22 women exploited for porn win almost $18m in damages

US judge rules they were tricked into performing in videos

SAN DIEGO • A Superior Court judge in San Diego has tentatively awarded nearly US$13 million (S$17.6 million) to nearly two dozen young women, ruling that they had been tricked into performing in pornographic videos that derailed and uprooted their lives and led several to become suicidal.

Last Thursday's ruling capped an unusual 99-day civil trial that exposed the bait-and-switch tactics and false promises deployed as part of a scheme to induce young women, who would not otherwise consider filming pornography, to fly to San Diego and shoot a pornographic video.

The judge, Mr Kevin Enright, also ordered the defendants to remove the women's images and videos from the pornographic websites they control or own, and to take steps to remove them from other online sites.

He gave both sides 15 days to object to his decision before it would become final.

Mr Edward Chapin, a lawyer who represented the 22 plaintiffs in the suit, said the ruling was an important victory for the young women who had suffered personally and professionally. Each woman would receive an amount ranging from about US$300,000 to US$550,000.

"They are happy with the outcome because it shows they were believed, that their story was believed," Mr Chapin said on Thursday. "They had been shamed. These guys attacked them, harassed them and intimidated them, so it was challenging to get them to testify. So it's a vindication for them."

The case named three defendants: Michael Pratt, the chief executive of the website; Andre Garcia, an actor; and Matthew Wolfe, a videographer, as well as the business entities they operated.

Mr Daniel Kaplan and Mr Aaron Sadock, two lawyers for the defendants, said their clients were weighing their options and would most likely file objections to the court's tentative decision, and if the decision became final, formally appeal.

Mr Kaplan and Mr Sadock said their clients were also focused on defending themselves against criminal charges filed last autumn in federal court in San Diego that mirrored the allegations levelled against them in the civil case.

Last October, Pratt, Wolfe and Garcia were each charged with three counts of sex trafficking by force, fraud and coercion, as well as one count of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking by force, fraud and coercion.

Another associate, Valorie Moser, who the authorities said helped recruit the women, was charged with one count of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking by force, fraud and coercion. 

 
 

Wolfe, Garcia and Moser pleaded not guilty in the criminal case.

The authorities said in October that Pratt, who is originally from New Zealand, had left the United States and was considered a fugitive. During the civil trial in San Diego, only one defendant, Wolfe, appeared in court, and "provided guarded, and at times inconsistent testimony", Mr Enright wrote.

"The tentative ruling does not affect the criminal case," Mr Kaplan and Mr Sadock said in a joint statement last Thursday.

"The government's burden of proof in the criminal case is 'beyond a reasonable doubt', which is a much higher standard than in this civil lawsuit where the burden of proof is a mere preponderance of the evidence."

Judge Enright found that the women had been lured with Craiglist advertisements that offered to pay them about US$5,000 for photos or video shoots. The ads did not indicate that any nudity or pornography would be involved.

One ad read "Wanted, beautiful college type preppy girls", for video and photo shoots.

The women who responded to the ads said they were then directed to innocuous websites, with pictures of clothed women, that asked for their contact information and photographs. The ads turned out to be from the producers of a porn site, who were seeking women to make so-called amateur pornography, which often features fresh-faced actresses paired with seasoned male performers.

 
 

Once a newly recruited woman had flown to San Diego, she found herself alone in a hotel room with two men about to shoot a pornographic video, Mr Enright wrote.

At this point, the producers had the women sign documents containing "dense and ambiguous legalese", which they falsely described as guarantees that their videos would be distributed only on DVD outside the US and would never be published online, the judge wrote.

"Defendants rush and pressure the women to sign the documents quickly without reading them and engage in other deceptive, coercive and threatening behaviour to secure their signatures," Mr Enright wrote, describing the scheme.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 05, 2020, with the headline '22 women exploited for porn win almost $18m in damages'. Print Edition | Subscribe