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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.

ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN KERSCHBAUM

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

On STLMugshots.com, crimes are content. The site's visitors are treated to an endless scroll of thousand-yard stares, people reduced to their facial expressions at their lowest moments, with each mugshot, each click, leading to separate pages that package the arrest details alongside a column of automatically generated online ads.

On the homepage, an animated wall of prison bars slams across the St. Louis skyline, all-caps text screaming "NEW MUGSHOTS EVERY DAY" — and it's a promise the site has kept since at least 2014, with hundreds of mugshots harvested weekly and supplied directly from a central repository of the region's law enforcement data.

But on April 1, 2021, STL Mugshots suddenly went still. The website is still live, and the weekly newsletters keep coming, but each one displays the same mugshots, the faces never changing from those arrested and booked on March 31.

Functionally, the site is unchanged. It still features a "Matching Game" page, which summons five random mugshots and scrambles them alongside the associated charges — offenses ranging from minor traffic infractions to violent felonies. Refreshing the page yields new faces from the bottomless supply, challenging players to correctly match the face to the alleged crime: Does a bald, middle-aged white man seem like a trespasser, or someone who would drive without a license? Did a short-haired Black woman fail to register her vehicle, or was she arrested for parental neglect, or drug possession, or speeding, or domestic assault?

No matter the circumstances that led to their mugshots, or whether their charges were later dropped or amended or expunged, in St. Louis, they all wound up in the same place. The same website.

That is, until the supply was cut off.

Those running the website have not responded to requests for comment. The site's elusive owner, Edmund Tauk, is currently being sued by former publishers of his mugshot-focused newspaper, Behind the Bars, whose issues were sold in city gas stations for $1 before quietly disappearing at some point in the past three years.

For the people featured on the website, efforts to remove mugshots are met with either silence or demands for proof that a charge has been dropped — while others allege the website's owner demands cash for removal. No law exists to define this process, and even an official expungement by the court is no guarantee for action online. The site's mugshots persist in Google searches and background checks, following their subjects for years.

But there's no mystery here. The end of STLMugshots.com began on March 5, when the Riverfront Times contacted the St. Louis County Police Department with questions about how the website was able to not only post mugshots from every municipality in the county, but with remarkable speed — mugshots were being added in real time, with booking dates showing arrests occurring the same day the images appeared online.

In an email, the RFT asked if the department had a position on the use of its police work: Was it aware that its mugshots were being funneled to a website that exposed arrestee booking information from even minor incidents — or that the mugshots were being monetized alongside "sponsored content" and clickbait celebrity listicles?

"We are now aware," Tracy Panus, a sergeant and spokeswoman for the department, replied on March 11. She went on to explain that the RFT's inquiry had prompted further research into the department's protocols for distributing mugshots. The policy had been set in 2011, she wrote, "at the request of the County Counselor."

As a result, Panus wrote, the department would be reviewing its longstanding mugshot policy — and, as she put it, "looking into a way to change it."

A past issue of the Behind the Bars tabloid, Edmund Tauk's first mugshot-powered publication. (Faces blurred by RFT.) - SCREENSHOT VIA FACEBOOK
  • SCREENSHOT VIA FACEBOOK
  • A past issue of the Behind the Bars tabloid, Edmund Tauk's first mugshot-powered publication. (Faces blurred by RFT.)

For years, STL Mugshots and the Behind the Bars newspaper comprised a niche media empire that thrived on an inexhaustible supply of new material, courtesy of St. Louis law enforcement.

But the real story of how mugshots travel from multiple police departments to a for-profit website is one that twists through a little-known government agency, the Regional Justice Information Service, better known as REJIS.

Based in St. Louis and founded in 1974, REJIS' website states that it was formed "under a cooperative agreement between St. Louis County and the City of St. Louis." It is governed by an executive director and a seven-member commission appointed by the St. Louis mayor and St. Louis County executive. In Missouri police departments, its footprint is nearly everywhere, functioning as a central hub for information, connecting federal, state and local law enforcement as they run license plates, check warrants and pull up booking photos.

