"Ebony Crush Goddess," a slim woman in a Mardi Gras mask and black lingerie and heels, talks about her pussy as she hovers over her partner and purrs promises of punishment. The object of her attention in this particular video—a small cat—howls in protest on the floor of a small, nondescript kitchen as Ebony tapes the animal's front and back paws together.
After drawn-out teasing, she chops off the cat's paws. Hard to believe as it might be, what follows is even more horrific.
This scene is just one in a collection of animal torture porn videos seized by police in Houston, who were alerted to their existence and the location of their makers by animal rights activists in 2012. Other videos depict Ashley Richards—aka Ebony Crush Goddess, who was 21 at the time of her arrest—beheading, eviscerating, and urinating on dogs and several other animals.
Richards was convicted in a Texas court on state animal cruelty charges for her role in those videos and is serving a 10-year sentence. But she and Brent Justice, 54, the alleged maker and distributor of the Ebony Crush Goddess videos, now face federal charges as well for violating the Animal Crush Video Prohibition Act of 2010. If US prosecutors win their case against Richards and Justice, they will be the first two people convicted under the act.
Given the outrage these violent animal snuff videos inspire in most people and recent legislation criminalizing their production and distribution on the federal level, you might assume sending crush porn stars and makers to prison would be easy. But in fact, it has been both a long and complicated legal road.
A law passed in 1999 (and championed by actor Mickey Rooney) was ruled too broad and a violation of the First Amendment when applied in US vs. Stevens, a case concerning dog fighting videos. The 2010 Anti-Crush Act that President Obama signed into law, meant to rectify the overbroadness of the 1999 act, criminalizes the creation, sale and marketing of hard crush videos, which lawmakers labeled as "obscene"—i.e., not subject to free speech protections.
In 2013, the US District Court of the Southern District of Texas threw out the case against Richards and Justice, holding that their crush videos did not fulfill the legal definition of obscenity and that the 2010 Anti-Crush Act was unconstitutional on its face. But the government appealed and won in the Fifth Circuit Court—and the Supreme Court declined to review the case—so now Richards and Justice face up to seven years per count, a possible $250,000 fine and at least three years of supervised release.
A federal law whose constitutionality will likely be challenged again is just one obstacle in the prosecution of the makers of hard crush videos, which have lurked in the underbelly of the internet as long as the internet has existed. A bigger problem is that aside from rare organizations such as the Animal Beta Project (ABP)—a small, unpaid group of anonymous web sleuths who investigate online evidence of animal cruelty—hardly anyone is looking for them.
"If a woman shoots a zebra it's OK. But if she steps on a rabbit, it's not OK."
It was Animal Beta Project members who, after dissecting Ebony Crush Goddess videos for clues, figured out where the videos were being filmed and who was making them, and then worked with investigators at the ALDF, PETA and the Humane Society to bring the case to the attention of Houston police.
"With the advent of mobile phones equipped with high-definition cameras, anybody can make a crush video in a closet with a light and a phone," said Scott Heiser, senior attorney and criminal justice program director for the nonprofit Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF). "And everyone knows that torturing animals is a crime in every state, so they go to extra lengths to avoid detection by law enforcement. Consequently, it's rare that those who produce crush content get caught. So law enforcement might stumble upon one, but it just doesn't happen at the patrol level. Most of these cases come to light because of some sort of organized investigation, and to be honest, law enforcement just doesn't target these types of cases."
"These are hard cases to crack," Heiser said. "It takes a fair amount of digital gumshoeing, if you will, and that's the wheelhouse of the people at ABP."
Justice's current felony case, which was first filed in Harris County, Texas court in April 2013, is scheduled to return to court on May 7, 2015. The start of the trial has been repeatedly delayed by pre-trial motions, including Justice's request for the court to pay for a private investigator to find witnesses to testify on his behalf.
He's expected to represent himself and submitted a handwritten writ detailing his defense, arguing in part that because one of the dogs in his videos, whose throat was cut slowly, was actually killed in a kosher manner, it shouldn't make any difference whether the dog was then eaten or jerked off to after its death.
