In the early morning of March 14, 2016, the hunt for a Russian hacker brought FBI agents to a condominium complex in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Over the previous weeks, someone had been systematically targeting federal agents, judges, local cops and intelligence agency workers throughout Florida, posting 14,000 of their home addresses to the web, all of them specifically exempted from public records because of their sensitivity.
The perpetrator claimed to be stealing the data from county networks from Miami to Ft. Lauderdale. He called himself “БадВолф”, or “BadVolf.”
Little was known about BadVolf. In press interviews and public posts he claimed to be a government IT worker in Moscow with an interest in exposing police corruption. On the other hand, a lot was known about the owner of the website where the data appeared. He was a disgruntled ex-cop named John Mark Dougan who for years had been waging a relentless campaign against his former employer, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.
Dougan had resigned from the sheriff’s office in 2009 after nearly four years in a police cruiser. Since then he’d been many things to many people. It’s fair to say he was a whistle-blower who used firsthand knowledge, inside sources and public records laws to expose violence and scandal inside the department. He was also a tech-savvy trickster afflicting his enemies with a plague of social engineering attacks. One sheriff’s official carried on an intimate 10-day telephonic flirtation with a woman who turned out to be Dougan using a voice changer. Another was scorched with accusations linking him to a white supremacist group, reported from a fake news site so convincing that the legitimate press picked up the false story.
BadVolf was Dougan’s greatest creation.
In truth, there was no Russian hacker—and there were no hacks. Instead, The Daily Beast has learned exactly how Dougan used public information and sophisticated data analytics to blow holes in Florida’s address confidentiality system without cracking a single network.
But that day in the spring of 2016, his hoax backfired spectacularly, with FBI agents raiding his home and carting off his computers. Fearful that he’d be arrested and wind up in the custody of the very cops he’d been battling, Dougan fled to the only place he felt safe: Russia, where Vladimir’s Putin’s government granted him asylum status.
Now living in Moscow, Dougan is winding up an audacious third act. This time he’s claiming he had a hands-on role in the most notorious computer espionage incident in history: the 2016 leak of thousands of emails and documents from the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign.
Dougan’s journey to Moscow and international intrigue began in Belle Glade, Florida, a five-square-mile agricultural town in a part of Palm Beach County not featured on postcards, where the golf courses give way to sugarcane fields and the median income flattens like roadkill.
Sometimes called “Muck City” for the slimy run-off from the local sugarcane farms, Belle Glade is best understood as a developing-world-style shantytown plunked down 40 miles west of Mar-a-Lago. The violent crime rate here hovers at three times the national average, and 37 percent of the 20,000 inhabitants live below the poverty line. For several years in the 1980’s Belle Glade was notorious for having the highest per-capita HIV infection rate in the country.
Dougan started patrolling Belle Glade in 2008 after four years on easier turf. His first job in law enforcement was on a small-town police force in Mangonia Park, Florida, where he distinguished himself by writing more traffic tickets than the other 11 officers combined. In mid-2005 he moved up to the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, a department with 4,000 employees covering a territory the size of Delaware. A former Marine gunner, Dougan wanted to do real police work, make arrests, solve crimes and help people. As he began his third year in the sheriff’s office he put in for a transfer to Belle Glade.
It was an unusual move—nobody volunteered for Belle Glade. But Dougan was an unusual cop. With his shaved head and stolid build, he looked every inch a career police officer, but his eclectic job history also included stints in horse transportation and database design, and he was a licensed pilot. In Mangonia Park, Dougan helped the DEA with a series of drug busts, and the agency praised him for his “pronounced surveillance skill.” Dougan later improvised a sting to collar a local fugitive, leading a Palm Beach County detective to enthuse about his creativity: “This… is a Deputy thinking outside the BOX.”
But Dougan faced controversies on the force too. On one occasion he was written up for insubordination. And in 2006 he pepper-sprayed an off-duty deputy in the face, a move a judge later called “gratuitous” and which cost the county a $275,000 civil judgment. “Deputy Dougan’s interpersonal skills need improvement,” a lieutenant wrote in an evaluation, “as he does not know how to pull back from a brewing issue.”
When Dougan arrived in Belle Glade in mid-2008, it had lots of brewing issues.
Dougan quickly discovered that Muck City was the stomping ground for a gang of rough deputies led by one his superiors, Brent Raban, a sergeant who liked to patrol in a skullcap emblazoned with the word “punishment.” Raban bragged on Facebook about brutalizing the people he arrested, sometimes posting mugshots of bruised and beaten faces. “Had a guy run from me,” he wrote in one post. “He too fell down some stairs last night, and his medical clearance took a while … But like a good batterer I know the areas that hide the marks well.”
In one incident that year, one of Raban’s deputies, Michael Woodside, pulled over a woman named Maria Paul, put her in a chokehold and slammed her to the ground, according to a subsequent lawsuit that the county settled, before dragging her in handcuffs to the back seat of his cruiser and punching her repeatedly in the face and body. The encounter had begun with Paul playing her car radio too loud in violation of Florida’s traffic code.
