Wild, Charges Filed

updated 10/06/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/06/2003 01:00AM

With a fortune estimated at $100 million, Joe Francis is used to indulging his whims. This afternoon, Sept. 12, he's in Las Vegas, padding around his $5,000-a-night suite (complete with its own massage room and gym) at the Bellagio Hotel in jeans and a T-shirt. In a little while Francis, 30, who's made his money as the producer of the hugely successful Girls Gone Wild videos, which feature ordinary young women flashing their breasts, is due to hook up with buddies Tara Reid and Nicky and Paris Hilton, Paris being his sometime girlfriend. They all plan to catch the Oscar De La Hoya title bout over the weekend. Says Francis's publicist Bill Horn: "He really enjoys a good fight."

That's fortunate, because Francis is currently embroiled in an ugly brawl of his own. On April 2 police in Panama City Beach, Fla., arrested him on charges of using girls under 18 for sexual activities, as well as felony racketeering and one count of trafficking in the prescription drug hydrocodone, all stemming from the March '03 Girls Gone Wild coverage of the annual spring break revels in town. Francis has denied any wrongdoing, but Panama City mayor Lee Sullivan has a dimmer view of flashing coeds. "People forget that these girls are members of someone's family," says Sullivan. "It may seem like harmless fun to some people, but it really isn't. These girls have been victimized."

Francis offers no apologies for making a bundle off his controversial enterprise. He revels in it. "At a very early age, I realized I liked girls," he told the Arizona Daily Wildcat while he was visiting Tucson for his Girls Gone Wild West Coast tour in February. "Shortly thereafter, I realized I liked them naked." He grew up in Laguna Beach, Calif., where his father, Raymond, made a fortune marketing a line of skin-care products. A graduate of USC, Francis got into the video business in 1997 with his first feature, Banned from Television, which included such priceless moments as a shotgun suicide, a woman being hit by a train and another having part of her leg bitten off by a shark. If not exactly a critical success, the video raked in a robust $10 million in one year.

From there it wasn't much of an artistic stretch to becoming the auteur of GGW. The economics of the business are certainly beguiling. Francis pays his video crews $1,000 a day. The girls may receive $100 or, more often, just a T-shirt for their services. In all, the 80-odd titles of the GGW series have sold tens of millions of copies through the Internet and TV ads at prices from $9.99 to $19.99. These days Francis has mansions in Lake Tahoe, the Pacific Palisades and Bel-Air, not to mention a compound in Mexico, a private Gulfstream jet, a helicopter and a fleet of fancy cars. A fixture on the L.A. party circuit, he counts Eminem and Snoop Dogg among his friends.

It was only after this year's spring break festivities in Panama City Beach were winding down that authorities received a call from an outraged father claiming that the GGW crew had videotaped his daughter even though they knew she was underage. The daughter, who had just turned 17, was partying in town with four friends. According to their police statement, the girls went with the GGW crew to an upscale motel, where the daughter and another friend were allegedly paid $100 to be videotaped showering together and fondling themselves. Two others said they were led into a bedroom, where they were offered $50 each to fondle Francis. They declined.

Police launched an investigation and seized more than 170 videotapes from the GGW crew. So far, say police, they've confirmed that 35 were underage. Many of the girls allege that they were encouraged to lie about their ages on-camera and were offered alcohol. In a police statement, a 15-year-old girl from Tuscumbia, Ala., described the scene: "They kept saying, 'Come on, come on, we'll give you a T-shirt' and 'Nobody'll find out' and all this stuff."

Francis's lawyers insist all the girls gave videotaped assurances, and in some cases signed releases, that they were over 18. One of his attorneys, Daniel Petrocelli, best known for representing Fred Goldman in the O.J. Simpson civil case, calls the charges against his client "reckless and irresponsible." If convicted, Francis could face a possible 30 years in prison just on the racketeering charges. But as he told Los Angeles Magazine, with so many young women clamoring to be in his videos, he would never risk his comfortable life by using a questionable subject. "I don't need a problem," he said. "What do I care about one girl?"

Bill Hewitt
Steve Helling and Jeff Truesdell in Florida and John Hannah in Los Angeles

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