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By Robert Anglen
A network of Arizona-based Internet companies is mining data from sex-offender sites maintained by law-enforcement agencies and using it to demand money and harass those who complain or refuse to pay.
State and national registries are set up to provide information on where the most serious sex offenders are living and warn that the information cannot be used to threaten, harass or intimidate offenders.
But sex offenders and others profiled by the Arizona companies accuse their operators, in a civil lawsuit and elsewhere, of running an extortion racket by demanding up to $499 for removing names, criminal histories, photographs, addresses, phone numbers and other personal data from their non-government sites.
They accuse operators of posting inaccurate or old information and using the threat of exposure as a sex offender as leverage.
Operators of SORArchives.com, Offendex.com and Onlinedetective.com did not take down individual profiles after payments were made and launched online harassment campaigns against those who balked at financial demands or filed complaints, an eight-month Call 12 for Action investigation found.
Call 12 found the websites list individuals as sex offenders who no longer are required to register and whose names have been removed from state databases. Among the hundreds of thousands of names that appear, the websites include names and addresses of people who never have been arrested or convicted of a sex crime.
The Internet-savvy operators ensure that anyone in their databases can be found easily on a Google search. They have prominently profiled specific individuals, published their home and e-mail addresses, posted photographs of their relatives and copied their Facebook friends onto the offender websites.
“Enjoy the exposure you have created for yourself,” operators said in an e-mail to an offender last year. “Unfortunately you took (your) family with you.”
Internet searches are ubiquitous today for screening and verifying everything from financial applications to resumes. If someone’s name pops up on a sex-offender database, it could affect their ability to get a job, a loan or even a date.
Court filings, computer searches, corporation records and interviews show the two operators of the websites are Chuck Rodrick, 51, and Brent Oesterblad, 52, longtime Valley residents who for the past decade have operated a series of Web-based businesses in Maricopa County. They both have felony convictions on fraud-related charges.
Rodrick and Oesterblad refused to discuss the websites and denied ownership.
Those who challenged Rodrick and Oesterblad said the interactions frequently turned ugly, with intimidating calls, vitriolic e-mails and threats of lawsuits.
“I feel degraded, humiliated, harassed and intimidated,” said [name withheld] of Montana, a former registered sex offender who said he has tried to get his name removed from the websites. “I won’t lie. It’s gotten to the point where I have had suicidal thoughts.”
[name withheld] in January recorded two calls with Rodrick and posted them on various websites, including YouTube.
“We have a soft spot for innocent people. We take them (profiles) down all of the time when people can prove they are innocent. ... In return, what are you going to do for us?” Rodrick said in one call. “I don’t care if you guys have an opinion on Offendex or call it extortion or whatever.”
Rodrick acknowledged that he was being recorded in the call. He maintained that the websites are legal and insisted that no attorney general in the United States would take action against the websites.
SORArchives, Offendex and Onlinedetective were built using data from official state sex-offender registries, according to a Silicon Valley computer engineer who said Rodrick paid him hundreds of thousands of dollars to design and update the websites.
State police and departments of correction generally are responsible for maintaining official registries, which can include an offender’s name, photograph, physical characteristics, addresses and description of the crime. The Arizona Department of Public Safety, which operates the state’s official registry, states on the site that “misuse of this information may result in criminal prosecution.”
People named on the sites say they have submitted complaints with attorneys general in Arizona, Louisiana, Montana, Virginia and Washington and with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other federal agencies.
No law-enforcement agency has taken any court action against Rodrick and Oesterblad over the websites, records show.
In March, California lawyer Janice Belucci filed a federal civil lawsuit in Los Angeles on behalf of 10 people. The lawsuit accuses Rodrick and Oesterblad of racketeering and extortion.
Lawyers representing the website operators this month responded with a motion to dismiss the case for a lack of jurisdiction.
Belucci said law enforcement has failed to act despite ample evidence.
“Most people don’t care about sex offenders,” she said. “They are the victims in all of this.”
Contacting operators directly isn’t easy; no business licenses seen for SORArchives, Offendex
SORArchives and Offendex share the same slogan: “Find sex offenders in your area ... Before they find you!”
But operators of the websites can’t be easily identified or located. SORArchives and Offendex do not list on their sites any phone numbers, addresses or contact information beyond online e-mail forms.
Contact information sent via e-mails to site users directs them to a phone number and voice mail registered in Canada. Payments are made through electronic third parties to unnamed recipients at the websites.