“They were just beating the minorities bloody,” says Dougan. “It was just awful.”
Dougan says he was disgusted with the behavior, but feared the reprisals he’d face if he made a stink. “I’d just had a little girl, my daughter,” he recalls. “What am I going to do?” After a few months, he sent an anonymous tip about Raban to an attorney defending one of the cop’s arrestees, and then tried to get a TV news reporter interesting in the Facebook posts. Nothing happened.
Finally, on Dec. 29, 2008, Dougan resigned from the force, firing off a flurry of pseudonymous emails to department brass on his way out, with screenshots of the Facebook posts and a photo of Raban in his “punishment” cap.
Raban and Woodside were immediately put on administrative leave. They admitted to the Facebook posts, but characterized them as jokes, and adamantly denied any real-life abuse. Seven months later, an Internal Affairs probe concluded there was no excessive use of force by the men. Woodside was fired for using a police PC to watch a movie while on duty, and another deputy was terminated for lying on a police report and surfing Facebook on department time. Raban was found in violation of 11 different department regulations and demoted.
The outcome incensed Dougan. He believed the sheriff’s office was whitewashing the whole affair, punishing Raban and his deputies with technical violations to satisfy the public, while glossing over the police brutality at the heart of it all. “I was pissed off,” says Dougan. “They were letting these guys get away with murder, and they were fucking over the citizens they were getting paid to protect.”
Dougan, though, was soon in hot water of his own. In October 2009 he was fired from the Windham police force for sexual harassment. A lawsuit filed by Officer Danielle Nelson describes months of bad behavior toward female officers, ranging from inappropriate comments to repeated unwanted touching and misogynistic slurs. He commented, in explicit terms, about the sexual attractiveness of the women he encountered on the job, the lawsuit alleged. “He would look at females’ breasts, lick his lips, and say ‘umumumum,’” wrote Nelson.
Dougan claims that Nelson made everything up to retaliate for complaints he made about her performance, and that Windham officials only fired him because they’d learned about his Belle Glade whistle-blowing. But the independent Maine Human Rights Commission ruled that Dougan did indeed sexually harass Nelson, and in January 2013 Nelson’s lawsuit against the town of Windham was settled out of court on undisclosed terms.
Dougan moved back to Palm Beach County with a burning sense of injustice. He sued Windam for wrongful discharge, and the town settled for less than $10,000 in go-away money. That’s when he started exacting his own brand of justice.
Using his web skills, he began erecting revenge websites like WindhamTalk.com, which claimed to have the “real scoop” on corruption in the town of Windham and featured a prominent photo of Nelson with the caption “Liar” at the top. But his primary focus was the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office, and its elected chief, Sheriff Ric Bradshaw. Dougan set up SheriffBradshaw.com to rail against Bradshaw, and PBSOtalk.com, to serve as an open web forum where Dougan and anyone else would be free to air the department’s dirty laundry.
Revenge websites rarely have an impact, but PBSOtalk.com would prove an exception. In the months and years that followed, Dougan’s website became a consistent source of insider dirt: a leaked affidavit about a former SWAT commander accused of stealing painkillers from a dying deputy; purchase orders showing the office spent nearly $80,000 on barbecue grills; a photo of officers posing with a topless woman on a Palm Beach golf course.
In 2012, Dougan revealed that Bradshaw had spent nearly $1,000 of taxpayer money taking campaign donors to lunch, a revelation that earned Bradshaw a rebuke from a state ethics commission.
In January of that year Bradshaw’s office opened a criminal investigation into Dougan, assigning a retired detective to track his every move and hunt for his sources. An Internal Affairs lieutenant named Dean Johnson was eventually charged with four felonies for allegedly leaking information to and about Dougan (he later copped a misdemeanor plea), but Dougan himself emerged unscathed.
He kept going, slathering layers of disinformation over his citizen journalism. PBSOtalk hosted countless false accusations about Bradshaw and other PBSO brass, some of them vile, and at one point a fake pedophilia confession appeared under the fraudulent byline of a top department official.
Dougan mastered the dark art of fake news, crafting official-looking websites with names like DCWeekly.com and DCPost.org for his made-up stories. One of his bigger hits quoted Bradshaw encouraging motorists to run over Black Lives Matters protesters. It was so convincing that Bradshaw’s office had to issue a denial, leading to a cycle of real news headlines like “Sheriff Bradshaw Wrongly Accused of Telling Boynton Residents to Run Over Protesters?”
There are rules to making good fake news, Dougan learned. Rule one: Keep the domain names short and official-looking; nobody trusts a website with a long, silly address. Rule two: Set up an RSS aggregator to continuously pull and post stories from authentic news outlets. “A fake-news site is nothing without real news,” he wrote recently. “There must be real news with real photos on the front of the site so the fake story blends in and becomes believable.”
