This week, 10 Minutes On Craigslist is back! Preston has posted the same ad to Craigslist over 300 times. He speaks to Sylvie Douglis about why he keeps posting.
And in the second half of the show: Barry Crimmins is an influential comedian, and a survivor of sexual abuse. In the mid-90’s he embarked on a one-man crusade to stop child pornographers who were operating with impunity on America Online.
Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder
Our ad music is by Build Buildings
PJ VOGT: From Gimlet, this is Reply All, a show about the Internet. I’m PJ Vogt.
ALEX GOLDMAN: And I’m Alex Goldman.
PJ: And this week we’re doing a segment that some listeners might already be familiar with, it’s called Ten Minutes on Craigslist. Alex, how does it work?
PJ: Do you know?
ALEX: I think! Just give me a second, jeez. We go on Craigslist and we find posts that are a little enigmatic and that we’d like to learn more about and then we email them and then we go out with our microphones and ask them questions.
PJ: Okay you want to hear the post that we’re doing this week?
PJ: okay. I feel like it’s storytime. “Subject title: Looking for old friends from the Sea Colony bar in Greenwich Village in the 1960’s.” And the post reads: “I am a man who worked there part time in the sixties and consequently made a lot of great friends. When the bar closed everyone went their own way and sadly I lost touch with them. Does anybody remember Maria, the bartender? Wish someone could tell me what happened to her and everyone else for that matter, if there is anyone out there reading this, and you were there, please contact. I would love to hear from you.” Alright you ready?
SYLVIE DOUGLIS: Okay so if first you could introduce yourself, just how you’d like to, in a complete sentence.
PRESTON MARDENBOROUGH: Yeah, my name is Preston Mardenborough, I’m an artist now and I sell art in the street, I’ve been doing that for a number of years.
PJ: We sent Reply All’s own Sylvie Douglis to go talk to him.
PRESTON: Every four days I renew the ad. Just press a button to renew ads. It’s very easy.
SYLVIE: So if you had to guess, how many times do you think it’s been posted, or renewed?
PRESTON: My ad? Oh that’s easy to figure out mathematically, I’ll tell you in a minute. Three hundred times, that might be a conservative estimate. I would have thought that it would have got more response than it did, but as the years go by the chances are diminishing, of finding people around from those years,
SYLVIE: So can you walk me through Sea Colony and what it looked like?
PRESTON: Yeah. it was one of the top lesbian bars. I was a waiter, the only male waiter there. One time they had me as a bouncer and you would walk into the first room and it was a bar on the left hand side, the jukebox was going all the time, and the second room was basically mostly tables and chairs and the third room was dancing. And if the police would come, somebody would press a button and everyone would stop dancing.
SYLVIE: So what did the button do?
PRESTON: There was a red light in the back, alright everybody stop dancing and everything would freeze and people would run to their tables and just sit like they’re having drinks. So everybody was paranoid, there was a paranoid atmosphere of who’s going to find out I’m gay, is my job going to find out, everybody was paranoid about people’s sexuality. And I went home with quite a few women and I lived with quite a few women.
SYLVIE: Did they consider themselves bisexual or lesbians?
PRESTON: Now that’s a good question. When I say that I went out with lesbian women, I guess from a technical standpoint of view they were bisexual but they certainly didn’t go out with any other men. The whole thing, it was just magic from the very beginning, a straight man being plunged into the world of lesbians I don’t know if I ever what how when who, I mean a million questions, I didn’t even have time to get the answers to the questions.
SYLVIE: But you felt at home right away?
PRESTON: Yeah I was very comfortable with these women. It was sort of a very caring type of atmosphere. There was a girl in there by the name of Maria, she was a famous bartender in there for years, I don’t know what happened to her, I’d like to see her, she’s seven years older than me, and I’m 72, she was a Spanish woman from Northern Spain, and she was a butch woman, extremely attractive, I don’t have a picture of her, I don’t have anything. She looked something like a gaucho. Do you know what a gaucho is? A Spanish gaucho?
PRESTON: Something on the order of a bullfighter, Something like that, if ever you were to paint a picture, I’m an artist, if ever you were to paint a picture of somebody who was Spanish from Spain with the features and everything else, Maria would be it. And she knew I wanted to go to bed with her, I never told her, everybody wanted to go to bed with her.
