A California judge has sentenced San Diego “pickup artist” Alex Smith to eight years in prison—the maximum allowable under California law—for the gang rape of a woman in 2013.
“This is not a hard decision at all. In fact, if I could give you more time I would,” San Diego Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Fraser said on Friday, in a ruling that runs counter to a spate of sexual-assault sentences that sparked national outrage for their leniency in 2016.
In June, California Judge Aaron Persky gave former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner six months in county jail (of which he served only three) for three felony counts of sexually assaulting a woman behind a dumpster on campus. In August, Colorado District Court Judge Patrick Butler ruled that Austin Wilkerson, convicted of sexually assaulting a half-conscious woman, would serve zero of the 12 possible years in state prison allowable for his crime. Instead, that judge opted for two years of “work-release,” a program that allows Wilkerson to work or go to school during the day and report to the county jail at night. And Montana Judge John McKeon gave a 40-year-old man who pleaded guilty to repeatedly raping his 12-year-old daughter just two months in county jail.
In stark contrast to these rulings, Judge Fraser told Smith, “In order to protect society, you need to be put away,” calling him “an absolute danger to women in this community.”
At the time of the rape, Smith, 27, was acting as an instructor for a company called Efficient PIckup which promised to teach clients a “rejection-proof” technique for sleeping with women only minutes after meeting them. The rape convictions are thought to be the first for members of the pickup community—an underground subculture of men who congregate in the online space known as the manosphere, where they obsessively study and document their interactions with women. Three men were charged with the woman’s rape, but Smith’s case was the only one to go to trial. He was convicted in September by a 12-person jury of two counts of rape: of an intoxicated person and an unconscious person.
Much of that trial, which was exclusively covered by The Daily Beast, unpacked not only the facts from the night of the assault, but also the language (terms like “shit tests” and “token resistance,” which defines a woman’s “no” as an obstacle to be overcome by any means) and practices (going to bars at closing time and isolating targets from their friends) of pickup artists in general. The prosecutors pointed to this as evidence of Smith’s planning, motive, and knowledge or his crime.
Smith and his colleague Jonas Dick picked up the woman—whom The Daily Beast has called Claire—along with one of her friends in San Diego’s trendy Gaslamp Quarter as the bars closed at 2 a.m. Within minutes, Claire and her friend, who had admittedly been drinking that night, were escorted to an apartment where another man, Jason Berlin, was waiting. Berlin was a “student” of Smith’s and Dick’s, who were instructing him in pickup. While Dick kept Claire’s friend busy with conversation and a drink, Claire was vomiting and finally passed out in Smith’s room. While Smith raped Claire, he called to Berlin in the living room to join him. When Claire’s friend came to investigate, she found Claire unconscious, lying naked, face-down in her own vomit, surrounded by a naked Berlin and Smith. The men laughed and told her, “we just tag-teamed your friend,” before throwing the women out of the apartment.
Though Claire called police and filed a report that night, no one inside the apartment was served with a search warrant or even questioned, a mistake Judge Fraser described during trial as “dropping the ball.” In fact, most of the police work done to bring Claire’s rapists to justice was done by Claire herself. Scouring pickup forums, Claire found the online alter egos and blogs of Smith, Dick, and Berlin. And it was in accounts written by Smith and Berlin, that Claire read about her own rape.
“I uncovered this whole world that I did not know existed,” Claire said in a statement to a San Diego court in July. “Of pickup artists, men who blogged about their interactions with women, bragged about how many they slept with, and egged each other with advice and insults of how they should manipulate and objectify women.”
Claire submitted to police an overflowing file of blog posts, student testimonials, and forum conversations, all of which would be ultimately used to secure guilty pleas from two men and a guilty verdict for Smith.
During Smith’s sentencing, Judge Fraser called Claire’s detective work “amazing,” and unlike anything he’d ever seen in 30 years of criminal law.
“But for the victim in this case, you would have gone about your life,” Judge Fraser said. “There, in all likelihood, would have been other victims. And so she is an absolute hero in this.”
Judge Fraser was outspoken when it came to the severity of Smith’s crime. “In a year where we've heard a lot of terms bantered about–‘sexism,’ ‘racism,’ oftentimes misused—the one term that is very appropriate for this particular trial is ‘misogyny.’
“The fact is, the defendant did treat the victim in this case not as a human being but as simply an object. And I’ve got to tell you, having sat up here for 18 years, there's a lot of people that have sat in that chair and I can't recall—murderers, rapists, kidnappers—go down the list, I don't know if I've seen one that has been as mean and cruel as you have been.”
Citing the unique planning and sophistication of Smith’s criminal pickup strategy–”you had your own language, you had your own apartment, you had your own school”—Judge Fraser said Smith and Efficient PIckup taught men “how to rape women.”
“That is the only thing that you could say about your school. It was about being a rapist,” Judge Fraser said.
“This is not a hard decision at all. In fact, if I could give you more time I would. But the law only allows me to give you a certain amount of time. And that’s unfortunate because I wish we could take your photo, I wish we could place it on the pickup artist’s website to let other men out there know that this is completely, completely unacceptable conduct, it’s not funny, it's criminal, and you suffer consequences when you do this.”
Though the crime still haunts her, this is exactly the kind of justice Claire was hoping for.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, Claire expressed gratitude to the law enforcement officials who worked on her case and Judge Fraser for his harsh sentence, acknowledging that it could have gone another way.
"[Brock Turner's] case stands out the most to me. It rattled my nerves to read of the victim going through such a traumatic experience of a trial only to not have her attacker punished to the full extent. That absolutely frightened me," she said. "My hope is that these men within the pick-up artist community with notions of women as disposable sexual objects only to be controlled, used, and shared amongst each other, will see that their actions are considered criminal and will not go unpunished. Furthermore, I hope this will encourage other rape victims, especially those cases that are difficult to prove—involving unconsciousness, alcohol, or drugs—to feel confident in the justice system once again."
Jason Berlin, the Efficient Pickup student who acted as a cooperating witness in Smith’s trial, will be sentenced in February.