Bradshaw already faced controversy over his department’s high rate of police shootings. Now he had his own personal online tormentor. According to one report, he couldn’t stand to look at PBSOtalk, so he had his people monitor the site and report daily on the latest outrage.
Dougan and Bradshaw exchanged blows for years. Bradshaw’s deputies tried to get Dougan charged with a crime for posting a video of a Bradshaw campaign worker without permission. Dougan spammed out an election-day email under the name of a prominent county commissioner slamming Bradshaw for “immoral and criminal activities.” Bradshaw’s second-in-command filed suit against Dougan for defamation, dragging him through years of litigation before the case was voluntarily dismissed by both parties. Dougan raised money to put a light aircraft in the skies over Palm Beach, a banner with an anti-Bradshaw slogan trailing behind it.
Then, in 2015, things got weird.
“I don’t know what it is, but I feel so comfortable talking to you, and I enjoy our conversations.”
The speaker was Kenneth “Mark” Lewis, a general contractor in Pahokee, Florida. On the other end of the call was “Jessica,” a New York woman in her mid-thirties with a fawning, obsequious manner and a chipmunk voice. For 10 days in the summer of 2015 romance was in the air.
Jessica had contacted Lewis for a planned home renovation project, but she quickly took an flirtatious interest in the 56-year-old’s personal life, peppering him with questions and flattery. The two exchanged photos and texted frequently, and before long they were talking until 1:00 in the morning.
Lewis told Jessica all about his career. Before he got into the construction business he’d worked at the Palm Beach County Sheriff's office for 23 years, retiring in 2005 as a lieutenant detective. But he still did work for Sheriff Bradshaw. Special work. He was the guy they called in for sensitive investigations.
“Whenever we have a bad contractor or person who attacks one of our judges or the sheriff or the state attorney, that’s one of the things I do,” Lewis told her. “I start picking their life apart, and their businesses, their family.”
One target in particular had consumed much of Lewis’ time over the years, he explained. It was a former deputy named John Mark Dougan. “I have a whole file cabinet dedicated to this, nothing but this guy,” Lewis said. “You know, what’s interesting is he thinks he’s really, really super-smart.”
Bradshaw had placed Lewis in charge of the perpetual investigation of Dougan that began when PBSOtalk started churning out scoops—it was Lewis who’d busted one of Dougan’s sources in 2012. Even as Lewis and Jessica exchanged endearments and drew plans to meet in real life, the conversation turned again and again to the topic of Lewis’ Great White Whale. The couple even decided on a nickname for Dougan, “Mr. Creepy.”
“I would love to run into him in a dark alley,” said Lewis.
“Oh I bet,” Jessica trilled. “You’re a big guy too!”
In another call, Lewis wondered aloud why Dougan hadn’t been killed yet. “He has really made some powerful people extremely angry. Some very wealthy, powerful people. I’m shocked how he is still alive.”
Jessica couldn’t get enough of it. Lewis dazzled her with all the clever methods he was employing against Dougan, explaining that he’d once “hacked the analytics” of PBSOtalk to see who was visiting the site. When Dougan traveled abroad, Lewis was able to electronically monitor his quarry from the comfort of Palm Beach County, even seeing the photos Dougan snapped before they appeared on Facebook. “It’s like magic,” he said. “Before he ever came back we had all the pictures.”
The talk of hacking perked up Jessica’s interest even more. She broke into an elaborate story about a suspicious woman who’d become involved with her wealthy father, and asked Lewis if he could help investigate the woman. Lewis promised to contact his technical guy, who he called “probably one of the best hackers that was out there.”
The “hacker” turned out to be Anthony Rodriguez, a social media specialist in PBSO’s media relations office. Lewis conferenced him in with Jessica, and Rodriguez began running through all the information he’d able to get from a target’s social media posts using tricks like creating fake Facebook accounts to worm into their circle of friends.
“We’ve even gotten to the point where—and this is not completely, you know, on the law enforcement side—there are ways we can even access her password through various methods,” Rodriguez said.
By the end of the 40-minute call Lewis and Rodriguez had agreed to do some paid freelance work on Jessica’s behalf and obtain her gold-digger’s private Facebook messages and web browsing history.
Rodriguez started poking around right away, but he had trouble finding information on Jessica’s target. She had a Linkedin profile and was on Facebook, but there was little else. He circled back with Lewis and asked for every scrap of information Lewis had on Jessica and her family.
After that it didn’t take much digging to confirm what Rodriguez had already come to suspect. Jessica didn’t exist.
The catfishing caper had been easy for Dougan—one of his many startups involved building business telephone systems. He arranged to route his calls through an offshore VOIP service that had a bank of numbers in a New York area code, and bought a $40 program called MorphVOX Pro to change the pitch of his voice.
This time Dougan was sure Bradshaw was going down. He had Lewis on tape boasting about hacking him, with no mention of getting a warrant first. As a bonus, he’d been treated to a full briefing on the department’s quest to silence his website and throw him in jail.
