Inside The Stunning Rise And Fall Of Girls Gone Wild
Joe Francis, the founder of Girls Gone Wild, holds a camera inside a bedroom at his home in Punta Mita, Mexico.
For women, culture is split into two eras: before you could flash your breasts on camera during spring break for a modicum of fame, and after. For that, you can thank Joe Francis — a man who still elicits visceral reactions from those who knew him. “I hate that son of a bitch so bad,” Lee Sullivan, the former mayor of Panama City Beach, Florida, told me during one of our interviews last month. “All you had to do was say the name, and I was right back there with that little cockroach bastard.”
Before Francis crossed paths with Sullivan, one of the most colorful mayors in modern American history, he had built a direct-distribution porn empire on the backs of coeds willing to bare it all for tank tops emblazoned with a brand that would become ubiquitous by the mid-aughts: Girls Gone Wild.
It was a simple concept, but one that revolutionized porn, female sexuality and the concept of fame itself. Francis came up with the idea while working as a production assistant for “Real TV,” a syndicated show of cutting room floor clips considered too grisly to air. It gave him an idea: What about a show like this, but for boobs? “I couldn’t believe it. It was like, ‘No one’s doing this?’” Francis told me in an interview last fall. “It turned me on to see these girls on spring break because it was reality. I created reality television.”
Francis didn’t create reality television, but he certainly found a marketable and profitable byproduct. When it launched in 1997, Girls Gone Wild was at the forefront of something huge, years before celebrity sex tapes proliferated (consensually or not) and just five years after “The Real World” premiered on MTV. His COO, Scott Barbour, brought another reality television influence to the business: His father, Malcolm Barbour, co-created “Cops,” on which Scott briefly worked. By the early aughts, as Girls Gone Wild pivoted into DVD releases and pay-per-view events, Francis’ company was a stunning success, making $20 million in the first two yearsof operation.
For a time, Girls Gone Wild had a cultural hold over America’s late teens and early 20-somethings well beyond the confines of traditional pornography. Francis had, in a sense, created his own kind of Playboy Enterprises for a generation hooked on MTV.
Girls Gone Wild launched in 1997 and quickly became a spring break staple.
The company’s ads blanketed the media landscape, promising a continual flow of videos featuring wild young women — who looked like the girls you knew — taking their tops off and writhing around naked in hot tubs. Being a girl gone wild was simultaneously an honor and a scarlet letter. Meanwhile, Francis became a legend in Bel-Air, a friend to the Kardashians, Paris Hilton’s boyfriend (briefly), a gadabout with a private jet.
But by 2014, the brand was dead, in large part because free sites like PornHub made a mail-order DVD company look, by comparison, dated and unsexy.
The beginning of the end of Girls Gone Wild actually started creeping in around March 2003, when Francis descended upon Panama City Beach with a few simple goals: run a pay-per-view event with Snoop Dogg, film scenes for another DVD and then get the hell out of the Bible Belt. But not long after their arrival, Francis and several of his employees were arrested on a slew of charges: racketeering, possession and intent to distribute drugs, soliciting minors, child abuse, and filming minors in a sexual act, just to name a few. At final count, there would be more than 70 charges against Francis alone.
The case the police tried to build positioned Francis as some kind of drug kingpin who had touched down in Panama City Beach in his Gulfstream jet, hoping to lure underage girls with his wealth, fame and cocaine. But Francis tells a markedly different story, one that frames him as just another sucker who got railroaded by the good ol’ boys of Bay County — or, as the locals call it, Pay County. “This is the biggest miscarriage of justice,” Francis told me. “It’s Kafkaesque.”
The allegations were that Francis had filmed several minors in town while his company was gathering footage for Girls Gone Wild. But the investigation into those claims revealed something equally unsettling: the court system couldn’t be trusted, whether you were the alleged victim or defendant.
This past April Fool’s Day was Francis’ 50th birthday — and April 2 was the 20th anniversary of his initial arrest in Panama City Beach. Francis has long talked about the grave injustices committed against him in Florida. After nearly a decade of media silence, he agreed to an interview about what happened all those years ago. “It’s such a hellish, crazy story, isn’t it?” he said over the phone a few months before we met in person. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
If you appeared in a Girls Gone Wild tape or have a tip about Joe Francis and Girls Gone Wild, we’d like to hear from you at email@example.com.
Francis remains incensed about two things: what he says was a botched criminal investigation against him and the unfair treatment he says he was forced to endure years later, in 2007, when he returned to Panama City for a civil trial brought by some of the underage girls filmed for Girls Gone Wild.
