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Porn Pawns

Tavis Coburn

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.

To read the press release announcing the charges, one would think someone--Attorney General John Ashcroft, George W. Bush, the morals-minded Republican administration--was finally going to start turning back the 40-year revolution in the availability of porn in America.

In fact, the feds rarely prosecute porn of any flavor or strength these days as long as it doesn't involve children. Anti-porn activists lament that the feds' obscenity policy is no different under Bush and Ashcroft than it was under Bill Clinton and former Attorney General Janet Reno, despite expectations of a return to the nationwide porn purges such as those initiated in the Reagan era by Attorney General Edwin Meese.

That surely was a different time. Today, the porno kings are using the courts to protect their businesses.

While prosecutors in Washington and Dallas work to make an example of the Ragsdales, federal courts and federal marshals in Florida, Nevada and North Texas have been helping the Orlando-based producer of some of Gartman's rape tapes uphold their legal copyright to the gory material.

Tom Gartman is on the lam in Canada, several attorneys say, but not because of the threat of federal criminal charges. He ducked out two years ago after a New Jersey-based lawyer obtained a $450,000 federal judgment against him for pirating his client's nasty tapes. All Gartman has done to make good on it is to write the man a bad check for $25,000.

He stuck his hand in the till of a successful porno king. And that--not the short arm of today's federal porn police--is what really got him in trouble.


Garry Ragsdale's position as a police officer no doubt has much to do with his being singled out for prosecution, and he already has been made to pay for his mistake.

Or so says his court-appointed attorney, Dallas defense lawyer Clint Broden, who says his client never denied what he did or that it was "a mistake."

To start with, when the complaint came in from Germany, there was a full staff--police public integrity and internal affairs investigators--available to pursue it.

Ragsdale, who declined to be interviewed for this story, had an exemplary record in his eight years with the department as a patrolman in the Northwest division. In his application essay, he said he wanted to be a cop because, "I enjoy working with the public and helping people," and, "I would like to give something to the community in which my friends and me grew up."

Ragsdale's personnel file lists 28 commendations from 1990 through 1998, a steady stream of praise for diligence, professionalism and outstanding effort. The only blemish on his record was minor: for violating the department's chase policy his rookie year.

He was known well enough in the department that when Chalet's complaint came in through DPD's Internet home page, the computer crime analyst who read it recognized his name immediately.

Within a week, a public integrity investigation was opened. By its end it would involve the work of nine police detectives and three federal agents, including fingerprint experts, vice officers and financial crimes specialists.

Lieutenant John Dagen, a vice officer, immediately ordered two videotapes using a covert name, credit card and mailing address at an East Dallas post office. After those came in, he bought six more: the Ragsdales' entire inventory.

While Dallas police were ordering and reviewing the Ragsdales' rape tapes, a U.S. postal inspector came across Gartman's competing operation by a different route.

In May, a woman with a post office box in Arlington alerted the counter help that someone was using her box as a fake return address. Parcels containing returned videotapes--accompanied by complaints from dissatisfied customers--were beginning to arrive at a steady clip.

The material, which was searched under warrant, was so horrific--women burned with cigarettes, body parts being nailed to boards, penetrations with sticks and bats--that Postal Inspector A.J. Reid concluded that one tape depicted "what appeared to be an actual rape of an adult female by several adult males in a secluded jungle area." It was apparently an Asian-made tape.

 

Reid and a team of inspectors set up video surveillance of the Brookhollow Postal Station in Dallas, where most of the parcels had been mailed. The unidentified mailer--who usually arrived late Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon--visited the post office two to three times a week, sometimes with so many packages he needed to use the loading dock behind the building.

On July 7, the Brookhollow camera picked up a clear image. The man mailing the parcels using the fake return address was Tom Gartman, sworn documents in the files state.

Gartman's name and company had shown up in some of the credit-card statements that DPD had obtained weeks earlier from the Ragsdales. In mid-May, the two agencies discovered each other's investigations and began coordinating their work. They moved in on their targets the same day, July 9, 1998, in a coordinated bust.

Federal agents served a search warrant on Gartman's house in Arlington while Dallas police took the Ragsdales' home. Garry had called in sick and was home much of the day. He later told police he had taken the day off in order to process some videotapes, because he was getting behind on his orders. When they stopped him, he was speeding along in his pickup at nearly 80 mph, heading to the post office, with the wife and kids in tow. When the vice cops entered his house, they found six VCRs in a closet, several of which were grinding out tapes.

