Berry also generated money in other illegal ways, including using his subscribers’ credit cards to buy unauthorized things for himself, plotting insurance scams, and even smuggling aliens over the border. In one of the most peculiar twists of his story, Berry quit high school and moved to Mexico. There, he reconciled with his father.
But the father soon found out about the son’s entrepreneurial niche—and reportedly turned it into a family business, procuring young women to co-star with the teenager on a brand-new site called MexicoFriends.com.
The two Berrys were piling in the money by the time the son turned 18, in July 2004, but by the winter, Berry had begun drifting away from the business, redirecting MexicoFriends to an Evangelical Christian link, yeajesus.com, and rededicating himself to Christ. One of the few artifacts of his past still online was a fan site Mitchel maintained on Yahoo in his honor.
Eichenwald first managed to contact Berry through an IM address he found in the MexicoFriends site archive. Berry was staying with Mitchel at his home in Virginia at the time. Eichenwald posed as an obsessed admirer, IM-ing and calling repeatedly. After initially gaining their trust, Eichenwald says he worried that Berry and Mitchel were going cold on him. That’s when the Eichenwalds, according to Theresa, decided to make several payments via PayPal. “A lure,” she called the cash, gaining his trust and keeping his attention until they could intervene. “I thought, Could we be throwing money away? And then, once again, What if it were our child? It’s a small price to pay.” That spring, Justin and Mitchel were considering refurbishing JustinsFriends, as a “twink” (young male) porn business, once again starring Justin, a prospect Eichenwald has testified he found alarming.
These aren’t the usual tactics of a reporter, but Eichenwald insisted to me that he was working on a rescue, not a newspaper story—he decided to write about it all only later.
By late June 2005, Eichenwald’s rapport with Berry was strong enough that he began angling for a meeting, but Berry was reluctant—he still thought his Internet benefactor was a gay Gary Glitter. Eichenwald pressed him repeatedly. He reminded Berry of his generosity, and talked about the promise of a movie. Eichenwald says he grew more desperate when he learned that Berry might be considering two marketing stunts in conjunction with his return: an Internet “auction,” where he would prostitute himself out to the highest bidder, and a whistle-stop tour in an RV—Eichenwald calls it “a molest-a-thon,” even though Berry was over 18—in which fans could have a private show. Desperate to stave off both events, the Eichenwalds sent along a much larger sum of money than before, this time $2,000. “You have to come meet me,” he would cajole the teenager. “I’m the $2,000 guy!”
Finally, on June 30, Berry flew to LAX and met his benefactor. Eichenwald, who had flown in from Dallas, he demanded to see Berry’s license, which proved he was weeks away from his 19th birthday, and handed over a copy of his newest book, proof he was a reporter, not a fan at all.
But these revelations didn’t stop the rescue mission. Eichenwald explains that Berry was high on drugs when he arrived, sick to his stomach, and desperately thin—109 pounds, though he was six-foot-one. That afternoon, and the next morning, Eichenwald talked to Berry about self-respect and the fragility of the soul. He extracted a promise to go cold turkey. This was an interesting moment in their developing connection to one another, both Eichenwald and Berry explain to me. Berry, in a telephone interview monitored by his attorney, said he looked at Eichenwald and thought, You know what? Enough’s enough, and agreed to quit on the spot.
Emboldened, Eichenwald told Berry to break off all connections with his fans, and implored him to find a way to make money “that wasn’t based in self-denigration.” He says he also demanded Berry return the $2,000. “We paid that money to save your soul,” he remembers saying. “That money was good money and you took it for all of the worst reasons possible. You took it and debased yourself by accepting that money. You have to give it back.”
Berry agreed to it all; he was that ready for a change. “I was a mess. I was horrible. I was speaking to thousands of pedophiles on a daily basis,” he says. “Luckily enough, Kurt, with that talk we had in L.A., knocked enough sense into me.”
Eichenwald says he then returned home hoping to see the money repaid but frankly never expecting to hear from Berry again. On July 3, he wrote the young man an encouraging e-mail, attaching a song by pop singer Chad Kroeger and an exegesis of the lyrics. “It’s the story of a man who awakes one day, distressed at what he has done to his own life, angry at himself for the things he has allowed himself to do,” he wrote. Two days later, Berry called Eichenwald around 9 p.m. “So many kids are in danger,” Eichenwald remembers him saying. “So many kids are being hurt, so many kids are ending up like me. Somebody’s got to stop this. Somebody’s got to do something.”
At that moment, Eichenwald remembers thinking, “Now this is a news story.” He called his editor in New York and got permission to fly Berry to Dallas, saying he was in danger where he was. Berry spent the next months not far from Eichenwald’s office, staying with cousins who, providentially, had experience ministering to troubled teens. It was, both Berry and Eichenwald say, a period of deprivation for the teenager. He was kept from a computer, a car, and a phone, marching through detox with little help but Eichenwald’s.