Jury delivers $325,000 verdict against sex-offender websites owner
Federal laws protecting the internet did not give the owner of several sex-offender websites license to post false and harassing information, a jury in U.S. District Court in Phoenix decided Friday.
The eight-member federal court jury rejected claims by Charles “Chuck” Rodrick that internet operators have immunity from lawsuits so long as they publish information from another source.
The jury awarded the president of a Phoenix-based aerospace company $325,000, saying Rodrick put him in a false light and intentionally inflicted emotional harm in web postings that accused him of infidelity, having sex with young boys and defrauding the U.S. government, among other statements.
“Justice was served today,” California lawyer Janice Bellucci said shortly after the verdict was read. “Chuck Rodrick has been made to account for his reckless deeds.”
Rodrick, 55, was sued by three people who say they were profiled on his websites even though they were not convicted of sex crimes. Their lawsuit accused him of extortion and of using his websites to put victims in a false light, to invade their privacy and to inflict emotional damage.
Patrick Harnden, Rodrick’s lawyer, said Friday that the jury misinterpreted the Communications Decency Act, maintaining that Rodrick’s posts came from publicly available third-party sources. He said the ruling flies in the face of laws protecting internet operators.
“I believe we were fighting for the First Amendment,” Harnden said. “We were fighting for the internet.”
The jury sided with Rodrick against two of the plaintiffs: the mother of a sex offender in Washington state who launched his own website to challenge Rodrick in 2012 and a man who was arrested on a sex-related charge years ago but was not classified as a sex offender.
The jury dismissed extortion and invasion of privacy claims against Rodrick. But the three-woman, five-man panel found Rodrick’s posts against David Ellis, an aerospace company owner and retired Marine Corps major, were false and damaging.
“This is a win for anybody who is getting bullied on the internet,” Ellis said Friday. “This is encouraging for a lot of victims … There a lot of people out there who no longer need to suffer from the words and actions of (Rodrick).”
Ellis said he planned to start working with attorneys to obtain a permanent injunction against Rodrick and force him to take down false and damaging posts.
This is Ellis’ second legal victory against Rodrick. In 2014, Rodrick sued Ellis and several other people for defamation in Maricopa County Superior Court. A judge in the case then declared Rodrick the defendant in his own lawsuits and allowed counterclaims against him to go forward.
A jury found Rodrick defamed Ellis and two others, invaded their privacy, put them in a false light and abused the court system by filing lawsuits against them as a form of retaliation. They awarded the three victims $3.4 million, which was reduced on appeal to about $2 million.
Ellis estimates Rodrick now owes him $1.7 million.
Websites target retired Marine
Ellis, a 26-year veteran of the Marine Corps, testified that after he began dating Rodrick’s former wife, his name appeared on sex-offender websites owned by Rodrick.
Ellis said he was identified by name, address and phone number on several sex-offender sites beginning in 2012.
Ellis said Rodrick last year sent complaints to the U.S. Department of Defense calling for an investigation of Ellis’ company, American Aerospace Technical Castings, claiming that Ellis manufactured faulty airline parts for commercial and military airplanes and falsified test results.
Several federal and private agencies launched investigations against his firm, including the Department of Defense, the Federal Aviation Administration and the FBI, Ellis said. He was cleared of wrongdoing, government records show.
Harnden said Rodrick was a conduit for a whistleblower at Ellis’ company. He said Rodrick reposted information from ripoffreport.com, a consumer complaint website. He said the posts about boys at Ellis’ apartment also came from a message board.
Ellis said Rodrick embellished the posts and added his own commentary, including posting a $50,000 reward for information.
Herndon said Ellis thrust himself into Rodrick’s operation by giving information about Rodrick to sex offenders who were attempting to find the owner of the sex-offender websites so they could sue him.
Five websites at issue in court
Rodrick’s original websites, Offendex.com and SORArchives.com, originally claimed to profile the records of 750,000 sex offenders in the United States. The stated purpose was to list people identified as sex offenders and offer search functions not found on public databases.
Rodrick tried to limit the case to three sex-offender websites, but testimony ultimately centered two other websites he used to post online complaints about people he said “attacked” him online. Those included the plaintiffs, individual sex offenders, a judge, several lawyers and others.
Harnden said while some of the content might be offensive, the Communications Decency Act gives Rodrick permission to republish any material on his websites as long as it comes from another source. He compared Rodrick’s websites to any news site.
“We didn’t create the information that (plaintiffs) are complaining about,” Harnden told the jury, adding that nothing requires Rodrick to investigate the accuracy of posts before he puts them online. “If you find the information came from somewhere else, game over.”
Bellucci said Friday the case was not about the First Amendment or the Communications Decency Act.
“There was nothing decent about his communication,” she said. “It was about a bully who made outrageous comments about people he didn’t like.”
The federal court case has evolved since it was filed in 2013, with the focus going from claims by sex offenders who argued they were unlawfully targeted by Rodrick to questions about whether Rodrick used his websites to launch personal attacks and disseminate false information.
The lawsuit originally was filed on behalf of 10 people who said Rodrick used government records to create his own database and demand money to remove the records under the threat of increased exposure.
Website owner says no extortion, threats
Rodrick denied in court Thursday using the websites to extort money. He testified that he created a review process shortly after the websites launched to address an overwhelming number of complaints from people who said they were wrongly profiled. The fees paid the cost of an employee to conduct the review process, he said.
Rodrick also told the jury he did not make any direct threats.
But records obtained by The Arizona Republic as part of a 2013 investigation showed that website operators threatened to expose offenders, their families and friends on the internet. Operators responded to attacks by getting into hostile internet exchanges with sex offenders named on the website.
“Since you like Facebook so much … we have added your 65 friends to your page on Offendex,” a Nov. 9, 2012 email reads. “We will release your record to five more search engines plus a few other ‘special spots’ that you do not want to be.”
In another email, operators told an offender: “Enjoy the exposure you have created for yourself… Unfortunately you took (your) family with you.”
Rodrick acknowledged in court that he was under investigation by the FBI and that agents conducted a search of his home last year, seizing computers, thumb drives and various documents.
Rodrick said the FBI was responding to a complaint campaign orchestrated by sex offenders. He said said he voluntarily agreed to interviews, and federal agents left with a renewed understanding of the case.
“Their eyes were wide open (about) the facts of their investigation,” Rodrick said.
An FBI official said Friday the agency could not comment on an “ongoing investigation.” Agents have supplied letters identifying several individuals as victims of Rodrick’s activities.
Rodrick said in court that the information on his websites came from the National Predator Database, which his company took from the web and used without permission. He also told the jury that he did no review of the records before posting them, saying there were so many it would have taken 75 years to complete.
Rodrick’s former partner, Brent Oesterblad, testified as the only other defense witness in this week’s federal trial. He said Friday the verdict was unfair.
“I’m very disappointed,” said Oesterblad, a former defendant in the case before all claims against him were dismissed. “Mr. Ellis prevailed on only two of his claims … Originally, there was a total of 12 plaintiffs with five claims each, totaling 60 claims. That means we are 58 to two.”
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