STL Mugshots Built an Empire of Shame for $150 a Week

For years, St. Louis arrests provided an endless stream of content for mugshot websites.
For years, St. Louis arrests provided an endless stream of content for mugshot websites. ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN KERSCHBAUM

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In 2018, Edmund Tauk, owner of and Behind the Bars, repeatedly denied his connection to the website in an interview with Fox2's Chris Hayes. - SCREENSHOT FOX2 NEWS
In 2018, Edmund Tauk, owner of and Behind the Bars, repeatedly denied his connection to the website in an interview with Fox2's Chris Hayes.

Three months later, Meehan's prediction came true. In answers submitted in response to Meehan's lawsuit, Tauk came clean: He admitted to owning STL Mugshots, obtaining crime data from police in both St. Louis and St. Louis County, and paying REJIS for the arrangement which allowed the mugshots and booking information to be "automatically uploaded to the website."

What Tauk continued to deny, however, was ever taking money to remove mugshots or operating reputation services like the one used by Peanick — despite the fact that Peanick's mugshot had indeed been removed from STL Mugshots after paying CleanSearch.

Meehan's lawsuit had forced Tauk to admit owning the site — but the litigation wouldn't result in any more revelations. In November 2018 (while the attorney general's office was still investigating Peanick's complaint) Meehan and Tauk settled their lawsuit. Tauk agreed to remove several mugshots of Meehan's clients. Meehan promised not to bring any further litigation against the website and owner.

For STL Mugshots, it meant returning to business as usual. Every day, new faces streamed onto the website. Every week, Tauk paid REJIS $150.

And like Green and Peanick, the people caught in the middle continued to pay the steepest price.

On May 6, more than a month after STL Mugshots stopped updating, St. Louis County police spokeswoman Tracy Panus confirmed in an email to the RFT that "effective April 1, our protocol was terminated regarding the transfer of mugshots."

That doesn't mean Tauk's mugshot empire has ended. The homepage of STL Mugshots now features banners for two spinoff sites under similar branding targeting Columbia and Springfield — though neither site approaches the sheer scale of content that once moved through

Both the Columbia and Springfield sites are being actively updated, but they appear to rely on public information portals maintained by the Boone County and Greene County sheriff's offices. Meanwhile, St. Louis County has recently activated its own public records portal and an "inmate locator" tool, though it requires users to type in a specific detainee's first and last name.

The difference is the REJIS data pipeline — after more than six years, the source that fed Tauk and STL Mugshots has finally been closed. In a June 25 email, St. Louis County confirmed that STL Mugshots is still able to make Sunshine requests for daily arrest data, but now must do so "in the same manner as other inquiring parties."

The journey to the end of STL Mugshots leaves many questions. Between the St. Louis County counselor's office, Justin Meehan's lawsuit and the reporting by Fox2's Chris Hayes, it can't be said that Tauk's arrangement with REJIS was a secret — but it apparently still shocked the police department into action after the RFT reached out in March.

Even REJIS was uncomfortable with its arrangement with Tauk. Dan Isom, a former St. Louis police chief, was appointed REJIS executive director in 2017 — and recently left the position to become St. Louis' new public safety director.

Isom's tenure intersected with the recent attempts to take down Tauk and STL Mugshots. In an interview, Isom says that he first learned of REJIS' deal with Tauk after watching Hayes' Fox2 report in 2018 — and that the news motivated him to alter the arrangement.

"Even though that was approved by St. Louis County long ago, and it's legal, we didn't want to be in the middle of it anymore," Isom says now. "When I got there, I said, 'I'm tired of this.'"

According to Isom, the change didn't immediately end the REJIS-to-Tauk mugshot pipeline, but instead made St. Louis County the middleman in the arrangement. Under Isom, instead of sending the mugshot data directly to Tauk, REJIS sent the data to the county, which in turn provided "the file" of the day's arrests to Tauk's media publications.

While acknowledging the real-life damage against the people featured in its pages, Isom argues that, on a legal level, STL Mugshots isn't doing anything wrong — and nothing fundamentally different from mainstream news sources: Like Tauk, a news site that publishes a mugshot can't be compelled to take it down, even if the underlying charge is dropped or exonerated.

"The only difference here is mass production," Isom says. "If KMOX or Riverfront Times post a picture of somebody who's arrested, that picture never goes down. Once you put it out there, it's out there. It's unfortunate. But that's the law."

Isom calls it a Catch-22, an ethical paradox of any open records law: Open records empower journalists to report on crime and expose corruption — and it also allows actors like Tauk to publicly shame people and to turn their lives into content for online ad revenue.

"Once you put that image out there, no matter who it is, whether it's one or two, or whether you're playing matching games or not playing matching games, you can't take that back. Because the simple fact is, even though you may think that the way they're using it is inappropriate — this is legal. The law allows it to happen."

It's tempting, Isom adds, to wish for a more restrictive system for public record access. In theory, he suggests that the Missouri legislature could pass a law that would force publishers to remove mugshots and other embarrassing materials, or even seal those materials in the first place.

"There's a flip side of that," he cautions. "Do you want a process where the government can keep photos of people who are arrested a secret? That might be even scarier."

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at
@D_Towski. E-mail the author at [email protected]

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