Sultan of Sleaze
06.26.14 9:45 AM ET
He Bullies Kids and Calls It News
Cole Bartiromo pulls up in a ’92 cornflower blue Dodge Dakota, the one he’s had since high school. It’s got a new paint job, new tires, rims, tinting, and the showpiece: a vanity license plate that reads, NEWSBAL. The truck is one of the few things Bartiromo owns. A “God Bless America” decal covers the back window.
His hazel eyes actually glimmer and his brown hair, barely beginning to salt and pepper, curls up around a Seattle Seahawks cap. Bartiromo, 29, is handsome and boyish, but he looks like he hasn’t slept in a few days. Still, a tight-jawed smile, wild eyes and a southern California drawl remind me of Matthew McConaughey. Seeing him in person, I recall what one of his blog subjects told me: “He’d be handsome if he wasn’t such a jerk.”
Bartiromo slides out of the Dodge, straightening his speckled black T-shirt and I jump in next to Elias, Bartiromo’s 49-year-old Spanish translator for the mission. We head for the freeway, on our way to Bell Gardens, California, a mostly Hispanic community recently thrust into the national spotlight after a 25-year-old resident told police she had been kidnapped 10 years prior, during which time she says she was forced to marry her captor and give birth to his daughter. She said that her alleged abductor, Isidro Garcia, drugged her, threatened her with deportation, and physically and mentally abused her to keep her from running. Garcia has denied the allegations, accusing his ex-wife of lying to gain favor in a divorce.
When the story first broke, national media drew similarities between Garcia and both Ariel Castro, the Cleveland man who held three women prisoners for a decade in his basement, and homeless preacher Brian David Mitchell, currently serving a life sentence for the 2002 abduction of 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart. But Garcia’s neighbors gave several interviews expressing shock and doubt over the allegations, a twist that captured Bartiromo’s attention.
Bartiromo is determined to vindicate Garcia and he plans to do it by posting the victim’s name and photo on Newsball.com, a regrettably named blog with an even more unfortunate focus. She’s gone unnamed by police and her photos have been blurred by the media, as is custom for potential victims of sexual abuse.
To Bartiromo (Newsball’s sole employee, despite a proclivity for nosism), “censorship is bullshit.” As his site explains, “ANYONE affecting ANYONE else is subject to public scrutiny.” And since Newsball went live last year, he’s used dubious reporting tactics to expose dozens of people—rape victims, underage criminals, and innocents tangentially related to news stories—who would be otherwise left alone, either in the interest of journalistic ethics or simply good taste.
His readership is small; the site gets roughly 10,000 page views a day. But the blogger says his popularity is growing, thanks in part to his recent appearances on the Dr. Phil show and Dateline for his coverage of a small-town murder.
Through winding paragraphs of run-on sentences and visuals, Bartiromo offers up equal parts news and judgment to both the delight and disgust of those who stumble across his blog. Bartiromo is, of course, just another gossipmonger and Newsball is his online whispering-gallery. But what makes his story particularly strange is that this man who blames the media for his own inescapable past now seems to wants to make a name for himself, at least in part, by destroying the reputations of others. Bartiromo wants a second chance by denying one to anyone else.
We get to Bell Gardens, and Bartiromo stands by his truck, not quite sure what to do. He made packets for the neighbors, in English and Spanish: “Please help! Reward!” “Por Favor Ayuda! Recompensa!” They contain dozens of blurred out media photos that Bartiromo wants to unearth.
Then he recognizes Maria Sanchez’s home from the local news—there’s a garden out front and white bars on the doors and windows. We can see the alleged kidnapper’s tinfoil-covered window from her porch. Succulents and pink and white flowers pepper the small yard. Elias, the translator, knocks and a woman in a blue sweater-vest and lavender crocs answers. It’s Sanchez, who smiles politely but cautiously at the motley trio on her doorstep, flashing gold crowns on two of her top teeth.
“Si?” she asks.
Elias introduces us as being with Newsball (“It’s on the Internet.”) and she perks up, happy to talk. Sanchez is a kind of mother for the neighborhood, babysitting the local children and organizing community efforts, including a petition to support Garcia.
Sanchez tells us the same story she told The New York Times. She saw Garcia as a good guy. The kidnapping allegations just don’t make sense to her. But Bartiromo looks bored; he came for photos and the video, mentioned in other news articles, of the couple at a neighborhood party. Sanchez is chatty, but reluctant to give over her photos. Desperate and annoyed with the language barrier, Bartiromo begs as Elias translates.
“We’re trying to get it online, fast, you know? We want to show both sides and show how happy she is...These detectives, they’re trying to give Isidro a hundred years in jail.”
Something works, because Sanchez walks into her house and returns with five photos, promising even more tomorrow as long as he blurs out her husband, who appears in a few.
