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Saving Justin Berry


Deeper issues surfaced almost immediately. The journalist Debbie Nathan (who has written for New York Magazine) became interested in Eichenwald’s Internet-sex pieces while doing research about child-pornography laws, which she believes should be amended to allow journalists and other researchers to verify the government’s impression of them. She thought that Eichenwald, whose stories seemed to imply he’d viewed lots of illegal sites, was given some sort of free pass by the Feds in part because he seemed so personally invested in promoting prosecution. Yet in an e-mail exchange, he denied viewing the sites, except by accident, which he said made it legal under certain circumstances.

Her Salon article was strident and prosecutorial, steeped in incredulity about Eichenwald’s methods. “Really? He didn’t know? Wasn’t hunting? Please!”

Eichenwald and the Times deny that Eichenwald did anything illegal in reporting the story. After the Nathan article, Eichenwald says he feared he might be arrested, or his children removed from his home based on her declaration that he illegally viewed underage porn. He instructed his personal lawyer to sue her for $10 million and publicly declared, “My wife and I have instructed our financial adviser to set aside $100,000 to finance the initial portions of this lawsuit.” So far he hasn’t sued, but in a private, seething e-mail to her, he wrote, “People like you are the maggots of journalism.” He later wrote a rambling, 2,600-word letter to Romenesko, the media blog, putting all other journalists on notice. “If you choose to rely on this conflicted woman for your reports, you do so at your own legal peril.”

Nathan has continued to battle Eichenwald with a fervor that mirrors his, writing about him for Counterpunch, and also in a short piece for this magazine’s Website. Nathan’s pro bono lawyer, the former New York corporation counsel Victor Kovner, says the whole affair left him stunned. “He flipped,” says Kovner. “It was ridiculous. But it turns out there are problems of which she was totally unaware, some of which have come to light.”

These issues have arisen from the prosecutions touched off by Eichenwald’s pieces. Records subpoenaed from PayPal and Internet service providers allege payments to Berry of several thousand dollars from Eichenwald’s accounts, under the names “Roy” or “Andrew McDonald.”

Greg Mitchel’s mother, Mary Robertson, an executive training consultant, wrote a letter about Eichenwald’s payments to the Times. Initially, Eichenwald elided the issue of whether he made payments to Berry. In an e-mail to Ingrassia dated January 6, 2006, Eichenwald wrote, “i don’t want to start heading down the path of denying every crappy lie that greg mitchel says,” he wrote.

Ultimately, Robertson encouraged her son to plead guilty to four counts of underage porn and hope for a lenient sentence; he got 150 years in a federal prison, a sentence that seems more appropriate for a mass murderer.

Another of the cases the Berry story spurred involves Tim “Casey” Richards, a 23-year-old Internet-porn star who faces 220 years in prison when he goes for sentencing in December. Berry hired him to help run JustinsFriends in return for a share of the profits. “The first thing he asked me to do was upload a preview video,” says Richards over the phone from a Tennessee jail—the video featuring Berry and Taylor side by side. Richards says he was specifically told Taylor was an adult. A bio for Taylor also stated he was “18, almost 19.”

Richards was convicted on eleven counts of child pornography, both involving his role in distributing the Taylor video and videos he had made of an ex-boyfriend when the boyfriend was underage. “There was more hysteria surrounding Tim’s case than any other federal case I’ve ever handled,” says Peter Strianse, an attorney for Richards. “I don’t know if the government was being driven by that article in the New York Times, but it’s as if they felt they had to do something and make representations to the court that Tim was one of the largest purveyors of child pornography that they have ever encountered.”

In preparation for his sentencing hearing, Richards, who maintains a blog partly dedicated to discrediting Eichenwald, was given access to read-only copies of Berry’s and Mitchel’s hard drives and computers used by the credit-card-processing company, whose owner was also arrested. In court papers, he alleges that they found cash transfers, as well as e-mails from “Andrew McDonald,” using an AOL address of Eichenwald’s. On June 6, 2005, “Andrew McDonald” wrote “the lighting sucks, washed out. still … worth 100.” On June 7, he wrote, “I have other proposals for you that would get you even more money.” A day later, Berry received a $2,000 check, drawn off Eichenwald’s Dallas bank.

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