The websites in May were registered in Australia with domain names provided by a company that operates worldwide. But Internet protocol address searches and court records indicate that servers hosting the websites are located in Tempe.
The websites use PayPal and a credit-card billing system to collect money from users.
Offendex stated last year that it operated within the laws of Arizona. A similar notice on the Onlinedetective website states that any disputes will be resolved in a Maricopa County court.
Extensive record searches show SORArchives and Offendex operated without business licenses or any corporation filings. Any corporation or limited-liability company doing business in the state is required by law to register with the Arizona Corporation Commission. Trade names and partnerships must be registered with the secretary of state. Some cities also require business licenses.
Days after Call 12 attempted to contact Rodrick and Oesterbald in December, the Offendex website was taken down. Users were redirected to Onlinedetective.com.
Onlinedetective is a registered corporation. Records show Rodrick and Oesterblad were equal partners when they launched Onlinedetective in 2002. In 2011, Rodrick’s name was removed from company documents, leaving Oesterblad and his wife, Sarah Shea, as the only managers listed on the documents.
The websites are often changed, from links to terms of service to text. For instance, Onlinedetective recently directed users to SORArchives, but the link later was removed.
SORArchives nearly mirrors the former Offendex site. The websites share the same visual elements, graphics, link capabilities and nearly identical terms of service.
SORArchives says records for 750,000 active sex offenders are available for online searches. The site promises to protect families from the menace of sex offenders in their neighborhoods by providing access to present and past criminal records.
Sex offenders are sometimes removed from state registries because their crimes have been reclassified and no longer are considered serious enough to require registration. Some offenders are required to register only with law enforcement, and their names would not appear on public registries.
Others have done their time and have sought court orders to remove their names from state and national registries.
“Even if the sex offender is not required to register that does not mean the record itself goes away,” SORArchive states. “To help stop the threat, you must know how to locate the offenders.”
Customers say they pay for removal of names but information remains online
If offenders want their name and profiles off the website, SORArchives tells them they will have to pay.
But payment is no guarantee of removal, according to the website. And some of those who have paid say their names and profiles remain online.
Offendex offered users two options: Pay $79 for a review of a records-removal request or $499 for a no-questions-asked removal.
SORArchives used the same options until earlier this month. The website now offers a free review service that can take up to eight weeks, an expedited removal for $79 and an “instant removal” with no price listed.
“We are not under any legal obligation to remove any valid public record or to be in sync with any official sex offender registry,” SORArchives states.
E-mails, court records and interviews show that $79 removal requests can end in denials and users are told to pay $499.
An e-mail obtained by Call 12 from a sex offender who paid $79 to have his record removed from the site shows what transpires.
A woman identified as Sarah Reynolds in customer service wrote that the offender’s records could not be removed because “circumstances do not meet the Offendex.com criteria for removal.”
Reynolds included a contact number in British Columbia, Canada.
Reynolds provides no explanation of the Offendex criteria. But she writes: “If it is imperative to you that you be removed, perhaps a payment plan can be arranged.”
Key operators have worked together for years on Internet-related businesses
Interviews, computer searches, e-mails, court records and the websites themselves point to Rodrick and Oesterblad as playing leading roles in the operation. That includes creating the websites, making legal demands, updating records, negotiating payments, sending e-mails to offenders and posting profiles.
Rodrick and Oesterblad refused to discuss the websites. By phone or in person, both denied ownership and declined to provide details about their roles with the websites. Their lawyers also did not respond to phone calls.
Rodrick and Oesterblad have worked together for a decade on various Internet-related business, records and interviews show.
Rodrick, who has lived in Tempe, Chandler, Cave Creek and Phoenix, pleaded guilty in 1993 to selling illegal cable-television descramblers with fraudulent intent. In 1996, he was sued in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for his role in an Alaskan Ponzi scheme that cost investors as much as $50 million. A final judgment of $58,900 was entered against him. Court records do not show any payments were made.
Oesterblad has lived for years in Paradise Valley. He pleaded guilty in 1992 for his part in a frequent-flier scam operated out of his family’s Phoenix travel agency and spent 10 months in a federal prison.
In a phone message to Call 12 in December, Oesterblad said he was simply contracted to work for Offendex and had no part in the company.
Rodrick, however, described Oesterblad’s role in the Montana phone calls recorded in January.
“Brent’s not the owner. Brent does legal research and Brent does communication,” Rodrick said. “I’m on the development side. I’m not going to disclose ownership.”
