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Mugshots website operates in secrecy, obtains booking photos from government agency

ST. LOUIS – A local mugshot website is operating in secrecy with the help of the government. You might be aware of the site STLMugshots.com. Every day, the sites post dozens of mugshots of people arrested in the St. Louis area.

Some of those people are now fighting back. They said they were wrongfully arrested and then forced to pay hundreds of dollars to remove their mugshots from STLMugshots.com.

The State of California has a name for that – cyber exploitation. But here in Missouri, a government agency appears to be fueling the website. “It’s a sickening thing that people are using, you know, the misfortunes of other people for entertainment,” said Jardena Green, who appeared on STLMugshots.com after an arrest for failing to register her vehicle.

“The case was thrown out," she said. "The paperwork had been sent to the wrong address, but this picture remained on the internet for months and months afterwards.”

A similar incident happened to Paul Peanick. His arrest photo was accompanied by the reported charge of robbery, which he said was based on a false report and the charges were later dropped.

“I mean, I knew they took a mugshot then, but I didn’t know that they’d indexed it to my name and posted it online as the number one Google result when searching my name,” he said. “At that moment, I realized why my job search recently had been so fruitless.”

Two mugshot websites posted his photo. Peanick emailed the sites to remove them.

STL Mugshots refused the request, responding, “We are lawyers and one police officer. We know the system very well and also know our legal boundaries.”

Missouri law makes mugshots an open record for the first 30 days after an arrest, but then it’s closed unless a prosecutor files charges.

STL Mugshots obtains St. Louis County mugshots on the day of the arrests, then almost immediately uploads them and keeps them online even if people never face charges.

Although STL Mugshots states it "will not accept any type of payment for removal of a mugshot...," Peanick found another website called Remove Arrest that charged him hundreds.

“They offered to take both of them down for $550, or not to take them down, but to de-index them, whatever that means, and so I paid them and within 48 hours they were gone,” he said. “But I would recommend anyone not paying them because it’s just going to keep this kind of industry thriving.”

In 2014, Governor Jay Nixon signed a law to crack down on mugshot websites, making it illegal for a site to post mugshots and then charge money to remove them.

Attorney Justin Meehan thinks STL Mugshots has found a way around that law.

“It’s my intention to bring this company down to the ground,” he said. “The guy who runs it is a bottom feeder in a cesspool.”

But attorney Meehan can’t sue StLMugshots.com because it's buried in secrecy. There’s no one to serve papers. It’s registered through GoDaddy.com, which allows anonymity.

“He is hiding in the mud pit that he belongs in and it’s time for him to be exposed,” Meehan said.

STL Mugshots has similarities to a newspaper called “Behind the Bars,” in which we found dozens of identical mugshots. Some are not even available to the media because they didn't result in charges.

The newspaper "Behind the Bars" does list an owner – Edmund Tauk. Fox 2/KPLR 11 caught up with him to ask if he’s also behind StLMugshots.com.

“100 percent not me,” he said. “Prove it to me that it’s mine. It’s not mine.”

Just how much does Tauk make off the newspapers?

“I mean, it’s a business,” he said, adding that he’s been in business for seven years and sells the papers in more than 500 locations across St. Louis.

Tauk’s ability to get mugshots could offer a clue about who’s behind STLMugshots.com. But Tauk said it takes him a lot of time and daily visits to police stations.

“I don't get them so quickly,” he said.

Tauk said he files Missouri Sunshine requests with St. Louis City and St. Louis County to obtain the mugshots.

However, authorities in the city and county said they’ve received no such requests from Tauk. The local jails also reported they hadn’t provided mugshots to him.

That left the Regional Justice Information Service (REJIS) as a possible source of the website photos.

Police agencies pay the government entity REJIS to collect arrest records that officers can access for their safety. REJIS turned down Fox 2/KPLR 11’s request for the names of private citizens getting mugshots, writing, “...we house highly sensitive criminal information for the entire law enforcement community. Because of this, we take great strides in protecting the personal information of all citizens and make no effort to advertise our existence to the public. As you could imagine, we would become the target of those seeking to eliminate/alter their historical records and/or those seeking to cripple the day-to-day operations of law enforcement.”

But the next day, after continuing to press county officials for an internal investigation, a spokesman confirmed that they discovered REJIS had been selling every daily St. Louis County mug shot to two people: Kyle Prall, a Texas man who runs a national website called Busted Mugshots; and Edmund Tauk, who still maintains he's not behind STL Mugshots. The California Attorney General got answers about a similar website there, charging four men with cyber exploitation. Meanwhile, Missouri REJIS has continued to sell dozens of mugshots daily that pop up on a website that remains anonymous. REJIS’ director, former St. Louis Police Chief Dan Isom, said the agency is following Missouri’s Sunshine Request Law, but he wouldn’t go on camera to answer additional questions.

We want to know why the government is not scrutinizing what's happening to its arrest data. We asked the Missouri attorney general’s office to investigate and that’s now underway.