Cops encountered a similar scene at the Gartman house, in a middle-class Arlington neighborhood. Federal agents found him and several associates at computers, hard at work.

In a written statement he made the following week, Ragsdale offered the defense that a Fort Worth attorney, Lawrence Brown, had essentially given the tapes a green light, and Ragsdale did not believe he had broken any laws.

Brown, though, disputes that and says it would have been impossible advice to render given the murky, shifting definition of obscenity under state and federal statutes.

Brown says he met Ragsdale through Gartman, whom he had represented briefly in late 1997. Around the time Gartman left T.G.I. Friday's, Lawrence says, "a large amount of cash turned up missing, and some people thought he had something to do with it. I negotiated that with Friday's general counsel. Nothing came of it."

He says Gartman wanted him to be general counsel to his adult business, a proposition Brown says he turned down. Brown says he met Ragsdale when the Gartman partnership broke up and Ragsdale came in for some advice.

"He was a nice, driven, motivated guy. I told him, 'You ought to leave this alone,'" Brown says. "In the old days, you had to have your own bookstore to sell this kind of stuff. On the Internet, at arm's length, it seemed more palatable to them."

Brown, who does mostly federal criminal defense work, says he is not an expert in federal obscenity law. Hardly anyone is today, because adult obscenity cases are so rare in federal court. Still, he says, the broad outlines of the law have changed little in the three decades since the U.S. Supreme Court set some basic guidelines.

A video cannot be called obscene until a judge or jury finds it so, he says.

The criteria were established in the landmark Miller vs. California case in 1973. In order for a magazine, video or other material to be found obscene, the work must pass a three-part test: The average person applying contemporary community standards must find that it appeals to the prurient interest (commonly defined as involving a shameful or morbid interest in sex). The work must depict or describe sexual conduct in a patently offensive way. And taken as a whole, the work must lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific merit.

Brown says it would be impossible for him to say with legal certainty whether any tape depicting overt sex acts would fall over the line.

In dealing with Ragsdale, the DPD avoided the legal vagaries of obscenity altogether.

Former Dallas police Chief Ben Click's internal affairs unit suspended Ragsdale the same day it raided his house in 1998, and five weeks later, the chief fired him for two rules violations: failing to obtain permission for his outside employment and engaging in conduct adverse to the department.

Almost five years later--an eternity for someone facing serious charges--he and his wife were indicted just before the statute of limitations on the federal charges ran out.


Although they say they have no sympathy for the Ragsdales, anti-porn activists who have kept close tabs on federal prosecutions say the case is token enforcement at best.

 

In the early 1990s, at the start of the Clinton administration, the feds shifted their time and attention toward prosecuting child pornography--which is outlawed absolutely--and all but gave up on prosecuting makers of videos involving consenting adults. Child porn prosecutions increased from 104 in 1992 to 563 in 2000, while adult porn prosecutions in those years dropped from 44 to 20, according to a report by the Office of the Inspector General that was prepared for a House subcommittee two years ago.

Janet LaRue, a lawyer with Concerned Women for America, a Washington-based conservative group, says the Bush administration has made promises over the past two years to her group and others that adult obscenity will be a renewed priority. But so far, few cases have materialized.

"There are three or four cases that I know of since 2001. Ragsdale is the most recent," says LaRue. She said she and other activists have met twice with Ashcroft--"I just got a lovely picture from him from our meeting in March"--and he has hired several new prosecutors and "held a few training seminars" for the department's obscenity section.

"The similarities in the new cases are they all target either rape or torture, extremely deviant material," she says. "In one, someone sent a pornographic spam e-mail to a federal magistrate. You have to enjoy that one."

LaRue says the Justice Department appears to be "picking off the little guys. They have done nothing to send a shot across the bow of the mainstream porn industry, which is making this material so readily available."

In trying to gauge community standards, which are set only after prosecutors bring specific material before judges and juries, "they're setting the bar very low," LaRue says.

Of the new cases, only one involves a porn studio. In April, federal agents from Pennsylvania served a search warrant on Extreme Associates, a North Hollywood producer of sexual torture videos that was featured in a PBS Frontline documentary two years ago as an example of the porn industry's most violent fringe. To date no charges have been filed. After the raid, the studio's head, Rob Black, pointed out in a press release posted on the Adult Video News Web site: "Mind you, this business has not seen a major federal obscenity investigation in over 10 years."