During the protracted civil suit, Francis ended up spending nearly a month in Panama City’s Bay County jail — housed in near-isolation with almost no access to sunlight or fresh air. He said he was forced to negotiate a settlement pre-trial, that he was refused access to his medication, and that there was a larger conspiracy within Panama City to keep him locked up as long as possible.
My interview with Joe Francis took place in his compound in Mexico and spanned nine hours ― a sprawling, sometimes inscrutable, often outrageous conversation that seemed to cover just about everything that has ever happened to him. Communicating in rapid-fire monologues, Francis evaded questions while building a case for his own public reconsideration. He told me how hard his life has been since Panama City Beach while sitting in his 45,000-square foot beachfront property in Punta Mita, Mexico, eschewing the gourmet lunch made for him by his full-time chef. He seemed pressed about how the property looked after a storm rolled along the beach overnight; Francis’ pool was full of leaves, and the towels, normally packed into neat little rolls, were limp and wet.
Francis lives on the Punta Mita property but also rents it out to high-profile guests.
The sprawling compound rents for anywhere between $21,000 and $55,000 per night.
Tall, tan, toothy, the very image of vascularity, Francis has cut his early-aughts mop much shorter, and these days he’s usually in T-shirts and shorts. Much of our interview was done with him splayed across his couch, nearly horizontal. “Do you want anything?” he asked me, pointing to the button that appears on every landline in the house that says, “Anything.”
The telephone system at Francis' home in Punta Mita has a button for "Anything."
Francis hadn’t done a sit-down interview like this in years — certainly not one in which he had no control over the final outcome. But he agreed to talk because of a newer legal fiasco: He believes what happened in Panama City Beach is affecting his ongoing custody battle for his twin daughters with his ex-partner Abbey Wilson, whom he met when she was crowned the 2012 winner of Girls Gone Wild’s “Search for the Hottest Girl in America.”
At one point, I asked Francis if, given the dramatic fall of his multimillion dollar company, he thought he was just extraordinarily unlucky. Or maybe all the allegations against him — which range from tax evasion to rape — had some merit?
“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” he conceded. “But if you just start at the core, I will work with you, however many hours, and peel back every layer and answer every fucking question and show you every document. I would love for you to be able to nail me: ‘Oh, well, you did do that.’ I want that to be your goal. Nail me. Fucking nail me.”
In Florida, there’s Panama City, and then there’s Panama City Beach. Panama City is a conservative town in Florida’s panhandle with a strong Navy presence. Panama City Beach, just a short drive away, lives by the ebb and flow of spring breakers descending on its town. During the off-season, Panama City Beach’s population is around 18,000 people. (It was even smaller in 2003.) But during spring break, which lasts from mid-March until mid-April, the town’s peak daily population swells to more than 100,000. The debauchery is so rampant that in 2016, the city passed a law that makes it illegal to drink on the beach in March. In the spring of 2022, Bay County officials seized 75 guns and arrested 161 people over one weekend.
In the early aughts, Panama City Beach was already home to plenty of spring break content — it had become an MTV mainstay — but locals tolerated those crews. After all, they followed the rules and brought plenty of tourism dollars to businesses like Sharky’s, the beachfront bar that now offers a “worship @ the water” prayer surf group every Sunday. “MTV, they had music. There was some depth, they had some substance,” Sullivan, now 75, who was mayor of Panama City Beach for eight years, told me. “That was absolutely absent in Joe Francis’ profile.”
Spring breakers pack the beaches for a 2006 MTV event in Panama City Beach.
Sullivan, a man notorious for having once chased a burglar out of his house with a gun while wearing nothing but his underwear and a cowboy hat, still despises Francis. “I remember that little cum bubble,” he told me when I first called him for an interview.
On March 7, 2003, just a few days after his crew arrived in town, Francis escalated his fight with Sullivan by bringing it to Fox News’ “On The Record” with Greta Van Susteren. “If the mayor thinks he’s going to stop us, he can come arrest me on stage, and he can come arrest me with Snoop Dogg, and he can put a bunch of half-naked girls in handcuffs as well because it is going to happen,” Francis said at the time. “Mr. Mayor, we’re not doing anything illegal.”
For Sullivan, Francis’ arrival felt like an invasion. “Here comes this little turd from the big city. Nobody’s ever taken him to task. Nobody,” he told me. Sullivan felt that, from the beginning, Francis intended to target teenage girls in Panama City Beach. “The younger the girl, the younger the woman, the more power he felt like he had over them. You can’t be that demeaning to women accidentally. There has to be some methodology,” he said. “I hate that little bastard.”
