Originally Posted September 2011
When it’s in the mug shot papers, it’s hard to define the price
Around 9 p.m. on the night of April 22, Stevie Dement and his wife Cissy were having dinner at the Evans Pizza Joint with Cissy’s 21-year-old daughter and a couple of work associates when Cissy excused herself to use the restroom. On her way back, a guy at the bar leaned over and brazenly positioned himself at breast level. Dement noticed the guy, and when she walked by unaware, he watched the guy as he swirled around and readjusted himself to butt height.
“When I stood up to let her back in, his line of sight goes from her butt to my face,” Dement says. “I said, ‘What are you looking at?’ and he said, ‘I’m looking at you, bitch.’”
These things are always tense, and when Dement took a step toward the guy, the guy slapped him. Dement hit him once in the face, which sent the guy swirling back into his stool. From there he inexplicably spun around until he was facing the bar, where he collapsed on it as if asleep.
Dement continued to eat, but when the guy regained consciousness and was asked to leave, management discussed things with Dement and he decided that it was best if they all left out the back way, just to prevent things from escalating.
“All I saw was you hit me once, I hit you once,” Dement says. “He got the worst of it, but for me it was a strike for a strike. It’s done. Let’s be grown men.”
And that was pretty much that until about two weeks later, when Dement got a call from a Columbia County Sheriff’s investigator asking for his version of events. Dement told his story and gave her a list of witnesses, then called his lawyer, who after hearing what happened told him not to worry.
So he didn’t… until a week or so later when the same investigator called and told him the judge had decided to issue a warrant for his arrest.
Dement turned himself in, posted $1,100 cash bond and continued with his life until his wife came out of a convenience store with a copy of the Jail Report.
“There I am,” he says. “Battery.”
That’s the price you pay for finding yourself behind bars around here. If the Jail Report doesn’t have you, the Arrest Book does — right there on the counter next to the five hour energy drinks and the disposable lighters.
What makes Dement’s story unique, however, is the fact that the charges against him were dropped.
“There were many witnesses,” says Captain Steve Morris of the Columbia County Sheriff’s office. “Some were interviewed prior to the issuance of a warrant. Additional witnesses were interviewed after the warrant was issued, and in light of developments from those interviews, the warrant was dismissed by the District Attorney’s office.”
No harm, no foul, right? The charges were dropped, his bond returned and his record was cleared.
But in the court of public opinion, he’s still guilty of battery. Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but mug shots are worth even more.
“It just killed me,” he says. “It broke my heart. I’m humiliated.”
As a professional kickboxer who has represented the country in international tournaments, a battery charge plays into the stereotype, but Dement also sells cardiovascular devices to physicians and assists doctors during the installation surgeries.
“I represent the company that builds the device,” he says. “If there’s an issue, the doctor looks at me. If something’s not right, I look at him.”
The people looking back at him weren’t expecting to see someone arrested for battery, yet after appearing in the Jail Report, his coworkers were certainly looking at him closely. And differently.
“I see these nurse assistants with the Jail Report running around showing it and you can see them snickering,” he says. “It’s humiliating. It hurt me. My business went into the crapper.”
As painful as the situation may have been, according to Jail Report owner/publisher Greg Rickabaugh, it’s just one of those things.
“I can hear the argument, but I just think they’re a bunch of crybabies,” he says. “The state has made it a law to allow people to have access to mug shots and public records and information, so we are doing nothing wrong and we feel like we are a benefit. Are there innocent people on our pages? Yes, there are. And we don’t mind publishing that fact at their request after they’ve been found innocent. And we have.”
Dement says he’s emailed the Jail Report about his charges being dismissed, but has not seen a retraction. Beyond that, however, he still feels like the damage has been done.
How effective is a retraction, even if accompanied by the original mug shot, when so many have already digested the original information and assumed so much.
“I’m guilty until proven innocent, and I can never be adequately proven innocent,” Dement says. “You’re dealing with idiots. They assume that where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”
Rickabaugh will tell you that he’s dealing in cold, hard facts. The fact is, Dement was arrested. Period. That’s all he’s reporting, and it’s not up to him to worry about how far into realm of speculation people might run with that information.