And it is REJIS' ubiquity, and essential efficiency, that helped a local entrepreneur named Edmund Tauk become the king of St. Louis' mugshot publishing industry.

In an August 2018 letter to an attorney representing people suing STL Mugshots, Assistant St. Louis County Counselor Priscilla Gunn, acting as counsel for REJIS, revealed that in 2011 the county had asked the agency to give two publishers "arrest reports and specific data on a continuing and on-going basis."

There was nothing illegal about this. REJIS concluded that records were public under the state's Sunshine Law, which empowers anybody to request certain Missouri criminal records.

The open records law allows news sources, including the RFT, to request police departments provide details of ongoing criminal cases, even though the defendant hasn't been found guilty or innocent. It means stories can quote directly from probable cause documents and, yes, publish mugshots. Beyond just crime coverage, documents and information revealed through Sunshine requests are often key to quantifying the impact of government policies and identifying corruption.

This was something different, but, as Gunn's letter to the attorney repeatedly noted, entirely legal. She wrote that REJIS is "required to comply" with the state's open records law, and therefore would continue to provide Tauk, owner of the Behind the Bars newspaper, with direct access to the region's public safety data.

In return, Gunn wrote that Tauk and a second "requestor," Kyle Prall, the Austin-based founder of BustedMugshots.com, agreed to pay REJIS $150 every week to offset the "programming costs to provide specific information in the format requested."

"REJIS does not sell mugshots or data," Gunn's email continued. "REJIS passed the costs of producing the information to the requesters."

The exchange meant that Tauk and Prall received dozens of mugshots every day, direct from REJIS, with the monthly totals often exceeding 2,000 individual cases. Meanwhile, the public and journalists still had to file Sunshine requests and wait for the county to respond, a process that can take days (and sometimes, weeks) to get a single document. But Tauk and Prall now had nearly instantaneous access to the mugshots en masse.

With the arrangement in place, REJIS opened the floodgates of St. Louis County's crime data. According to Gunn, Prall was the first customer to make use of the data, gaining access in May 2012. The date corresponds with the start of the Busted Mugshots collection of more than 120,000 St. Louis County mugshots still available on the site.

Busted Mugshots stopped updating in April 2019 — just a few months after Prall himself became the subject of a twenty-count federal indictment. Prosecutors accused him of diverting more than $500,000 from sham political action committees backing 2016 presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Prall eventually pleaded guilty and, in October 2019, a judge sentenced him to three years in prison.

Tauk ran into no such trouble with the law in St. Louis. He gained access to the REJIS mugshot supply in 2014, around four years after founding Behind the Bars. The sixteen-page tabloid offered eye-catching and often suggestive headlines — one run of issues featured stories titled "East side stripper tells all," "Fried chicken & cocaine" and "Clowning and frowning."

Around the same time, Tauk founded STLMugshots.com.

"I didn't even know if STL Mugshots was controlled by an organization out of St. Louis. It could have been in Nigeria, as far as I was concerned," says a St. Louis resident who asked not to be identified because his mugshot remains searchable on the website.

Originally triggered by a warrant for nonpayment of child support, the arrest that landed his image online is now more than five years old, though it was later resolved without a conviction on his record. He says he emailed STL Mugshots several times asking for its removal but never heard back.

"All I knew was I had a mugshot there that I was trying to get removed, and I couldn't get any traction whatsoever," he adds.

He describes a series of dead ends: After emailing STL Mugshots, he contacted several "reputation management" services that offered to "delist" the image from web searches, but he balked at paying thousands of dollars to another seemingly shady online industry. He spent years worrying that his employer would stumble across the mugshot on a Google search.

In frustration, he finally contacted the Ballwin Police Department, which had arrested and booked him in the first place before his transfer to the St. Louis County Justice Center. In an email, a Ballwin police lieutenant told him the department had never received any formal requests seeking his arrest data.