The antipathy was apparently mutual. In his 2010 book, “Flash! Bars, Boobs and Busted,” former Girls Gone Wild co-production coordinator Ryan Simkin wrote about Francis’ need to poke the bear. According to Simkin, Francis printed shirts that said “Joe Francis For Mayor,” claimed on Fox News that the city was allowing tobacco distributors to hand out cigarettes to kids on the street (an allegation that Sullivan denied), and mocked Sullivan for having only won his election by 90 votes. (Sullivan corrected him on “On The Record”: “Seven votes, my friend. If you can count that high.”)
Francis faces off with then-Panama City Beach Mayor Lee Sullivan on Fox News' "On The Record" in 2003.
Throughout March 2003, Francis’ crew gathered footage in town. According to former employees who spoke to me anonymously for this story, the first two weeks of filming were easy. (Most former employees were afraid of Francis’ personal or legal reprisals if they spoke on the record.)
After those first two weeks in March, employees said production knew that teenagers would start coming to town, which meant that it would be a lot easier to, intentionally or not, shoot footage of minors. A former cameraman named Eric Green expressed this concern during the eventual civil trial against Francis. “I had said to Joe that I thought we had shot every girl of age that was around at that point and that everybody else seemed to be underage,” Green said in his 2009 deposition.
When I asked Francis why he suspected Sullivan and other officials targeted him, he shared an outlandish theory. 'They needed to distract from the war in Iraq.'
Sullivan said the problem stemmed from where Francis was filming. Instead of shooting in the bars or clubs that already had age restrictions (and where he would have had filming permits), Francis was trying to shoot outside, on the shoulder of Front Beach Road, which separated the beach and the rest of the town. Had Francis just stuck to venues like Club La Vela or Spinnaker, where all the wet T-shirt parties were happening, Sullivan said, the police would never have gone after Francis like they did.
When I asked Francis why he suspected Sullivan and other officials targeted him, he shared an outlandish theory. “They needed to distract from the war in Iraq,” he said, arguing that the war’s lack of popularity meant officials needed to create a diversion. “Had we not invaded Iraq, unilaterally, this would have never happened.” (There is no proof that the investigations into Francis had anything to do with the war in Iraq.) When I told Sullivan about Francis’ suggestion, he was agog: “I know you get tired of hearing it, but what a piece of shit.”
Sullivan wasn’t the only one trying to eject Francis from the beach town. Then-Bay County Sheriff Guy Tunnell had also set his sights on getting Francis out. Tunnell and Sullivan are vastly different animals. Where Sullivan is sinewy and saucy, Tunnell is soft-spoken and genteel — he apologized to me for calling Francis a “smart ass” during our interview. (Sullivan and Tunnell also had a longstanding feud up until the last few months, having run against each other in local elections for sheriff. In 1992, Tunnell won against Sullivan, wearing a T-shirt that read “Lee For Me — NOT! Go Guy Go!”)
Tunnell told me he first became aware of Francis in March 2003, after a local teenage girl received a VHS tape in the mail, which her mother intercepted and watched only to discover her underage daughter flashing the camera. Sullivan said he was similarly fielding complaints from parents — including one local father who said he caught a Girls Gone Wild ad on a television at his local bar and recognized his underage daughter in it.
According to Bay County Sheriff’s Office records, on April 1 and April 2, 2003, county officials interviewed several underage girls who claimed they had also been filmed for Girls Gone Wild. (Though their names have been partially redacted in the official Bay County records, I was able to identify some of the original complainants. Now in their mid- to late-30s, a few of them declined to speak on the record; the others did not respond to my requests to comment for this story.)
At the time, some of the girls told investigators that they had flashed the production crew on the street before being invited back to one of Francis’ rental properties at the Chateau Motel. There, two girls said they were filmed by cameraman Mark Schmitz while another two claimed they were in an adjoining room with Francis. “They asked us to sit on the side [of the tub] and like, uh, play with ourselves,” one 17-year-old girl claimed, according to a transcript of the interview conducted by one of the sheriff’s deputies. The deputy asked if the girls felt uncomfortable. “Yeah,” she said. “He kept having to cut in between tape because we couldn’t do it.” The girls did not allege that Schmitz ever touched them.
