ONSLOW COUNTY, North Carolina—A popular high school teacher thought he was flirting with a 35-year-old man when he sent him a nude photo on Grindr.
The 35-year-old gay man asking for the photos were allegedly a pair of 16-year-old students at the teacher’s high school with a fake Grindr account. When the teens received the teacher’s nude photo, they shared it around school, leading to his suspension without pay last month.
The story was real news broken by a fake outlet, “News in Onslow County,” a Facebook page and website started in October 2016 that mostly plagiarizes the reporting of established local news outlets. It was started by a 21-year-old internet preacher, Gerald Jackson, who goes by three different names and was convicted of two-dozen counts of making bomb threats to Onslow County schools and businesses in 2014.
On April 21, News in Onslow County published the teacher’s name, photo, with a story headlined: “Swansboro High School Teacher Under Investigation.” The professional news outlets in local print and TV waited for confirmation from the school board, and eight days later, Jacksonville Daily News published the first of two stories about the teens accused of catfishing and the Swansboro students and graduates supporting the teacher.
The foreign language teacher is the only instructor who teaches French in Onslow County, so he is known to students all over the district. A student at a neighboring high school where he teaches, Sierra Jean, 18, told The Daily Beast that he “cares about everyone he comes in contact with” and mentors students not just with regards to their education, but also about personal issues and the everyday struggles of being a high school student.
“We’ve all been just worried about him,” Jean said. “The two weeks that he was out, we fell really behind in class because we’re having to re-learn everything we had learned [before his suspension] and start learning the new stuff before exams.”
An Onslow County school district spokeswoman said the district could not comment on suspensions, citing “privacy issues.” The teacher was reinstated with pay on April 26, but he is only assigned to teach online, for a different school in the county.
It all started, Onslow County’s prosecutors and sheriff’s office say, when Swansboro High students Brian Anderson and Brittney Luckenbaugh created a fake Grindr account to lure the teacher into outing himself. The two then allegedly began sharing the teacher’s nude picture on April 17. The school district got involved the next day by suspending the teacher, first with pay, then—for three days—without. News In Onslow County broke the story on April 21, with the teacher’s name and face in its headline, while thousands of supporters signed a Change.org petition in the teacher’s defense.
Anderson and Luckenbaugh were charged with the disclosure of private images, a misdemeanor, in Onslow County Criminal Court and released on $5,000 bail.
The Daily Beast uncovered that Gerald Dewayne Jackson Jr. wrote the first story about the teacher’s suspension under the alias of “ArJay Jackson,” a 21-year-old reporter. He has also used the aliases “ArJay Jones” and “Robert Jones,” whom he identifies as the owner of the blog and Facebook page, News in Onslow County.
When Jackson’s short post about a teacher caught using a gay-dating app, the story exploded with numerous likes, shares and comments.
No local broadcast news outlets ran a story about the teacher’s suspension, and a senior source at the local newspaper, the Jacksonville Daily News, who spoke to The Daily Beast on condition that he not be named, said the paper held off to confirm the school board’s side of the story and to protect the victim from being further humiliated.
Readers might have been unaware that the story was not on a legitimate news site because it lifted its logo from a local NBC affiliate—with half of the NBC logo visible in the background. And the site liberally plagiarizes stories from the local paper and TV station.
“People can trust us,” Jackson told The Daily Beast under the alias of “Robert Jones,” the “CEO” of News in Onslow County. “We report accuracy… We would never write anything that can be sued.” Gerald Jackson is also the page’s ace reporter “ArJay Jackson,” as he introduced himself when The Daily Beast first contacted Jackson.
“We are very credible, and will continue to be credible in and at anything we report, and just like any other news organization, we apologize and take full responsibility for anything that we may report, that may be false,” Jackson said.
He said his decision to write the initial story with the teacher’s name and photograph was ethical because the French teacher is a “government official.”
Gerald Jackson has at least three names, and at least three versions of his public self: Gerald Jackson the minister, Robert Jones the CEO, and ArJay Jackson the reporter.
Jackson models himself as a preacher of prosperity gospel, which teaches that God gives security and financial well-being to those who believe and make donations to the church.
On Periscope, Gerald Jackson is a “Minister of the Gospel, Preacher, and Prophet” with 19,916 followers and 5,595,238 likes. In a Periscope video posted two months ago Jackson offers his cellphone number five times and asks for donations: “I need YOUR financial SUPPORT, NO ONE will be homeless on my WATCH!!”
Jackson may be a man of some mystery online, but he is well known to Onslow County Criminal Court and local law enforcement, including the FBI. Court documents obtained by The Daily Beast show that in 2014 a grand jury indicted then-19-year-old Jackson on 18 counts of making bomb threats to elementary, middle, and high schools (and restaurants and gas stations) around Onslow County.
The Jacksonville Daily News wrote about the bomb threats in 2015, writing that Jackson called in threats of “bombs, bodies and general death.” Jackson pleaded guilty to the felony charges and remains on probation until 2019.
During that same year in 2014, Jackson was accused of financial card fraud, but that case was dismissed in September 2016, due to the prosecuting witness being out of state and the officer charging the crime was no longer with the Jacksonville Police Department. Last year, court documents show that Jackson was accused of communicating threats, but the case was dismissed by the court, citing “frivolous prosecution.” In another case three months later in May, Jackson would be found not guilty after being accused of simple assault, but in August 2016, Jackson was found guilty of computer trespass, a misdemeanor charge that was added to his upcoming probation hearing from the 2014 bomb threats.
The phone number Gerald Jackson shared on Periscope is the same one used by “ArJay Jackson” on eight occasions to contact The Daily Beast.
“The Daily Beast’s sources are not reliable,” ArJay wrote in one text. “They can’t even tell you who our reporters and editors truly are, they keep mentioning Gerald Dewayne Jackson, who does not edit or write for us, nor do we know who that person is. The Daily Beast has no credibility and Onslow County will know that!”
In another round of the texts, ArJay Jackson wrote: “We denounce Gerald Dewayne Jackson as a Reporter, Owner, or any associate with our page, News in Onslow County… Gerald Dewayne Jackson is [not] linked to our page, which is false and would [not] stand in court.”
On May 4, Jackson’s alias was discovered when he visited the personal website of a reporter, which captured his internet hostname. The Daily Beast was able to link Jackson’s IP address with a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone number Jackson used under the name “ArJay Jackson.” Jackson was also confirmed to use multiple names by employees at Skate Nation, a family-owned skating rink in Jacksonville where Jackson used to deejay under his real name and under the name “DJ ArJay.”
Jackson threatened a reporter with prosecution, saying “give up the names of the sources or you can sit in jail.” He then asked The Daily Beast to print that he is a graphic designer, an investor in the stock market, a minister of the gospel, and the future owner of a skating rink in Jacksonville.
Jackson said that his lawyers would be sending a “cease and desist” letter to The Daily Beast. The law firm he named, in Durham, North Carolina, said they do not represent Gerald Jackson or News in Onslow County.
News in Onslow County Facebook page hasn’t published since May 5. The final photos posted on the page are mugshots of Anderson and Luckenbaugh, the teens who allegedly catfished the teacher. That pair is due in court on June 15.