“Tell her I’m grateful.” he tells Elias. “I will protect her husband. She’s trusting me to do that. That’s when I will blur something out…She trusted me. Who am I?”
Now Bartiromo begins talking in yells, in broken English, inserting Spanish words and phrases when he can. He raises his arms and widens them in a reverse hug. “She go anytime she want...I want EVERYBODY to see (big hands again). She’s smiling (traces a smile on his face). She’s happy...When I put this on Newsball dot com everyone will see. When I get the pictures, escriber BIG (hands) story...Look,” he points to each of the blurred photographs in his flier, “happy, happy, happy, happy, happy. Everybody’s going to see it. That blows the lid on this thing.”
Bartiromo often mistakes volume for authority. Sometimes he gives himself headaches from talking to Newsball sources. By this point he’s worked himself up to a frenzy. He whips out his Blackberry, recording a video selfie against the neighborhood backdrop. And here, Bartiromo turns into a different person, familiar to anyone who has seen his Youtube channel. It’s part MTV VJ, part Jonah from HBO’s Veep. It’s, frankly, weird.
“Mass media can’t bring you that story ’cause it’s not politically correct. You cannot question a victim. But Isidro Garcia is innocent and every neighbor is angry at this. If I can get the video and then Newsball, big story. And media—NBC, ABC—they scared. They scared to say Isidro good guy. They won’t do it. They can’t say it. Newsball will say it. Man! I’m fired up by this injustice!”
Bartiromo says he doesn’t want to be a journalist and that’s probably a good thing. He’s not very good at reporting. He records some small videos, but they're mostly of himself. He doesn’t take down anyone’s statements or names. He’s got no pen and no notebook. But then, he doesn’t really need those. He’s not here to tell someone’s story—he’s here to tell his own. He asks questions only for confirmation. “You think Isidro Garcia was a good guy, right? I only write about stories that make me angry and [this woman], she’s a bad person.” The few neighbors who had gathered nod.
As we leave, he offers a title for his article: Isidro the Hero. “He’s beloved.”
Bell Gardens worked out but it’s not Bartiromo’s favorite way to work. He’s most comfortable researching late nights by the glow of a computer screen, conducting his interviews through texts, emails, and voice notes.
Bartiromo’s first stab at blogging was mostly to document his social media pranks. He would create Facebook profiles for people in the news and publish the messages that people sent to the fake accounts. He made a Jared Loughner profile for the Arizona gunman who wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in a 2011 shooting that killed six others, and another for James DiMaggio—a California man who abducted a 16-year-old girl before a deadly shootout with the FBI—which brought the police to his door.
He posted gruesome photos of Paul Walker’s dead body, tried unsuccessfully to out the jurors in the George Zimmerman trial, and led a small truther movement by pushing a theory that a car crash rescue attributed to Trayvon Martin’s killer was actually staged. More recently he featured a story identifying the name and photo of a 13-year-old boy convicted in the death of a 5-year-old neighbor.
“His name will never see the light of day—or the pixels on your screen—probably anywhere except for right here right now! He will be out of prison when he is 22. Don’t you want his name exposed & known for the safety of the public, forever out there on Google? The first time he goes out on a date at 22 & the girl searches his name like we are becoming more & more accustomed to doing. Well now she will read this. She will have the right to know. &she WILL know……”
Stretches of inactivity on Newsball—Bartiromo will go weeks without posting—are punctuated with bursts of manic blogging when something really grabs his attention. Something like the murder of Skylar Neese. I first learned of Newsball while helping another reporter research the crime.
Bartiromo had thrown himself into the story of Neese, a 16-year-old West Virginia girl murdered by her two best friends in 2012. Newsball named the underage suspects before they were charged by police and mined the social media profiles of the killers and their friends to piece together a rambling but explosive series with hundreds of photos and videos of the girls. He conducted interviews with the killers’ friends and family and even offered solutions to the murder mystery.
When television producers came calling, Bartiromo says he gave them a flash drive holding a gigabyte of photos and videos and voice notes he had amassed. In return, he got a minute of time on Dateline, and a much larger segment on Dr. Phil, where he sat in the front row wearing a size-too-large suit and fought with several of the onstage guests. Both programs called him a news blogger, but left out the parts about how he named the underage criminals before they were charged, slapped a Newsball watermark on their photos, and got back at friends and family members who refused to be his sources by featuring them in Newsball articles of their own. “That legitimized me. That was my big break,” he told me. Now every letter he sends, including the ones fishing for sources, is sure to mention that Newsball is the site that “partnered with Dr. Phil and Dateline!”
It’s not clear if those credentials actually help him. It didn’t seem to make any difference to the teachers at Maryland’s Chopticon High, who all ignored Bartiromo’s emails asking for the identity of the 15-year-old girl serving a six-year sentence in a juvenile facility for the abuse of an autistic classmate.