SYLVIE: Were you in love with any of the women?
PRESTON: Yeah, I was. I was, yeah.
SYLVIE: Were you in love with Maria?
PRESTON: That’s a hard question, sort of. Course I knew it was impossible, but I wasn’t a person who would bother her or anything like that. Secretly, a secret love? Yeah, Maria, sure.
SYLVIE: It seems like you were putting yourself in this position where you were kind of setting yourself up to fail, that you were in love with these women who wouldn’t necessarily love you back.
PRESTON: I don’t know it was sort of a challenge, it was sort of a challenge. I guess you might call it that. I kept going back for more, it became compulsive, it got to be a habit, some people take drugs, some people gamble, but I couldn’t stay away from them.
SYLVIE: And what was their attitude towards you?
PRESTON: Well, they liked me. They did like me. Or maybe they were fascinated with me. I don’t know exactly. I wondered what they found in a male. I thought that it was females that they were mostly interested in. Which it is in all reality. And I always said I wanted to get away from them.
PRESTON: Because it wasn’t normal. I guess.
SYLVIE: But it doesn’t strike me that normal is important to you.
PRESTON: For me, in other words I used to always constantly think about the future, and I used to think what’s going to happen if? What’s going to happen when? Is this going to go on all my life? What is wrong? Am I going to find a straight woman soon. And I’d meet straight women, I’d meet straight women. I’m going to be honest with you, I’ve been honest, I’m going to tell you something personal, that I’ve never felt as comfortable with a straight woman as I have with a gay woman. Ask me why.
PRESTON: I don’t know.
SYLVIE: What drives you to repost the ad all the time?
PRESTON: Probably an obsession. I’m sure it’s an obsession. There’s gotta be someone out there. Gotta be someone out there. Well Maria and I have the same birthday you know. She’s going to be eighty years old. I’d like to see her I don’t know where she is, I don’t even know if she’s in this country. I have no way of, I have no way of tracing her. I forgot her last name. Which is key to finding anybody. Gradually I lost touch and I knew hundreds of people, literally hundreds of people, I don’t know where they are, it’s like they disappeared into thin air. I can’t get over it really. You’re not old enough to have these experiences, but what the hell happened to all these people? It’s like a whole continent that just boom.
PRESTON: Age is a terrible thing you know, especially when you’re a young boy in an old man’s body. Its a part of my life that’s gone. I can’t bring it back.
SYLVIE: But you’re trying to.
PRESTON: I keep trying to, yeah I do. I just can’t give up. It’s a compulsion. Someday maybe somebody will see the ad. But I’m realistic to know the chances of that are slim in this stage of the game only because father time comes into the picture. I wish I could do it all again and listen maybe there’s some lesbian woman out there who wants to go out with a 73 year old male, if so, please get in touch with Sylvie, and let her, she’s going to be my proxy.
SYLVIE: Your matchmaker?
PRESTON: Something like that, yeah.
ALEX: Reporter Sylvie Douglis. After the break, one man, without the help of the law takes on some of the internet’s most heinous criminals.
ALEX: Welcome back to the show. This is just a reminder that this segment is definitely not something you want to listen to with kids and if you are sensitive to discussions of sexual assault, you might want to skip it yourself.
BARRY CRIMMINS: They’re talking about putting Reagan on Mount Rushmore. Wow, huh! They do that we’ll have to raise a bunch of money to buy Lincoln and Jefferson blindfolds. They’re going to honor them, they’re going to put him on the million dollar bill. This way all his friends will have something to remember him by.
ALEX: This is Barry Crimmins. He’s a comedian’s comedian. You may not have heard of him, but people like David Cross and Patton Oswalt name check him as a massive influence. He ran comedy clubs in Boston in the seventies and eighties. On stage, Barry is unsmiling, stoic, a little wild-eyed. And his material is all pretty overtly political. Like, he tweets at the Pope every day, begging him to be excommunicated. But he’s not confessional on stage.
BARRY: I mean I’m not the kind of comic who goes out and tells you every detail about his life. I don’t talk about the women that have been in my life, you know, who cares?
ALEX: That all changed on a night in May of 1992. Barry was hosting a show in Boston.
BARRY: I’d just come from Los Angeles, it was right after, smoke was still in the air from the insurrection, after the Rodney King verdict. And a lot of people indicting these kids for their behavior and I felt like saying to people, you know, there may be a little more context for this, maybe you want to consider where kids come from.
