Tuesday, September 22, 2009 , Updated 12:04 p.m., September 26, 2009
UPDATED: Ellis County publisher learning tough lessons about hardball rhetoric, InterWebs publishing
And I learn that the media and political landscape in those parts would make a helluva soap opera.UPDATE: All charges in these cases have been dropped (both Meissner and Dauben) and all the principals released. It's still a helluva an example of local media gone wild.
ELLIS COUNTY Trolling about for local video on YouTube this morning, I found someone talking about the publisher of a local news site, The Ellis County Observer, being
extradited from arrested in New Hampshire because of charges related to material he published online. My "juicy freedom-of-press-story" senses started tingling and I started doing some research -- an activity that led me down a rabbit hole of innuendo, threats, sex scandals, and political drama that has been largely ignored by traditional news outlets.
Because much of what is going on is buried amongst the pixels of dozens of websites, it's a VERY confusing tale, one whose final chapter is still in flux. Here's what I've been able to suss out:
There was a widely reported story last week about the arrest of a "former police chief" named Michael Meissner who is charged with posing as a woman and soliciting nude photos from underage boys. He's actually a gypsy cop who moved from town to town, allegedly leaving perhaps hundreds of victims in his wake.
A little note in the last graf of the Star-Telegram's coverage notes that "Joseph Dauben, whom police suspect in connection with the case, was arrested on warrants in Plymouth, N.H."
Dauben is better known as Joey Dauben, and was the young publisher I'd learned about on YouTube. He isn't actually wanted in conjunction with the molestation charges, but on charges related to an alleged scheme to defame police officers involved in the Meissner investigation -- specifically, misuse of official information; obstruction or retaliation; and engaging in organized criminal activity.
So how was someone in New Hampshire embroiled in all this? Dauben is from Dallas area and is the former news editor of the Ellis County Press. While working at the Press, he started a news website called the Ellis County Observer, ostensibly to publish news and commentary that was too hot for the Press. This apparently caused all sorts of confusion and consternation for news subjects and sources in the area. This isn't an altogether unheard-of practice though, as one of our early content partners, Socratic Gadfly, posted independent reporting and commentary on his personal blog while working for a suburban newsweekly.
In February, Dauben moved to Plymouth, New Hampshire to go to law school, but kept the Observer going, along with a number of other sites focused on communities Southwest of DFW. And he started a conservative newspaper in his new home. And he is the NH Northern Region Vice-Chairman of the Young Republicans. And every time I click a link, I find another website he appears to be publishing. In fact, a legal blog recently reported that Dauben's company had bought 635,000 domain names, many of them intended to catch people making typographical errors in going to popular websites. I don't know when he sleeps.
In July (it appears), Dauben started publishing harsh words about John Hoskins, the Combine, Texas police officer who was leading the Meissner investigation at "CrookedCombine.com" and GypsyCopJay.com (both of which are a redirect to a page on the Ellis County Observer). Among other things, he pointed out that Hoskins could also be considered a "gypsy cop." He also included material about a Combine reserve officer named William Achey.
MichaelMeissner.com was more interesting back in the day
That seems to have been in retaliation for Hoskins' website, MichaelMeissner.com, which he used to gain "1,000 tips from the readers of this website regarding Meissner's conduct, location, and whereabouts- which were relayed to law enforcement for on-going investigations." There was apparently a time when the site was down due to "on-going investigations by the Public Integrity Unit of the AG's Office, other agencies and subsequently this agency."
On one of his myriad sites and podcasts, Dauben published a mug shot of a Achey, who had been arrested for impersonating an officer -- and that's the shot that got him hauled back to Texas. Hoskins says that the photo came from Dallas County's Adult Information System, which is only accessible to law enforcement officials -- a fact which would seem to be supported by the photo, which is still available via The Observer's Photobucket account. A photo of Hoskins' drivers' license was also posted.
Hoskins alleges that Meissner paid Dauben $200 to post the photos, which he says Meissner also provided.
But how did an Ellis County blogger get tied up in a Kaufman County brouhaha that is to be resolved in Dallas? If all of this is already complex enough to make your head hurt, you may want to stop here. See, Meissner was briefly the police chief in Bardwell, in Ellis County. Ellis County -- where Dauben worked as a news editor and in his professional capacity, hired John Hoskins, who is now a detective in Combine and who led the charge against Meissner, as a reporter.
I'll let you pause and soak that in.
See, apparently in our outlying counties, public officials and employees are virtually required to blog, albeit in a land that modern web design forgot (multicolored fonts, frames, and Blogspot accounts are de rigueur). There may well be a special state tax on anyone not maintaining at least three websites, unique domain names optional. Hoskins maintained a blog called the Bardwell Intruder, dedicated to "exposing Bardwell, Texas city officials, issues and the corruption within." According to an August complaint Dauben filed against Hoskins, that blog so impressed Dauben that he hired him as a freelance reporter for the Press, which was "separate but equal" to the Observer.
Yeah, I'm probably being a little provincial in my description here, but consider that one of the issues in Dauben's complaint ties to a controversy over yet another website run by a Dallas cop who lives in Red Oak and a war of words between Hoskins and the cop that got picked up by our pal and content partner Trey Garrison. Dauben seems to think that Hoskins hacked his account and posted the comment in question in that matter.
The now-defunct Intruder covered such diverse topics as an alleged sex scandal between a city employee (of age and female AND married to a former police chief) and Meissner as well as the mayor, one Jinker Gentry (his real name!); plans for a libel suit against Dauben; and nearly-monthly miscellaneous sex scandals.
