Mugshot moguls

In an age of print media decline, mug rags are cleaning up financially. But do these newspapers really clean up the streets?

click to enlarge THE BROTHERS PALINO: Ed (left) and George started Gotch-ya! following the success of similar papers in Orlando and Tampa Bay. Since October, circulation has more than quadrupled. - Camille Pyatte
Camille Pyatte
THE BROTHERS PALINO: Ed (left) and George started Gotch-ya! following the success of similar papers in Orlando and Tampa Bay. Since October, circulation has more than quadrupled.

Armed with only a red plastic stapler, Ed Palino sits in his car outside a convenience store in Sarasota's Newtown district. Friday is the main distribution day for the Bradenton resident, his busiest of the week. He just needs a few more seconds before he's ready to deliver his papers.

"Actually, this stapling part does slow me up a lot," he says, reaching into the backseat of his white Pontiac Grand Prix. It's covered, flooded, with reams of newsprint. "I like to get it done the night before."

He has to get 100 copies stapled shut before he can unload them at his latest drop-off spot, the Express Grocery in Sarasota. The store's owner, like those at gas stations and convenience stores throughout Sarasota and Manatee counties, asked for the extra step. He was tired of customers devouring the thing before they ever made it to the cashier.

The stapling's tedious. But at the rate he's going, Palino should be able to hire someone to do it for him soon enough.

Along with Tampa Bay's Cellmates and Orlando's JAIL, Palino's Gotch-ya! is part of the fastest-growing media trend in Florida. Each issue lifts a week's worth of mugshots — some of the faces jaded, some silly, some downright sketchy — from local Sheriffs' websites. Doctors and teachers, grocery baggers and the old lady down the street — they're all here, pictured at their worst moments.

Palino, a 37-year-old with close-cropped hair and a grunge-rock goatee, grabs another copy and readies the stapler yet again. He knows that there's entertainment value to his paper — "Last week's, I called it my 'Grill-Off,'" he says. "Three guys, across the front, showing their grill. I mean, literally showing their grill!" — but for him, Gotch-ya! plays a more important role. Like publishers in Orlando and Tampa, he says the paper is a crime prevention tool.

And just a few months into its existence, Gotch-ya! has bail-related advertisers, neighborhood watch programs and reps from the Manatee Sheriff's Office singing its praises. It's helping to catch wanted criminals, the argument goes, and informing communities about just who might be lurking within. That's the kind of community-policing mission Palino wants to promote: neighbors helping neighbors.

But where some see justice, others see exploitation. Given the unsettling fact that the faces represent the accused, not the convicted, whether papers like Gotch-ya! or Cellmates make neighborhoods safer is unclear. Whom they're helping is even more ambiguous. Still, argues Palino, even if his paper's sole purpose is to scare citizens into following the law, Gotch-ya! has a certain usefulness.

"It's all about the repercussions to me," he says, as he's about to head into Express to deliver the papers he's stapled.

Palino speaks from experience: Currently on probation after a slew of arrests dating back to 2005, the area's greenest newspaper mogul has had his share of run-ins with the law.

But he's never had his own mugshot plastered on the cover of a newspaper.

Mugshots have long been national public record under the Freedom of Information Act. But until relatively recently, they were still out of easy reach for most people, tucked away in police databases. Then the Internet came along, followed by the Electronic Freedom of Information Act in 1996, and a slew of online records became accessible to anyone with a mouse and a landline.

Palino pulls mugshots from the Sarasota County Sheriff's website, which began posting them in mid-2001. The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office began posting booking photos in 2005, and Hillsborough's office has been doing so for about six or seven years, said a spokesperson.

As police departments across the country modernized their resources in the late '90s, a crop of e-zines began publishing celebrity mugshots. The Smoking Gun, established in 1997 by a pair of former Village Voice reporters and since sold to Court TV, continues to expand its exhaustive database of celebrity mugs featuring the likes of Paris Hilton, Marilyn Manson and Lindsay Lohan. More recently, mugshots.com started displaying the pre-prison portraits of artists and athletes, infamous gangsters and the FBI's most wanted.

And a little over a year ago, an Orlando entrepreneur figured out a different way to cash in.

Hoping to bring the craze out of Hollywood and into the 'hood, Devin James launched his $1 weekly newspaper, JAIL, in December 2006. He obtained Orange County arrest reports and trolled online police records — missing persons, sex offenders, standard mugshots — and watched his enterprise blossom into a runaway empire. As James told the Associated Press, within four months he'd already upped JAIL's circulation to 8,000 copies per week and started distributing to 175 locations in three counties.

Word of his success traveled fast. Soon, there were several papers in Tampa Bay, all following James' lead.

"This thing sells!" says St. Petersburg resident Dwayne Mayo, publisher of Cellmates. After starting the weekly in Pinellas County at the end of May (see sidebar this page), the former Bayfront Medical Center security guard watched circulation sprout "from 2,500 to almost 10,000 in a matter of weeks." Now he has four editions in place — and a team of hired contractors to deliver each one for him.

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