ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- A video company paid homeless men $50 to be filmed while scantily clad women punched, kicked and whipped them, according to a lawsuit filed this month in a Florida court.
Lawyers for two homeless men said the website www.shefights.net sells videos on the internet of the so-called "beatdowns," starting at $2.99 for a two-minute "sparring session" clip and increasing in price to $33.99 for a 33 minute clip of two women beating a man.
The lawsuit contends the beatings violate a state hate crimes law that specifically protects the homeless and that the producers are exploiting the poverty of transients for whom any cash is hard to come by.
"What type of society would allow this to happen?" said Neil Chonin, the lawyer for the homeless men. "This company preyed on people who are desperate."
Chonin and area homeless advocates said there are many more men who were assaulted in exchange for cash and that some were injured so badly that they were hospitalized.
The lawsuit, which was first reported by the St. Petersburg Times, was filed April. 1. A judge recently ordered the website manager, Jeffrey S. Williams, to not take down the website or erase the videos in question so the evidence could be preserved for trial.
In an email to the Associated Press on Tuesday, Williams said his accusers are trying to pressure him through public attacks.
"My side will come out in court," he wrote in the brief statement.
St. Petersburg Police Spokesman Mike Puetz said detectives are investigating the allegations as well.
Word of the homeless beatings first surfaced about three months ago, said G.W. Rolle, a St. Petersburg homeless advocate who works with the National Coalition for the Homeless and Southern Legal Counsel, the Gainesville firm that filed the lawsuit.
Rolle, who was formerly homeless himself, was walking through a downtown St. Petersburg park that is frequented by transients. He noticed that several men had black eyes, busted lips and were limping.
At first, people wouldn't talk. But Rolle "overheard a couple of conversations about the beatdown," and started asking questions.
Several men explained that promoters and others from shefights.net recruited homeless men for the female domination fetish videos. The men were taken to a nearby townhome, where women beat them while someone videotaped the session. Sometimes, the men told Rolle, they were handcuffed or shackled and whipped or flogged.
The men's accounts correspond with the content on the website, which gives brief descriptions of each video for sale. For instance, a four-minute long video promises that "Denise loves to fight bare-knuckle because she can cause so much more pain that way. She challenged the guy to step outside for a no-rules, bare-fisted fight and proceed to break his nose, beat him up, and leave him sprawled on the ground in pain."
Williams' statement said he'd fight the accusations in court.
"I will just say that there is no truth to the allegations, the testimony is perjured and paid for by the organizer of the suit, and the attempt right now is to harass us in the media in an attempt to shake us down before this goes to trial. We won't be intimidated, and these allegations against us will be disproved," the statement said.
The lawsuit said that said one woman fought 20-year-old Kyle Shaw and "used him as a punching bag," resulting in back injuries and a dislocated arm for Shaw. The other plaintiff, 37-year-old George Grayson, was videotaped on numerous occasions. Grayson said he was whipped and suffered multiple lacerations on his back.
Shaw and Grayson's lawsuit claims that Williams, the production company and the women who administered the beatings violated Florida's hate crime laws, which prohibits crimes based on homeless status, among other things.
"Defendants chose to solicit, assault and batter Plaintiffs because they were homeless, and Plaintiffs suffered injuries so severe as to evidence a hatred and contempt for people who are homeless," Chonin wrote in the lawsuit.
Williams, the website manager, said Rolle "bought that testimony" from the homeless men.
Rolle denies this and on Tuesday, played an audiotape of other homeless men discussing how they had been beaten for money. Rolle said he spoke with other men who suffered broken ribs, fractured skulls and torn ligaments after the performances.
Rolle said he is not surprised that homeless men would jump at a chance to make money - because of the bad economy, day labor has all but dried up, he said.
Social welfare advocates say such videos - including the "Bumfights" series, which features homeless men brawling in exchange for money and other incentives - dehumanize and demonize the homeless.
"I think we've become callous and indifferent enough that anything goes," said Rolle. "The environment is ripe for this sort of thing to happen."
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