By the time this story is published, Paul Pelton's pretrial hearing will have wrapped up in Lorain County municipal court. The 41-year-old "Nightcrawler of Lorain" was arrested at his home and charged with vehicle trespass on July 15, two days after he'd filmed the grisly aftermath of a car crash on his street.
The crash was a late-night tire-screecher: Two teenage boys in a silver Honda sedan flew over the Kansas Avenue train tracks, driving at unknown but presumed to be unlawful speeds. The car pinballed off both a tree and a parked SUV before finally colliding with the corner of a house down the block. The passenger, Cameron Friend, a 17-year-old student at Lorain High School, was life-flighted to Cleveland's MetroHealth and died shortly thereafter. The driver, 17-year-old Zachary Goodin, was seriously injured and remains hospitalized.
The news media focused their coverage, and the public focused their scorn, on what they deemed the reprehensible behavior of Pelton, who posted his video of the crash scene to Facebook. But Pelton had focused his camera on the wreck itself and captured something that went entirely unnoticed (or untouched) by the media: the questionable treatment of the incapacitated Cameron Friend by Lorain Police.
Scene viewed the entire 4:08-minute video in the Lorain offices of Bradley & Stepanik Co. LPA.
By the time officers arrived, a dazed Goodin had already exited the vehicle by his own power. Friend was slumped over the center console, unconsciously snorting. Two officers repeatedly yanked at Friend, then cut the seat belt and pulled him clumsily out of the vehicle's passenger-side door. Friend's arms slipped through an officer's grip though, and he flopped to the ground. After a few moments, the officer dragged him out of frame by his wrists.
WARNING: Video shows police removing Friend from vehicle and may be disturbing to some viewers.
It's unknown whether or not police actions exacerbated Friend's injuries — the Cuyahoga County medical examiner's report is not yet complete, and when Scene questioned a spokesperson about the autopsy, he was unaware of Pelton's video — but it is clear that the boy was in medical crisis at the time of his removal.
"I don't profess to have expertise in the medical profession," Pelton's lawyer R.J. Budway told Scene, "but I didn't think that was an appropriate way to remove somebody who we know was fatally injured."
Lorain Police Sgt. Buddy Sivert later told Scene that police officers removed Cameron Friend from the vehicle themselves, instead of waiting for Fire or EMS responders, in part because they were worried about an explosion.
A Lorain police press release after Pelton's arrest chastised him for his inaction — "At no time did [Pelton] render assistance to the victims, or even attempt to comfort them," it read — but what it didn't mention, among other things, was that no one was rendering assistance to the boys, at least not medically speaking. In Pelton's video, a woman can be heard shouting, "We can't move him!" And later: "Don't move him! Don't move him!" about the injured Friend. Some of the neighbors concerned themselves with finding a hose to put out a small fire under the vehicle's crumpled hood, but most seemed to recognize that, given the shaky condition of the boys, trying to help would probably do more harm than good.
In general, the Kansas Avenue neighbors did what everyone does at scenes of late-night accidents: They clumped together in their PJs and shook their heads; they muttered prayers and curses under their breath; they took out their cell phones ...
Per Lorain Codified Ordinance 545.06(d), "no person may knowingly enter into or upon a motor vehicle without consent of the owner/driver or person authorized to give consent." It's a fourth-degree misdemeanor. The charge against Pelton hinges on the fact that, while filming the wreckage, he opened the sedan's back passenger-side door and "leaned in." Pelton explained to Scene that he was looking for additional hazards, "using my phone's light to assess the injured, clear the backseat, assess the wreck," and he did so with his 19-year-old daughter Corrin and another female neighbor by his side.
Given these circumstances and the contents of Pelton's video, attorney R.J. Budway told Scene that they'll take this case to trial if they have to.
"We have no intention of pleading to the charge," he said. "I don't think the police can prove the elements and I really don't believe the owners or operators of the vehicle will come forward and want to press this charge."
But why not?
Pelton was portrayed, in local, national, and even international media reports as the worst kind of digital-age scumbag: a man who would "hawk footage" to local TV stations for personal gain; who would "coldhearted[ly]" and "repeatedly" call the drivers of the vehicle idiots; who would, "as neighbors worked to pull Goodin out of the burning vehicle," play the part of videographer. (All above quoted material is from the Daily Beast's July 16 story, titled "America's Worst Samaritan." All above quoted material is also untrue.)