ALEX: All of this is rolling around in Barry’s head as he takes the stage. And he starts out with his normal routine.
BARRY: I just did a lot of contemporary material like I always do and was getting laughs. The crowd was having a great time.
ALEX: And then he addresses the LA riots. The terrible media coverage, those angry kids, the whole idea that strangers could really judge their behavior without knowing their pasts. So he launches into a story about his own past that he’d never told before. Barry talked about how when he was a kid, his babysitter would sometimes bring a man over, who would take him down into the basement and rape him.
ALEX: How old were you?
BARRY: Yeah, I was about four. Maybe pushing five. Maybe high fours.
ALEX: Barry says that this happened again and again over a period of possibly weeks, he’s not sure.
ALEX: Do you remember the audience reaction to your set?
BARRY: Well they were laughing until they weren’t. They were laughing until they weren’t.
ALEX: A reporter who was at the show wrote that during Barry’s story, “The room instantly grew as silent as a newly dug tomb.” It felt cathartic to be able to talk about what happened on stage. But Barry wanted to find other people who had lived through similar experiences. And fortunately, there was a place where he could go. The internet.
BARRY: I bought a new mac in early 95, I guess? And got online America Online. And was in some chatrooms with abuse survivors.
ALEX: AOL chatrooms in 1995 were broken up into two sections there were channels that were created by AOL about sports and TV and movies, and then there were rooms that were created by AOL members, which tended toward being explicit. Sure, there were chatrooms for abuse survivors, but there were also rooms to arrange anonymous hookups, to roleplay. And then there were some that were much darker.
ALEX: Can you tell me the names of the chat rooms that you found that people were in?
BARRY: You know “Dads and Daughters” and “Child XXX pics” you know? “Junior likes Daddy” and like, some of them you’re going like, maybe this is some adult, but again and again it’s about children. But I find, it was not hard you’d find dozens of rooms, in which clearly, they’re both trading child porn, exchanging child pronorgraphy, but also sort of holding a child molesting clinic.
ALEX: Barry had stumbled upon an enclave of child pornographers and pedophiles. The same site that hosted conversations between survivors of sexual abuse was hosting conversations between sexual abusers.
BARRY: They finally had a community, where would they have been able to gather in the past? So this was a new and clearly very dangerous thing. So I immediately contact AOL, and they play it dumb and they go, well thank you for being a good citizen of our service, they tried that on me for about a month, and I start getting a lot more specific, and telling them what’s going on, and they say, well it’s a complex thing. And they’re talking about, we have to balance first amendment rights. First amendment? Raping children is protected speech? What are you, insane?
ALEX: How many times do you think that you contacted them?
BARRY: Hundreds. Hundreds of times.
ALEX: Do you think that it’s possible that this was a situation where the company built something that was too big for them to properly moderate?
BARRY: Listen, that’s crap as far as AOL is concerned, and I’ll tell you why. If you wrote the following phrase, AOL sucks, they would throw you off in one second. They had the ability. I mean these people were in a specific place. I told them where they were, day after day. There’s just no, it wasn’t too big. I mean, it was there. It was right there.
ALEX: The obvious question in talking about these chat rooms is, Why not just call the police? And Barry did. He reached out to a number of different law enforcement agencies, but this problem was so new, they just didn’t know how to deal with it.
BARRY: No one else was doing anything. I couldn’t, it was like, you know the fire was still going on, and children were still in the orphanage, and nobody was running in the building, so I had to keep trying to put ladders up the windows. I just no one was doing anything.
ALEX: Barry thought if there was just enough evidence he could build a strong enough case to show that the trading of child pornography on AOL was systemic and unchecked. So he did something that sounds unthinkable to me, but that he felt was his only option. He went undercover.
BARRY: I created a fake screen name like everyone else on AOL, but mine said I was two kids, because some of these people were fixated on girls, and some were fixated on boys, and I said, Our stupid parents made us share an AOL account, and it was a couple of kids names and then I would just go in, and sit there, observe what was going on, and then they started sending me the child pornography. You walk, you go in these chat rooms, and people instantly start sending you child pornography, thinking that it’s going to be quid pro quo, and you’re just going to send it back to them.