The Ebony Crush Goddess oeuvre is considered "hard crush," the crushing and killing of vertebrate animals such as dogs, cats, rabbits and chickens that generally violate state animal cruelty laws and are thus illegal. Soft crush (or squishing) can refer to inanimate objects such as balloons, food or toys being crushed, but can also be content showing creatures such as insects, snails and crawdads smushed and killed.
As soft crush is legal, it abounds on sites such as xxx-fetishmedia.com, chloecreations.com and crushcuties.com. For a mere $6, someone turned on by the sight and sound of life being crunched and crushed out of a beetle or crawdad can purchase a video clip in minutes via a simple Google search.
It's unfathomable to many people why anyone would choose to masturbate to images of animal torture, suffering and death.
"Not one study or any empirical research has been done," regarding a proclivity for hard crush, said Dr. Mark Griffiths, a psychologist and professor of gambling studies in Nottingham, England. "We still don't know to what extent people who seek out this sort of content are sexually aroused."
"There isn't one definition of how this works," said Christine Hyde, LCSW, PhD, a sex therapist at the New Jersey Center for Sex Therapy. "It's like saying, in BDSM, what's your kink? Everyone will describe it differently."
As the desire to watch animal torture porn is little studied and understood—and people with the proclivity tend to keep it to themselves most of the time—no estimates exist for how many people enjoy such content. But it's worth nothing that on FetLife.com (more or less the Facebook for the BDSM community), the groups "Crush Fetish" and "Trample & crush" groups had 798 and 814 members, respectively—although those groups included fans of soft and hard crush, and the latter, at least outwardly, appeared to be in the minority.
"We still don't know to what extent people who seek out this sort of content are sexually aroused."
"Live crush is against our guidelines because it, among a few other things, almost got FetLife shut down a couple years ago," says Jonathan, a community "caretaker" who fields questions emailed to FetLife administrators. "The other reason is that at one point we asked the community for feedback about crush, and the response was extremely one-sided—the community is not OK with crush, considers it animal cruelty, and [said that it] should be banned."
Even people who greatly enjoy watching insects squished to death tend to revile hard crush enthusiasts and—judging from the heated debates on FetLife—often resent being grouped with them as practitioners of the same fetish, or resent that hard crush is even considered a "fetish" at all.
But people's outrage about crush tends to increase in direct correlation to the cuteness of the animal victim.
Philippe's preference is watching the torture and eventual murder of bunnies and small cats, he told me in one of the FetLife messages we exchanged over many months. He's in his 50s, lives in Portugal, where he helps care for elderly neighbors, and asked that I not use his real name due to legal concerns related to crush content and because he doesn't want his family to know he likes it. He says he mostly trades crush videos with trusted, like minded acquaintances and says he hasn't purchased videos in a while.
"I realized I liked to watch crush back in 1999 while watching Portuguese TV," Philippe said. "They [mentioned] a video [by] Jeff Vilencia that won [an award]. They showed a short excerpt of the video, which was a barefoot woman crushing live worms. I found it very arousing."
When he started using the internet a year later, he said, "The first thing I did was search for crush."
He considers himself a masochist who identifies with the helpless victims and said he enjoys watching cruel women who appear to enjoy what they're doing.
"Many models do crush for money, but a few do enjoy it," he said, adding that he has found such women in crush communities online who say they live (and crush animals) in India and Pakistan.
Still, he says, "In some countries, people are poor, so if they propose you to earn 15 a day salary to squish an animal you wouldn't think twice, even if you did not enjoy it."
Philippe acknowledges that crush is cruel but says he justifies it because he enjoys it. He also argued that some of the attitudes towards hard crush are hypocritical.
"If thousands of rats are poisoned in a building, it's OK," Philippe says. "But if a woman does dare to step on one of them for sexual pleasure, it is not OK. With hunting, the animal does not suffer. But it's killed just to give pleasure to the hunter. Even in the West, there are places where you can go and kill for sport or pleasure. If a woman shoots a zebra it's OK. But if she steps on a rabbit, it's not OK."
