has come from unusual quarters. His most vocal allies are not the Hollywood A-listers who have vacationed at his Mexico estate, but conservative radio hosts and their listeners, who suspect government shenanigans.
“EVEN though I don’t approve of what Joe Francis does for a living, he’s caught up in a nightmare,” said Mike Gallagher, one of the syndicated radio hosts who have given Mr. Francis a platform in recent weeks via jail telephone. “There’s a real issue here of somebody not getting bail.”
But Florida officials have been doing some p.r. of their own. The prosecutor, State Attorney Steve Meadows, has sat down for interviews on “Nightline” and VH-1 and issued news releases vowing to “pursue the prosecution against Joe Francis at every stage and in every court.”
And the former mayor of Panama City Beach, Lee Sullivan, one of the first Florida officials to lock horns with Mr. Francis, maintains he has only his “arrogance and bad judgment” to blame for his travails. Last year, when Mr. Sullivan unsuccessfully ran for state representative, his campaign listed as his proudest mayoral achievement “taking ‘Girls Gone Wild,’ their slick California lawyers and their exploitation of young women to court and making certain their pornography would never be made on the Emerald Coast again.”
Mr. Francis’s troubles started nearly five years ago when he included Panama City Beach, a Panhandle city of white-sand beaches on the Gulf of Mexico, in a highly publicized pay-per-view event from three Spring Break locations. “Girls Gone Wild” camera crews, who usually film college women at bars, parking lots, hotel rooms and other party hangouts, had been to Panama Beach City before, but in 2003 they arrived with unusual hoopla.
Mayor Sullivan took exception and law enforcement officials cracked down on acts of lewd behavior, which interfered with the filming. Mr. Francis sued the officials, claiming violation of his First Amendment rights, and got them to settle and back down. But Mr. Francis and some of his crew were arrested when the father of one of two women filmed in a shower scene at the hotel room the filmmakers had rented contacted the county sheriff’s office, saying the girls were minors.
The officials came down hard: They confiscated Mr. Francis’s Ferrari and private jet, announcing cocaine had been found on the plane. Mr. Francis was charged with more than 70 counts, including racketeering, drug trafficking, prostitution and promoting the sexual performance of children.
A judge ended up throwing out all but six of the criminal counts, which revolve around the use of minors in a sexual performance, because of a flawed search warrant. And as it turned out, no cocaine was found on the plane.
But Mr. Francis was also saddled with a civil suit for emotional distress from the two girls, each 17, in the shower scene, along with five women. While he was out on bail in the criminal case, which is pending, the judge overseeing the suit ordered Mr. Francis to return to Florida to mediate the suit. That civil case landed Mr. Francis in jail in April when the women’s lawyers complained he was verbally abusive in negotiations. Judge John Richard Smoak Jr. of the Northern District of Florida held Mr. Francis in civil contempt for not properly participating in mediation and ordered him into custody. Mr. Francis, by then back home in Los Angeles, showed up to do his time four days late, which earned him another contempt order, this time for criminal contempt.
Mr. Francis settled the lawsuit while in jail in Bay County, Fla., but his troubles were not over. Before he could get out, guards found sleeping pills, prescription medication for anxiety and high cholesterol and $700 in cash in his cell, and he soon faced criminal charges for introducing contraband into a detention facility.
Because of the new charges, his bail on the 2003 criminal case was revoked, and bail in the contraband case was denied by Judge Dedee S. Costello of Bay County Circuit Court, who said Mr. Francis had “impugned the integrity of the judicial process.”
Mr. Francis would still be jailed in Florida if not for another twist: Federal officials in Nevada charged him with two counts of tax evasion, so in June he was transferred to Washoe County jail here to answer the new charges. He faces trial on the tax evasion case but denies any wrongdoing.
In fact, he says, he sees the tax evasion case as a godsend. That case keeps him from going back to Bay County, where he claims in court papers he suffered abusive treatment. He remains in Nevada while his lawyers, including the well-known Miami lawyer Roy Black, try to get the Florida charges dismissed. The chance of that happening is slim, his lawyers said, and Mr. Francis is looking at more jail time.
