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The victims of former Christchurch man Michael James Pratt are still waiting for reparation for being duped into making porn videos that were then widely shared online.
Twenty-two women filed - and won - a civil lawsuit after they were recruited and told their sex tapes were for distribution via DVD to individuals in foreign countries - but were instead placed on the GirlsDoPorn website owned by Pratt.
He's also wanted on criminal charges in the US. The FBI is currently hunting for him, with his whereabouts unknown. Pratt was raised in Christchurch and attended Christchurch Boys' High School.
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Two others are behind bars over the scheme, including another New Zealander.
Ed Chapin, who represented the women who sued Pratt tells Kathryn Ryan efforts to recover the $19m Pratt was ordered to pay them are ongoing and that the trauma the women experienced was significant.
Law enforcement investigations into Pratt have unveiled a person who abuses women and who is smart enough to remain anonymous.
“Michael Pratt is a very illusive person. He doesn’t like to have his photograph taken so there are very few photographs available. He is someone who abuses women. He is an abuser and I could say a lot of things about him, but he’s a bad person.
“He left the United States in the fall of 2019 before we started the trial and he’s been gone ever since. They traced him to New Zealand where he saw his folks apparently for a while, but they say he left and they don’t know where he is.”
Chapin is preparing to sue for damages in the event of his capture and trial on criminal charges.
“I’m in the civil aspect of the claim and we are concentrating our efforts on post-judgement, in other words, post-award activities that we have to undertake in order to perfect our rights,” he says.
The cases of the other offenders behind bars are being prosecuted by the United States Attorney for the Southern District of California. One of the defendants has filed for bankruptcy, which has slowed court proceedings.
“In our system, when someone files bankruptcy any cases they are involved in are halted and that requires people like me to go into court and get a state order, in other words, an order halting the proceedings and under certain circumstances you can get relief. We have done that and now we are moving forward to complete the process.”
Covid-19 has had little impact on legal proceedings and the legal team is looking at filing other cases against other defendants, he says.
The women involved were young, impressionable and needed money, Chapin says. They were made verbal promises that the movies they agreed to make wouldn’t be put online, but were given contracts at variance with this assurance, which they were instructed to sign without reading.
“There were some things in common. Each of the young women were reasonably attractive, with an interest in modelling, they needed money and were just out of high school in the early years of college. In one case, one of the women was in law school.
“An ad was posted on Craig’s List … for modelling promising $5000. They would respond to the ad and when they did they gave them their contact information. These scoundrels had the information and they could follow through with the women, getting on their social media to find out about them.
“In any event, the women were recruited and were promised that their video would never be shown to anyone they knew. Instead the video would be marketed on DVD in foreign countries, primarily Australia, sometimes New Zealand and sometimes South America and that it would not be on the internet.
“The women would come to San Diego and were taken to a hotel room with the promise that they’d only be engage in sex and filmed for 30 minutes and in some instances, it took eight-to-10 hours. Before filming the women were given documents to not read but to sign. They were told the documents contained what they had talked about, which was a lie.
“When we brought the law suit it was plain those documents were a contract that allowed the defendant to do what they wanted to do with the videos anywhere online, contrary to the lies they had told the women earlier. The judge ruled that there was fraud, which was our claim – that they were defrauded into signing these documents and that these had no force and effect.
“After a month or so after they shot the video, people would come to them and say ‘hey, I saw you having sex on a video on social media’ and then they realised that their videos had been placed on a website called Girls Do Porn and uploaded to the largest pornographic website in the world PornHub.”
There is now a legal compulsion to remove the images from the internet, after the court gave the women ownership of the material. “It’s a very difficult thing to do,” he says.
The men faced court last year over in civil proceedings, with a judge in San Diego ordering millions of dollars in repatriation to the women. Chapin is convinced the men did make millions from the enterprise, but that they have hidden the money well.
The psychological and emotional toll taken by women has been significant and ongoing, he says.
“They were so heavily attacked by the defence lawyers in the case – their character, their moral character was called into question and they were really attacked very hard. The outcome of the case has served to vindicate them.
“They were victims, they were defrauded by evil men. But the trauma of having gone through all of this, having your videos online, having people see you engage in sex acts to these women who were young and impressionable and who had led reasonably good lives and all-of-a-sudden have this come about was very traumatic for them. I hope that the trial has served to relieve some of that trauma.”