Porn Pawns

The kings of smut escape while the feds cook up small fry like former Dallas cop Garry Ragsdale

Had he not been working off-duty at a T.G.I. Friday's in suburban Arlington five years ago, he likely wouldn't be in this mess. But Garry Ragsdale was there when a seedy opportunity knocked.

He swung the door wide open.

In fall 1997, the square-jawed, big-shouldered Dallas cop was sniffing around for a sideline business. Like a lot of officers who complain about their puny paychecks, Ragsdale needed the money. He had two young kids and more on the way.

Because he and his wife, Tamara, were bodybuilders, they decided to try their hand at the "nutritional supplements" business, selling miracle weight-loss products such as "Snooze and Lose" and "Fat Absorb" over the Internet for $20 to $35 a bottle.

Clarence Thomas "Tom" Gartman, a T.G.I. Friday's general manager Ragsdale met on his moonlighting job, offered to help get their Web-based marketing up to speed. The hulking, Web-savvy 33-year-old had the technical skills the Ragsdales lacked. But Gartman, whom a former attorney describes as a talented salesman and "a real operator," had other ideas about how to make the Internet pay.

Besides selling the questionable supplements, Gartman wanted Ragsdale to go in with him selling porn. And not run-of-the-mill loops of naked couples coupling. Gartman had nasty porno, a grisly collection of fetish tapes depicting adults acting out rape and sexual torture scenes, material Gartman apparently pirated from both foreign and domestic sources. He wanted to sell it as his own.

Ragsdale would later tell Dallas police internal affairs investigators he thought the material was "rather harsh," but not illegal. He said Gartman assured him that a Fort Worth attorney had reviewed the tapes and given a legal opinion that they were not obscene. Ragsdale says he had no reason to think otherwise. He started receiving catalogs from the adult video industry, and companies with listed addresses and real phone numbers were peddling the same thing: adult actors playing out the harshest scenarios of sadism, sexual humiliation, torture, rape and murder.

So Gartman and the Ragsdales set up a Web server and a site, "Forbidden Videos," and in near-total anonymity began taking credit-card orders from men worldwide. Customers sent in between $20 and $35 for titles such as Brutally Raped 2 or Real Rape 4. The Web site billed it all as the real thing. Addresses in investigative files show customers residing in Europe, South America, Australia and the United States, in towns such as Arlington Heights, Illinois, and Linden, New Jersey, or Patrick Air Force Base in Florida.

As the orders poured in, Tamara Ragsdale told police later, she would run blank tapes that she bought in bulk at Sam's Club through a video recorder and duplicate Gartman's wares at her home in Saginaw, a modest suburb north of Fort Worth. Keeping a certain distance from the product--one scene featured a baseball bat and what appeared to be real blood--she said she would switch on the monitor only at the end, to make certain the tape had run through. She had a 2 1/2-year-old and a 4-month-old in the house, so she was careful, she said. Typically, she would ship the order from the Jack D. Watson Post Office, which was near the couple's house, a starter home in a sun-baked subdivision at the prairie's edge.

As fall turned to winter, business was humming. The porn was attracting considerably more interest than the diet pills. But Gartman had become a problem. The Ragsdales accused him of cutting them out of more than $30,000 in profits. He was diverting payments to his accounts and had even set up a second Web site of his own.

By February, the Ragsdales split with Gartman and went their own way.

Using Gartman's tapes and a new Web site--named geschlecht.com, a poorly chosen word meaning gender or sex in German--the Ragsdales didn't skip a beat. Within nine months, they made about $68,000, according to a police analysis of their financial records.

It is unclear whether their taboo-sounding Web address had anything to do with it, but in April 1998, a Berlin resident named Oliver Chalet came across the Ragsdales' "Rape Video Store" while browsing the Internet. He said he was surfing for "violence and criminal content."

"I have no idea if this is the right way to contact the police in Texas," Chalet wrote in an e-mail to Dallas police. He said he was concerned that someone was selling videotapes of actual rapes, which is how the site touted the stuff. He gave police investigators a head start by identifying Ragsdale as the site's owner. It took Chalet a few minutes of Web sleuthing to learn that.

Chalet didn't know that the department he contacted happened to be Ragsdale's employer, or that he had triggered one of the rarest of criminal cases: a federal obscenity case involving something other than child porn.

Of all the smut peddlers in America--the Vivid Videos and Larry Flynt Publications and dozens of others in the estimated $10 billion-a-year industry--the feds had locked on a couple of small-time chiselers of other pornographers' wares.

After a slow-moving, five-year investigation, U.S. Attorney Jane Boyle announced on June 18 that a three-count indictment had been obtained charging Ragsdale and his wife with mailing obscene materials and conspiracy. Not only would one of the office's top prosecutors, Linda Groves, handle the matter, but a trial attorney from the Justice Department's Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section was also being called in from Washington.

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