John Green, one of ABP's most active core members, says he suspects that the arrests of Justice and Richards—as well as the arrest of a couple in the Philippines who are now serving life sentencesfor child abuse, violating animal welfare laws and human trafficking in their creation of videos of underage girls torturing and killing puppies, monkeys and rabbits—has dampened the hard crush video market. But Green, who gave Motherboard an alias to avoid retaliation by the people he investigates, said it's also possible that hard crush makers are merely getting savvier about how to hide it.
There is hard crush content available on the dark web if your directions are current, as URLs live and die more frequently than on the regular internet. Aided by the helpful directions of tech expert and RedJack CEO Greg Virgin, I tried to become a member of apparent hard crush lairs "Sea Kitten Palace" and "Scream, Bitch!" but was denied.
Another difficulty in ferreting out hard crush is that some producers are open to taking customer requests. How many producers who advertise only legal soft crush online but are willing to provide live hard crush to a customer via Skype or webcam is anyone's guess, as it's essentially impossible to reliably track.
Court documents indicate that Richards performed in custom shows and even responded favorably when asked if she'd consider killing a person in a custom video. According to Zack's detention order, "It has come to the attention of the government that Richards engaged in online chats with another individual about torturing and killing a human being. … It appears she will do anything for either the thrill, the right price or both."
ABP's hands are tied, in a sense, in most international cases. The group sees a lot of hard crush from the Philippines, Russia and China, but "it's always the same series of videos, the same people, so I think those are just more widely known," said another core member of ABP, who goes by the alias Baudi Moovan.
"The first thing we do is figure out where a video came from so we can research the laws there," Moovan explained. "If we can't do anything, we don't want to waste our time."
Figuring out that Justice and Richards were in Houston was exciting, she said, in the sense that unlike with international cases, ABP had a chance of shutting them down with the help of police.
"I still have to listen to the videos—which is actually worse."
Police might have been more moved to take them seriously because not long before the group discovered Ebony Crush Goddess, ABP, working with ALDF and PETA, had identified and alerted police in Canada to the whereabouts of Luka Magnotta, the man behind notorious animal snuff films such as "1 Boy 2 Kittens" and now the convicted murderer of Chinese student Jun Lin. Magnotta filmed his murder of Lin and circulated it on the internet with the title "1 Lunatic 1 Ice Pick."
Some animal rights activists, including PETA, point to the fact that many serial killers have early histories of animal abuse, and say that therefore, people interested in such violent material reasonably pose a risk to humans. Such a link between watching crush porn and harming humans is far from scientifically proven, but it does appear that police are beginning to take animal cruelty cases more seriously.
Scott Heiser of the ALDF says that a growing number of states are changing animal cruelty from misdemeanors to felonies, and for the first time, the FBI is starting to track animal cruelty cases.
"It's not only law enforcement, but DA offices that are seeing that it's an issue and starting to prosecute these cases," Green said. "They're starting to understand that if people treat a cat or dog that way, how are they going to treat a human being?"
Richards, serving her 10 year sentence in Harris County, is on the witness list for the trial of Justice. Her attorney in the federal case, Joyce Raynor, says that it's possible Richards will plead the fifth, as anything she says in Justice's state trial could be used against her in the federal anti-crush case and add years to her sentence.
"Anything she says is not likely to benefit her federal legal defense," Raynor said.
The arrest of Richards and Justice is a notable success for ABP, but as with anything on the internet, eradicating crush porn is a Sisyphean task. Videos more than 10 years old often make the rounds among animal rights activists online, so ABP will be sent the same ones over and over, such as clips from LethalPressure and RussianCrushSite, which were shut down years ago.
A few members of ABP are in talks with producers about a possible reality show about their work, which goes on, quietly and virtually, with little fanfare.
In between Skype interviews with show producers, Baudi examines crush videos still by still because it's a little easier for her to deal with, emotionally, than viewing the live action over and over. But because background noise might reveal helpful clues about where it was filmed or by whom, she says, "I still have to listen to them—which is actually worse."