That search—which he kindly led me through in order to “let me in on the Newsball process”—took an unusually long time. If it had come to it, he said, he planned to post photos of every girl he thought could be her. When the innocent emailed him to protest, he’d get the name of his target. “That’s how you get things done,” he told me during the midnight hunt.
In the end, he found a willing classmate to photograph the autistic boy in the hall and screenshot yearbook photos of the principal players, their parents and their teachers—whom Bartiromo will blast as “protecting a sex-offending sicko,” and “conspiring to suppress and violate student's rights of free speech.”
“Going to do a split pic, him in the middle, the psychos on his sides,” Bartiromo said. “People want pictures to go with what they read.”
West Virginia author Daleen Berry wrote a book about the Neese murder and shared a dressing room with Bartiromo on the Dr. Phil show. She told me she was disturbed that any program would host him.
“What I want to know, is why have the authorities not done something to this jerk? I really don’t get it,” Berry said. “He’s named people incorrectly. He’s threatened them and gotten them to give him information by blackmailing them. Teenagers have sent me emails saying, ‘Yeah I turned it over to him because he threatened to do things to our family.’” (Bartiromo claims he never bullies sources, and instead “turns haters into sources.”)
Several of the girls whose names, photos, and videos are now attached to Newsball are similarly unimpressed with Bartiromo’s work. Most of them refused my interview requests, citing fear of Bartiromo’s retribution. The mother of one girl had “been through hell and back,” she said, explaining why she wanted to not draw any more attention to his site.
“You're writing about how much of a god awful monster Cole is and the hell he put me and countless others lives through?” one girl replied to my text. “I would love to expose [Bartiromo] for the piece of shit attention craving bastard he is.” But when I asked her to OK an interview with her mother present (she was still in high-school) I never heard from her again.
Newsball really had it out for Shania Ammons. Now 18, Ammons was a friend of Skylar Neese and a friend of one of her killers, Shelia Eddy. Ammons, who says she knew nothing of the crime, defended Eddy, professing her innocence on social media following her arrest—often inexpertly, with profane language. Bartiromo scooped up her most offensive tweets and posted them to Newsball. In multiple pieces based on anonymous sources and Ammons’ own social media activity, Bartiromo claimed Ammons knew more than she let on and should be charged as an accessory to murder. He called her an “evil drug addict spawn of Satan” (she had posted photos of herself smoking pot) and says her social media profile reveals she is bisexual, and “a violent, dangerous, menace to society.” He exclusively reported her supposed arrest, gathered from a source who “heard it from someone who heard it from someone else,” according to a chat that Bartiromo posted. As it happens, exclusives are easy to come by when they’re false. Shania was never arrested. Still an “I’m Feeling Lucky” Google search of her name takes you to the updated article.
Ammons tried to get Bartiromo to remove the offending posts.
Ammons showed me Bartiromo’s response, in a series of messages: “Guilty by association. Deal with it. Cops are closing in on you next...Maybe if you give me some exclusive pictures of Shelia and rachel’s lesbian relationship, or something else that is exclusive that is no where else, I will remove you...threats don’t phase me, nothing does, so quit ‘harassing’ me...crying that you’re underage produces no sympathy when you are all little killers in Morgantown, WV...”
When I first asked Ammons for an interview, she turned me down, telling me, “I hate him. I never want to see him again. That's all there is to know. If I start anything with him he just hits me back harder every single time. More and more lies and I'm done with that. Police say everything he does is legal so I can't do anything anymore.”
But we kept texting.
“Sometimes I would get extremely angry. Sometimes it would just make me sit and cry,” she told me. “Everyone has read it, locals, family, and most of the country, I’m assuming. With every lie he posted, the more upset I got. People in the world are reading about a girl that isn’t me at all.”
“I just really wish his website would be shut down.”
The gist of Bartiromo’s defense is that he’s merely filling the public’s already outstretched curiosity. But a media ethicisit interviewed by The Daily Beast says his prurient vigilante journalism does little, if anything, for the public good and actually breaks almost every ethical code in the profession.
“There’s a right to know, and there’s a right not to be known,” Stephen Ward, media ethicist and professor at the University of Oregon Portland’s School of Journalism and Communication, told me in a phone interview. “And the right to know was originally meant not to be about what the public was interested in but what was in the public interest.”
Some courts have drawn this line of newsworthiness where the information “becomes a morbid and sensational prying into private lives for its own sake,” that a reasonable, decent person wouldn’t look at.
Ward also warned of the effect that Bartiromo’s “print every damn thing” journalism could have on the profession overall. “What you gradually move towards is a public that is willing for laws on the press which is diametrically opposed to the freedoms he’s fighting for,” he said. “The best defense of freedom of the press is when you can show the people yes, we are free, but we’re also responsible.”
