How a smooth-talking, social-climbing con man with a penchant for home movies and blackmail turned the tables on Hollywood’s T & A titan.
BY MARK EBNER
The videotape on the screen in front of me is stark, grainy. The color is garish, almost fluorescent, possibly from too many generations of loosely authorized copying. A shirtless male figure lies face down on a mattress, his head resting on a pillow. His eyes flutter at half-mast. His mouth is puddled in a stuporous grin, and he looks very, very high. The camera pans to reveal his pants dragged down around his knees and a pink vibrator resting on the crest of his buttocks, lazily gyrating with an irritating whine. The mood is hardly erotic. The man on the screen looks like a hostage in one of those videos streaming out of war-ravaged Iraq: disheveled, sleep-deprived, disoriented, and, just maybe, fearing something on the order of an on-camera beheading. “My name is Joe Francis,” he says repeatedly in a damaged monotone, slurring his words in a continuous stream. “I’m from Boys Gone Wild, and I like it up the ass.”
The copy of this tape currently in the possession of the LAPD is the unlikely centerpiece of a trial that is set to begin next year ; one that pits Francis, the 32-year-old multi-millionaire kingpin of the Girls Gone Wild video empire, against a small-time hustler who allegedly video-taped Francis in humiliating positions while holding him at gunpoint and later tried to blackmail his victim by threatening to release the tape. While the case has received scant attention, that is certain to change when the identity of the victim becomes more widely known.
Francis, after all, has built a business worth an estimated $100 million out of selling tapes of rowdy, unclothed, and often barely legal young women engaging in “Raw! Real! Uncut!” softcore action in college and spring break towns across America. The irony is self-evident. But exactly how Francis came to confess on-camera to sexual proclivities so heretical to his show-us-your-tits philosophy is a circuitous tale involving a world of hustlers, heiresses, boxers, Russian bail bondsmen, and blind pop stars.
It’s also a story that’s more than a little evocative of the John Guare play Six Degrees of Separation and its subsequent film version, which turned Will Smith into a serious actor and Kevin Bacon into a parlor game. In Six Degrees a silver-tongued con man from the inner city talks his way into a cloistered society, exploits its deference to race, and feasts on its banquet of privilege and sex, until ultimately someone gets hurt. And in this version that person turned out to be Joe Francis.
Like his movie counterpart, Darnell Riley, the person at the center of this sordid story, is an exotically handsome young black man with a murky past, which in his case includes two murders he committed as a juvenile.
Until he was arrested last April, Riley, if he was known at all, was probably familiar only to close readers of Paris Hilton’s purloined speed-dial list, on which his name appeared between Nicole Richie’s and Andy Roddick’s. How the 28-year-old hustler hooked up with such New Hollywood luminaries as Hilton and Francis, and the real nature of his dealings with them, varies depending on whom you ask.
“Darnell was fascinated by glamour and all the Hollywood bullshit,” says his friend Alex Vaysfeld. “He thought he’d make it somehow, but he was criminally minded.”
Vaysfeld is a Russian immigrant and onetime boxer who enjoyed a brief career as a 147-pound welterweight before starting Union Bail Bonds, a Los Angeles based national business. He is a fixture at Hollywood Boxing, a popular gym at La Brea and Hawthorn. And it was there, a couple of years ago, that he met Riley, who used to hang around the gym, sparring with the pros in the hopes of trading body shots with some of the celebrity clientele, which includes Mickey Rourke, Denzel Washington, and the Wayans brothers.
If he were larger Darnell Riley might look more menacing. As it is, he’s a pretty boy with pretty eyes, although there’s something in them that would make you think twice before crossing him. Despite his slight build ; five-foot-seven and maybe 140 pounds ; Riley had something Vaysfeld recognized in himself, something the fight world calls heart.
“Don’t let Darnell’s looks and stature fool you,” Vaysfeld says. “He’d do collections work for powerful people who didn’t want to get their hands dirty. He referred clients to me. He was a hustler, but he was faithful.”