The name, address and phone number of Rodrick’s estranged wife, Lois Flynn, appear on SORArchives, Offendex and Onlinedetective. Flynn, who has been involved in a protracted divorce case with Rodrick, never has been convicted of a crime.
Rodrick and his girlfriend, Phoenix court reporter Traci Heisig, sued Flynn in January, accusing her of defamation. They also sued Flynn’s employer and several others. Flynn and other defendants have denied the allegations. They have filed separate counterclaims, calling the defamation suit harassment. Oesterblad is named in two of the counterclaims.
The cases are ongoing, with multiple motions back and forth.
A posting on Offendex in 2012 accused Flynn of working to defame the website. Onlinedetective also posted the accusations.
“The ex wife of one of the administrators of this website seem to be on a crusade to smear the name of this website,” according to a post, which goes on to accuse her of infidelity and alcohol abuse. “This pretty much speaks for itself. We will post more information as we find time.”
Flynn, the mother of Rodrick’s two children, denies abusing alcohol or having an extramarital affair.
Some people named on the sites are not listed on law-enforcement registries
Not all of the people listed on SORArchives and Offendex are registered sex offenders. Some have no criminal records.
Yet their names, addresses and other personal information continue to be profiled on the sex-offender websites for anyone with an Internet connection to view.
In Virginia, a man last year stumbled onto the Offendex profile of his recently deceased brother-in-law. He said he contacted the website in an effort to spare his sister and her two young daughters from learning about the 18-year-old conviction. But when he said he balked at paying, the websites posted his name and e-mail. They also posted his sister’s address, her name and the names of her children, in-laws and other relatives.
In Washington, a man found his mug shot from an arrest in 1997 now attached to details of a minor sex offense that occurred nearly 30 years earlier in another state. The man said he never was required to register as a sex offender and his name was not included on any official registries. He contacted Offendex and said operators threatened to publish his name throughout the Internet.
In Louisiana, a schoolteacher bought a house owned by a convicted sex offender whose name was removed from all official registries in 2009. Even after being notified that the offender no longer lived in the house and being paid to remove the profile, Offendex and SORArchives continued publishing the woman’s address as if the sex offender still resided there.
“These guys terrorize people all over the country,” said [name withheld], 58, the Louisiana offender who owned the house. “They hurt innocent people.”
Men and women across the country have filed consumer complaints about Offendex, SORArchives and Onlinedetective.
“I have an expunged record that is not available to anyone, but if you Google my name, low and behold, it shows up on this website,” a person identified as crsmolti wrote on the website Sueeasy.com.
“This has caused severe stress knowing Offendex has put this information on the internet after eight years of being off any sex offender registry,” shawnyc36 wrote on the same site. “I have a background check for a job in progress, I’m so nervous they are going to Google my name.”
The 10 plaintiffs in the California racketeering suit against Rodrick and Oesterblad say the websites targeted them as part of an extortion scheme.
Lawyers for the website operators said in a court filing this month that the websites are “passive” because operators don’t initiate contact with offenders. They are asking a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit, saying it should not have been filed in California.
“The Websites do not specifically target California or its residents. The Websites simply archive public records of convicted sex offenders in all 50 states,” lawyers wrote. “The information on the Websites is provided to the public nationwide free of charge. No goods or services are actually sold on the Websites.”
Eight plaintiffs say they paid fees to have their profiles and personal information removed, but the websites continued publishing the information anyway.
Two plaintiffs say they have no records as sex offenders. They are relatives of former registered sex offenders who said their names and photographs were posted on the sex-offender websites.
Three plaintiffs were convicted of sex offenses but were not required to register as sex offenders. Two plaintiffs once had to register but are no longer required to do so. The final three are registered sex offenders.
A federal judge in the case acknowledged the potential damage of being publicly labeled a sex offender and last month ordered to keep secret the identities of plaintiffs. The judge said their physical safety is at stake.
The plaintiffs, who are from California, Kentucky, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington, are identified by numbers and John Does.
In an interview last month, John Doe 8 said he is not a convicted sex offender.
“But for Offendex, this record wouldn’t exist,” said the man, who is an entertainment-industry consultant in Oregon.
In 2006, John Doe 8 said he pleaded no contest in Oregon to possessing a sexually related image of a child. He was sentenced to two years of probation for a non-registered offense. In 2011, he was arrested in Virginia and accused of possessing marijuana in Virginia.
John Doe 8 said Offendex and SORArchives used his mug shot from the Virginia arrest and the conviction in Oregon to create a new profile calling him a sex offender.