It’s also within the realm of possibility that someone might sue Bartiromo one day, according to some legal experts. Bloggers do enjoy the same First Amendment protection as professional journalists, but several legal experts I spoke with said Newsball risks stepping into legally questionable territory. Specifically, mistteps by Newsball could potentially lead to a suit for defamation of character or invasion of privacy by a subject—but their only potential satisfaction would probably be a moral one. Bartiromo is broke and would relish being sued, anyway (“Fuck you government. Fuck you rules. Fuck you laws,” he told me.)
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s prosecuted for blackmail at some point,” Eric E. Johnson, an associate professor at The University of North Dakota School of Law, told me after looking at some of the messages Bartiromo had sent to girls in the West Virginia story. “The thing is, Bartiromo will never know he’s under investigation until federal agents come to his house and put him in handcuffs.”
Coming home from Bell Gardens, the 20-mile drive back to my hotel somehow ends up taking two and a half hours.
Bartiromo, the quintessential too-eager subject who told me minutes into our first text session that he’s an undiagnosed manic depressive, is desperate to keep my attention and fill the silences that follow his most poisonous babblings. The conversation is intense, but always friendly—Bartiromo is disarmingly polite in person.
The topic of Donald Sterling lights Bartiromo up. “How do we know Sterling wasn’t attacked and raped by black men years ago?” he asks, triumphantly raising his eyebrows and offering his pointer finger. He often misses my facial cues betraying shock, concern, or disappointment with the things he says.
He continues. “So now he’s traumatized and maybe that’s why he doesn’t like black people?” Bartiromo insists he’s not just being contrarian. But, whether it’s for kicks or a compulsion to defend any popular villain, he repeatedly picks the path of most resistance. He’s also used Newsball to stick up for and ultimately befriend convicted murderer Jodi Arias and now the two exchange letters and voicemails, which he shared with me.
Bartiromo admits to being argumentative and says people tell him he’d make a good lawyer, “but I’m not ethical enough.” We talk about music and journalism, the process of writing, and stories that Bartiromo’s working on. He gets distracted easily. After a tangent, he realizes he’s gone too far and makes a three-point turn in the middle of the road.
I had built the owner of Newsball up in my mind. But he’s less of a monster, and more a reality-show contestant constantly reminding everyone that he’s not here to make friends—and at the same time too unaware that no one asked for his friendship in the first place. I’m still not sure why he’s here.
Google policy says content that is “sensitive, tragic or hurtful” can’t be a part of its Adsense program, so aside from a couple of women who donated to the Newsball cause, the site doesn’t make any money. Bartiromo says his income these days comes entirely from buying and selling things online and sports gambling.
“So what do you get out of Newsball?” I ask.
“When I’m publishing stories and I get lots of positive reactions, it makes me happy. It motivates me to do more, bigger, better stories. As long as there’s one positive comment, that’s good enough for me. I know I’m doing a good thing. Going on shows like Dateline, and now you’re interested in my story—I must be doing something right. If it wasn’t important, you wouldn’t care.”
“Do you even feel bad?” I ask. “What about the stories and photos about the kids in West Virginia?
“I’m just saying my opinion and adding in the local gossip,” he says. “Minors or not, when you happen to be linked to a murderer, by default you are part of the story...And why can’t you still do a story on someone just because they haven’t been arrested yet?”
“It’s unethical,” I explain. “If I’m not sure you committed a crime, I don’t want to say that you did, because I wouldn’t want the neighbors and your community to think you’re a criminal if there’s a chance I could be wrong.”
“Well, I was a minor and the media jumped all over me,” he says.
“Media circus on the street. And there was no crime, just allegations by the Securities and Exchange Commission about a 16-year-old kid. So why were they allowed to publish my name? Because it wasn’t criminal? Because I hadn’t been arrested yet? Well, then, why can’t suspects that aren’t arrested yet be written about?”
He grabs the steering wheel tighter and stops chewing his bubble gum. It’s the jawbreaking pale-pink variety, the kind that loses its flavor too quickly, a favorite of baseball players, maybe a holdover from his high school years. Bartiromo traps the candy on the right side of his mouth, resting it between his far back teeth for a few seconds before slurping it back in.
They called Bartiromo a teenage mastermind. The SEC started it and the media just kept using the word. But Bartiromo says it was never some master plan. “I just grew into it. Literally,” he said.
In the fall of 2000, when he was 15, Bartiromo found two prized Tiger Woods trading cards and sold them for six figures. ESPN ran a segment about it on its “Outside the Lines” show. It was welcome news for his parents, who had filed for bankruptcy twice in the ’90s and found the good life in Orange County to be beyond their means. “I became the hero of the family,” Bartiromo told me. “I could give my parents this relief, this cushion that they never had.”