Meantime, the Combine Police department alleges that Dauben is tied up with the Aryan Brotherhood and that, by posting the photos he did, was engaged in identity theft. The arrest and extradition couldn't have been a complete surprise to Dauben, as he even noted in his complaint to Combine:
"And just last week (August 18), Hoskins repeatedly called me on my cellphone as I was visiting West Los Angeles, California for business purposes. At the time of the call, however, I was with a Jewish friend touring West Hollywood. Unfortunately, the phone conversation was not recorded, but Hoskins repeatedly threatened me with arrest and extradition back from New Hampshire (where I currently reside) on third-degree felony charges. He repeated that if I did not cooperate with his investigation within 30 calendar days, I would be faced with jail and prison. His exact statements, witnessed by my friend in the car with me, were, "you can't run for office while being a convicted felon." He repeated this at least three times via cellphone. He also proceeded to inform me that he had obtained search warrants for various e-mail accounts and cellphone records of mine, and that I obtained Officer Achey's mug shot photograph illegally. He read aloud a section of the Texas Penal Code to give credence to his accusation that I was committing a third-degree felony."
And it gets even more incestuous: At one point there was a brouhaha in Bardwell over Meissner using uncommissioned officers. The Press reported that Meissner worked with an Ali Akbar, who was on probation for credit card abuse and theft, to suppress online records of his misdeeds. Akbar was an executive editor and webmaster at the Observer, but was accused by proprietor Dauben of endorsing voter fraud tactics. But Akbar helped Dauben determine via IP address tracing certain posts that on the Observer that he says were made by his arch-enemy Hoskins. And even though Dauben is alleged to be in league with Meissner, he published some pretty damning stuff about him at the Press. Even now, Hoskins and Dauben's mother freely post in the comments on the Observer site, side-by-side with a supporting cast of anonymous tipsters and local wags.
Really, this has all the friends-to-enemies drama of the worst episodes of Dallas, or maybe The Dukes of Hazzard. I just can't tell if JR and Roscoe P. Coltrane are on the same team or not. Maybe it changes from episode to episode, but I know I want the film rights. I think the Coen brothers should direct.
Dauben, who is currently being extradited from New Hampshire, said in a statement that the photos are public information, and is positioning this as a freedom-of-press issue:
“The Texas Open Records Act stipulates what can and cannot be released, but information given to a reporter, blogger, publisher or whatever is considered just that, information. The Observer gets e-mails all the time about all sorts of tips and rumors. My blog acts as the water cooler for our area. We publish every rumor and tidbit, and let readers make their own judgments. It’s against the Open Meetings Act law to reveal the location of potential sites for where a governing body is going to build. So if that’s leaked out and published, are we to assume that any blogger or journalist will be breaking the law?”
I mean, he's really laying it on thick:
“Do you realize how powerful the First Amendment is? ... The New York Times can publish where the U.S. keeps its nuclear warheads, or a columnist can publish the name of a covert Central Intelligence Agency spy, and despite all the non-disclosure laws, the First Amendment has won out every time. What’s jailing a journalist going to do? My blogs and my supporters will light up every Web site and call this totally bogus, and then they’ll make the government look like total inept idiots because one of their own inept idiot employees leaked so-called ‘classified’ information ... The more attention I get, the bigger my audience, and the more people I get to show what’s really going on in both Ellis County and the nation,” Dauben said. “I fear no man. Life is too short to worry about stuff like this. If anything, what happened to me just made me that much more popular, and gave me the biggest podium I would ever want. Free advertising for every corrupt cockroach I’ve ever exposed, and for a cause I really want to preach to the people. Some might call it martyrdom, but I call it an opportunity.”
Dauben is equally dramatic in YouTube video (since removed) shown in a Plymouth TV News report on his case, holding up a copy of The Art of War and saying "I will destroy you, John Allen J. Hoskins."
Based on New Hampshire law, just the charges levied in Texas, even without an indictment, are enough to warrant extradition.
So what to make of all this? I was tempted to dismiss this story as a bunch of crazy people sniping at each other, with their pixelated rancor accidentally bleeding into the real world. But I think this story matters to all of us in a number of ways completely unrelated to the popcorn-munching entertainment value:
- First and foremost, it appears that many children may have been abused. That's horrible, wrong and should be brought to light and prevented in any way possible. UPDATE: That may not be true, as the charges have apparently been dropped
- As an organization, and a community, supportive of "citizen journalism" -- or whatever term one uses for non-commercial, nontraditional publishing -- it is clear that whatever the facts, the players in this drama are bad actors, full of vitriol, half-truths, and vendettas. They give a bad name to people who want to leverage technology and crowdsourcing to cover their communities, and pose a huge danger to the freedom of whatever is going to replace what we used to know as the press.
- I have been saying for some time that we're entering a Dark Age for local journalism, especially in areas not covered by major metro dailies. I'm optimistic that in a few years, on the other side, there will be more good local journalism than ever before. But while business models get discovered and refined, there is an opportunity for all sorts of jackanapes. Both Kaufman and Ellis counties have lost news outlets in recent months. And I think it's safe to say that there's enough smoke to confirm either monkey business or mass delusion or both. Even the government-generated documents in this case are appallingly vitriolic and just plain wrong. This article only references a tiny fraction of the potential scandal I found being discussed and, in some cases, substantiated in these communities in cursory searches today. I fear it won't be getting better anytime soon.
UPDATE: After posting the story, I found this video report from The33TV, showing the YouTube video statement and providing more of Dauben's story.