It was only a matter of time. Christopher Hebert, the 36-year-old mastermind behind the popular Facebook mug shot fan page Busted in Acadiana (BIA), was booked into the Lafayette Parish Jail Oct. 5 on one count each of stalking and cyberstalking. Bail was set at $50,000.
The arrest was based on a series of complaints a woman filed late last year alleging Hebert had made electronic and phone threats against her, Lafayette Police Cpl. Paul Mouton confirmed. Police will not release details about the alleged crimes, but Mouton says new developments in an investigation led to the arrest. If convicted, Hebert faces up to a year in prison and/or up to $2,000 in fines on the cyberstalking felony and a maximum of one year in prison and up to $1,000 in fines on the stalking charge.
At press time, Hebert's booking photo had not been added to BIA — a website that posts mug shots of people arrested in the area along with their names and charges, and allows visitors to comment. (When Hebert's connection to BIA was unknown, the site's administrator said his photo would go up on the site if he ever was arrested.) There are claims that after running mug shots on its site, BIA would send people who wanted the photos removed to another company, purportedly Hebert's other websites.
Last week's mug shot was not the first for Hebert. In December 2001, he was booked into the Lafayette Parish Jail on charges of public intimidation, disturbing the peace by appearing intoxicated and remaining where forbidden following an incident on Lafayette's Jefferson Street in which, according to an indictment, Hebert used "violence, force and threats" against a police officer. The public intimidation and disturbing the peace charges were dropped in exchange for Hebert pleading guilty to remaining where forbidden, a misdemeanor that cost him $316.50 in fines and court costs and six months of probation.
In the latest case, the alleged victim, who asked that her identity be withheld for her safety, contacted The Independent in Lafayette after the newspaper ran a cover story Sept. 21 identifying the BIA administrator as Christopher Hebert, the unemployed husband of Lafayette police officer Amanda Hebert. Christopher Hebert has repeatedly denied any involvement with BIA.
"He is truly a sociopath and he should be behind bars," the alleged victim said of Hebert in an email to The Independent two weeks ago. "I know that I live in fear that he will some day really act out his threats. I just hope that he is caught and prosecuted before that happens."
The BIA page was shut down Sept. 9 after a student at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette revealed Hebert as the site administrator. Hebert has been republishing the site off and on over the past few weeks, and it was still available through Facebook at press time.
Hebert, who banned BIA nonbelievers from his page and labeled them as defenders of criminals, denies any involvement with BIA despite evidence otherwise. The UL student found four websites with identical Web hosting from a California company, TierraNet. The first three, bustedinacadiana.com, wantedinacadiana.com and deletemymug.com, use the same domain protection service to protect the identity of website owners. The fourth site that came from the California company is gotchamug.com. The registrant for the site is Christopher Hebert. (All four sites appear to have been taken down.)
The paper later received an anonymous email showing Christopher Hebert as the registrant of bustedinacadiana.com before he employed the domain protection service. The info was verified using a paid-for search of Domain Tools, which states that Christopher Hebert registered the site on March 18.
When it began less than six months ago, Busted in Acadiana was no different than the services already provided by the Lafayette Parish Sheriff's Office website or The Daily Advertiser, Lafayette's daily newspaper. Using public records already available online, any website can post mug shots to a central location. The digital mugs available on the sheriff's office website are proprietary to the agency and should not be taken without permission, says Assistant District Attorney Danny Landry, but they are public record.
BIA's rapid rise to fame came primarily as the enabler of often shameless comments against Acadiana's accused. What started as a hub where those arrested earned nicknames like "crackhead Barbie" and "Java the Hut" soon evolved into a multitude of media platforms — press releases from law enforcement agencies, links to crime stories from daily news outlets, polls gauging public opinion on hot-button issues. The mug shot mecca with a following of almost 45,000 fans was even threaded with occasional strands of advocacy, with BIA urging followers to join the crusade against crime.
