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A Houston Woman Just Became the First Person Convicted Under an Anti-Animal Crush Porn Law

A 24-year-old pleaded guilty of charges relating to videos where she wore a mask and horrifically abused dogs and cats.

af Allie Conti
10 september 2015, 5:00am

Ashley Nicole Richards. Photo courtesy of the Houston Police Department

Ashley Nicole Richards. Photo courtesy of the Houston Police Department

The following article contains graphic descriptions of animal cruelty.

On Tuesday, Ashley Nicole Richards, 24, pleaded guilty in federal district court to four counts of producing and one count of distributing obscene videos. The videos in question were "crush" videos in which the Houston woman would don a Mardi Gras–style mask, torture animals, and utter phrases intended to arouse viewers.

In the past, prosecuting the makers of such porn—which is, unfortunately, A Thing—has been surprisingly complex and controversial, with some arguing that images of awful things being done to animals should be protected as free speech.

On Motherboard: The People Who Get Off to Crush Porn

In 2010, the US Supreme Court struck down a 1999 law making it illegal to depict animal fighting or cruelty, deeming it a violation of the First Amendment that could affect hunters, among other people doing lawful activity. (The court was specifically considering a case in which a man was sentenced to three years in prison for filming pit bull fights.) In response, Congress passed the narrower Animal Crush Video Prohibition Act into law that same year, which criminalized interstate commerce of material depicting animal torture. Richards is the first-known case to be indicted in a federal court since, according to a joint press release issued by the FBI and the Department of Justice.

Videos that feature animals like dogs, cats, and birds getting killed are what's known as "hard crush." Then there's "soft crush," which features objects like balloons, toys, or food. At its most extreme, soft crush videos will show animals that people don't find particularly cute or cuddly, like bugs and crawdads. Regardless of the object of destruction is, Justin Lehmiller at Ball State University says we just don't know all that much about the human desire to watch living things get squished.

"There really isn't any empirical research out there on crush fetishes, so we do not fully understand the origins or prevalence of this specific sexual interest," he told VICE. "However, it is suspected to be quite rare."

Facebook groups capture the depraved enjoyment some people get out of the clips. On the page of one woman who calls herself Dressed to Kill Babe, the moderator makes a point of saying hers is "NOT A CRUSH video page" and claims she's practicing animal husbandry guided by a spiritual practices. However, comments on a video that apparently shows a rooster being killed with a Cutco knife suggest otherwise. "Wish I was that lucky rooster," says one. "BRAVE WOMAN!" adds another.

On August 14, 2012, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) alerted the Houston Police Department about a woman they believed had created illicit smut titled "Ebony Kill Cat." According to a the plea agreement, they sent the cops about 20 videos. People from the animal rights group also included a link to a site where one could buy crush porn legally.

In the plea agreement, crush porn is defined as a "cruel and illegal genre of pornography in which women are videotaped or photographed mutilating small animals for the sexual gratification of viewers." Senior Police Officer Suzanne Hollifield of the Houston Police Department's animal cruelty unit watched a 12-minute video called "meshalettekittykat2" that fit this description and also had Richards's email appear on the screen.

Hollifield also watched a video called "Puppy2" that featured Richards hitting a pit bull with a meat cleaver and severing its head. After the dog was killed, Richards urinated on its body. In other videos, the woman would commit horrific acts like step on a cat's eye with heels or burn a dog with a cigarette.

The day after she watched videos of the internet starlet known as "Ebony Crush Goddess," Hollifield, the Houston cop, went to Richards's home, where she lived with a man named Brent Justice. In an interview that took place in the officer's car, Richards said that the two were best friends who had known each other for four years. After being pressed by the cop, who recognized aspects of the residence from the videos, the woman admitted to making crush porn for money and said she drank alcohol beforehand.

Even more disturbingly, Richards called the killings "sacrifices" and "rituals" and indicated that the website she sold crush videos on would cut her a check every time she had made $400 or $500. Justice, the man who she lived with and whose arm can be observed handing her a knife in one video, claimed that Richards would have thrown him out of the house had he not agreed to help out by filming her.

At one point in the investigation, a federal court dropped the charges against both Richards and Justice after constitutional issues were raised. But the Fifth US Circuit Court of Appeals decided to reinstate them, and the defense's petition to the Supreme Court was denied.

PETA has continued to investigate this subculture after they helped nail the Houston duo. With the group's assistance, two adult fetish models were arrested last spring for making animal crush videos, allegedly at the behest of a South Florida fishing captain. But the cases against Stephanie Hird and Sara Zamora were not pursued, according to Miami-Dade County court records. Neither woman was federally indicted, because they were never accused of trying to sell the material across state lines or of knowing that it would be distributed. "Even with this technicality, the producer of the videos, Adam Redford, faced fines and probation and was forced to stop making them," said PETA cruelty casework director Stephanie Bell.

Richards had no such luck. In addition to the federal charges, she pleaded guilty to three charges in state court for dealing crush porn and was slapped with a decade-long sentence for them. Each of the federal counts she was convicted of Tuesday is punishable by up to seven years in prison, and she may also be fined $250,000. (Sentencing is set for December 10.)

Meanwhile, Justice was indicted in 2012 on four counts of creating crush porn, one of distributing it, and another of selling or transferring obscene matter. His case is still pending. The 54-year-old is currently in the Harris County Jail for animal cruelty charges.

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Ashley Richards Plea