Riley grew up in Sacramento, moving to Los Angeles with his family when he was 13. He briefly attended high school in Inglewood, but at 15 he was incarcerated for the double homicide, the details of which are sealed by court order. At 24, after doing his time, Riley worked some menial jobs, including stints in a bank and at LAX. Then, apparently filled with a burning ambition to join the privileged class, he made the move to Hollywood.
As taken as he was with the new friends he made, however, he was not above viewing them in predatory terms. For example, he is currently negotiating a settlement with Stevie Wonder, on whose property Riley allegedly tripped and fell sometime around Easter of this year.
Even so, Riley made a generally good impression. Some people who met him honestly believed that he was, in the words of one, “a successful young businessman.” Riley epitomized a certain kind of Hollywood wannabe. A sociable type, he traded on his good looks, innate charms, and sexual prowess to infiltrate the fringes of the city’s party scene. He went to the right events, hung out in the right joints, and rubbed elbows with the right people.
“Darnell claims he was banging Nicole Richie before all this went down,” says Vaysfeld, bluntly. Richie, reached at the Video Music Awards in Miami, denies knowing Riley, let alone having a relationship with him. “I have never met that person in my life,” she insists. “I know he said that crap before, and he needs to stop lying.”
Francis, whose only public comment on the case so far has been “I can confirm I was robbed at gunpoint” ; also denies knowing Darnell Riley or ever having knowingly laid eyes on him before the night in question. But according to Riley’s attorney, Ronald Richards, Riley attended a Halloween party at Francis’s home last year, and the two were seen together in public on more than one occasion, suggesting that they were not merely casual social acquaintances.
The tape, according to Richards, was made with Francis’s consent, something that Francis’s spokesperson, Bill Horn, emphatically denies: “The tape is of Joe being held at gunpoint. It is not sexual in nature. Joe doesn’t really associate with people of that nature.”
How and if Riley and Francis knew each other is bound to become a crucial issue in court.
According to Joe Francis, Riley entered his Bel Air mansion, and either through subterfuge or force, pointed a gun at him while videotaping him in a compromising position. On the tape; which I viewed in its entirety, the humiliation of Francis continues for approximately four minutes. When he was done, Riley allegedly helped himself to Francis’s Rolex, a Sony video camera, a painting, some Louis Vuitton luggage, and $1,500 in cash.
Riley then proceeded to pack up the stash and drive off with Francis bound and gagged in the trunk of Francis’s Bentley. He allegedly left the car at the gates of Bel Air, where both it and Francis were found a couple of hours later by Bel Air private security guards.
According to his spokesperson, Francis reported the crime immediately, although Riley was not arrested until 15 months later. During this time, with Francis’s cooperation, the police intercepted multiple phone calls in which Riley attempted to extort between $300,000 and $500,000 from the entrepreneur for the return of the tape. On March 28, 2005, after Francis picked him out of a photo lineup, the police raided Riley’s Hollywood residence. Their search turned up multiple handguns, as well as a copy of the videotape. During their investigation they also found Riley’s fingerprints in Francis’s Bentley.
Riley, now confined to a Los Angeles County prison, faces charges of first-degree residential burglary, first-degree robbery, kidnapping, carjacking, and attempted extortion ; all felony charges. The kidnapping alone is punishable by life imprisonment.
Although they have since backed off the claim, the police at first insinuated that Riley was the notorious Bel Air Burglar, who is thought to be responsible for some 40 heists among Beverly Hills’s rich and famous, including break-ins at the homes of actor Frankie Muniz, party girl/heiress Casey Johnson, and Paris Hilton.
In fact, if there’s a critical pivot in all of this, it’s Hilton; the celestial body around which the planets seem to revolve.