What BIA's mastermind unsuccessfully tried to conceal is an unoriginal business model, a quest for profit born of an industry of mug shot websites emerging nationwide. "Busted team" emails obtained by The Independent confirm the profiteer behind the local mug shot market wasted no time in trying to capitalize on his growing base of followers. With anonymity on its side, the Busted team went beyond profiting from public records, often blurring the lines between enterprise, extortion, activism and assault.
BIA envisioned "a single source location to view arrest information and crimes being committed in our area," according to its website.
"I felt this would be something special for the community and help bring a level of awareness of crime in our neighborhoods," the BIA administrator said in a farewell before he shut down the site Sept. 9.
Fans of the page lauded it as a community service, but not all of the 40,000-plus followers were Busted supporters. Facebook users must "like" the page in order to leave a comment. Detractors of BIA's mission, those who disagreed with the level of ridicule taking place, were publicly denounced for defending criminals before being banned from the site. Mug shots that garnered the most comments were recirculated through Facebook news feeds to draw more hecklers to the page.
A large number of BIA critics came directly from its extensive collection of mug shots, arrestees who found their picture online above hundreds of comments from strangers taunting their physical appearance or character. If they defended themselves, BIA and its followers upped the ante by posting personal information about the arrestee for thousands of people to read.
"One day I saw BIA had posted a kid's information and his girlfriend's picture just for the sake of harassment," said the UL student who conducted a two-month search for the identity of the BIA administrator. "The kid simply said that he thought Busted In Acadiana was distasteful and that he disagreed with it. The BIA admin started posting information off of the kid's Facebook page, such as his address and work info, and then encouraged people to call him and harass him. Then the BIA admin went to the kid's girlfriend's page and took her profile picture and posted it on BIA. That is when I was determined to be very outspoken against BIA.
"My goal was originally to expose the identity of the admin of BIA if at all possible. ... All information obtained was done so through public record. Public record is what Chris Hebert clung to in order to justify why what he was doing was OK. It was because he was 'simply using public record' to extort people, that's why I wanted to show him how public record can be used effectively against someone."
For Sasha Vicknair, a mug shot and a little boost from BIA administrators were all it took for the 23-year-old cosmetology student to reach celebrity status. When her image appeared on BIA following a July arrest for theft and insurance fraud, Vicknair's photo received more comments than any other mug shot ever posted in BIA's short history. Unlike her picture, they weren't pretty.Among those comments were statements from a BIA administrator informing the public of a prior arrest and discrediting Vicknair's self-defense by telling the world she dropped out of business school.
Busted in Acadiana reposted Vicknair's mug shot for weeks, repeatedly bringing her face to the news feeds of 45,000 people. "When you get arrested, your business becomes our business!" BIA says in its Facebook page tagline.
In BIA's world, privacy came at a cost.
According to BIA email correspondence obtained by The Independent, on April 25, the local BIA entrepreneur began charging $39 for mug shot removal. On June 1, the price was upped to $49, and by July 1, the cost to delete a mug shot from Busted In Acadiana was $99.
A BIA financial spreadsheet sent to KA Marketing's Kyle Ritter of Portland, Ore., details 102 mug shot removals from April 25 through July 7. In a little more than two months, BIA was paid roughly $4,600 for removals and for declining to post mugs of people who paid before the damage was done.
Ritter, also known as Mug Shot Barry, owns a network of 35 mug shot websites, a near-monopoly that began last year when he was searching law enforcement websites for booking photos of a friend. The sites were designed to be data-driven and profit solely from advertising, but when Ritter was flooded with requests to remove mug shots for a price, he enabled an automatic removal system that charged $40 per mug. The removal systems have since been disabled because of negative public response, Ritter says, and his sites are back to an advertising model and data-only websites.
Unlike Ritter's sites, Busted's mug shot removal income wasn't directly linked to BIA. If someone requested a removal, the Busted team would explain, "Unfortunately, the only way we are able to remove mug shots from our network of sites is using a third-party online reputation management firm."
Arrestees were given three tiers of third-party "reputation firms" from which to choose. Reputation management firms have forged a complex relationship with mug shot websites, though Ritter points out that there's a "distinct difference" between a bona fide reputation management firm and a company that scrubs mug shots.