"We do not routinely release arrest information to include arrest photographs, unless it is the type of crime that could impact the community, i.e. robbery, serial burglaries and such," the lieutenant wrote. "The incident to which you are referring would not have been of the nature where a media release was conducted."

But if Ballwin didn't release the mugshot, who did? The lieutenant noted that Ballwin's "mugshot system" was maintained by REJIS, which, he wrote, "has strict procedures on releasing information."

In reality, those strict procedures were the very avenues on which the mugshot had passed, from Ballwin, to St. Louis County, to REJIS — and from there, to Edmund Tauk.

A 2015 arrest on a "failure to appear" warrant put Jardena Green's face in the pages of Behind the Bars. Her charges were later dropped — but the mugshot remained. - ERIN MCAFEE
  • ERIN MCAFEE
  • A 2015 arrest on a "failure to appear" warrant put Jardena Green's face in the pages of Behind the Bars. Her charges were later dropped — but the mugshot remained.

In 2015, Jardena Green spent that Mother's Day weekend in a holding cell. Like thousands of drivers in St. Louis County, she had been caught in the predatory system of municipal traffic enforcement, in which motorists stopped for minor traffic issues would be flagged for previous violations in other municipalities — where they could be jailed and fined by the cash-strapped towns.

St. Louis County includes more than 80 municipalities, most which maintain their own court systems and police — producing a confusing and often badly coordinated system that relied on physical mailing addresses to inform defendants of court dates.

That spring, Green had been arrested in Maryland Heights for a traffic violation — but a check of her plates showed a warrant for her arrest for failing to appear at a Hanley Hills municipal court hearing for an unrelated charge of failing to register her vehicle. Green says the summons had been sent to the wrong address, and court records show the charge was later dropped.

Then her mugshot appeared in the pages of Behind the Bars.

"A friend of mine told me that they saw me in a magazine," Green recalls in a recent interview. "At the time, I was very active in martial arts, and I thought it was an article about something positive, but it was the total, complete opposite."

In college studying for a degree in criminal justice, Green says she dreaded applying for internships with background checks. She taught tai chi, but prospective students Googling her classes would find her mugshot along the way — "To have that slapped on there, and to have people look up what I do for a living, it was just so embarrassing," she says.

Green, who is Black, noticed that many of the pages featured on STL Mugshots and Behind the Bars are filled with faces that looked like hers: Black motorists arrested for minor traffic cases.

Considering the website and newspaper reflect the data collected from municipal police departments in St. Louis County — where Black drivers have been found to be at disproportionate risk for being pulled over — it makes a certain sense: STL Mugshots reflects the same racially biased policing as the departments which supplied its data.

But those details don't matter when a mugshot file is created. Like the rest of the content featured in Tauk's publications, Green's booking information began life on St. Louis County servers and was saved into a digital record managed by REJIS. Then it was sent to STL Mugshots.

"It's like this defamation of character, because no one's going to follow up and inquire about if the case was thrown out or what was it really for. It just looks awful," Green says. "I just feel like they're taking people and using their embarrassment as entertainment. That to me is really messed up."

Paul Peanick says it took $550 to remove his mugshot from 2015. - ERIN MCAFEE
  • ERIN MCAFEE
  • Paul Peanick says it took $550 to remove his mugshot from 2015.

Even when charges are dropped, an accusation itself can destroy careers. Paul Peanick's 2015 arrest for felony second-degree robbery never advanced beyond his arrest — the charge, he says, was related to his attempt to retrieve personal items from an ex-girlfriend's home and a dispute with her new partner, who pressed charges for robbery but never showed up to court.

Even so, Peanick says the arrest changed his life. By the time he graduated, the image of STL Mugshots appeared on Google search "as the very top result, above my LinkedIn."

"Before I was charged, I didn't spend a lot of time paying attention to these sorts of websites and papers you'd see at the gas station counter. I'm sure as a teenager I'd probably pick one of these up and laugh at the people in there, and it's natural to do that," he says, and adds, "You always think, 'It's never going to happen to me.'"

