Mike Pratt and Matt Wolfe were best mates growing up.
Born a few months apart in 1982, the duo started primary school in Christchurch together but went to different schools in their teenage years.
Wolfe was at Burnside, one of the largest co-ed colleges in the country, while Pratt attended the more traditional Christchurch Boys High’ School.
The final years of their formal education coincided with the “Dotcom bubble” in the late 1990s, a period of exponential growth in the adoption of the internet.
The web was the new Wild West; the childhood friends decided to play cowboys.
So straight out of school, Pratt and Wolfe entered the porn industry.
In 2000, they launched three websites: Wicked Movies, TeenieFlixxx and Kute Kittens.
The trio of “affiliate websites” show short, free clips of x-rated content where users click through to subscription-only pornography sites.
The business model was simple: Pratt and Wolfe earned commission for the web traffic they directed to the paid sites.
One of the platforms which TeenieFlixxx linked to was Exploited Teens, a pornographer with a twist.
The women filmed having sex in seedy hotel rooms were not professional porn stars but inexperienced teens who “looked like the girl next door”.
The angle of using teenage amateurs appealed to Pratt. Six years later, he decided to cut out the middle man.
Pratt took steps to produce pornography for his own subscription website, GirlsDoPorn, which featured young women aged 18 to 22 who had never appeared in adult videos before. And promised to not do so in the future.
“This is the one and only time they do porn,” the website proudly boasted.
Pratt, who was not a citizen of the United States, enlisted professional help to set up a web of international companies to shift revenue offshore.
Once the network of entities was in place, Pratt left New Zealand to start filming in the United States.
He needed a male “actor” and found Doug Wiederhold through a Craigslist advertisement. The pair have been partners ever since.
For two years, Pratt and Wiederhold travelled from city to city so shoot sex scenes in hotel rooms across the country.
By 2009, they finally had enough videos to launch the subscription service from San Diego, California, where Wolfe joined them two years later.
The concept of GirlsDoPorn was a smash hit. While the website was locked for subscribers only, GirlsDoPorn marketed itself by sharing – for free – short video clips on some of the busiest websites in the world.
These videos have been watched 1 billion times, according to court documents, not to mention the pirated versions which generated views in the hundreds of millions.
In 2014, Pratt launched two spin-off sites: Mom POV, featuring older amateur women, with Wiederhold – who moved to Las Vegas – and Girls Do Toys with Wolfe.
The websites have generated US$17 million in revenue, according to financial records.
While not everyone would be proud of a porn empire, the two mates from Christchurch had built a successful business from scratch in a cut-throat global industry.
But, according to a civil class action – and now the FBI – that success was built on a tissue of lies which ruined the lives of at least 22 girls.
The women, only identified as Jane Doe 1 to 22, claim they were duped into participating in pornography by repeated assurances the videos would not be available online.
In response to the civil claim, through his lawyer, Pratt denied the allegations and said the women had “failed to exercise ordinary and reasonable care on their own behalf”.
According to court documents filed on behalf of the 22 women, they answered “benign” advertisements on Craigslist with links to websites offering work as clothed models.
There was no mention of nudity, or sex.
The “fake” websites allowed Pratt and Wolfe to “sift” through the personal details and photographs of thousands of aspiring models, who would never have responded to a pornography ad.
“[GirlsDoPorn] sift through the submissions … for the youngest and most attractive victims and grade the women – Grade A, B, C and D – the younger and more attractive, the higher the grade,” according to the civil claim.
Once they speak to the women over the phone, GirlsDoPorn tell them they produce adult videos which are distributed only on DVD in New Zealand and Australia to small video stores or private collectors.
The women, many of whom were struggling financially, were offered between US$3000-US$5000 as payment, as well as an “all expenses” trip to San Diego.
“They repeatedly assure the victims they will never publish the videos online and that the women will remain anonymous,” according to the civil claim.
To help convince them, the women were given the contact details of other women hired by GirlsDoPorn to provide “references”.
“Unbeknownst to the victims, [GirlsDoPorn] pay the references and coach them on what to say and, more importantly, what not to say,” according to the civil claim.
Once persuaded to film the scenes, the women would fly to San Diego and be picked up at their airport, then driven to a hotel room.
Once there, they would meet “Jonathan” or “Joshua” – the alleged pseudonyms for Pratt and Wolfe respectively – and Andy Garcia, the man who would have sex with them.
They were given a contract, which the women say they were pressured to sign before reading.
“They said that they would tell her everything in the contract,” according to an affidavit filed by the FBI.
“They said that the contracts meant ‘she could not go off and become a porn star’. Since she had no interest in becoming one, she signed the documents.”
Some women also alleged they were not allowed to leave the hotel rooms, or the exits were blocked by camera gear.
Some claimed they were forced to perform certain sex acts they had declined to do, others alleged they were sexually assaulted. One woman alleges she was raped.
To add insult to injury, the women were often paid thousands of dollars less than what they were promised because of perceived physical blemishes such as bruises or cellulite.
Of course, the videos were posted on the internet and, given the popularity of porn, soon went viral.
To their horror, the identities of the women soon become known to their nearest and dearest.
“Hobbyists and stalkers in the forums, blogs and chatrooms publish the victim’s social media and private information seeking to ‘out’ the victim as a whore, slut or prostitute,” according to the civil claim.
“In a matter of days, the video has been shared and viewed among everyone in the victim’s college, high school, hometown and place of employment.”
Some lost their jobs, were kicked out of home or university, or, as in one case, a teen beauty queen was stripped of her title.
Any complaints to GirlsDoPorn were ignored, or threatened with legal action for defamation or breach of contract.
The lives of hundreds of women have been ruined by the alleged fraud, according to the civil claim; GirlsDoPorn says the women agreed to online distribution in the signed contracts.
For three years, the civil claim, lodged in 2016, dragged on before reaching a trial hearing at the Superior Court of the State of California.
Just this year, Pratt tried to derail the process by filing for bankruptcy.
This was successfully opposed by Brian Holm, the San Diego attorney representing the 22 Jane Does, who exposed the deliberate tactic in text messages sent by Pratt.
The six-week trial went ahead in late August, although Pratt ignored a subpoena to testify in court. Now 36, Pratt said he had returned to New Zealand to be with his family.
“It’s like catching the murderer at the border with a beard and dyed hair,” Holm said in court.
“It would be relevant to the consciousness of guilt if you are talking about leaving the country you have lived in for 12 years because of a civil suit.”
But Pratt was out of the proverbial frying pan and into the fire.
Just last week, following the evidence given in the civil case, including the testimony of Wolfe, criminal charges of sex trafficking by fraud or coercion were laid by the famed Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The FBI charges carry a minimum penalty of 15 years in prison, a maximum of life.
Wolfe, now 37, is in custody. Pratt is officially a fugitive.
His mother Sharon has remarried with a new surname. Her current husband declined to comment, or pass her the phone, when contacted by the Herald on Sunday.
“We don’t know where he is. You’d have to ask him those questions.”
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