Sara Pruiksma had not ordered anything online recently, so she viewed the white bubble envelope addressed to her with some suspicion.
There is no direct mail delivery in her section of Coeysman, a town of 7,256 in upstate New York, about 15 miles south of Albany. Her husband brought the package home in a regular haul from the Post Office. It was stuffed with a lump-shaped object. The return address gave a P.O. box in Allison Park, Pennsylvania. Pruiksma, a professional artist, did not recognize it.
Eventually, she gave into curiosity. Inside was a plastic bag containing a chunk of grass and goo that looked and smelled like cow shit. “It looked like a muddy, poopy pie,” Pruiksma told Motherboard.
The plastic bag also contained a small card. It read, “YOU HAVE BEEN POOPED ON / Want to know by whom???” Pruiksma had to open the bag and release the scent to flip the card over, but on the other side were the taunting words, “We’ll never tell….,” and a web address: www.poopsenders.com.
Pruiksma is one of the many victims targeted by these anonymous “poop” packages. Since 2007, Poopsenders has sent, through the US Postal Service, realistic-seeming animal feces to whoever its customers deem deserving. The site suggests “your ex,” “your mean boss” or “the teacher that gave your son/daughter a poor grade” as potential targets. Prices start at $17.95, plus $10 shipping and handling, for a quart of “cow poop.” There are also “elephant” and “gorilla” varieties.
One of the site's FAQs is "is it real poop?," to which it answers, "Only the mad scientist that packs this stuff in the back room knows for sure and he wouldn't tell us, but we do know this, it really smells bad back there, he is mixing up shit, and he does visit the local dairy farm and zoo about twice a week […] We can assure you that it looks nasty and really stinks. It will get the point across to your intended victim.”
The website dubs this “the ultimate gag gift.” But for years, it has been used to add a nasty salvo to petty disputes. In 2014, a woman sent a Poopsenders package to a neighbor who filed a complaint about her barking dog. In 2019, a waiter in Austin used it as revenge for negative Yelp reviews. Some recipients say they feel harassed.
Pruiksma said the package came after a brutal local election cycle in which she campaigned for a slate of Democrats who ran on protecting the region’s natural resources. The response was a campaign of online harassment. On Facebook, she and her husband were called “property Nazis” and had their faces pasted onto memes, and several people aligned with them were then sent a bag of realistic poop as a final insult.
“The message [from] the people who sent it was, ‘This is what we think of you. We can get something like this into your home,’” said Pruiksma, who felt particularly vulnerable because she was pregnant at the time. “It crushed us. We shut down after that.”
She has suspicions but still doesn’t know who sent it. Poopsenders promises its users complete anonymity, and the proprietors of the site have also remained nameless and unknown—until recently.
As part of a legal proceeding called United States of America v. Poopsenders.com, federal prosecutors have named in documents the father and son duo they believe are behind Poopsenders: John Santonastaso and his son, John Edward Santonastaso, who live in the suburbs north of Pittsburgh.
For years, the two men were linked to an LLC called JD Infinity, incorporated at the elder Santonastaso’s home address, in a cul de sac in suburban Pittsburgh. The company has no website and no online footprint, but public records show it received two Payment Protection Program (PPP) payments for a total of $43,000 from the first COVID-19 relief bill. That money, plus the interest accrued, was completely forgiven. Two jobs were listed in JD Infinity’s PPP application, which may or may not involve sending fake shit through the mail.
Then, in November of 2019, the US Office of the Inspector General (OIG) issued a subpoena to “JD Infinity LLC/Poopsenders,” in an attempt to force information from the company.
Multiple emails were sent, phone calls made and physical notes left in order to interview both John Santonastasos for this story. In mid-December, the elder Santonastaso called me and agreed to speak at a later time. Santonastaso did not answer when contacted again, and did not respond to subsequent communications.
The mystery of Poopsenders began to unravel, ironically enough, after an internal dispute at the US Postal Service led to a package of poop being mailed to a postal inspector.
According to court documents, a postal supervisor in Michigan was “victimized and harassed by means of crude Facebook posts, minor personal property damage, and receipt of a package of imitation feces”—perhaps as retaliation over that supervisor’s alleged “inappropriate relationship” with a subordinate. In November of 2019, as part of its investigation into that dispute, the US Postal Service Office of the Inspector General issued a subpoena for records to Poopsenders.