He’d learned, for example, that the FBI was working with the sheriff’s office against him, at least according to Lewis’ telephonic pillow talk. In 2013, Lewis said, the bureau had been on the brink of arresting Dougan for allegedly providing false information on his FAA pilot’s certification, failing to disclose that he suffered the potentially-disqualifying neurological illness Tourette’s Syndrome.
The bureau held off at the last minute, though, and Lewis believed he knew why. They wanted to know why Dougan had started traveling to Russia.
Dougan’s sojourns to Moscow started in February 2013. By his account, he’d met a Russian woman through Facebook, and they’d struck up an online romance that Dougan wanted to make real. Once in Moscow he came to appreciate the city almost as much as the woman. The Russian capital felt free and ungoverned, a place where you could get away with almost anything, as if the internet itself had suddenly transformed into a major metropolis. “It was like the Wild West meets New York City,” he says.
At the time of the Lewis catfishing episode, Dougan had been to Moscow two or three times, staying for a month on each visit. His Muscovite girlfriend traveled to Florida about as often, he says.
Dougan’s Facebook timeline contains a curious artifact from his first trip. It’s a photo he posted a week after he arrived showing Dougan at an upscale restaurant having lunch with someone who was decidedly not a long-distance love interest. It was a former high-ranking Kremlin official named Pavel Borodin.
Sometimes called “Putin’s mentor,” Borodin had been Boris Yeltsin’s top aide. In the powerful position of state property manager he effectively reigned over billions of dollars in Russian assets, and paved the way for Vladimir Putin’s rise by appointing Putin as his deputy in 1996.
In 2001, Borodin was briefly detained in New York on Swiss money-laundering charges en route to George W. Bush’s inauguration. He’s also mentioned in former CIA officer Bob Baer’s 2002 autobiography See No Evil. As told by Baer, Borodin was one of two top Russian officials who tried to get a back-channel message to Bill Clinton in late 1995 offering financial support for his reelection campaign.
Dougan says he’d reached out to Borodin in advance of his trip, primarily because he wanted to meet as many interesting people as possible on his first visit to Russia. Dougan was also hoping to interest Borodin in his business phone system venture, he says. “He wasn't working for the government any more, but he owned businesses, and he was looking for another business to partner up with,” says Dougan. “And I talked to him about trying to overturn that Russian adoption law that I thought was not great."
If the meeting was about adoptions, that detail didn’t make it into the GossipExtra story that first broke the news of the power lunch. In this contemporaneous telling, Dougan had gone to Moscow to do business. Dougan told GossipExtra that Borodin was interested in hiring him to set up a website—“a massive community charity fundraising website for all of the various charities in Russia.”
It’s easy to envision Dougan bluffing his way into a meeting with an important Russian and then leaking it to a friendly gossip site, if only to make his enemies wonder.
If that was the plan, it worked. Lewis read a lot into the Borodin lunch. He told “Jessica” that Borodin was related to a shadowy figure called “Flyman.” For about a decade ending in 2007, Flyman had led the Russian Business Network, a notorious cybercrime group that operated its own server farm. Lewis was certain that Dougan was visiting Russia to partner with that country’s cybercriminals. (The Daily Beast turned up no evidence of a link between Borodin and Flyman.)
The talk of Russian hackers inspired Dougan as he was pondering how to release the 10 hours of recordings he’d made while posing as Jessica. He couldn’t just throw them on his website and admit what he’d done—Florida is one of 12 states where it’s illegal to record a phone call without the consent of both parties. So he came up with another plan. If they wanted a Russian hacker, he would give them one.
He picked a cool hacker name inspired by his childhood love of wolves, and set up a page at a Russian web host. On August 24, 2015, BadVolf made his debut.
“I am called BadVolf,” the page announced. “It is such sadness this must be done to protect a friend but we see no other way to do this. The Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office leadership is using their totalitarian authority to commit vast numbers of crime to investigate and persecute [sic] its political enemies.”
Dougan posted the full audio of his calls with Lewis, along with screenshots of their text messages. In addition to exposing the sheriff’s office’s desperation to pin something on Dougan, the recordings captured Lewis boasting about doing the same to another longtime Bradshaw critic, an ex-cop from Michigan named Jim Donahue who ran against Bradshaw in the 2012 election.
A month after Donahue filed papers with the election office, Bradshaw’s department hit him with document falsification charges based on Lewis’s evidence. “I went to Michigan, I went to Canada, I went all over the place,” Lewis told Jessica. “After a two-year investigation, I got him.” Donahue had been forced to exit the race, and the charges were dropped by election day.
Dougan made clips from the juicy parts of the recordings, and, in BadVolf’s broken English, wrote it all out as a narrative. “PBSO, you think your hacker is great but he is amateur. Just sit back and watch psychological mindfuck unfold when you mess with БадВолф!”