He wanted more. So, armed with the $5,000 that his dad let him keep from the sale, Bartiromo began what he calls a time of “eager entrepreneurship.”
By the age of 16, Bartiromo was running several successful but illegal businesses. “To me, it was all innocent. It came from being way too smart for my own good and thinking that I was finding ways to creatively make money,” he said.
First was the “pump and dump” operation. He bought penny stocks, up to half the shares in some 15 companies, then created hundreds of fake screen names and flooded message boards and Internet chat rooms with misleading information about the companies to push investors to buy. When they did, he sold his shares. In a little over a month, the high-school junior had turned $5,000 into over $90,000. When the Securities and Exchange Commission contacted Bartiromo and told him to knock it off, he abided by the request for a single day.
In November of Bartiromo’s senior year, another idea struck. Instead of inflating the price of actual stocks, Bartiromo would sell only himself, under the alias Tom Manning, an expert gambler. He set up the site InvestBetter2001.com where he advertised quick and “guaranteed safe” investment opportunities in online sportsbooks, promising returns only the stupid or desperate could believe in—from 125 percent in three days to 2,500 percent in his “Christmas Miracle Program.” The site was live for about a month before the SEC filed a complaint, alleging that InvestBetter2001 was nothing more than a Ponzi scheme. But by that time, Bartiromo had bilked around 1,000 investors out of over $1 million, stashing most of it in a casino in Costa Rica. His dream of becoming a millionaire before he finished high school had come true.
Had Bartiromo not also been running a far less sexy scam—selling sports cards on eBay without delivering them—the SEC might have had a harder time finding the teen responsible for the million-dollar racket. But Bartiromo sloppily registered his InvestBetter site in the name of one of his eBay targets, who—when contacted by the SEC—thought the Tom Manning alias sounded similar to the name of the guy who still owed him thousands of dollars.
As the pyramid grew, the teen struggled to manage his responsibilities at home, in school and with his sham company. A couple of hours each day, he would sit with several screens open: answering questions from new investors, sending cash to old clients, and doing all the researching and betting (The SEC never concluded that he actually bet on sports, though Bartiromo says he did.) He was, in fact, paying people, but managing the payments for a thousand people took time and when Bartiromo started to fall behind, his investors called the government to complain. The scam was so labor-intensive that investigators thought he must have had help to pull it off and named “Defendants John and Jane Doe 1-10” in their lawsuit.
In the end, after a slew of lawyers had drained the Tiger Woods money, the college funds and his parent’s retirement savings, Bartiromo struck a deal. He wouldn’t admit guilt, but would turn the money in his Costa Rica account over to the authorities. He made front pages across the country and reporters lurked in front of his home, followed him to school, and interviewed his friends and neighbors.
“It traumatized my mom,” Bartiromo told me. “She wouldn’t go outside. She was paranoid that neighbors would be talking. Then they had to deal with it at their jobs. Same last name and it’s a unique last name. The L.A. Times? They were writing crazy shit insinuating my dad was involved because of a workman's comp claim and all the public records they were able to dig up. They speculated in their articles, dragged everybody through the mud. Asking of my dad, ‘Was he home at the time? Was he involved?’”
A media circus, along with a boot from his high school’s baseball team (Bartiromo unsuccessfully sued the school for $50 million for the slight), might have been the only punishment he received, but the SEC argued Bartiromo stopped working with them and threw a wrench in their investigation by invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. His silence was partially to blame for a federal judge’s 2005 decision to impose a record civil penalty of $1.3 million against then-20-year-old Bartiromo.
This lack of cooperation, coupled with suspicion that Bartiromo wasn’t really as broke as he claimed, weighed heavily on the court’s opinion. “The boldness of the fraud,” Judge Barbara Jones wrote in her decision, proved Bartiromo knew that what he was doing was wrong. “In addition to the egregiousness of Bartiromo’s conduct, his disdain for the law makes a substantial penalty appropriate.”
Bartiromo described it to me this way: “It was a fucking exclamation point, right? Just for fun. Like, this guy’s life doesn’t matter.”
It couldn’t have helped that Bartiromo was in prison at the time, one year into a 33-month sentence for two other scams. In 2004, he pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy and bank fraud related to an incident in which he tried to convince a Wells Fargo teller to wire $450,000 to an offshore account so he could gamble on sportsbooks, promising he’d have the money back before anyone noticed plus a hefty purse to split.
While investigators were looking into the bank fraud, they discovered the teller had been cashing checks from a number of eBay users to whom Bartiromo had sold (but never delivered) spinning tire rims and cellphones. Along with the prison time, Bartiromo was ordered to repay almost $20,000 to a dozen people, restitution that would ultimately force his father to refinance the family’s home in order to pay it off.