Pat Trueman, who knows firsthand what a vigorous war on obscenity looks like, agrees that the feds' efforts appear half-hearted. "In the first Bush administration we brought more cases in a month than he [Ashcroft] has brought in two and half years," says Trueman, who headed the Justice Department's Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section from 1988 to 1993. Afterward, he went to work for the Mississippi-based American Family Association and today is a lobbyist for conservative causes.

By putting both "mainstream" and extreme porn before juries, producers were put on notice that everything was being scrutinized. Many responded by toning down their products, he says. "You saw them shying away from the young-girl-in-pigtails Lolita stuff, where adults would portray children, and incest themes," he says. "Once you back off, you get more and more extreme stuff like this rape and torture genre being made available."

Paul Cambria, a Buffalo, New York, attorney who represents Hustler publisher Larry Flynt and many of the largest producers and retailers in the business, contends obscenity is largely a settled matter.

Juries, with a few exceptions, have been accepting of "the vast majority of material out there--what the people I represent are selling," Cambria says. In recent years he has won acquittals for adult video store chains in prosecutions in St. Louis and suburban Virginia, where they faced state charges. "Juries find [the material] does not lack serious value," he says.

In 2001, Cambria says, he provided a client, whom he declined to identify, with a list of 15 sex acts that in his opinion were likely to prompt prosecutors to select a film for criminal charges. The so-called "Cambria List"--which was circulated in the industry with a smattering of additions reflecting his client's tastes--focuses heavily on the mixing of violence with sex. Things such as bondage, forced sex, rape themes and tape covers showing any hint of "pain or unhappiness" run the biggest risk of being prosecuted as obscene.

"Ninety-nine percent of American pornography, most of it made in California, has nothing to do with violence or force," Cambria says. "It's not hard for a prosecutor to make a case that rape falls outside community standards."

Over the past year, conservative organizations that consider no form of pornography acceptable have been stepping up pressure on the feds to follow up promises of porn prosecutions with action. This spring, for example, LaRue wrote letters to every U.S. Attorney in the country, including Jane Boyle in Dallas, asking why they have not pursued the more than 26,000 specific complaints about adult obscenity e-mailed to them over the past year by New York-based Morality in the Media.

 

The prosecutors' responses, which were similar in tone, were posted on LaRue's organization's Web site under the heading, "Lots of excuses and a few answers."

Boyle, in a May 23 letter, wrote: "A lot of our resources are directed to combating child exploitation on-line; however, this office takes all complaints about distribution of obscene materials very seriously." The North Texas prosecutor listed a number of difficulties in bringing cases: Studios are located in other jurisdictions or abroad, some are difficult to identify or find and some materials fall within the limits of current law.

Although Boyle said she could not comment on specific cases, she noted that her office had "several cases involving the online dissemination of obscene materials" in the works. "I anticipate public disclosure of one or more charged cases in the not-too-distant future."

A month later, the Ragsdale indictments came down.


Back in 1998, Boyle's Democratic predecessor, Paul Coggins, also found that the Ragsdale case was useful in answering conservative critics. "Paul was glad we were on it. We were taking a lot of heat for not doing anything about this stuff," says one source in the office who is close to the case. "This wasn't plain old porn. It was clearly over the line. I honestly wondered how the women in this stuff survived."

But in-house investigators and prosecutors were usually tied up with more pressing matters--including several child porn cases--so the rape-tapes matter kept getting pushed down the priority list, the source said. "It can get like that with the feds," the source said. "Just when the defendant thinks they're out of the woods, wham, they get indicted."

Clint Broden, Garry Ragsdale's lawyer, maintains his client is nothing more than an easy target of a conservative political climate. "John Ashcroft...that's what's going on here," he says. "This is the same person who spent tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars covering up the breasts of Lady Justice."

In preparing for a trial scheduled to begin next month, Broden says he toured Dallas' adult video stores and came up with plenty of material in the same vein as the Ragsdale/Gartman tapes. For instance, there's Knife Point, a $49.95 DVD that he says was on display in the bondage section of one of the largest porn stores in the city.

Produced by Bon-Vue Enterprises Inc., which lists a Long Beach, California, address on the box, liner notes describe it thusly: "What happens when a lonely and crazed psycho decides he needs a girlfriend? D'arby, Gen X and Tilia Monet are the three lovely candidates for John Chasm's dire interests. Unfortunately for the three women, this strange courtship involves kidnapping and torture! ...Will any of these sexy victims have what it takes to please John's sadistic desires, or will they meet the tip of his knife. You will have to see this to believe it."