The audio dump went off like a bombshell in Palm Beach County. Clips from the recordings were quoted in local newspapers and played on the evening news. A Channel 5 reporter said Lewis sounded more like “a modern-day hatchet man” than a cop in the recordings. Lewis defended himself on the broadcast and claimed that he knew the calls were a setup from the start and was just playing along. “This is like water off a duck’s back,” he said. “I really don’t care.” (Lewis declined repeated interview requests from The Daily Beast. Rodriguez did not respond to repeated emails and phone messages).
Internal Affairs opened an investigation. In an interview with detectives, Lewis said the recordings had been modified to put words in his mouth, though in the same interview he claimed not to have listened to them. The final report nine months later evinced little interest in the hacking boasts by Lewis and Rodriguez, but found that Lewis had broken department regulations by “divulging PBSO business to Jessica.”
Dougan expected nothing but ass-covering from the sheriff’s office anyway. But now that the recordings were public by way of his BadVolf persona, he could use them freely. He says he walked into the Miami FBI’s satellite office in West Palm Beach carrying the recordings on a thumb drive, and demanded the bureau investigate Bradshaw’s office for hacking him.
The agents just laughed, Dougan recalls, and sent him on his way. It was too small a case for the FBI. (A spokesman for the FBI’s Miami office declined comment.)
For Dougan, that was the last straw. He’d given the FBI clear evidence that the sheriff’s office had been stalking him for years, even hacking into his stuff, all because it didn’t approve of his constitutionally protected free speech. And the bureau had just shrugged it off.
Dougan had nowhere left to go. He arrived at the inescapable conclusion that the entire American system was broken, from street cops like Raban to the FBI to the judges overseeing it all. They all needed a taste of their own medicine, and he knew just how to deliver it.
Years ago the Florida legislature recognized two classes of people who might face danger if their home address showed up in the state’s famously open public records repositories: abuse victims, and government officials like police and judges.
In Palm Beach County there were about 4,000 homeowners availing themselves of Florida’s address confidentiality laws. If you looked up one of those people in the county’s property tax database, called PAPA, you could see the appraised value of their home and the size of their lot, but the street address field would contain only the words “Confidential Record” and some asterisks for emphasis.
A second county department maintained a different public dataset called SITUS, which listed every address along with land survey data, but that one had no names at all.
Dougan discovered a flaw in the system while compiling data for a geo-marketing venture. Both datasets included the unique parcel number, or APN, of each property. So to track down the home of someone with a confidential address in PAPA, you just had to make note of their parcel number, and then look it up in SITUS.
That’s precisely what Dougan did, for every confidential address in the county.
It was a simple one-line database query, once he’d loaded all the records, which reduced a list of 700,000 addresses down to the 4,114 that were never supposed to see the light of day. It included current and retired federal agents, prosecutors, local cops and judges. One person on the list told The Daily Beast he’d been laying low after working as a contractor for the CIA.
As far as Dougan was concerned, they were all culpable. Sure, most of the 4,000 had nothing to do with Bradshaw’s campaign against him, but none of them had done anything about it. “I said, you know what? Fuck them. I’m putting everything out there."
On Feb. 13, 2016, Dougan posted the list on PBSOtalk as an Excel file named “confidential addresses.” Slipping into the skin of his Russian hacker persona, he explained that BadVolf was back on the hunt.
“This list came from your government,” he wrote. “In this we were able to hack their database and give all records confidential to public so their privacy is no more important as the people they hack.”
The leak put Dougan back in the news. Publicly, he claimed BadVolf was a friend he’d met in Russia, but he disclaimed responsibility for the putative hacker’s actions. “I had nothing to do with this,” he told New Times. “It’s like when your friend robs a bank and you're sitting at home. They can maybe try to say I encouraged it, but I’m not worried about that.” Dougan also claimed he’d sold the PBSOtalk website to a Russian businessman (he changed his domain registration first, to make it look good) and that he no longer had control over what was posted there.
The county property appraiser’s office was baffled by the address leak. They could find no trace of this BadVolf character in their networks. And the sheriff’s office opened yet another investigation.
Eventually someone in the county government seems to have figured out the flaw in the county’s address confidentiality system. About two weeks after the leak, Palm Beach County shut down its public feed of the SITUS dataset, according to logs kept by an open-source cartography site. The feed reopened five months later with the confidential addresses now masked.
At no point, though, did officials warn the victims of the leak, according to several people on the list who spoke with The Daily Beast.
“You would think that they would notify people, especially police officers and judges and shelters and things like that,” says a woman who manages a shelter for domestic abuse victims. The safe house location was a closely guarded secret until it was exposed in the leak. “You’d think they would give you some kind of warning so you could be more on alert.”
A retired cop says he knew about the incident from news reports, but did not know that his name and address were on the list until contacted by The Daily Beast. “I haven’t felt any effect from it, but just knowing it was breached— it’s a mental thing,” he says. “We arrest somebody that lives in the county that we live in, we want to keep it private. It deals with the safety of your family.”