Prison was hard, but there were silver linings. Bartiromo got an associate’s degree, liked his kitchen job, and made a good friend, Spaz.
But his troubles didn’t end with his 2006 release. He foundered under the restrictions of supervised probation—a status that felt like freedom purgatory. In Bartiromo’s mind, his debt to society had been paid at Taft Correctional facility. He wasn’t behind bars, but he was still ordered to attend therapy and gamblers anonymous meetings twice a week—“a waste of time,” according to Bartiromo, who complained to the court that he hadn’t gambled for years and he had “absolutely no time to keep a girlfriend or have dinner with my family” because of the constant check-ins.
The hardest condition to live with for Bartiromo was the Internet restriction. As a condition of his probation, Bartiromo was barred from accessing the Internet for any non-school-related purpose. He got permission to use email, Facebook, and Myspace, as long as his parole officer had his passwords. But six months into his probation, Bartiromo asked the judge presiding over his case for a reprieve. “I am dying here and feel as if I could soon suffer a nervous breakdown,” he wrote.
Over the course of his probation, Bartiromo appeared in front of District Judge John F. Walter five times to address some violation or another.
He got in trouble with his parole officer for unauthorized Internet usage, setting up a Myspace page for himself as “The Dollar Scholar,” both a victim of government prosecution and a financial whiz bad boy, who would soon be “the first felon turned celeb.” The site’s promotion of a $50,000 sweepstakes called “Cole’s Cash,” was of particular concern to the court.
Bartiromo moved to a different county in 2008 and got a new parole officer. Things seemed to be looking up. He was in his own apartment, and taking classes at UC Riverside, holding a C+ average in courses like Financial Theories and Ethics and Law. Still, over the next year, Bartiromo just couldn’t follow the rules. He was caught smoking pot, illegally downloading movies, and (he says, accidentally) disabling the monitoring software on his computer. So in 2009, with five months left of supervised release, Bartiromo was back in court for his Internet activities, facing prison for the violation.
“What works against Mr. Bartiromo is his personality,” Bartiromo’s attorney explained to Judge Walter. “He has...what I describe as a manic personality where he’s very high energy, very passionate, very glib; and he puts his foot down on the gas perhaps faster than he should...It turns people against him.”
Judge Walter did not go through with his intended six-month sentence and Bartiromo was sent back to the halfway house instead, where—if he could have just finished out his sentence—he would have been free of the probation he found so onerous. But Bartiromo broke another rule, by bringing in a cellphone (three actually) and using it to text school TAs, but mostly girls. He was arrested.
Bartiromo appeared before Judge Walter for the last time in November 2009--dressed in an orange jumpsuit, his hands cuffed, which seemed excessive for the crime of having a mobile phone. But Bartiromo had used up all of his chances. Judge Walter was seething as he handed down his order.
“Here’s a bright kid who’s got a larceny in his heart, and if we don’t do something,” Walter said, “he’s going to commit some very, very, very. very serious crimes…And I was hoping—hoping and hoping that the prison sentence, and the various terms of supervised release, and the breaks that I cut you would alter your destructive path, but they haven’t...Do you think I’m a fool?”
Bartiromo was sentenced to 13 months in prison for his violation—four more than the sentencing guidelines advised.
In a letter asking the court to be released on bond while he appealed the ruling, Bartiromo begged Judge Walter to “save me from losing the next nine months of my life in which I would obtain my bachelor’s degree, get a job while working to launch my own company, Newsball.com and spend precious time with my family, specifically my father, whose health is deteriorating.”
The judge denied his request and Bartiromo served his sentence in a federal prison on the Texas-New Mexico border. His flight there was his first time on an airplane.
Bartiromo was released from prison in July 2010, this time with no probation. He met up with an old professor at UC Riverside, who asked him to talk to his class and tell his story. Bartiromo gave a few dramatic lectures to the college kids on the importance of empathy for others, warning about the dangers of greed, and lack of moral character and judgment.
Bartiromo doesn’t intend to finish his degree and hasn’t kept a steady job. The few he’s had since his release are mostly customer service jobs like the one he found on Craigslist renting out construction equipment for an elderly couple—which he quit because he was miserable taking orders for $13 an hour. He still places ads on the Orange County Craigslist offering his services as a “outside the box thinker, entrepreneur, and leader” starting at $15 an hour. In the meantime, he takes trips to Vegas, sometimes sleeping in his car or in movie theaters for weeks, hoping to hit the jackpot.
He’s a jobless ex-felon with no credit, few real friends, strained relationships with his family, and a multimillion-dollar fine—of which he has yet to make a single payment—hanging over his head. He laughs at the letters he receives from the collectors. They request a payment of $2 million within the next two weeks with checkboxes for his preferred form of payment: check, money order, or Visa/Mastercard.
He says doesn’t have much to hope for and it’s hard to argue with him.
