ST. PETERSBURG — The story didn't take long to leak from tiny downtown St. Petersburg to news outlets and blogs around the world. It had sex, lies, videotape and a dark twist: homeless people.
A civil suit was filed against producers of Shefights.net, which sells fetish videos of young women beating and whipping men. Where it all went wrong, the suit alleges, is when Shefights began recruiting homeless men from Williams Park for $25 to $50 a beating.
Homeless coalitions, talk show hosts and bloggers as far away as Europe picked up the story, generating outrage everywhere.
But at Shefights.net, all is well.
"Sales have quadrupled since the story," said Jeff Williams, owner of Shefights.net. "You would not believe the support we've gotten. A lot of people saw this for the shakedown that it was."
Williams, 58, is 5 feet 7, bald and tough-talking. He runs the business out of his townhouse near Tropicana Field, and he isn't fazed by the lawsuit or the negative media coverage. He and "Cindy Doe" and five "Jane Does," as they are named in the suit, are good, honest, hardworking people who have only tried to help the downtrodden. The truth will come out, he said.
He is planning a suit against the those who are suing him, he said. "No way I'm backing down," Williams said. "I will keep going until I'm shooting videos in their building."
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Shefights.net, which mainly features women punching and kicking men who cannot fight back, is not the only sadomasochist video business in town. Bellypunishment.com, based in Clearwater and owned by a woman, features seminude or nude women poking, stomping or punching each other in the abdomen.
But Shefights.net is the best, Williams said, and he believes it's the largest seller of female fight videos in the world. His best customers come from the Middle East, mainly Egypt and Saudi Arabia. They're also big in Norway.
Williams himself isn't into it. A former investment manager from New York, he stumbled into the business "by accident," thanks to his former fiancee, a 6-foot African-American female boxer.
"We were an odd couple," he said.
They met about five years ago in New York, before she got sick. They dated for two years, with plans to marry. They thought she'd pull through.
"When she died, I totally lost my mind," he said. "I was suicidal."
His therapy, he said, was being around other female kickboxers and professional fighters. That led to the discovery that one-sided female-on-male fighting was more popular than female-on-female professional fighting. And that led to the making of the "beatdown" videos, which proved to be extremely hot online.
He began producing the videos from his home and a studio in Clearwater two years ago. He sometimes gets requests for "sessions" from men who like to be beaten by women. Some men fly from Europe and turn it into a vacation.
But his main business is the videos, which sell for anywhere from $30 to $900 or more for a custom-produced video catering to someone's special requests.
He has a recruiter, 24-year-old Richard Jones, a Northeast High graduate who hits St. Pete Beach and other touristy areas and asks around: Would anyone like to appear in a video and have a hot woman beat him up? A surprising number do, Jones said.
But it was one of the Shefights women who found the homeless men by accident. She was driving through downtown months ago, spotted two men walking and asked if they'd be interested in doing a video. She didn't know they were homeless. And really, it didn't matter.
Except soon, homeless people were lined up outside of Williams' door. Williams said he turned most away, especially those who were obviously inebriated or elderly or mentally ill.
But some became regulars. George Grayson, 37, was one who returned several times. During his first beatdown, Jones said, "he enjoyed it."
"He had a big smile on his face," Jones said. "He wanted more."
Until one day, a lawsuit said he didn't.
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G.W. Rolle, the advocate who said he began noticing bruised, limping men in the park months ago, produced photos of pathetic-looking guys with split lips and welts from whippings. He recorded their semicoherent ramblings about going to a condo garage or back yard and agreeing to 12-minute beatdowns for cash.
"I'm trying to change my life and I don't know how," said Grayson, who said he has Asperger's syndrome. "It's a little sadistic . . . It hurts so bad."
Homeless coalitions as far away as Ireland were appalled. Rolle got interview requests from Inside Edition and London Daily Mail.
But Williams said no one is more outraged than he is.
"These guys got exactly the same pay as every other professional we use here," Williams said, referring to the two plaintiffs. Homeless men only make up about 1 percent of the paid volunteers in the videos, he said.
He accused Rolle of paying the two plaintiffs $20 each to come forward and testify in the suit, which seeks damages in excess of $15,000. Rolle and lawyers at Gainesville-based Southern Legal Counsel representing the two homeless men deny that anyone was coerced into suing.
In fact, Williams said, his video business is a tight-knit family of people who have been very kind to the homeless. .
One longtime homeless man and new recruit in the videos, 42-year-old James Scallion, has been living at Williams' condo since he was attacked in the park by some homeless men with a stick. Scallion, still bearing the forehead wound from the attack, met with Williams and a reporter during a recent lunch at Bella Brava on Beach Drive.
He spoke of how kind Williams was and how one of the girls took him to the hospital after the attack and held his hand while he was there.
"She won't let nobody go near me," Scallion said.
And that's the Shefights way, Williams said. They're like family. They're his family.
Suddenly Williams began to tremble. His eyes turned red, and he held his scrunched face in his shaking hands. He choked back a strained sob.
He was thinking of his fiancee.
Emily Nipps can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8452.