Dougan didn’t care—nobody was worried about his safety. He replaced the Excel spreadsheet with a user-friendly web interface, and then began dumping more confidential addresses from other Florida counties. For these he turned not to property records, but to a similar vulnerability in the state’s voter registration rolls.
Voters granted confidentiality in Florida are listed without names or addresses—just their Florida voter ID number. Dougan’s trick was to cross-reference that number against previous versions of the data, stepping back month by month until he found the same voter not yet protected as confidential. The name and address went right into BadVolf’s next data dump. (The voting records leaks appear not to have included abuse victims, who have a higher level of protection under a state-run program.)
Dougan provided The Daily Beast with the SQL queries and some of the scripts he used, and we verified that both of his re-identification techniques worked as described.
Dougan kept up the conceit that BadVolf was hacking into county networks and stealing the secret address data, and his notional Russian hacker starting attracting national attention. A reporter from Gawker interviewed BadVolf over online chats, suspecting at first that he was actually talking to Dougan, but eventually falling for the hoax as thoroughly as Lewis fell for Jessica. “Over weeks of subsequent correspondence with BadVolf, it became clear that he, at least, was the real deal,” the reporter wrote.
When BadVolf was ever asked why a Russian hacker would care about a Florida sheriff, Dougan always had an answer at the ready. “I was born in the Soviet era and I remember the fight for honesty in our government,” he wrote Gawker in his hacker guise. “Now I see a sheriff leader in American government trying to be dictator like Stalin.”
By the end of his campaign, Dougan had released roughly 14,000 protected address records from at least 20 different Florida counties. His enemies were on a frantic hunt for a Russian hacker who didn’t exist, and investigating computer intrusions that never occurred.
All in all, a successful bit of trolling.
Dougan didn’t appreciate how successful until the morning of March 14, 2016. He’d just gotten his kids off to school when he noticed a suspicious pickup truck with tinted windows idling in front of his house. He stepped out to investigate, and a dozen FBI agents jumped out of the car and the nearby bushes shouting at him to drop to the ground.
The agents had a search warrant to seize all his electronics and “any and all records, data or materials” pertaining to the computer networks of 24 different Florida county governments “and confidential property records within these counties.”
The feds had evidently bought into Dougan’s game. The warrant sought evidence of communication between Dougan and “Internet user БадВолф”—BadVolf’s Russian moniker.
The FBI agents in charge were the same Dougan had met with just months earlier, he says—the ones who’d refused to pursue a hacking case against the PBSO. Once they’d patted him down and confiscated his cell phone, they told Dougan he was free to go. They didn’t have an arrest warrant, and no charges had yet been filed.
Dougan’s cockiness faded after the FBI search. He could easily see being arrested now, and if he was thrown in Palm Beach County Jail he doubted he’d ever make it to trial. He could imagined how it could unfold, a sheriff’s officer holding a hushed conversation with an inmate: “Hey dude, we’ll drop your charges if you kill this guy.”
He began making arrangements for his escape immediately. In early April he borrowed a car from a friend and a wig from his mother. Leaving behind his ex-wife and their two children, he started the long drive north to the Canadian border. He was soon at the Toronto airport, boarding one final flight to Moscow.
Settling in Moscow was hard at first, Dougan says, and he struggled to make ends meet. Now he has a business crafting and selling stylized computer tables with built-in high-performance computers. Sturdy and wrought in steel, the tables resemble consoles from Star Trek or props from TRON and are primarily marketed to gamers. “The biggest one weighs 200 pounds,” he says. So far he says he’s shipped 20 of them from his newest startup, BadVolf Serious Systems.
He moved into an apartment in the western part of the city near the Moscow River and about eight miles from the Kremlin. During the week he periodically borrows a friend’s car to drive north to a workshop in Solnechnogorsk, on loan from the owner, who saw Dougan in the news and wanted to help, he says. There an entire day can pass as he works the drills and punch presses. Sometimes at night he visits Moscow’s bars and clubs with his friends. “It’s absolutely the best nightlife of any city I’ve been, including New York,” he says. “This place kicks ass.”
There’s an obvious irony to Dougan choosing Russia as his refuge. The man who burned down his life in a crusade against someone he regarded as a corrupt despot now lives free only by the grace of the Putin regime. Dougan was in Moscow in time to witness Putin’s landslide reelection victory this year, after his most viable opponent, opposition leader Alexei Navalny, was hit with dubious fraud charges and barred from running.
Dougan says he gets that a lot. “Russia’s not my fight,” he explains. “I’m just lucky that I have a place to go, and I’m really grateful for that. But it’s not my fight here. It’s none of my business… One day if I ever get my Russian citizenship, maybe that’ll change.”
Does that mean that in a couple of years Dougan might start treating Putin to the same tactics he used on Sheriff Bradshaw?
“No,” Dougan says quickly. Then he laughs. “Then where the fuck am I going to run?”