The two girls Schmitz allegedly filmed told investigators they were paid $100 each for the scene. Another girl, who was 16 at the time of the alleged incident (she spent her 17th birthday giving the Bay County Sheriff’s Office a statement), said that Francis asked her and her friend to touch his penis for $50 each. “We said no and he grabbed our hands… and, um, put our hands on it,” she told investigators. According to the sheriff’s office at the time, this wasn’t an official “Girls Gone Wild” scene, and allegedly was not filmed. (Francis denied these claims in our interview.)
Finally, the girls alleged they were encouraged to lie about being 18 on the paperwork provided for the release. According to their interviews with the police, the girls claimed none of them provided proof of ID — real or fake — and were never asked to do so by the production.
There’s no difference between an 18-year-old girl and a 17-year-old girl. No fucking difference.Joe Francis
Bay County officials raided properties Francis was renting in town, seized his Gulfstream II jet, impounded his silver Ferrari and confiscated more than 175 hours of footage taken while in Panama City Beach. One former employee said he was with Francis at a bar when they saw police approaching to arrest Francis. “Him and I beeline it together out onto the beach into the pitch black as this is all going down,” he told me. “He’s like, ‘Trade clothes with me. They know what I’m wearing. They’re going to come after me.’ I’m like, ‘No fucking way, you fucking lunatic.’” After he refused, the employee said Francis ran down the beach alone. “That was the beginning of the end.” In an email, Francis said this was untrue. “Why would I try to hide?” he said. “I was never doing anything wrong or illegal.”
Ultimately, Francis was arrested along with several of his employees, including Schmitz and Simkin, who were booked on suspicion of possessing cocaine, among other charges. (Simkin declined to comment for this story.)
Years later, during the 2007 civil trial, Faith Bell, a then-captain in the special investigations division for the Bay County Sheriff’s Office, testified that “there were at least 18 identified individuals engaged in [sexual] activity who were under the age of 18.”
Bell also testified that Francis appeared to be “personally involved” in some of the filming and directing of the minors. “[He was] very persistent, physically trying to restrain her, hold her on her back, putting something around her neck,” Bell said of Francis’ behavior with one of the minors allegedly filmed. “Whatever he could do to appear to get her to flash, whether it be physical or just constant, you know, nagging at her.” Francis denied this too. “I was not involved in the filming of girls, and most certainly would never physically an Assault anyone ever,” he said in an email.
But Bay County’s case against Joe Francis wasn’t directly about any of those girls. Instead of focusing on the alleged filming of minors, the county portrayed Francis as a drug kingpin, alleging that he was bringing narcotics into Florida. The county employed Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act charges, commonly used for illegal activities that are connected to an ongoing criminal organization. A RICO charge requires a pattern, and as such, is usually relegated to mobsters, gang leaders and the like. This was a strategic choice. “It just gave us a lot more latitude at the time,” Tunnell said. “It also focused on not just local activities, but we could then expand to regional and national activities of the company.” The investigation seemed to coincide with the federal government’s ongoing war on drugs and its renewed interest in cocaine trafficking. Three years before Francis’ arrest, President Bill Clinton earmarked $1.3 billion in aid to Colombia in an effort to decrease cocaine production in the country.
But going after Francis with RICO charges was a demonstrably bad bet. “They thought he was Al Capone and he wasn’t,” said one Girls Gone Wild employee who was present during the raid in Panama City Beach. “They thought they had this whole huge, big case instead of focusing on the stuff he actually did wrong. [Initially], we didn’t know it was about underage girls.” The RICO charges also came together sloppily, which meant that nearly everything caught in the search warrant — including footage of minors — was thrown out.
According to the police records, after reviewing the seized tapes there wasn’t a question of whether Francis’ production filmed minors. Francis didn’t dispute it either. What he did dispute is that he knowingly filmed them. Instead, he painted himself as the victim of a conspiracy — girls who duped him with fake IDs and lied about how old they were so they could be featured in a DVD. “There’s no difference between an 18-year-old girl and a 17-year-old girl. No fucking difference,” Francis told me. “They showed fake IDs. They’re the ones that victimized us. I believe, we all believe, that they were put up by the Panama City police and it was all an operation.” (There is no evidence that any of the girls who were part of the criminal and civil trials provided fake IDs, though some girls admitted to lying about their ages. Tunnell and Sullivan both deny that law enforcement was involved in any kind of setup.)
If you ask Francis’ former employees, they’ll readily tell you he wasn’t a pedophile — just careless. According to them, all Francis seemed to be concerned about was whether the footage they collected could be distributed and whether the girls were hot. In fact, to the former employees, recording minors made zero business sense. “The idea that Joe was targeting underage people to make money is just misdirected because there’s no upside to it. It’s not like anything was marketed as, like, ‘See underage girls!’” a former employee who was present at the raid told me. “Our job is a lot easier when everybody’s 18.”
