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

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Paul Peanick says it took $550 to remove his mugshot from 2015. - 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."

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