Dougan says he’s had no contact with government officials or former Kremin bigwigs since that lunch with Pavel Borodin in 2013, except for the bureaucrats who processed his political asylum request. He won temporary political asylum in February 2017, and last December the Russian government made his status permanent—an honor not even granted to Edward Snowden. Dougan says he’s now on a track to citizenship.
In June, Dougan self-published his autobiography, BadVolf: The true story of an American cop’s retaliation against a corrupt system of justice and politics, forcing him to seek political asylum in Russia.
The book offers a bold twist to the BadVolf mythos, one he’s begun peddling on conspiracy-themed YouTube interview shows and podcasts, where he receives a warm and credulous welcome. His new tale is set in a world where the official story about Russian election interference is a cover-up and a lie.
Dougan places the story in the weeks surrounding his 2016 FBI raid. In February of that year, Dougan claims he was contacted online by an anonymous Washington, D.C., whistle-blower with information about the Democratic National Committee. The whistle-blower, Dougan says, was looking for a way to safely leak a cache of files, and came to Dougan because of his work setting up police forums. On March 13 he sent Dougan a tranche of files over Tor, says Dougan, and Dougan agreed to put up an anonymous website to present them to the world.
But the next day the FBI came and carted off Dougan’s computer, and with it the leaked files. Dougan claims he was determined to follow through on his promise, so the following Saturday, he drove a rental car 1,000 miles to Washington, D.C., to meet the whistle-blower outside a high-school basketball court. The mystery source handed Dougan a thumb drive, and Dougan jumped in his car and drove straight back home, racing to return to Palm Beach County before the FBI noticed he was gone.
The thumb drive was loaded with about 700 private emails taken from the DNC, the story goes. And true to his word, once Dougan was safe in Moscow he set up a website called DC Leaks to host them. “I made it here to Russia on April 6 or 7,” he says. “It took a few days for me to get my head on straight and apply for asylum. Then I registered DC Leaks and uploaded the documents and gave the guy the credentials.”
Dougan claims his involvement mostly ended at that point, but that he sometimes logged into the server and saw the whistle-blower and his friends uploading additional files.
His tale ends with a big reveal that won’t surprise anyone familiar with the deep lore built up around Russiagate on the alt-right. Dougan claims he later realized that the whistle-blower at the basketball court had been none other than slain DNC staffer Seth Rich.
Seth Rich conspiracy stories are most virulent of the narratives purporting to exonerate Russia of interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential race, and by extension clear the Trump campaign of collusion. Rich was 27 years old when he was shot and killed on July 10, 2016 on a Washington, D.C., sidewalk. The police believe it was a botched robbery, but the unsolved murder has fuelled waves of speculation that it was Rich who leaked the 44,000 DNC emails ultimately published by Wikileaks, and that he was murdered as a consequence.
To be clear, there exists no evidence that Rich was secretly a Donald Trump supporter, a leaker of any kind, or a hacker with the skill to steal the private emails of seven senior DNC staffers. The only reason conspiracy mongers fixed on Rich, rather than any of hundreds of his fellow DNC workers, is because he was killed. To a sizable number of fringe conservatives, it goes without saying that the Clintons order hits on the people who get in their way. It’s been part of the the far-right canon since Vince Foster’s suicide in 1993.
Versions of the Rich conspiracy story have been spread by Russia’s social media foot soldiers at the Internet Research Agency, and by the likes of Julian Assange, Infowars radio host Alex Jones and indicted piracy baron Kim Dotcom. It reached the mainstream by way of a since-retracted Fox News story, and then on the back of Fox personality Sean Hannity. Rich’s grieving parents have faced threats and smears for debunking the speculation, and struggle daily with what Rich’s mother has described as “the pain and anguish that comes from seeing your murdered son's life and legacy treated as a mere political football.”
In its broad strokes, Dougan’s story meshes with the superficial features of the 2016 election leaking. There really was a DC Leaks. Intelligence agencies and security professionals believe it was set up by Russia’s military intelligence arm, the GRU, to publish stolen material as part of the Kremlin’s election interference campaign.
The DC Leaks domain name was really registered two weeks after Dougan’s arrival in Moscow, just as in his story. But when Dougan gets into less-publicized, fine grained details, his tale diverges from DC Leaks’ actual history, particularly in the period between the site’s domain registration on April 19th, 2016, and its public debut on June 8th.
Dougan claims that he registered the DCleaks.com domain name through the Malaysian company Shinjiru Technology in Kuala Lumpur, where DC Leaks was also hosted. In truth, DCleaks.com was registered at a family owned hosting firm in Romania called THCservers, which also features in a number of identified GRU hack attacks.
Once it was registered, the domain lay dormant for 10 days, according to DNS resolution records from multiple sources. Then on April 29 the operators pointed it to a hosting company based in Iceland called FlokiNET, which marketed “secure, stable and anonymous web hosting” for journalists and whistle-blowers. The Icelandic hosting apparently didn’t work out, and whoever controlled DC Leaks moved it to Malaysia five days later, on May 5th, where it stayed for the remainder of election season.