He was unaware of the profile until November, when a friend of his girlfriend alerted her to it. John Doe 8 said he requested a review to remove his profile and was told he didn’t qualify. He complained.
Offendex and SORArchives responded by beefing up his profile, he said.
“The repercussions of this are far worse than the actual sentence,” he said, adding that the stigma of being portrayed as a sex offender already has cost him a relationship and nearly a job.
Those who try to get their names removed can face harassment online
Those who have challenged the websites say they and their families have been subjected to harassment that includes having personal phone numbers, addresses and photographs of family and friends published on the sex-offender websites.
They say operators made threatening phone calls, sent disturbing e-mails and scraped Facebook profiles to copy the information onto the sites.
[name withheld], 36, of Great Falls, Mont., said his family has been under siege for almost a year. He said Rodrick and Oesterblad threatened him in a series of e-mails and sent him a photograph of his own infant son to punctuate their demands.
“Since you like Facebook so much ... we have added your 65 friends to your page on Offendex,” a Nov. 9 e-mail reads. “We will release your record to five more search engines plus a few other ‘special spots’ that you do not want to be.”
A review of the e-mails shows they were sent from a variety of addresses, including Rodrick’s Gmail account. Some of the e-mails contain salutations from the Offendex “support team,” “support staff” or “legal research team.” Others are signed by “Brent” or “Brent Marshal,” which is Oesterblad’s middle name.
In the calls [name withheld] recorded in January, Rodrick said he decides who gets profiled on the websites.
“I have control over whether or not a record (goes) up or down,” Rodrick said. “I do have that control, and I do have the ability to make that happen.”
[name withheld] was convicted in 1995 at age 19 for having sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend. His arrest in Michigan came after he stole her father’s gun and car and attempted to run away with her. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
[name withheld] said he carefully rebuilt his life since being released from prison, moving to Montana, enrolling in paralegal classes and starting a family. In 2011, based on changes in Michigan law, [name withheld] was no longer required to register as a sex offender and his name was removed from official databases.
He said he was shocked to discover his Offendex profile last year and fought with operators to have it removed.
Operators accused [name withheld] of harassment for posting comments about Offendex on YouTube and other websites.
[name withheld] acknowledged firing off angry, obscenity-laced e-mails to Rodrick and Oesterblad and referring to them in derogatory terms in Web posts.
“They have threatened me and my family. Of course I am mad,” he said. “I hate these guys for what they are doing.”
[name withheld] and his wife are named in Rodrick’s defamation suit. Rodrick also sued a Seattle man named [name withheld] and his mother for defamation.
[name withheld], 38, is a sex offender who in 1996 pleaded guilty to child molestation.
[name withheld] was 22 and working as a store security guard when he said he befriended a 13-year-old boy who had significant family problems and was living on the streets. He said the boy later accused him of abuse. [name withheld] was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
After his release, [name withheld] said he was arrested on several alcohol-related offenses, including driving under the influence. [name withheld] said he was required to register publicly as a sex offender for about six months before his name was removed from public databases.
By 2012, [name withheld] said he was on the road to recovery when he found his profile on Offendex. Like so many others, he said, he contacted the website thinking he could get his name removed.
Operators of Offendex posted pictures of [name withheld]'s mother and brother on the sex-offender websites along with their addresses. They also put his Facebook friends on the sites. In e-mails, website operators accused him in the most stark and graphic terms of preying on young boys.
[name withheld] fought back, launching his own investigation of Offendex and posting his findings on a website he called offendextortion.com.
The website quickly became an Internet gathering place for Offendex critics. Offenders and others exchanged information and stories of harassment; they discussed legal strategies, ways to expose the sites and get law enforcement involved. [name withheld] created links on the site for Rodrick and Oesterblad, whom he identified by name. He also identified Rodrick’s girlfriend.
[name withheld], who is one of the plaintiffs in the federal suit, spoke to Call 12 months before the suit was filed.
“They have been bullying and harassing people,” [name withheld] said. “If it helps other people, I’m willing to fight them.”
[name withheld] and [name withheld] deny defaming Rodrick, and both have filed counterclaims accusing him of harassment. [name withheld] added Oesterblad to his claims.
Rodrick has filed motions disputing the men’s claims.
Designer describes websites’ evolution: ‘It’s nothing like what it was in the beginning’
The sex-offender websites were built using data copied directly from official law-enforcement websites, according to the software developer and computer engineer who developed the sites.
Eric Souhrada, a former Tempe software developer and computer engineer now living in California, said he designed the sex-offender websites as subscription services, not as a vehicle to target offenders with demands for money.