But even now, Tunnell disagrees with any such assessments of Francis. “Joe Francis was a predator. Make no mistake about that,” he said. “He was the worst of the worst that had ever appeared on our beaches.” Francis rebuked this description. “I don’t know who this person is,” he wrote in response to my request for comment, “but I am definitely not a predator.”
When I asked Francis why he believed Bay County decided to go after him for racketeering, he posited two theories. “Because they’re stupid,” he said. Or because “they wanted to just destroy me.”
Francis spoke like this often: conspiratorially and angrily, while demanding accountability from a police force he says railroaded him and abused its power. “I’m a businessman. I own a huge company. I’m charming. Good-looking. I’m a totally normal guy,” Francis told me. “If you really want to boil the whole thing down, it comes down to jealousy.” Grandiosity aside, he wasn’t wrong that the criminal case was rife with issues. In fact, Dedee Costello, the judge who signed the original search warrant, ended up signing the motion to suppress all evidence uncovered from that warrant, stating it had significant overreach. (She did not sign the warrant for the jet; another judge did.) Eventually, Costello threw out 40 charges against Francis, his company, and Schmitz, leaving a reported six counts remaining.
Costello wrote in her ruling that the sheriff’s office’s lead investigator, Richard Bagwell, had “misled the court” with “intentional misrepresentations and omissions.” (Costello declined to speak with me because she’s still on the bench; Bagwell did not respond to repeated requests for comment.) Costello cited the county for not showing enough of a criminal pattern to justify a RICO search warrant — the county claimed to have 18 predicate acts, when in fact it only had one.
Deposition records describe what seems to have been a disorganized and chaotic search procedure. Two search dogs were brought into Francis’ jet, but no cocaine was found. During an October 2005 deposition, Francis’ then-criminal attorney, Aaron Dyer, poked holes in Bagwell’s investigation. Why did Bagwell think he’d find enough drugs on Francis’ jet to fulfill the trafficking charge?
Francis, with his attorney Aaron Dyer (left), speaks to reporters in 2006 outside the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building in Los Angeles.
“They got on the plane, and that’s where they found the ‘massive amounts of drugs on a mirror’ that ended up being silver polish and not drugs,” Dyer told me. Tunnell was unable to comment in-depth on Bagwell’s possible investigation failures — he said he left the sheriff’s office a few months after Francis’ arrest. Sullivan, however, didn’t hold back. “I don’t want to be disparaging about Richard [Bagwell] — Dick is what I like to call him,” he said, smiling and looking wily. “Dick just half-assed everything. He was in over his head.” Bagwell’s investigative work had been criticized before: a clumsy five-year-long drug investigation of Club La Vela back in 1999 yielded no drugs, though trial prosecutors showed the jury photos of candy and glow sticks as evidence of drug use happening in the club. “It was local lore,” Dyer told me.
Francis hired Dyer, a criminal defense attorney who left the U.S. attorney’s office in 2000, after his arrest. (Dyer most recently represented Alec Baldwin in the “Rust” shooting civil suit.) Francis’ defense team also included Larry Simpson, the former prosecutor in Ted Bundy’s murder cases. Dyer deposed Bagwell and discovered that no drugs had been found in the rented rooms, nor on the jet. “The only drug issues with Joe were his prescriptions,” Dyer recalled. (Francis had small amounts of prescribed anti-anxiety medication in his dopp kit, according to Dyer, Francis and raid records.)
I asked Sullivan why Bagwell had been promoted to Bay County lieutenant if he was, as he claimed, so notoriously incompetent. “Don’t you know?” he said. “That’s how government works!”
During our conversations over the last few months, Francis often asked me what I thought about his version of what happened in Panama City Beach. “Do you think they fucked up or that they fucked me?” he asked me over the phone one evening. “I’m June from ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’ Jesus Christ, right. He was a heretic, right? Went around and said, ‘I’m the son of God.’ They killed the guy.” In person, Francis waxed poetic again about the crimes he claims were committed against him in Florida: “This is fucked up. This happened in the United States, and it can happen to anyone,” he said. “I walked into a fucking snake pit.”
Sullivan conceded that something went wrong with the investigation. “I was a police officer for 32 years. Sometimes you get in a rush. You get in a feeding frenzy,” he said. “If you want to tag somebody, you’ve got to do it right. You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit.”