According to a source close to Hilton the connection between the hustler and the socialite may have been based on something other than pure friendship. “Darnell knows some models and was on the fringes of that scene, but he has no intimate contact with Paris, Nicole Richie, or Joe,” says the source. “If Paris had his number, it was some sort of business arrangement due to the tape.”
This is a reference to 12 hours of embarrassing videotape stolen in August 2004 from the rented home Hilton shared with her sister in the Hollywood Hills. Though the theft was attributed to the Bel Air-Burglar, Riley somehow ended up with the tapes. In June the Globe reported that he was using them to blackmail Hilton for as much as $20,000 a month. These videos reportedly depict Hilton engaging in a host of unwholesome activities, including a graphic backseat liaison with boyfriend and former Backstreet Boy Nick Carter, another sexually themed interlude with Tommy Hilfiger model Jason Shaw, and ; perhaps as an homage to the legendary Pamela and Tommy Lee sex tape , Hilton rolling and smoking a joint. But most potentially damaging to the heiress’s reputation was an incident at a nightclub allegedly captured on videotape in which Hilton calls two black men “dumb niggers” behind their backs ; an epithet that reportedly strained relations between Hilton and her Simple Life co-star Nicole Richie and ultimately led to the duo’s current estrangement.
Despite its obvious commercial potential, the 12-hour Hilton tape marathon mysteriously disappeared from the marketplace soon after it surfaced.
Riley’s attorney, Richards, claims that his client was only helping the Hilton family recover the stolen videos. Paris refused to comment, and, despite her alleged involvement in the case, she isn’t likely to be called to testify by the defense. “You won’t see Paris Hilton in this trial,” Richards says. “She’s not credible.”
This is all the more curious because, according to Richards, the events that led to Riley’s arrest were set in motion last December by none other than Paris Hilton.
Richards claims that Francis convinced the heiress to call the police to inform on Riley, thus helping establish probable cause for a search warrant while allowing Francis to maintain that he did not know his alleged tormentor. (What Hilton stood to gain by this, like the ultimate disposition of the 12 hours of stolen video, remains a mystery.)
Despite daunting evidence against his client, Richards shows no signs of being daunted. He has represented a number of high-profile -clients, including John Gordon Jones, the so-called “Limousine Rapist,” who was acquitted in 2001 of drugging and raping a series of women he had met at Hollywood nightclubs. More recently Richards served as an on-air legal analyst for NBC during the Michael Jackson trial. “I tend to represent underdogs and rougher clients,” says Richards. “They’re more interesting. With Darnell, a lot of people know him in town and feel favorably toward him, whether out of fear or respect, so I get kudos by defending him. And then, so many people hate Joe Francis.” (Indeed, one story making the rounds in Hollywood is that actor Erik Palladino, a Francis look-alike who starred on ER from 1999 to 2001, is constantly getting punched in bars by irate women who mistake him for the porn tycoon.)
Richards also claims there was a witness at Francis’s house that night, implying that there’s someone ready to back up his client’s version of events, although he declines to name the person. “I may have an idea, but I’d rather wait until Joe Francis denies that anyone else was there,” he says. (At the end of the tape, during the brief moments in the garage, an unidentified woman’s voice can be faintly heard, suggesting that there may in fact have been another person present.)
And the defense can certainly be expected to bring up Francis’s own troubles with the law, which involve allegations of a sexual nature. “He preys on underage girls and exploits them for profit, and I have proof of that,” says Richards. This charge would seem to be based on an incident in Panama City Beach, Florida, during spring break 2003, when the parents of a 16-year-old girl claimed that their daughter and a friend had been coerced by Francis and his entourage into appearing topless on videotape. After soaping each other up in the shower of Francis’s motel room, they said they were encouraged to lie about their ages on camera. Briefly jailed for these charges, Francis was released on $165,000 bond and initially faced 71 separate counts, including racketeering, drug trafficking, and child pornography, and his private jet was confiscated.
The trafficking charges have been dismissed, but the others are pending.