The Lorain PD's public comments on Pelton — "We searched to try to find anything to charge him with," said Sgt. Buddy Sivert — echoed the sentiments of outraged Internet observers who felt that if Pelton wasn't guilty of vehicle trespass, he was certainly guilty of something. And maybe "vehicle trespass" could stand in for the indecency of his actions. The maximum $250 fine and 30 days in jail that the vehicle trespass charge carries (to say nothing of the $500 bond on which Pelton was held) was viewed by most appalled readers as way too lenient.
"To take that video and post it on Facebook, it shows you have no principles," Kansas Avenue neighbor Denise White told Channel 19 in a follow-up story. "It's disgusting."
Commenters on related posts in Cleveland, Washington D.C., New York City, England, Australia and elsewhere used much more hostile language to describe Pelton's behavior. And even though Pelton removed his video hours after he'd posted it, when he learned that Cameron Friend had died, he had to disable Facebook on his phone due to the torrent of friend requests and negative comments from people who were reading about him in the news.
But most of "the news" was written or curated, it's readily apparent, by journalists who had neither seen the video in question nor conducted interviews with the principal characters. Scene certainly jumped on the bandwagon in the early going. Most merely parroted quotes given to the Northeast Ohio Media Group and local TV stations, two of which (WEWS Channel 5 and WJW Channel 8) were eager to publicize the fact that they'd taken the high road by declining the video when Pelton offered it to them.
Other outlets were content to stoke the flames of revulsion by villainizing Pelton and drawing comparisons to the 2014 Jake Gyllenhaal thriller Nightcrawler.
- "In a macabre act reminiscent of the film Nightcrawler ..." (News Corp Australia)
- "The incident is eerily similar to the plot in Nightcrawler, where Jake Gyllenhaal plays a thief-turned-cameraman who shows up to crime scenes and eventually becomes more participant than observer." (Daily Beast)
- "In a twist straight out of the 2014 thriller Nightcrawler, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a psychopathic videographer ..." (The Daily Mail, U.K.)
- "As far as raging assholes go, we gotta say, Paul Pelton is right up there with the most raging of the raging. After having watched Nightcrawler a few too many times perhaps, the Ohio man decided to become some kind of real life Louis Bloom — presumably without getting to bang Rene Russo — but definitely taking on board every last bit of Jake Gyllenhaal's character's scumbag-ness" (Popdust)
Paul Pelton posted an apology on Facebook — "I didn't do that to have some type of gore video," he told NewsChannel 5 — and has urged his page's visitors to contribute to Cameron Friend's GoFundMe account, set up to help the family pay funeral costs. He also insists that his goal was never to make money on the video and that allegations relating to his interaction with local TV stations were not only exaggerated but were in fact backwards.
But it's a losing battle, in this day and age. Internet rage is both accelerant and flame, and now that the media has latched on to the narrative of Pelton-as-bad-guy, a narrative that the Lorain Police Department actively worked to promote, there's very little he can do to defend himself.
Pelton told Scene he has not only received vindictive reviews for his auto shop and violent death threats — e.g., "I'm throw [sic] hand grenade through your window and then film the aftermath as you beg for your pussy ass life while I rape any children you have and murder them" — he's lost close friends as well. He said he's more or less deactivated his online life, and that these days he's barely able to walk around Lorain without sunglasses on.
"I literally can't take much more hate, man," he said.
Pelton was in his garage late Sunday night / Monday morning, July 13, when he heard the squeal of the tires and the whine of the engine. As he often does, he was working on a motorcycle and preparing to make a video showing off his handiwork.
"Ironically," he said, "I thought it was a bike flying down the street." But when he heard the crash, the heavy-duty crunch of metal on metal, he knew it was something more substantial. His three kids were awakened by the noise, and he and his daughter Corrin — "sort of my sidekick," said Pelton — hopped in their Jeep and set off to investigate.
A month later, at his auto shop in Lorain, Pelton hooked up his phone to a boombox and played me the video from his garage.