I told Sullivan I found it extremely strange that the county couldn’t make a criminal case against Francis hold up given all the evidence investigators said they had. “You think you don’t understand? You shoulda been this ol’ boy at that time,” he said. “I was take-me-out-to-the-woodshed-and-beat-my-ass pissed.”
With his criminal litigation still unresolved, Francis — free on bail — returned to Los Angeles and resumed his life and business as usual. Girls Gone Wild continued to produce DVDs with titles like “Spring Break, Anything Goes.” In 2004, the company attempted “Guys Gone Wild,” with female cameramen coaxing young men to perform stripteases.
Meanwhile, Francis had become a cultural gale force wind: a Perez Hilton fixture, a red carpet regular. He started dating Kourtney Kardashian (he still keeps a photo of the two of them in his office) and, according to him, launched the Kardashians for what we know them to be today. “I did Kim’s sex tape,” he told me over the phone during one of our initial conversations. “I actually produced it. I brought the camcorder. I came down to Cabo to make the sex tape.” He also claimed that he wrote and produced the first few episodes of “Keeping Up With The Kardashians.” (Francis is not listed as a producer on the series’ IMDB page. He is, however, listed in the cast. Kim and Kourtney Kardashian did not respond to my request for comment, nor did Kris Jenner.)
Francis poses with Kourtney, Khloe and Kim Kardashian at the Girls Gone Wild Magazine Launch party in 2008.
There was also more legal trouble dogging him. In December 2006, Girls Gone Wild’s parent company Mantra Films was ordered by the Department of Justice to pay a total of $2.1 million in fines and restitution after Francis pleaded guilty to three counts of failing to keep appropriate records of the women in Girls Gone Wild’s tapes. (Francis told me that up until the company was sold to Bang Bros in 2014, his company had a federal monitor in its offices to ensure that the company was keeping proper records.)
Then, in 2008, four teenagers filed a civil suit for damages against Francis about events that allegedly happened in Panama City Beach: two sisters, 13 and 15 years old, as well as a 16-year-old and a 17-year-old. The allegations, all stemming from visits that the Girls Gone Wild production team made to Panama City Beach in 2000, 2002 and 2003, were similar to those from the criminal investigation into Francis. (It’s unclear if these are the same girls from the criminal investigation; some individuals involved in that investigation ended up settling with Francis out of court for an undisclosed amount.) According to the suit, two girls had allegedly been paid $100 apiece to perform sexual acts with each other in a hotel shower, while two others were allegedly paid $50 to touch Francis’ penis in the adjoining bedroom.
The complainants, most of whom were Panama City locals, were suing for emotional distress; news about their presence in Girls Gone Wild videos spread rapidly in their communities and the girls alleged that their lives had been forever changed — for the worse.
Francis’ civil case was presided over by Judge Richard Smoak, the same judge who had imposed the DOJ judgment of $2.1 million in fines against Francis and his company. Smoak called Francis back to Panama City Beach to engage in mediation with the complainants’ lawyers before the trial started in earnest in 2011. Dyer said Francis showed up to the mediation without any representation at all, thinking he didn’t need it.
Ever defiant, Francis refused to participate in meaningful mediation: He told opposing counsel to “suck [his] dick.” Smoak sent Francis back to jail for contempt, this time without bail. Francis got in even more trouble when prescription drugs and $700 in cash were found in his cell. He told me that no one searched him during the booking; he was caught after he waved a $100 bill at an officer and asked him for a bottle of water. “That’s totally legal in a jail setting,” Francis told me. (Bay County officials perceived this as a bribe.) Francis and Dyer both said he was refused prescription medication while in custody, and placed in solitary confinement for almost a month.
They still feel like Smoak, who died in May 2022, applied undue pressure to get Francis to settle with the girls. “What he says to me is, ‘Settle or go to jail,’ which is totally illegal,” Francis said. In 2008, Francis returned to Van Susteren’s Fox News show. “[Smoak] put me in jail until I signed a settlement agreement,” he said. “Greta, if they let this coerced settlement agreement stand, this will single-handedly undermine the entire civil judicial system in this country.”
Dyer echoed many of Francis’ worst claims about how he was treated in county jail. “They kept a light on Joe’s cell because they needed to have him under intensive supervision. They were trying to drive him crazy, and it was having an impact on his well-being,” Dyer said. Francis said he was kept in isolation for most of the time he was in jail. “They put me on their death row,” Francis said. “They had me shower in shackles and chains. They only let me talk to my lawyer through glass. It was torture.”
Francis uses papers to block his face as he leaves the federal courthouse in Panama City on April 12, 2007.