“People would pay monthly subscriptions to get alerts,” Souhrada said in a phone interview last month from his Silicon Valley home. “It was set up to be a collection of data. That’s what it was intended to be.”
Financial records obtained by Call 12 show Rodrick paid Souhrada more than $230,000 since 2005. Souhrada confirmed the amount and said he was hired by Rodrick to develop and maintain a variety of websites, including the sex-offender sites.
Souhrada, the president of Deadbunny Enterprises, holds degrees in mathematics and political science from Arizona State University. He said he has known Rodrick since 1997.
Souhrada said he designed the sex-offender sites from data he scraped from official registries maintained by law-enforcement agencies across the country. He said he reformatted the data into his own templates that Rodrick used for websites such as Offendex.
“I wrote the code for it,” he said. “It was OK. We were not doing anything illegal.”
One of the first websites Souhrada said he set up for Rodrick was Web Express, which did business as Onlinedetective in 2001. He also designed a website called Dunebuggy.com, which Rodrick used to market high-end dune buggies.
Souhrada said Rodrick had a talent for coming up with profitable websites, even when the ideas sounded as if they could not make money.
Souhrada said he copied verbatim from state registries when he set up the sex-offender sites. He said he did not want anybody to be able to accuse operators of exercising editorial control over the information from public databases.
Souhrada said he assumed Rodrick owned the websites. He said Rodrick was his only contact; Rodrick described the work he wanted done, discussed its applications and arranged payments to a business account.
Souhrada said he occasionally worked with Oesterblad on the websites, but most of his contact was with Rodrick.
Souhrada said the websites have evolved over the years, and he wondered if the original concept proved to be unprofitable.
“It’s nothing like what it was in the beginning,” he said.
Complaints filed with FBI, attorneys general in 5 states; as yet, no action taken
Complaints about Offendex and the other websites have been filed with local, state and federal law-enforcement agencies for almost a year.
Offenders, their relatives and others who say they have been targeted by the websites say officials won’t act. They say agencies take reports, then decline to open investigations or refer cases elsewhere.
Complaints have been submitted with the FBI, the Federal Trade Commission and the Internet Crime Complaint Center, which works with the FBI to refer Internet criminal cases to various agencies.
One offender said federal prosecutors in Virginia told him they would not open a case.
Neither the FBI nor the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Virginia would comment. FBI officials in Arizona also declined comment.
Complaints have also been submitted with attorneys general in at least five states, including Arizona.
“They don’t take action because of who we are: sex offenders,” said [name withheld] who lodged complaints with state and federal authorities in Montana and Arizona. “But we deserve equal protection under the law.”
Officials with the Arizona Department of Public Safety, which maintains Arizona’s official online database, said they were unaware of Offendex and the other websites until being contacted by Call 12 for Action late last year.
Spokesman Bart Graves said at the time officers studied the website and concluded data published on Offendex wasn’t coming from the state’s website, but they were interested in collecting more information about Offendex. He said officers were consulting with the Arizona Attorney General’s Office and would turn over their findings for further investigation.
At least five offenders interviewed by Call 12 for Action said they submitted separate complaints to the Arizona Attorney General’s Office.
The Virginia Attorney General’s Office told one complainant that it lacked jurisdiction and said “it would be prudent” to contact the Arizona attorney general.
Officials with the Montana Department of Justice said they, too, have sent information and complaints about the websites to the Arizona attorney general.
“The last we heard, they have not been able to resolve any complaints they have on file,” Montana DOJ spokesman John Barnes said. “We did contact the (Federal Trade Commission) and made sure they were aware of what was going on.”
A spokesman for Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne said no complaints about Offendex could be located. Documents obtained by Call 12 for Action show some complaints were routed to the attorney general’s criminal division and community outreach and education division.
Community division director Kathleen Winn said in e-mails that she had been contacted by at least two people about Offendex.
“This is being referred to the Tempe Police Department. Someone will contact you,” Winn wrote in an e-mail response to a complainant in February. “I apologize it was not in a timeframe you had anticipated.”
She provided no explanation for referring the case to Tempe.
Tempe police officials said this month the department has not received any referrals regarding the case from the Attorney General’s Office.
In the recorded phone calls, Rodrick said he is used to dealing with law enforcement and that attorneys general will do little more than send out letters before closing cases.
“The attorney generals aren’t going to help you,” Rodrick said during one call, adding later: “This is what we do. We are the Internet.”