The fines accrue thousands of dollars in interest every week. “Why ever start to pay? It just keeps going higher,” Bartiromo says.
It’s a convincing point. But talking to Bartiromo and Alexander Vasilescu, the lead council for the SEC on Bartiromo’s case, it’s likely that Bartiromo could still make a deal on his fine, if he would just stop fighting them. If he would make a few payments instead of refusing to cooperate, using his website to brag that they’ll never see a cent: “Why reward them for their ruthless idiocy? Got to take a stand right here & now.” If he would have withdrawn his audacious 2012 motion asking the court to give him the hundreds of thousands in unclaimed funds from his InvestBetter scam. If he would stop poking the agency and demanding a job at the SEC, like the famous conman-turned-government consultant, Frank Abagnale.
If he had used his powers for good, what might he have accomplished?
Bartiromo says he wants to change and I want to believe him. He says he hasn’t broken a law since his release. His online persona—a stark contrast to the chatty, gregarious man with whom I’ve spent the weekend—may be vulgar, but being obnoxious online isn’t a crime. Nevertheless, fraud is—and it doesn’t take much digging to find a long list of people accusing Bartiromo of just that.
Several members of a sports betting forum claim Bartiromo has been cheating, using an alias and friends’ credit cards to spend large amounts on big parlays—an unlikely bet that only pays when you correctly call the outcome of several games. They say Bartiromo denies the charges of losers, and demands the prizes for a winner.
And Robert Cáceres, 32, says he lost $60 on a Vera Wang tuxedo he tried to buy on Craigslist. After Cáceres wired Bartiromo money for gas through Western Union, he says Bartiromo never showed and stopped responding to texts.
The most passionate of Bartiromo’s critics runs a blog, called “Scammed from Cole Bartiromo,” where he monitors and reports on what he says is still Bartiromo’s go-to scam: selling photos of things he has no intention of parting with. In 2012, A. Dilligaf, a Swiss resident who asked that I not use his real name, says he bid on a 2004 Dodge Ram. He lost the bid, but someone using the eBay seller name “darkangelgrl” soon contacted him saying the other buyer had backed out and he could have it if he was still interested.
According to Dilligaf, and corroborated by matching banks receipts for the transaction, and a police report filed in Wenatchee, Washington, sometime after he wired $1,500 into the seller’s Chase account, he figured out the truck had already been sold. The Wenatchee records officer confirmed Dilligaf’s story and said the scam was a civil matter so there was nothing they could do.
No one would need a detective to link Bartiromo to the darkangelgrl seller. Photos in the ad show: the truck for sale parked in front of Bartiromo’s Mission Viejo home; “John’s ipad” (his father’s name) plugged in the stereo; a claim that the truck’s current owner is "the cousin of a famous female tv persona that's on tv every day and was in a blockbuster movie last year”; and Bartiromo’s dog, a cockapoo named Koda, in one of the shots. And in August, the same eBay account put the domain Newsball.com up for auction, for $21,000,000.
Dilligaf said he’s received tips from more than 10 other victims and documents their reports on the blog.
Using Bartiromo’s phone number, he also links to what look like Bartiromo’s Craigslist posts. One ad for, “a cool, submissive girl … a business partner, best friend, & girlfriend all rolled into one," is almost word for word how Bartiromo described his current roommate to me. Photos of a shirtless Bartiromo are attached. Months later, I find a similar ad with several of the same photos on Orange County’s Craigslist “Seeking a spanish speaker to accompany me to Bell Gardens to interview.”
Either Dilligaf is very good, or Bartiromo’s Internet strategy isn’t as impressive as it was in 2001.
When I ask Bartiromo about the alleged frauds. Bartiromo remembers the tuxedo guy— “I think he flaked”—but denies the others, waving them off with a haters-gonna-hate defense. They’re just trolls running a smear campaign against him, he says. What anyone has against him, Bartiromo couldn’t guess.
Dilligaf told me he plans to stop the blog “as soon as he gives me back my money.”
Bartiromo later sends me a voice note explaining this hater theory further, likening it to MTV’s Catfish.
“I can’t explain why people are out there impersonating me, but they are. And they get a kick out of it. It’s freaking ridiculous. That’s the creepers and weirdos that are out there. When you’re in the public spotlight, especially when you’re being controversial, you got a target on your back. So that’s all I can say about it, man. People impersonating others, people deceiving others, people trying to cause misery on others.”
An accidental polyphasic sleeper, Bartiromo rests in naps rather than eight-hour chunks like the rest of us. He likes the silence and the darkness of predawn. By the time I wake up in my hotel at 6 a.m., two voice notes are waiting for me.
