ST. PETERSBURG — A local website hawking videos of half-naked women pummeling homeless men has caught the attention of St. Petersburg police.
Police say they are investigating Shefights.net to see if those arranging, filming and selling the fights — and paying the homeless to be assaulted — are doing anything illegal.
"Anything involving bodily harm to someone invites scrutiny to see if any laws have been broken," said police spokesman Mike Puetz. The investigation has been going on for months.
The St. Petersburg Times on Tuesday published a story about a lawsuit that has been filed against Shefights.net. The Southern Legal Counsel filed the suit on behalf of two homeless men who appeared in videos.
The suit alleges that the organizers recruited and paid homeless men to be tied and beaten on camera by women dressed in skimpy athletic tops and bottoms — or in the more expensive videos, even less clothing than that.
The men said they were paid $25 to be whipped and $50 to be beaten. They could not fight back and had to sign releases, they said. The suit seeks damages and a court order to stop the fights.
Neil Chonin, director of litigation for the Southern Legal Counsel, said the website is another in a series of setbacks suffered by the city's homeless. In 2007, the city came under fire for slashing homeless tents. Last year the City Council banned panhandling on street corners.
"All around the county, but particularly in St. Petersburg, they get trespassed, they get their property taken — in my mind, it's a further extension of how homeless people are being exploited," Chonin said. "Nobody cares about them.
According to the suit, 20-year-old Kyle Shaw was homeless when he agreed in January to let a woman beat him for 12 minutes for $50. He did it again in February. Both times, he said, his hands were bound. Shaw said he suffered broken ribs, a dislocated arm and a dislocated jaw. He said he didn't know the video of his assault would be sold online and in one case he wasn't even paid.
Another homeless man, 37-year-old George Grayson, alleged in the suit that he was offered the same deal: 12 minutes of violence for $50. Grayson, who has Asperger's syndrome, said he was desperate for money.
Homeless advocates fear the website is exploiting the most vulnerable — mentally, physically and economically.
"(They've) found people who were so vulnerable that the act of making this decision was compromised by a disability," said National Coalition for the Homeless executive director Neil Donovan. "That's pretty sick."
The civil suit was filed against Jeff Williams of Shefights.net, J.P. Florida Productions, "Cindy Doe" and "Jane Does 1-5." Williams told the Times that he plans to countersue. A message on Shefights.net said media accounts of the website are inaccurate.
"We won't be intimidated," the message said, "and these allegations against us will be disproved."