More recently, in March 2004, a Texas college student claimed that Francis had drugged her in his hotel room in Miami, and although she could not remember the incident clearly, she had then been raped. Francis responded by claiming that the sex had been consensual and that the woman had stayed to order lunch from room service the next day. The investigation was dropped, and Francis in turn filed suit against the woman for $25,000,036 ; the $36 representing the cost of the lunch.
As he awaits trial, Riley’s bail has been set at $1.05 million. At a preliminary hearing in September, Riley was brought into court in a regulation blue county jumpsuit and sat quietly at the defense table, occasionally asking questions in a barely audible voice. Meanwhile his attorney fulminated over the DA’s attempts to prevent him from entering the videotape into the court record. Richards insists that the tape will emerge as evidence in the case and suggests that it will help prove that Francis was engaged in consensual activity.
“That’s the irony in this case,” he says. “Francis claims we’re not able to show the videotape, but look what he’s doing down in Florida. It’s like a parallel universe.”
This dispute reached its climax when, in full view of the court, Richards handed the videotape to me, at which point both the judge and the DA became apoplectic. “The discovery process should not be used to continue some kind of extortion that began on February 2, 2004, and continues up through the harassment here today,” declared district attorney Hoon Chun later in the proceeding. And, indeed, with Richards hinting that he has a witness ready to contradict the mogul’s testimony, Joe Francis will have to weigh his options carefully.
Riley’s mother, Azline Washington, arrives for lunch at a Denny’s on the outskirts of L.A. in a gold Cadillac Escalade, and immediately orders a steak. A large woman with a robust appetite who has studied the law and done paralegal work, in addition to working as a Hollywood extra, Washington chooses to open the conversation by noting, “My son is facing the possibility of life without parole, and there wasn’t a bruise on Joe Francis’s body.” She discounts most of the stories swirling around her son as so much urban legend. As to the allegation that he was blackmailing Paris Hilton, “My son was with the Hiltons a week before his arrest,” she says. “If he was extorting her, what was he doing at a function at the Hilton family home?” Besides, she claims, “if he was getting $20,000 a month from Paris Hilton, I would know about it. When he has had money, he’s always helped me out. Whatever he had from Paris Hilton, she gave it to him.”
Washington has five other children, one of whom was killed in a still unsolved shooting. She describes Darnell as a polite kid who earned an associate in arts degree and a culinary certificate while locked up, and who has since turned his life around. She refuses to comment on the details of the double homicide Riley was convicted of at 15, for which he served nine years in the juvenile detention system, almost a third of his life. (She subsequently calls to say she needs $100 “for medicine,” suggesting that when it comes to an eye for the main chance, the apple may not have fallen far from the tree.)
“I’m not saying he’s 100 percent “I’m not saying he’s 100 innocent,” Washington says. “But if there’s a tape Hilton saying the N-word, what’s up with her? The reason people are setting Darnell up is because there are tapes of saying the N-word, and having sex, and things about underage girls and Joe Francis that may get out,” she says. “A lot of people in that Hollywood scene are cowards,” she concludes. “I want him to come home and finish his life and give me a grandchild.”
Vaysfeld, who is not a man to mince words, sums up those prospects: “I deal with these fucking guys day in, day out ; but Darnell was faithful. Most of them think everybody owes them. He got educated in jail. He was good with computers, and when he got out he started trading on the stock market. He did it well. Now his life is completely screwed up. We probably won’t see him for 10 years. Last time we talked he said he was willing to make a deal and take the extortion charge.” So far, the DA doesn’t seem interested. And Richards seems to be hoping to embarrass Francis into dropping out of the case. But whatever embarrassment it might cause the young mogul, there’s not much the defense can do to back him down, according to Bill Horn. “The bottom line is that most of that negative press is already out there,” he says. “Ronald Richards can claim that Lee Harvey Oswald and Joe were friends. But that doesn’t make it true.”