"Reputation management firms do all kinds of things," Ritter says. "They help their clients build up their social network profiles, assist with pushing down negative feedback in Yelp, damaging news articles, things like that. Sites like removeslander.com are more of a specialized sub-niche of the reputation management industry — the focus is on mugs shots. They have their work cut out for them. New mug shot sites are popping up every day."
According to BIA's mug removal policy, the cheapest option was deletemymug.com, which charged $99 to ensure the photo wouldn't appear on any of Busted's affiliates. The other two, removemymug.com and removeslander.com, charged $299 and $399, respectively, which also guaranteed the mug shots wouldn't appear in Google searches. What Busted failed to disclose is that deletemymug.com is one of four websites linked to BIA. When someone paid the $99 removal fee, the PayPal receipt listed BIA as the recipient of the payment.
It's unclear whether BIA's Facebook page had additional sources of revenue, but email correspondence between BIA and Ritter in July led to negotiations for Ritter to buy BIA's "assets," the most impressive of which were the more than 40,000 fans on Facebook. With income based on automatic feeds that don't require much manpower, Ritter was curious why BIA was ready to sell. When he inquired, BIA emphasized "a close relationship with law enforcement."
The market-savvy Ritter already had purchased a domain name, LafayetteMugShots.com, a precursor to his own dive into the Lafayette region. "Had the deal been completed, we would have turned off commenting and diverted all of that traffic to lafayettemugshots.com," Ritter says. "That was our sole interest. We tried allowing commenting on our sites for a few days and it was an utter disaster. People were posting pictures of inmates' children, phone numbers, home addresses, spouses' names, all kinds of terrible things. Racist comments were rampant. It was awful."
The deal breaker for Ritter was when the BIA owner refused to release his name to Ritter's attorney. "If I have to reveal my identity to anyone, the deal is dead," the BIA operator said in an email to Ritter.
When Busted in Acadiana announced the page was shutting down, its creator claimed personal threats made against him and his family made him back down.
"These pages call me a 'scumbag' who extorts money from people and also allege that if you were found innocent that your mug shot would not be removed from BIA," the site's administrator said in his final statement. "These are only accusations, and malicious at that. Plenty of falsely accused or innocent people have been removed from BIA."
He's right. Innocent people's images have disappeared from the page. At least one man arrested July 5 for unauthorized use of an access card eventually was removed from BIA's radar. The man's arrest was a misunderstanding and he was released within minutes of being taken to jail. He was never charged with a crime, but his mug shot landed on the BIA pages for 45,000 people to see. When his wife emailed BIA to explain what happened and request that her husband's mug shot be removed, BIA flooded her inbox with messages. The Busted page administrator then published the email she sent to BIA in its entirety, including her name, place of employment, email address and work phone number.
One of BIA's fans urged other followers to call her at work. The BIA page owner acknowledged on his site that he contacted her company's IT department. She lost her job.
BIA kept its word and eventually took down her husband's photo.
Two days before BIA was gone, its page began posting links to Ritter's website LafayetteMugShots.com. The site is owned by Ritter's marketing company and has no affiliation with Busted in Acadiana. The same day, a Lafayette Mug Shots Facebook page appeared, complete with Ritter's website logo and a daily dose of mugs and comments from fans.
Ritter said he was unaware the page existed. BIA repeatedly denied any involvement with the new Facebook mug shot page when Ritter inquired, but using a clever trap that coerced the Lafayette Mug Shots operator to click on Ritter's website, he was able to track the IP address, which he says is the same as the emails sent from Busted in Acadiana.
Lafayette Mug Shots' Facebook page removed Ritter's website logo from the page the same day Ritter contacted BIA. A day before that, Lafayette Mug shots had reposted the mug shot of "busted beauty" Sasha Vicknair, referring to it as one of the site's most popular mugs.
"Unfortunately this is a business where few can be trusted. ... We still have 45,000 fans on BIA," Busted said in an email to Ritter on Sept. 17. "The site is only unpublished at the moment. I will re-publish the site when the time is right. Let's just say you haven't heard the last of us!"
Heather Miller is a reporter at The Independent in Lafayette, where a version of this story first appeared.