ALEX: When you were communicated with people and collecting information on them, were you getting actual like, personally identifiable information about the people, or were you just collecting screen names?
BARRY: Sometimes. I was trying. Sometimes when they would try to set up meetings, I would try to figure out where they were, in general. There was one guy who fixated on boys, and he asked the boy, “Do you know what a Ziploc bag is?” I said “Yes” and he said “Well I want you to pee on your underwear, and put it in a Ziploc bag and mail it to me.” And I said sure, Give me your address.
ALEX: Finally, one of the law enforcement agencies that Barry had been trying reach got back to him. This is Rick Bell, he’s a prosecutor for Cuyahoga County, where Barry was living at the time. And he says that he found Barry’s story very confusing.
RICK BELL: He wanted to know if our office was aware that there was child predators on the computer trying to rape children, there were conversations that were taking place on different rooms on the computer, and we had no idea what he was talking about. He took us to AOL which we didn’t even know what that was at the time, he showed us some of those pictures and we were horrified.
ALEX: And when you say that you had no idea what he was talking about, what was your experience with computers at the time?
RICK: None. We might have had one computer in the office. We did not have computer analysts, so there was little knowledge on our part of how you would even obtain the information to be able to figure out where people were in their different houses speaking to each other, it was very very difficult it was like trying to catch a bat with a fishing rod.
ALEX: Rick couldn’t do anything. There was no investigation, and they made no arrests. And so Barry was just stuck. All he could do was continue to log into the chat rooms.
ALEX: How much time were you spending in these chat rooms. Like all day, every day?
BARRY: Pretty much. I was pretty focused.
ALEX: It must’ve been really frustrating and lonely and in some ways really traumatic to be doing this. I guess I’m being presumptuous. How did it feel?
BARRY: Well, it felt all those things, but it felt something else. And that is sincerely concerned about the children. I wasn’t in those pictures, those children were. And that’s who came first. And all I know is if I hadn’t stuck to it, I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself. Of all of the options made available to me, the easiest one was to do what I did. Because otherwise it would be like opening a door up, and seeing a bunch of children getting raped, and going, Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to come in here. And closing the door and going, I didn’t see anything.
ALEX: The only thing I can think of that’s worse than having to look at child pornography everyday is having to do so when you yourself are a survivor of childhood sexual assault. But Barry continued to stake out AOL’s chat rooms and try to get law enforcement involved for seven months. Seven months posing as children, collecting as much information about the traders of child pornography as he could. Finally, Barry managed to reach a US attorney who put him in touch with the right people at the FBI, and they came to his house to get everything he’d collected over that period.
BARRY: I wanted the authorities to know what I had, and I wanted them to come in and take over as soon as possible. When I gave the discs to the FBI, which is is hilarious, me and the FBI, because I’m this lefty comic and they come and I’ve got this Guatemalan wall hanging with two hundred political pins on it, half of them have a red fist on it, so it’s pretty funny, talk about strange bedfellows. So I hand over the discs. And they walk out, they leave my apartment, they close, I hear them go down the stairs and I just broke down. And I just wept cause I was done.
ALEX: In May of 1995, the FBI launched a program called The Innocent Images Initiative. Barry was told that soon after he turned in his materials to the bureau had arrested a hundred people, and that a number of those arrests were based on the information that Barry had given them. Including the guy who tried to get Barry to mail him urine soaked underwear.
BARRY: He got rounded up right away. And at the time I said, Handcuff him to the bars of the jail cell. But he was a particularly bad one. I believe he was out of Rhode Island somewhere, so if NPR is on in prison, I’d like to say, Hello, friend.
ALEX: Barry was relieved to have this period of his life behind him. But he wasn’t done. Despite the arrests, AOL still hadn’t shut down these chat rooms. And in the Summer of 1995 the senate held a hearing on the problem of child pornography on the internet. And Barry was invited to testify.
ALEX: Can you tell me about the day that you testified in front of the Senate? Do you remember what it was like?
BARRY: I remember that very well. Because you’re walking into, I mean it’s a movie!
BARRY: My name is Barry Crimmins and I’m a writer and children’s rights and safety advocate residing in Lakewood, Ohio. I’m also an adult survivor of child sexual abuse.
ALEX: Barry is seated two feet away from his nemesis: Bill Burrington, assistant Counsel for AOL. Burrington’s young, handsome, slick as hell. And Barry, well, Barry just kind of looks like Barry.