"I got the audio just by chance," he said. "They were probably going 100 miles per hour." And as Pelton's video panned across a motorcycle, the effect of the accompanying audio was that of a fighter pilot flying very low overhead. "Around here, dawg, everybody thinks they're the Fast and the Furious."
Lorain, Ohio, is transected by train tracks on its north side, near the lake. On the streets that run perpendicular to the tracks, one can find tire marks and grooves in the pavement from drivers skidding to stops after ill-advised jumps.
Corrin, at her father's auto shop, told me about a time last year when she was driving with her dad on Oberlin Avenue and they nearly collided with a Honda Civic speeding over the tracks on that street.
"It was airborne," she said. "Like 10 feet off the ground. And my dad turned right — we were like hugging the curb — but we could've died."
Pelton said that accidents happen in his neighborhood all the time, and that, especially in a town full of auto shops, people tend to record their vehicles as a matter of habit. He certainly does. Beyond the fact that in 2015, "everybody records everybody," it's important for documentation and for liability to have photo evidence.
The early morning of July 13, he and Corrin drove the wrong way on Kansas looking for the accident. But they were soon drawn to the crowd of people already outside at 426, taking photos and talking among themselves. One contingent of neighbors, Pelton could tell, was irate: at the property damage, at another reckless driving incident, at being woken up so late.
"So I walk up," Pelton said, "and the car's dark. And I wanna see what's going on in this car. So I click my camera on and I scroll to the light on it. I turned that on and I also started to record. I'm not like this" (Pelton demonstrated, holding his phone with two hands, in a photographer's pose). "I'm like this," (with one hand above and in front of him, almost as a work light). "When you watch the video, you can tell it's vaguely recorded, because I'm not really recording. I'm just shining the light in there. I'm having a conversation with the lady, and she makes reference to what's that in the back? My daughter looks in the back. I'm looking in the back. She's looking in the back. Everybody was there, looking in the back. Nobody got into the car. Nobody got in there, trying to film dying teens."
Two of the central arguments against Pelton, as articulated by the Lorain Police after his arrest (ancillary to the flimsy vehicle trespass misdemeanor) were that 1) Pelton called the boys "idiots," and that 2) he chose to film the accident instead of "rendering aid."
To the first (non-legal) charge, attorney R.J. Budway suggested to Scene that, though it's indelicate to say so, plenty of people would consider "driving so fast and losing control of the car" an idiotic thing to do. And though Pelton's utterance — "this guy ... idiots" — is clearly audible in the video, it's also clearly spoken to himself, in the dumbstruck way one might wonder aloud: "What were they thinking?"
To the second argument, Pelton himself said that it would have been a bad idea for anyone other than a medical professional to render aid to Cameron Friend. Using his phone's light, Pelton saw black glass in Friend's forehead, glass which he determined had come from the sunroof.
"So you could see, the way he must've had his head, he probably jacked his neck up," Pelton said. "I was like, he's probably in some bad neck trauma or whatever, so it's a waiting game for the proper medical people to get there. That's kind of like how people are. If you've ever been to a car accident, if you decide that you can't render aid, or that literally you can't do nothing, you stay ready just in case they might need you. Which is kind of how everybody was. They weren't there to not help nobody. They make it sound like people were rendering aid. That kid needed an MRI, dawg. He needed to be put on a flat board and have that thing on his neck where they pump it up with air."
Additionally, much has been exaggerated about the small fire in the engine compartment. "As [Pelton] played videographer," wrote the Daily Beast, "neighbors worked to pull Goodin out of the burning vehicle." (Recall that Goodin, though dazed and visibly hurt, had already exited the vehicle, and that neighbors didn't move Friend at all.)
R.J. Budway said that the most evocative way to characterize the fire was how his client first characterized it to him: "Tiki-torch-sized." Pelton works with cars every day and said that in addition to its small size, he could immediately identify the fire as electrical in nature.
"You can smell it," Pelton said. "There was no smell of gasoline. There wasn't going to be no explosion. In the video, I try blowing it out just to see if I could, or to see how bad it would get, but by that time, everyone was yelling fire and scattering."
The police narrative of Pelton's video is for the most part accurate, if incomplete:
In the video, the male makes comments that the boys were "idiots," and holds his cell phone so that he can film these two boys who were in medical crisis. The male then opens the back door of this vehicle and leans in to continue capturing video. He walks around to the driver's side and video tapes the driver, and then returns to the door that he opened and continues to capture video of these boys and the interior of the vehicle.