Specifically, the subpoena names “John Santonastaso, President or Custodian of Records, Poopsenders.com/JD Infinity.” The lawsuit describes Santonastaso as “the individual who was identified as the owner of Poopsenders on the Pennsylvania corporate records.”
Motherboard has not been able to independently verify those records. The Pennsylvania Department of State does not have an incorporation record for “Poopsenders” or “Poopsenders.com,” according to its online search portal and to a representative of the Department. JD Infinity LLC, which was incorporated as a real estate company in 2005, did not list any officers or aliases.
However, subsequent events leave little doubt about the association between Santonastaso and Poopsenders.
The subpoena sent to Poopsenders’ P.O. Box was ignored, the lawsuit states. According to the lawsuit, in July of 2020, an agent acting on behalf of the Office of the Inspector General hand-delivered a follow-up subpoena to Santonastaso. It was also ignored.
This moved US attorneys in the Western District of Pennsylvania to file United States of America v. Poopsenders, a suit asking a judge to issue a show cause order, which would force Poopsenders into court to explain why they ignored the subpoenas. A memorandum filed in connection with the lawsuit notes that “Poopsenders goes to great lengths to obscure and conceal a physical address of its operations and identity of its personnel.”
According to court records, on December 4, a process server, someone paid to physically deliver court papers, successfully handed a summons to Santonastaso's son. Those records allege that Santonastaso is the president of Poopsenders and that his son is a manager of some kind.
On December 15, the US attorney’s office dismissed the lawsuit, because “the Defendant has complied with the subpoena.” Representatives for both the Postal Service’s Office of Inspector General and the Western District of Pennsylvania said the offices would not comment on the litigation.
That was the end of United States of America v. Poopsenders, but the case linked the two names with the site, as well as an address in Pennsylvania.
When I visited the business address listed in the lawsuit one day in December, I found a large metal mailbox labeled “John Santonastaso / JD Infinity” and a door marked with a logo for “Around-Town,” one of the names of the elder John Santonastaso’s constellation of corporations promoting local businesses. When I knocked on the door, no one answered.
According to its website, Poopsenders and its clients are not doing anything illegal. “Sending an anonymous non-hazardous package through the US Postal Service is indeed legal,” the webpage states. Customers also have to agree to a waiver stating that they won’t use the site “to threaten, constitute harassment, violate a legal restraint, or any other unlawful purpose.”
Some victims have turned to the police. Pruiksma said she and other targets in Coeysman reported the incidents to the Albany County Sheriff's Office, but the investigation never led to any charges. The Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Lilie Schoenack, a state former prosecutor who received a Poopsenders package while running for elected office in North Dakota, said it did constitute a crime.
“In my opinion, they should be prosecuted for aiding and abetting harassment,” Schoenack told Motherboard.
In 2018, Schoenack ran for State’s Attorney for Barnes County, North Dakota—the top prosecutor position for the state within the county. She was the city attorney for the county’s main population center, Valley City, and previously worked as an assistant state’s attorney.
The nonpartisan election, her first run for public office, “wasn’t really a contentious election,” she recalls. Then, in the fall, she received an email calling her a “$2 whore.” A few weeks later, a package in a Priority Mail envelope arrived via USPS.
“It was raining so the package had been ripping,” Schoenack recalls. “My first thought was ‘Oh, my God, someone sent me poop through the mail.’”
She is certain her opponent, who eventually won the office, had nothing to do with it. It could have been someone she prosecuted, and there are always people grumbling about small-town politics. A construction/redevelopment project in Valley City had caused some ire.
“No one else who worked for the city was running,” said Schoenack. “Maybe as an employee of the city, I had a target on my back.”
Officers from the Barnes County Sheriff’s Office took the package, but no charges came from that either. The office did not respond to a request for comment or a public records request from Motherboard.
Regardless of legal definitions, the feeling that the package created was one of harassment, said Schoenack. “It paralyzed me,” she said. “There were two weeks, maybe a week, left [before the election]. That was the last straw for me. I stopped doing door-to-door campaigning.”
She felt like any person she met could have been the one who sent the package.