While he’s upset that Columbia County put the cart before the horse and charged him before all the witnesses were interviewed, including an FBI agent who was sitting at the bar, Dement’s main frustration remains with the Jail Report.
“Here’s the deal — I can understand if you’re convicted,” he says. “That’s something else. There’s been a trial and a jury and you’ve been convicted. But with this, you’re tarred and feathered, man. I was tarred and feathered by that magazine.”
Greg Rickabaugh worked for the Augusta Chronicle for six years, four of which he strictly covered crime. He moved to Charlotte, worked for the Charlotte Observer for a few months, then worked for a marketing firm before being laid off.
While trying to figure out what he was going to do, he read an AP story in the Charlotte Observer about a guy in Florida who had been arrested and wondered what his mug shot would like. When he got it, and others, he decided to publish a paper of mug shots.
“I had actually had the idea before then of doing some kind of crime paper where it was just statistics and neighborhood crimes and all that was going on, but the idea that somebody was just putting mug shots in the paper and people were eating it up I thought was brilliant,” Rickabaugh says.
When it came down to it, though, he wanted to do more than mug shots.
“I thought that was kind of simple, and I am a crime writer,” he says. “I love crime news and dumb crook stories and so I kind of put more effort in the paper and really expanded the vision. In my paper you see plenty of mug shots, but almost on every page you’ve got an article of local crime significance. You’ve got a center spread of dumb crook news from around the country and you’ve got fun with captions. And now we’ve added a cartoon and have the Match the Convict with the Crime game.”
It’s an irreverent and unfiltered look at the seediness that most of us would rather not acknowledge but seem unable to resist. Headlines like Drunk Son Fights with Dad, Hits Mother in the Face and Unthinkable! Man Drags Wife Through His Feces compete with the sometimes unbelievable mug shots — the pretty girl posing like it’s a glamour shot, the wild-eyed woman with the crazy hair, the crackhead with no teeth, the beat-up drunk who’s your next-door neighbor.
Though he prides himself for including crime stories of local significance, Rickabaugh doesn’t pretend the paper’s all serious crime fighting.
“I’m not going to say that our sole purpose is crime fighting, because I do need something to pay the bills, but my ultimate goal is to provide a resource for law enforcement and for the public,” he says. “As far as how I see myself, I really see myself as showing the people the information they want to know.”
They want to know who’s in jail, he says. They want to know who the sex offenders are and who’s been charged with burglarizing the neighborhood and who is stealing from the stores and driving drunk on the roads. And because it’s all public record, he insists he’s doing nothing but providing easier access to it.
But is there a difference between allowing you to seek out that information and having it there waiting for you, without context, at the convenience store checkout?
According to Rickabaugh, no.
“The daily newspaper picks and chooses what it gives the reader,” he says. “They choose to go to the city council meetings where the public has expressed for decades that they do not have an interest in going. So the news reporters go and they sit in the city council meetings and they splash the headlines across the front page about what has happened.
“What is the difference in us going down there and the public wanting to know, just not wanting to go through it themselves?” he asks. “To me, it’s even worse if someone’s accused of driving drunk on the streets. Shouldn’t we let the public know?”
Competitor Darnik McAlpin, a Davidson grad who owns the Arrest Book, takes issue with Rickabaugh’s argument about picking and choosing. McAlpin alleges that the Jail Report does not print all the mug shots available to print.
“When I saw there was a discrepancy between who was making the paper and the information that I was receiving, that motivated me to make sure that everyone in the paper gets put in,” he says. “The Georgia statute doesn’t state we have to put everyone in there. That’s not illegal, but the point is, who decides who gets left out?”
In turn, Rickabaugh accuses the Arrest Book of accepting cash for keeping faces out of the paper, a charge McAlpin surprisingly does not deny.
“As far as people paying for the removal — in certain situations that has happened, and here’s my take on that,” he explains. “If you’re going to go out and do a crime, which is stupid enough to me because you know the law, and you are going to be willing to pay to keep yourself from being embarrassed, I think it’s even more of a crime to not take your money and give it to charity and stuff like that.”