Francis wanted out of Bay County jail. There was a way, but only through another legal snare. The Department of Justice had also indicted Francis in 2oo7 for tax evasion in Reno, Nevada. Francis was facing up to 10 years in prison for an alleged $20 million in false business expenses that he generated between 2002 and 2003. Dyer called DOJ prosecutors to see if they’d be interested in transferring Francis to Reno. “So they took him in the middle of the night, outside of Panama City,” Dyer said. “And by the time the state’s attorney’s office could get to Smoak and ask him to stop it, there was nothing Smoak could do.”
Francis would eventually spend 11 months in county jail in Reno where “he was treated civilly,” according to Dyer. “I always said I’ll never look at a zoo the same way ever again,” Francis said of Panama City jail. “I have so much PTSD.”
In 2008, Francis finally pleaded no contest to outstanding charges in his criminal case with Costello: a third-degree felony child abuse, two counts of misdemeanor prostitution, and two misdemeanor counts of violating a jail rule in order to settle the remaining criminal charges in Panama City Beach. Costello, the judge from the criminal case, sentenced him to 339 days in prison, time he had already served in Florida and Nevada, and he was required to pay around $60,000 in restitution to the county, along with fines and court costs. Francis also agreed not to film in the area for three years. The seized tapes were never returned to Francis, but the Gulfstream and Ferrari were.
Francis wanted to be done with Panama City Beach, but the town wasn’t quite done with him. A civil trial was still on the horizon, poised to do massive reputational harm — but not to Joe Francis.
The civil trial against Francis began in 2011 and featured an all-female jury. Francis chose not to testify, but decided to serve as his own defense attorney, meaning he cross-examined the girls and their mothers himself. It was a pivotal case for everyone involved: If Francis lost, he could lose his entire fortune after averting major criminal charges in the same city. If the girls lost, especially on the heels of a botched criminal investigation, they would have hit their final wall in getting any justice at all.
The girls who were central to the civil suit were all underage in 2003, ranging from 13 to 17; and in court documents, they’re identified only by their initials: B, J, S and V. Their suit never listed an exact amount for damages for the reputational harm they claim they suffered. Some of them now have children, and some of those children are almost as old as they were when they allegedly met Joe Francis in 2003.
While their statements are sealed, witness testimonies, namely from the girls’ mothers, are not. The mother of plaintiffs S and J testified that she had, for the first time, let her 13- and 15-year-old daughters go to the beach with their older sister. Despite being underage, the girls were subsequently featured in a DVD titled “College Girls Exposed, Sexy Sorority Sweethearts.” The mother testified that she found out that they had been filmed when her ex-husband (who is not related to the girls) showed their half-brother the footage. “They were all laughing and cutting up about J and S on it,” she said. A month later, her nephew serving in the Marine Corps in Okinawa, Japan, called her to say that the guys in the barracks saw the video too.
Girls would leave crying. Part of our job — or at least it ended up being our job — was damage control, and just apologizing and making them feel better.Former Girls Gone Wild camera man Noah Tannenbaum
“They told me they didn’t want to go to school, people were making fun of them at school,” their mother said in deposition records. “They were being called names, and just Coke thrown on them and stuff, and just obscene things were said to them. They said they had been groped by kids.” J, 13 years old in 2003, tried to kill herself twice and ended up in abusive relationships. S, 15 years old in 2003, landed in a relationship with a violent man who pulled a gun on her and her mother.
“Please tell me why you feel they are not responsible,” Francis said to their mother during cross-examination.
“They were 13 and 15. They were children,” she replied. “I wasn’t expecting a predator to be out there trying to film them.”
When Francis objected to the term “predator,” Smoak overruled him. Looking at deposition records from the trial, it’s clear from former employees’ testimonies that the company had a troublingly loose process around getting IDs and ensuring girls were both sober and of age. (The crew would make “hunch punch” — a tub full of different alcohol mixed with fruit punch — at their parties, up for grabs for anyone in attendance.)
“We were told that if there was a scene, that [Francis] wanted you to get their ID afterward on tape and have them fill out a release,” Noah Tannenbaum, a former cameraman, said in a video deposition presented to the jury. “But if that didn’t happen, you were never scolded for it.”
“Before I ever picked up a camera, I went directly to Joe and said, ‘I’m concerned. What happens … if I film somebody that’s under age?’” Tannenbaum said, alleging that he had this conversation with Francis twice. “He said he spoke to his lawyers and that it was completely legal, they just couldn’t use it on the DVD.” (This is not legal.)