That much is true, though the causal relationship is erroneously inferred. Pelton didn't open the back door and lean in, for instance, in order to continue recording. He opened the back door and leaned in to shine a light and "assess the damage," while his camera continued to record. At any rate, the narrative stops there. It doesn't mention that Pelton then walked away from the crash to apprise arriving officers of the fire. And it certainly makes no mention of the fact that Pelton then filmed officers dropping and dragging Cameron Friend.
Police assumptions — the erroneous intent inferred above — led to perhaps the most damning allegation against Pelton, and the one that the media sensationalized with Hollywood connections: that he filmed the gory scene for the express purpose of selling footage to local TV news.
"The person who took this video does not, at that time, elect to turn the video over to Police to assist in the investigation, instead choosing to post the video to Facebook," the LPD wrote in the Pelton-arrest press release. "He then approaches at least two news organizations and attempts to sell the video of the dying and injured boys for a profit ... Persons are not ... allowed to trespass into a person's vehicle criminally and without permission for the seemingly singular cause of filming, a young man's dying moments, for profit."
The smearing is deft indeed, rife with tactically subtle misinformation: Pelton is portrayed here as uncooperative, but it's not as if police asked for a copy of the video at the scene of the crash. It's not as if, at the moment Pelton stopped recording, he could elect to hand it over to authorities or not to. As it turned out, Pelton emailed both his videos to Sgt. Buddy Sivert the following day, after Sivert and Capt. Roger Watkins left a business card at Pelton's residence while he was in the shower.
"I do not know nothing else other than what is portrayed in both videos." Pelton wrote. "I offered assistance by clearing the backseat and to notify law enforcement of the fire. And that's it."
The fact that Pelton had provided a copy of the videos to "assist in the investigation" at the time of his arrest went unmentioned in the LPD press release.
And Pelton told Scene that he posted the video to Facebook early Monday morning not totally unlike the way he might post a picture of a beer.
"Like, this is what I'm experiencing, you know. Here's this bad car accident. They were speeding over the tracks and they crashed. This is the video. I put a warning on there, like 'watch this with your teens so they can slow down.'"
It didn't even occur to Pelton to shop his video to local news stations until he received a call from Channel 8 a few hours later, about 10:30 Monday morning. Pelton said that Channel 8, after seeing the video, had been looking for a way to contact the owner to obtain permission for use. A friend of Pelton's provided Channel 8 with his phone number.
During the phone conversation, Pelton was reminded of his skepticism. He had been interviewed by Channel 8 in connection with an accident at the Medina Gun Show in 2013 and felt at that time that his comments had been misrepresented.
"So I'm familiar," Pelton said. "And on the phone I'm like nah. But they were hounding, saying, you know, 'How would you want it portrayed?' And basically however they could get the video from me. So I said I would need some sort of commitment from you to make sure that you use this video to talk about teens' driving, and I go, as a matter of fact, don't you do charity? Why don't you donate to Bikez 4 Kidz and give me some fuckin' bicycles?"
Bikez 4 Kidz, Pelton admitted, was a charity that he'd been trying to get off the ground for awhile, but hadn't been able to sustain steady bike donations. He runs a custom auto shop that caters primarily to motorcycle enthusiasts and felt that providing bicycles for local kids was a fitting way to give back. Though it was never reported as such by the stations with which he interacted, Pelton only ever asked for bikes, not cash.
From the Channel 8 story: "Pelton did not turn the recording over to authorities. Police said he posted the video on Facebook and attempted to sell it to two news stations, including Fox 8 News, but we declined."
From Channel 5, a little closer to the truth: "The man offered the video to news organizations, including NewsNet5.com. In a Facebook message, he asked for a donation to a charity with which he's involved in exchange for the video. NewsNet5.com declined, even before we saw the video, because our policy is not to exchange money for content."