Obscure as those details are from the outside, they’d likely be well known to the person who set up DC Leaks and secured its hosting. But they don’t feature at all in Dougan’s story. As told in his book, and elaborated on in interviews with The Daily Beast, Dougan went straight to Shinjiru in April 2016. He claims the company had long been his preferred choice for hosting his whistle-blower sites. (PBSOtalk was hosted there for about six weeks in 2012.)
When The Daily Beast asked Dougan if he could provide a copy of the contents of the thumb drive he claims to have received from his source, he came back a few days later with a zip file of 743 DNC emails, just as he’d described.
And this is where his story hits another snag. Those emails never appeared on DC Leaks. None of the DNC emails did. They were published on Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks beginning July 22, 2016.
DC Leaks published a completely different assembly of leaks, consisting primarily of a grab bag of emails and documents sourced from a GRU-linked phishing campaign earlier that year. The best known victim of that attack was John Podesta, and a handful of documents from Podesta’s Gmail account appeared on the site four months before WikiLeaks published the whole inbox. Other targets featured on DC Leaks included Colin Powell, State Department and White House employees, some Clinton campaign staff and volunteers, and a recently retired four-star general.
Leaks from George Soros’ Open Society Foundation were also displayed prominently at the website’s launch, with some of the documents reportedly altered to create the appearance the foundation was secretly financing Russian opposition candidates. But the DNC emails that Dougan says he raced to D.C. to get, the ones he claimed to have uploaded onto a website he created for that express purpose, never appeared there.
It seemed puzzling from the start that Dougan, hot on the heels of an FBI raid and already planning his escape, would take a couple of days off to physically transport a zip file small enough to be sent as an email attachment. In interviews with The Daily Beast, Dougan insisted there was no other purpose to his frenzied drive to the capitol.
Two weeks after he said that, in late May, Dougan offered The Daily Beast a peek at an early draft of his book. Like the version he ultimately published, the draft opens with a tease about a Washington, D.C., meeting with a whistle-blower.
But Dougan hadn’t yet updated Chapter 32, which offered an altogether different account of the trip.
“On Saturday, the day after my home was raided, I took a rental car and drove to the nearest Russian embassy, located in Washington, D.C. I arrived, but the embassy was shuttered until Monday. I couldn’t stick around out of fear I would be missed, so I drove straight back to Palm Beach County before they realized I had taken my little trip.”
The Daily Beast asked Dougan about the discrepancies. He says that when he started writing his book he hadn’t yet decided to admit his supposed role in DC Leaks, so he left out the meeting at the basketball court. The book now includes both the embassy visit and the claimed thumb-drive handoff.
Dougan stands by his story about registering the domain through the Malaysian hosting firm Shinjuro. He claims the record shows otherwise only because Shinjuro outsources its domain registration service to the Romanian hosting company THCservers. (This is wrong. Shinjuro is an accredited domain registrar that does its own registrations).
Asked why the DNC emails were never published on DC Leaks, he seemed genuinely taken aback. “I always figured it was just on there.”
There no way to know if Dougan’s entrée into the Russiagate truther club is calculated to support Putin’s denials that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, or just to sell books. It’s evident, though, that he was floating a version of the story in his BadVolf guise as early as September 2016. Back then he said he created DC Leaks to help elect Trump; today he claims it was to expose the DNC for sandbagging Bernie Sanders in the primaries.
Even without the Seth Rich tale, Russia’s state-controlled media outlets have already gotten mileage out of Dougan, who’s portrayed as an honest ex-cop caught in a corrupt system, who had to flee to Russia to escape persecution by American authorities. Sputnik News ran a lengthy piece on him highlighting his “daring escape” to Moscow. In May, according to Dougan, the Kremlin’s RT network shot video for a feature-length documentary on Dougan.
Last year, Palm Beach County prosecutors charged Dougan with extortion and wiretapping, the latter presumably for recording the Jessica calls. The details are under seal, but an arrest warrant was issued, and Dougan is now officially a fugitive. PBSOtalk.com vanished in the wake of the address leak, after a Broward County prosecutor pressured GoDaddy to take away the domain. Dougan resurrected the site on a Russian web address.
Throughout everything, Dougan hasn’t forgotten his old enemies. In October 2017 Dougan posted a story to one his fake news sites claiming that Ric Bradshaw’s second-in-command was a white supremacist nursing fantasies about killing “a black man or a Jew.” The post was widely circulated, and proved convincing enough that the genuine news outlet RawStory picked it up and ran with it.
But no matter how busy he gets writing fake news, Skyping into conspiracy shows, promoting his book or building custom computer tables, Dougan always finds time once a week to send a taunting email to the FBI agents who raided him.
A recent one took the form of a mock treatment for an imagined TV series about the West Palm Beach FBI. “Like a bad version of Miami Vice,” he wrote, “where you drive a blacked-out Toyota Corolla and don’t catch any of the bad guys.”