He says a percentage of that money goes to charity, but says some is directed to the time and effort that goes with fixing the problems associated with pulling a mug shot out of the paper at potentially the last minute.
Anxious to show that unlike Rickabaugh, he’s receptive to people like Dement, McAlpin says he’s printing the Conviction Book, which follows cases through the legal process and prints the outcome, whatever it might be.
“You pick up the Conviction Book and you’re going to see the initial arrest photo, you’re going to see the final verdict, including the people who are found innocent,” he says. “I’ve done that because of that criticism.”
Not surprisingly, Rickabaugh doesn’t think much of the Conviction Book. He wants as much exposure for those arrested as he can and is suspect of anything that might smack of the privilege he remembers from his youth.
He tells a story about a guy he knows who was constantly getting out of DUIs because the same lawyer went before the same judge.
“I know if he had been in a paper that showed people who had been arrested, that he would have stopped driving drunk because his clients would not have given him business,” he says. “But he was able to hide behind an expensive lawyer, and we don’t do that.”
He says he once turned down an offer of $20,000 to keep a picture from running, then fought off the guy’s attempt to buy up all the papers around his place of business.
Of course what makes the Jail Report and the Arrest Book interesting is the fact that these people haven’t been convicted. The mug shots are relevant to people in the community because these people aren’t tucked away safely in jail, off the streets and off your mind. They’re out among us.
The guy on page 16 might be pumping gas right next to you.
While the public might be divided about the concept, law enforcement takes a takes a fairly well-defined approach.
Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength admits there may be a public perception of guilt associated with a mug shot, but because he himself lives in a black and white legal world where the thing is the thing, it’s not something he worries too much about.
“I don’t think the paper is saying that any of these folks are guilty of what they’re accused of,” he says. “They’re saying that they’ve been arrested on a warrant. That’s the way it is.”
The extra exposure that comes from additional crime stories and, of course, the photos, does tend to help the sheriff’s office do its job.
“It has been beneficial to us,” Strength says. “Especially the folks who we were looking for. That section — we’ll run them in there, and more times than not we’ll get a phone call telling us where they are, where they’re working or where they’re living. In that aspect, it has definitely been beneficial to us.”
As for McAlpin’s admission that he takes money to withhold mug shots, the sheriff didn’t hesitate to voice his opinion.
“It’s unethical to start with,” he says. “You’ve got to treat everybody the same. You feed everybody out of the same trough.”
Capt. Morris from Columbia County says pretty much the same thing about the papers.
“I’m not sure how to comment on that other than it’s true that a person is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law,” he says. “If a person is arrested and additional information or evidence is developed that leads us to believe they’re innocent or should not have been charged, then corrective action will be taken.”
And corrective action is exactly what happened in Dement’s case. Legally, he was cleared of any wrongdoing. Whatever conclusions the uninformed might draw don’t matter.
A federal prosecutor interviewed for this story took a similarly pragmatic approach.
“Ultimately, it’s public information, so there’s nothing anybody can do about it,” she said.
As for the turmoil suffered by people like Dement, she is understanding, but dismissive.
“People have a memory of, like, two seconds when it comes to stuff like this,” she said. “Yes, it’s traumatic when it happens to you and you think all eyes are on you, but trust me — people forget.”
Dement, however, doesn’t buy it.
“He’s selling crack,” he says. “It’s over, but I still have to defend myself.”
Unlike famous people, Dement can’t send out a press release and inject his innocence into the public consciousness. He’s just a guy — more well-known than most of us in certain circles, but he’s still just a guy and he feels Rickabaugh is profiting from his misfortune and the misfortune of others.
“I love the one about how we’re just making a buck off of people’s misfortunes,” Rickabaugh says in return. “My god, man — I still live in a three-bedroom house. I am not a billionaire off of this thing.”
He may not be a billionaire, but he’s got himself a very profitable enterprise, and whatever the value might be to the community in the form of increased awareness or as an additional resource, there’s no doubt a lot of people read it for kicks and to see how many people they know were arrested during the last week.
“It’s really low hanging, rotten fruit,” Dement says. “I can’t believe people actually want rotten fruit.”