After Pelton hung up with the Channel 8 producer (and went back to sleep for an hour or so), he began writing a message that he would send to both Channel 8 and Channel 5. One minute before he sent it, though, at 12:08 p.m., he received the following from Channel 8 web producer Darcie Loreno:
Hi Paul, I am a web producer for Fox 8 News in Cleveland. I saw your incredible video of the horrible crash last night. We are doing a story on the crash, and how things like this can be prevented in the future — and touch on the importance of safe driving, etc. Would it be possible to get permission to use a piece of your video or screen grabs of the damaged car? Unfortunately, we are unable to pay for any video, or even donate. We could get in big trouble by our corporate office in Chicago. But we still would love to at least get this out there. Is there any way you could help us? We could link to your Bikez 4 Kidz sight on our website. Thanks so much, Darcie.
Concurrently, Pelton sent his message asking for bike donations in exchange for the video's use. To that message, Fox 8 replied, "Fox 8 does not pay for news video. Thank you for contacting us." Pelton didn't argue. "No problem," he wrote.
It was a similar story with Channel 5. After Pelton's initial message, their exchange went like this:
Channel5: Hi Paul.
Channel5: We'd love to see your videos, but unfortunately, our code of ethics prohibits us from paying for footage. If you'd like to give us permission to use it, we will give you the media courtesy. Thanks!
PP: Would media courtesy be asking the public to make a donation to my charity? I'm low on donations and need some bikes to pass out. The demand is much greater than the supply.
Channel5: No, I'm sorry. It would say, "Courtesy Paul Santucci" [Pelton's former Facebook alias.] If you're interested in us doing a story about your organization, please send information to [email protected], (but know that we do not promise coverage in exchange for favors, either).
PP: Understood. Thanks for your time.
Channel5: Have a great day, and good luck!
Fox 8 News director Andy Fishman told Scene, when we attempted to follow up with Channel 8, that he thought his team "played it just right."
"They were aggressive in pursuing the story," Fishman said, "in the same way that [Scene] would be, but we never indicated that we would pay for the video."
The issue, though, isn't that Channels 8 or 5 might have paid for crash footage. It's that they both wanted the video, yet both published stories that obfuscated the nature of their interactions with Pelton. They cast themselves as blameless accessories in Pelton's morally depraved freelance videography when in fact they were the ones hunting the video down.
That they chose to publish misinformation from the Lorain Police on their interactions without clarifying their roles is another issue: Collusion? Lazy journalism?
For Pelton, the results were the same either way.
Pelton is now standing (pre) trial for his misdemeanor charge, a charge that was explicitly framed by Lorain Police as a punitive measure for his insensitivity at the scene of the crash.
"To me this is very egregious," LPD Capt. Roger Watkins told the Associated Press. "This is not the way people should treat each other."
But what of the others who were snapping pictures and posting footage of the crash?
"I knew my daughter was gonna share it as soon as I posted it," Pelton told Scene. "Matter of fact, they kinda hounded me to post it so they could share it. At that point, they're in competition because [a neighbor and peer] already posted pictures and now my daughter wants to compete with hers as far as, look at my footage compared to yours."
Budway went as far as to say that it's "routine," these days, for people to take photos and video of car crashes like this.
"The only exception here was what [Pelton] captured at the end — how police removed the passenger," Budway said. "My opinion is that this is retaliatory."
Budway said that the already unusual misdemeanor was made all the more unusual by the fact that police brought the charge without witness statements or the complaints of the vehicle owner.
"It's not like I walked into your car and took your Taco Bell off the front seat," Budway said.
At press time, Sgt. Buddy Sivert had not yet responded to questions regarding Pelton's charges and the nature of his arrest. Given Budway's experience as a municipal prosecutor, he suggested that for this type of charge, a citation would have been much more appropriate.
"They didn't have to humiliate him by going to his house and putting him in handcuffs," Budway said.
Pelton said, in light of the trial, that he'd rather not comment on his treatment by the police, but did say that he felt the arrest was designed to intimidate him.
"What was odd to me was that news vans were already at the police station when they took me in. The media was contacted prior to my arrest. And they were ready to put the story out," Pelton said. "When the story hit, they interrupted programming to put me out there. They interrupted people's soap operas. What do you call that? A newsflash? They put it like I was some villainous person that committed some horrible crime, like I was Hitler."
Or, in the preferred language of the media, like he was Nightcrawler's Louis Bloom.
"Dawg," Pelton said, "I've never even seen that fuckin' movie."