By the film's end, Broden says, the suitor strangles two of the women in clear plastic bags. It might be fringe material, he says, but a search for "rape videos" in the Google Internet search engine yields 68,000 hits. (In fact, while this story was being reported, a colleague received an e-mail spam in his America Online account pitching several extra-nasty rape and torture tapes.)

Although legal experts say an "everyone speeds" defense likely will not get far in the courts, Broden's evidence does illustrate that the rape tapes at issue are not all that unusual. Given the prevalence of these videos and DVDs, it is as if an entire freeway of Mercedes-Benzes appear to be flying by at 120 mph, and the feds have pulled over one stolen Ford.

Indeed, federal officials working in a different capacity have helped at least one porn producer whose tapes Gartman ripped off protect his right to the material.

After the 1998 bust, Ragsdale quit that part of his Internet operation for good, his attorney says. Garry, who is now 34, is working at a gym. His wife, Tamara, is home raising their kids.

Gartman, meanwhile, hardly skipped a beat. Moving to Reno, Nevada, with his wife, Lynn, he went back into business, this time with some material allegedly purloined from ZFX Productions Inc., an Orlando, Florida-based company specializing in bondage and sex torture films. Its elaborate Web site, which advertises DVDs and videos streamed over the Web, opens with an image of a woman, bound and gagged, hanging upside down from a gallows.

 

In summer 2001, according to pleadings in a federal lawsuit, a ZFX employee surfing the Web came across several videos from the company's 130-film inventory that Gartman was apparently pirating and selling on the Web. ZFX's lawyer, Jules Zalon, set up two "buy-busts" similar to the one employed by DPD. He found the Gartman films to be simply duplications of ZFX productions, only with the titles and credits removed. At least that was the case of the ones that actually arrived. Zalon says his private investigator paid Gartman's company $316 for four titles. "They took his money, but he never received any of those videos," Zalon says. (If that didn't show chutzpah, perhaps this does. One of Gartman's new operations appears to be named after the postal box customer who blew the whistle on him in Dallas.)

Among the bootleg tapes that did arrive was The Tool Box Abductions, described by ZFX promotional material as a "journey into the inner lair of Jake and Leroy, two deranged psycho rednecks" who in their "grungy shop" bind, gag and brutalize two women "vacationers." It's "not recommended for the faint of heart."

ZFX sued for copyright infringement and obtained temporary restraining orders from federal judges in Reno and Dallas. Company employees and federal marshals "hit" two houses in Reno and one in Arlington allegedly used by Gartman and several friends and family members.

Zalon, reached at his New Jersey office, says Gartman was at the Reno house, and he immediately offered to pay a settlement of $100,000, with $25,000 payable immediately. Gartman wrote a check on a company account. Several days later, it bounced.

ZFX pressed on with its lawsuit and obtained a $450,000 default judgment in Nevada when Gartman, his wife and two other defendants failed to defend themselves in court. Shortly afterward, Gartman and his wife moved and left no forwarding address.

Brown, the Fort Worth attorney who says he spoke to Gartman about the ZFX action, and Zalon both say they believe Gartman moved to Canada to avoid ZFX's efforts to collect.

Linda Groves, the federal prosecutor in the Ragsdale case, declined to say whether her office remains interested in Gartman and wouldn't comment on any aspect of the matter.

"My client is no longer pursuing him," Zalon says, declining to identify who that person is.

Corporate records in Florida show ZFX is run by Samuel S. Kettula and his wife, Sheri. The Kettulas own a new home on the outskirts of Orlando appraised for taxes at $373,000. Unlike the Ragsdales--who have had TV crews canvassing their street and reporters at their door--the Kettulas have received no public scrutiny or attention for what they do.

The only time the name of either of the people behind movies such as Southern Discomfort and Phallicide and Tied Tales has appeared in the press was last year, when the Orlando paper listed Sheri Kettula as a finisher in the Walt Disney World Marathon. Her time was just over five hours and 18 minutes.

Meanwhile, the feds are getting ready to fry up Dallas' small-time pornographers. If convicted, Garry and Tamara Ragsdale could be fined a maximum of $750,000 each, and they face prison time of up to 20 years.


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