Peanick would ultimately spend years, and thousands of dollars, in attempts to remove his mugshot. They included attempts to contact the website directly with proof of his charges being dropped. Finally, in 2018, he paid $550 to a website called CleanSearch to remove two mugshots from STL Mugshots and a second website — and it worked.

In emails from a CleanSearch staff member identified only as "Chris," Peanick was provided updates on the negotiation. The owner of STL Mugshots, Chris wrote, was "unreasonable" and had demanded "a large up-front sum."

By the end of the ordeal, Peanick was glad his mugshots were finally scrubbed from the web, but he found himself furious at what felt like a shakedown: He was convinced that STL Mugshots, CleanSearch and Edmund Tauk were connected in some kind of extortion scheme.

Taking money for mugshot removal is illegal under a 2014 Missouri law, which made it a misdemeanor for any entity that publishes criminal record information to demand payment for removing it.

Peanick believed his case showed just that sort of illegal scheme. In late 2018, he filed a complaint with the Missouri attorney general's office, which opened an investigation through its consumer protection division.

The investigation came to a close in March 2019. In documents shared with the RFT, Morgan Johnson, a consumer advocate in the AG's office, wrote to Peanick: "The company denies any wrong-doing, and therefore will not be providing the relief you are seeking."

Johnson's message included an email response to the AG's investigation, dated November 27, 2018, and signed by "STLmugshots."

"We have never accepted money for removing information off our site," the email began. "It has never happened. If he provided us with information stating that his case was dismissed or dropped that is why his information was removed."

Notably, the response failed to address whether STL Mugshots had actually removed Peanick's mugshot or, for that matter, that it had ever featured him on the site. The message amounted to a carefully written denial.

"This site sells advertising, that is how it makes an income," the email concluded. "Just like any other news source."

Edmund Tauk did not respond to requests for comment sent through his website. Direct messages sent to the STL Mugshots Facebook page were viewed but not responded to.

But Tauk has not always managed to avoid reporters so easily. In July 2018, Fox2 investigative reporter Chris Hayes got Tauk on camera — at which point Tauk denied owning the website and repeatedly challenged Hayes to "prove it to me that it's mine."

Even when Hayes uncovered invoices from REJIS showing the weekly payments for arrest summaries and photos, Tauk held his ground.

"I'm telling you again for the 500th time," Tauk told Hayes in a phone call later aired by the news station, "I don't own STL Mugshots. You're wrong. I'm telling you this a thousand, thousand percent, I do not own STL Mugshots, and I'll say it again and again and again."

By then, Hayes had already broken the news on REJIS' special arrangement with the two mugshot publishers. However, while Tauk's business license with the Missouri secretary of state showed his ownership of Behind the Bars, there was no such paper trail between him and STL Mugshots.

Hayes' story also featured Jardena Green and Paul Peanick describing their public shaming after appearing on the website. Green's lawyer, Justin Meehan, had already filed a lawsuit demanding Tauk remove her mugshot and pay damages for "extreme embarrassment, loss of reputation and public humiliation."

But Meehan had run into the same challenge as Hayes. In an August 2018 interview with the RFT, the attorney noted that the ownership of STL Mugshots' domain was hidden by its registration through GoDaddy and a nameless proxy organization based in Arizona.

To Meehan, however, Tauk's denials were beyond belief. Meehan noted that STL Mugshots' ability to add large quantities of daily mugshots strongly suggested that it had a direct feed to REJIS — there was no other way to match the volume. In addition, there was already proof that Tauk was indeed paying REJIS for the content that filled the pages of Behind the Bars.

"The key is, he's the only guy who's purchasing this information from REJIS," Meehan said at the time. "I'm dragging him into the ring, and we're going to use legal procedures to get to the bottom of it. We'll eventually be able to force him under oath."

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

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 Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com

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