You get it from both sides when you make a career out of sneaking into abandoned buildings and taking photos. Seph Lawless (a pseudonym), an urban explorer who sold $60,000 worth of self-published books last May alone, has garnered Banksy-like accusations of being a sellout. But Black Friday, a compilation of photos from abandoned malls throughout the Midwest, took off in the mainstream media. He even got interviewed by Greta van Susteren on Fox News – and almost immediately afterward, he was indicted for criminal trespassing.
How could Lawless be charged with a victimless, witness-less crime months after it occurred? I got in touch with him and he explained how a group of dedicated Cleveland detectives combed through thousands of his private online communications to find the nuggets that made him a criminal.
VICE: How did you get caught?
Seph Lawless: It came out during discovery [the phase of a trial where the prosecution must share all its evidence with the defence]. When I saw it, I was really surprised. They had pulled conversations from my Facebook, conversations between me and another local explorer, and I thought right away that was crazy. The conversations weren't all that incriminating, they only indirectly talked about me being inside the mall. It was a girl fan saying, "oh hey Seph, I love your stuff! Btw, I was in the mall it was great". Just a normal conversation about one mall in particular.
This was on your Facebook wall?
No, no, no, These were private messages.
How did they get them?
They got a subpoena for them. It's not hard to do. If you're a detective, and you use your channels to get to Facebook, and you get someone that has access, you can go on and get anything you want. There were thousands of messages on there, and they must have had to go through each and every one to find this one little snippet that they used. I was a little put off by that. It's one of those things you always hear about. "Are they really doing that?" "Would they really do that?" Well, sure enough, they did.
Yeah, and that was only part of the evidence. Another was a personal email that I sent, where in my own words I said I was in the mall. They also got a security firm that stated that they were worried about people scrapping in one of the malls. They had contacted the police after they saw me on the news, saying, "oh we don't think he should be in there".
So you think the security firm's complaint was the reason they went after you?
My lawyer, Larry Zuckerman, thinks that it was so overblown nationally that they just thought, "we're going to go after him. He's got this name Lawless, he's on TV, no one has done what he does, taken it to this level". The news kept running the story on me over and over again. Also, there's the way the local police work here in Cleveland. I mean, it's horrible here. I hate to say this, but the city should've been on fire awhile ago. There was Ferguson-type stuff here years ago.
What's the status of your case?
I am out on bail, but not on felony charges. Originally I was charged with breaking and entering though, which is a felony.
How did you get those charges reduced?
Before I turned myself in, I was told all I needed was $500 cash to bail out of criminal trespassing, which is a misdemeanour in Ohio. But when we got there, they put me in a room and said, "we talked to the prosecutor, and he's upping the charge to breaking and entering", a felony in Ohio. So at that point I'm wigging out, because I know that that will mean I can't leave. Whenever you get arrested for a felony, you're going to have to spend the night in jail, and get arraigned by a judge in the morning, and then you pay bail. We were prepared for one thing, then they changed it, which was crazy. But then [my lawyer] Larry called the prosecutor. And I guess he's such a well-known defense attorney in Cleveland – I don't know what he said, but they came back and the detective said, "they're keeping it a misdemeanour". I don't know if the detectives were just fucking with me, or what.
So you didn't spend the night in jail?
No, I just had to pay $500 cash to bond myself out. They kept it at first-degree trespassing, which is only a misdemeanor. But I'll tell you what, it was over the course of four hours. It was a crazy night. I thought I was fucked and was gonna go down hard on the felony.
If you operate under a pseudonym, how did they find out who you were?
The discovery in the court documents shows me on television, so I'm guessing facial recognition. Maybe even local news stations that had my phone number cooperated with detectives. This all happened just days after I appeared on Fox News.
Back in 2003, before we invaded Iraq, there was a small group of us using the ACLU offices in Cleveland to orchestrate protests against the war. It came out a few years later that the Bush administration wiretapped several of these places where people were organising protests, and one of them was that ACLU office in Cleveland.
Are you saying there's a connection? That the government wanted to take you down?
No, just that my paranoia goes back to that moment. Just that I'm always being watched. So I wasn't that surprised. I am a little worried though. I've never flown out of the country before, and I have this exhibit opening in Germany, and people say if you're on the no-fly list you don't know until you try to get your boarding pass. So I don't know that I'll be able to fly. We'll see.