BARRY: I look like a marijuana grower at his arraignment.
ALEX: He’s in a rumpled suit his curly hair is all over the place, he has a beard. But his delivery is deadly serious. The video of this hearing is pretty intense. Barry argues with Bill Burrington from AOL, Who is attempting to defend the company’s policies, and he doesn’t mince words.
BARRY: And I haven’t heard back about those files, for example. And I very rarely do.
BILL BURRINGTON: Now in your case you did receive responses. I’ve reviewed the correspondence-
BARRY: I’ve receive responses at times but I haven’t receive responses at other times. The more heinous it is, the less response I get. It’s like there’s denial involved.
BILL: Well there is no denial involved-
BARRY: It was like a long fight, it went on for an hour or so. And by the end, by the end the guy looks like he has just been taking, he’s a boxer and he’s taken a savage beating and hasn’t landed a punch all day, which he didn’t. And then at the end he makes the mistake of telling the truth.
ALEX: Barry’s referring to a specific exchange in the testimony. This is Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold talking to Burrington.
RUSS FEINGOLD: Let me make sure I understand what your testimony is. You mentioned that it’s your company’s policy that if we’ve got a room full of pedophiles and you see that going on that you try to zap that out, is that correct?
BILL: We truly have pretty much three strikes you’re out-
BARRY: Three strikes! I mean, this guy basically said, You can’t find any four-time child pornography traders on our server. Are you kidding me? Are you kidding? And I jumped right in and said, That’s a one-strike offense in any league I believe in. And it was over. It was over. And he was done. And he deserved to be done. Goodbye.
ALEX: After the senate hearing, AOL had changed their policy to zero tolerance for the transmission of child pornography. I talked to John Ryan, who was AOL’s senior vice president and general counsel for seventeen years and later went on to work for the Center for Missing and Exploited children. And he told me that this hearing, the one where Barry testified, was responsible for jolting the internet industry into dealing with this problem.
JOHN RYAN: I actually was hired shortly after the hearings. I was hired in January 1996 and I would say the hearings were one of the catalysts for my recruitment. And I think there was a wake up call for both the industry and the law enforcement community that this was a problem that was just going to get worse.
ALEX: John told me that before this hearing, when AOL got reports of bad behavior, they might close the offending user’s account, but they had no idea what to do with the evidence they were collecting. They would just throw it away.
JOHN: Quite frankly the industry at that time was caught off guard, they were focusing on building you know the product and expanding into the mainstream USA and they weren’t factoring at that time the abuse of the technology in the wrong hands.
ALEX: Things have gotten better since then. Since 1995, companies have gone from being voluntary reporters of suspected child pornography to mandatory reporters. And the Center for Missing and Exploited Children keeps a database of suspected images, and helps companies work with law enforcement. The authorities have caught up with the technology. There’s no longer a need for Barry to be an online foot soldier. But he’s still a guy who just can’t help but care.
BARRY: Hopefully everyone has a couple close friends that they can talk to something about. If not, they can always contact me. I’m easy to find, and I’m happy to hear anybody’s story.
ALEX: Wow. That’s an incredibly gracious offer.
BARRY: Well, no problem. I mean it’s not an act, man.
ALEX: Thanks to Barry Crimmins. This is just a small part of his story. There’s actually a documentary out about him right now called Call Me Lucky. I heard about him, and this movie from the director, comedian Bob Goldthwait, on the Comedy Bang Bang podcast. The movie’s in limited run in theaters around the country right now and it is riveting. I strongly recommend you go see it. Go to callmeluckymovie.com to find showtimes and theaters near you. Reply All is hosted by PJ Vogt and me, Alex Goldman. We were produced this week by Tim Howard, Sruthi Pinnamaneni, and Phia Bennin. We were engineered by David Herman. We had production assistance from Sylvie Douglis. Happy birthday Sylvie! Special thanks to Emily Kennedy and Austin Federa and Dean Johnson. Matt Lieber is that moment when the band you love comes out for an encore. Thanks to Gimlet Member Nick Schweitzer from Somerville, Massachusetts. Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder and our ad music is by Build Buildings. You can find more episodes at itunes.com/replyall. Thanks for listening. We’ll be taking next week off but we’ll be back in two weeks.