Here, Mr. Francis spends his days on the pay phone talking to his lawyers, arranging interviews and keeping tabs on “Girls Gone Wild” and Mantra Entertainment, his Los Angeles-based company. The business, with 350 employees, now brings in nearly $100 million a year in revenue, he said, and has branched out from DVDs to the Internet, mobile phones and apparel lines.
Mr. Francis admits having made mistakes. He said he regretted reporting to jail in Florida late while trying to get the judge’s order stayed.
But he is hardly contrite. He has a defense for every bad turn along the way: The two minors filmed in Panama City Beach lied about their age to the cameraman and would have been vetted before the video was released; the mediation of their suit turned sour on both sides and it didn’t help him that one of the girls’ lawyers was Judge Smoak’s former law partner; Mr. Francis says he walked into jail with pills and cash because he was not searched and didn’t know better.
Mr. Francis, who sees himself as a Larry Flynt figure, argues this is all payback for defying the power structure in Bay County with his First Amendment lawsuit. Mr. Sullivan, the former mayor, denied this, but said Mr. Francis’s “cavalier attitude” and “obvious disdain” for authority have not helped him.
“If he’s looking for his worst enemy, he’ll find it in the mirror,” he said.
JOE GRAMMER, a spokesman for the Florida attorney’s office, said Mr. Meadows, the prosecutor in the original underage-girls case, is no longer commenting because of a judge’s admonition to lawyers to limit public statements. In his latest salvo, Mr. Francis filed a motion last October to have charges dismissed, accusing Mr. Meadows of tainting the jury pool by making disparaging statements against him on national TV and showing a portion of the shower video to “Nightline.”
Greta Van Susteren, who has aired the feud between Mr. Francis and the Florida officials on her news show on the Fox News Channel since the beginning, said the case seemed out of control.
“This is a grudge match,” said Ms. Van Susteren, a lawyer. “They’re messing with him, without a doubt, and that’s because Joe has poked a stick in the eyes of the prosecutors who have the power to hold him.”
Mr. Francis and his company have faced numerous suits from women over his videos and have paid hefty fines for violating record-keeping laws by failing to document the ages of young women in his videos and for the unauthorized shipping and billing of his DVDs. A few years ago a man broke into Mr. Francis’s home in Bel Air, bound and gagged him at gunpoint and forced him to pose partly naked for a video as part of an extortion attempt. The man was sentenced to over 10 years in prison.
Mr. Francis was in the news again when a bachelor party in Mexico he gave for Richard Johnson, a gossip editor for The New York Post, figured in a scandal about Post gossip staff accepting favors from sources.
Mr. Francis’s Hollywood friends, some of whom have written testimonials for his Web site, say they don’t know what to make of his current situation.
“It’s been so long and no bail,” said Quincy Jones, a neighbor in Bel Air who accompanied Mr. Francis’s parents to Florida when Mr. Francis was first jailed. “I don’t know what that’s about.” Mr. Jones, 74, said he knew Mr. Francis as a “giving” person with a good heart.
E-mail messages to Mr. Francis at Mantra Entertainment get an automatic “I am out of the office” reply, as if he’s just momentarily gone on business. But Mr. Francis said he lost a $300 million offer for his business as a result of his legal problems. At least he has found a much friendlier jail atmosphere in Washoe County than in Florida. He’s in a special housing unit because of his high profile and sheriff’s deputies have accommodated his numerous press interviews. He has his own cell but works handing out meals and doing other chores and has posed no problems, a spokeswoman for the jail said.
Mr. Francis says his fellow inmates — bank robbers, drug dealers and the occasional hair stylist on D.U.I. who has cut his hair — have been sympathetic. Many are “Girls Gone Wild” fans, he said, and he has even signed autographs.
But while his money is good for phone calls all day long, ordering out for food and the best lawyers, it can’t buy his freedom.
“They joke with me every day here,” he said of his guards. “‘Another murderer got out, Francis! Call your lawyer!’ At least they know that I shouldn’t be here.”