In one, Bartiromo records Alanis Morissette’s ’90s tune, “Ironic,” and fills me in on the late-night happenings at CVS, the pharmacy chain where Bartiromo spends an excessive portion of his early mornings, hanging out with the graveyard workers, Elias (also Newsball’s Bell Gardens translator) and Paul, a tattooed chain-smoker in his 60s. Bartiromo will grab a Slim Jim and a Red Bull, and maybe a scratcher lottery ticket from the machine. Last night, he dug a handful of scratchers from the trash can. Losing tickets have a second-chance code on the back that can be entered online in a separate $1,000 drawing. He hasn’t won yet, but he has found trashed tickets that were actually winners: three bucks, two bucks, five bucks.
Bartiromo invites me over to his parent’s house in Mission Viejo, an idyllic suburban community in southern Orange County, to see where “it all went down.”
Named the safest city in California, its 100,000 residents are mostly white and affluent. Trees line the major parkway, which cuts a valley through town where even at 9:30 a.m. on a weekday, everyone seems to be out running or walking a dog. Million-dollar homes sit atop the hills. Smaller bungalows fill subdivisions below. From Bartiromo’s family’s modest three-bedroom home, I can see both the Saddleback Mountains and a one-mile-wide Lake Mission Viejo.
Bartiromo shows me family photos: his sister's graduation last year, where he looks healthier, less haggard, and carries 10 pounds of extra muscle; the hospital after his father’s second heart attack; cousins, aunts, and uncles in framed family portraits.
A wedding photo of Fox Business’ financial reporter Maria Bartiromo and her husband, cut from a magazine, hangs on the refrigerator. The family shares a famous last name with the journalist, also known by her nickname, the “Money Honey,” which Bartiromo says inspired his father to give him his sobriquet, “The Dollar Scholar.” Bartiromo claims she is the daughter of his great-uncle on his father’s side. Maria Bartiromo’s representative denies any relation.
The dining room table is covered in heaps of newspapers. A teenage Bartiromo smiles from their front pages in school pictures and throws a baseball from a pitcher’s mound. Bartiromo picks up a USA Today, then drops it back down.
“The amount of inaccuracies and lies, and spin jobs...Newsball doesn’t do a fraction of the shit that the media does.”
We look through a few more papers before Bartiromo opens his computer to give me a look at Newsball’s upcoming stories.
“I have the attention of Anonymous,” Bartiromo says proudly. He shows me a letter from someone claiming to be a part of the leaderless hacker collective that helped expose a 16-year-old Steubenville, Ohio girl’s rape by two football players in 2012. They’re targeting Bartiromo because he plans to name the rape victim, currently known as Jane Doe, her blurry image made famous in a photo of two boys holding her arms and legs, her head hanging back. Bartiromo’s been promoting the yet-to-be published article on Newsball as “coming soon” for months.
Bartiromo says the story will put a target on his back, but he doesn’t care. He’s already been doxxed by a member of Anonymous. All of his information along with that of his family’s—addresses, phone numbers, workplaces—were posted on several Internet sites. The Internet hasn’t been kind. His mother has become obsessed with Googling her name.
“It’s definitely the most controversial article I could write,” he says, clicking through his folder of photos and Vine videos he says belongs to the victim, now 19 years old. “The point is, she absolutely was not affected by anything. Because one, she’s passed out. Two, these are all from the past year. She’s completely moved on with her life and nothing negative came of it...I don’t have anything negative to say. My objective with this article would be satisfying public interest.”
And if his article harms her? If it causes her pain? If she doesn’t want to be forever known as the girl who was gang-raped?
“I guess I don’t know her,” he says. “I’ve never seen her outside of these pictures so I am indifferent to her.”
“So you’d feel differently if it was your sister?” I ask.
“Yeah.” A flicker of empathy is unlikely to change his mind now. “But if I were to say to a group of 10 people who had read and followed that story, ‘Hey, I just exposed the Steubenville rape victim. You know the picture where they’re holding her by her arms and she’s passed out. Do you want to go look at it?’ All 10are going to say ‘Yes.’ Their curiosity needs to be satisfied. So they’re all going to look. Most will vilify Newsball and say ‘How dare you do this.’ But why would they look? Because they want to. Obviously Newsball is filling a gap, filling a void, there’s a niche for it. And why shouldn’t I do it? Why should I be concerned any more about others when you see (he points to the table of newspapers) there's my story…”
He pauses. It’s an unusual moment of caution, of self-awareness, of the reality of our relationship: that I am a reporter who is writing things down.
Then proceeds slowly. “I’ve gotta bite my tongue and not say I’m a victim.”
I wait for the “but.” After all, this man has just spent the past two days trying to convince me that he is the victim—of lawyers, the SEC, the IRS, probation officers, three federal judges, online trolls, his own super-intelligence, and the media at large. And Baritromo delivers.
“But I have these huge hurdles to overcome so I have to be extreme.”