Tannenbaum testified that cameramen would sometimes advise girls to lie about their ages when the camera turned on. He also testified that he believed that 20% of the girls he filmed in Panama City Beach were minors and that he had seen Francis grab girls’ breasts and buttocks. “Would you say that he had no respect for women?” the plaintiffs’ lawyer asked. “Yes,” Tannnebaum said. “Girls would leave crying. Part of our job — or at least it ended up being our job — was damage control, and just apologizing and making them feel better.”
Schmitz, who was also being investigated criminally, said that Francis was a key designer of Girls Gone Wild’s more graphic scenarios. “If Francis was aware a scene was being made, he would take steps to arrive at the hotel room to be present,” Schmitz said in his deposition. “He did let us know that if underage girls were filmed, that he would make the decision to use the footage in videos or simply keep them for his ‘private collection.’ He said he liked 16-year-old blondes.” Schmitz also alleged that $50 was given to each of the two girls allegedly directed to give Francis a handjob off camera.
Perhaps the most shocking part of the trial was the revelation of what happened when Plaintiff B, who was 17 years old when she appeared in Girls Gone Wild, told her father what had happened.
According to her mother’s testimony, Plaintiff B had called from spring break in Florida, saying she wanted to come home and asking to speak to her dad. When he eventually called her back, she cried on the phone to him. Her mother testified that after B spoke to her father, she called her mother back. She said, “Something’s wrong with dad. I heard the phone drop.”
Her father, just 49, had died of a heart attack.
“What did Plaintiff B do at your husband’s funeral?” the plaintiff’s lawyer asked.
“She kept hanging off the coffin and screaming, ‘I’m sorry, Daddy, I’m sorry,’” her mother said.
After her father’s death and the increasingly public nature of her Girls Gone Wild appearance, B was hospitalized three times, according to her mother. She was depressed. She moved back home to North Carolina. She became an alcoholic. She grew paranoid, convinced people were following her, that helicopters were tracking her, that people were taking photos of her and trying to kill her. “It’s changed her life,” her mother said. “She’ll never be the same.”
Francis let one of his youngest (and only female) attorneys, Rachel Seaton, handle closing arguments. Francis was a brutal cross-examiner during trial both because he was directly involved in the allegations and because he had no interest in following the rules.
Seaton was brutal because she knew how to talk about girls in a way that made them seem like they were responsible for their own trauma. “She has been skipping school before her mom even passed away,” Seaton said about Plaintiff V. “This is not a rule follower.” She said that because 16-year-old V didn’t mention Girls Gone Wild during one of her hospitalizations, it wasn’t central to her trauma — her mother’s death and father’s abuse were the actual issues. “She was unbalanced to begin with,” Seaton argued. (Seaton declined my requests to comment for this story.)
Ultimately, she reduced the case to two points: that Francis’ companies had already paid $2.1 million after being found liable for what was essentially bad record-keeping when it came to IDs, and that these girls knew what they were getting into when they encountered the Girls Gone Wild camera crew. “Imagine your daughter flashing, spring breaking, underage, smoking, drinking,” Seaton said. “Now imagine making her a millionaire for it. That’s certainly a lesson in personal responsibility.”
In Seaton’s closing statements, she dismissed the significance of the plaintiffs’ youth. “These aren’t innocent girls who aren’t somewhat familiar with what goes on on spring break,” she said.
The next day, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, Larry Selander, attempted to redirect the jury’s sympathies with the question, “Is there anything more outrageous than child pornography?”
Selander also picked at the defense’s conspiratorial suggestion that these girls had banded together to win the lottery by suing Francis. “They got together somehow, somewhere, and they cooked this up, so let’s go try to commit suicide, let’s wreck our lives, let’s lose our friends, let’s be shunned by our friends, be thrown out of our family. Let’s have a horrible downward spiral for 10 years so that we can come into court and maybe trick Joe Francis,” Selander said. “They didn’t trick Joe Francis. Joe Francis coerced them.”
On April 6, 2011, after a little more than a week at trial, the all-woman jury found that though Francis “engaged in extreme and outrageous conduct” and “behavior that goes beyond all possible bounds of decency and is regarded as shocking, atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community,” there would be no damages owed to the girls. Maybe the jury felt they would be punishing Francis twice for the same violation, or believed the girls had it coming. They were on the beach during spring break. They were wooed by Francis’ silver Ferrari. They wanted free tank tops.
Nearly eight years after Joe Francis’ Panama City Beach saga started, he finally left town for good.
Casa Aramara has the sterile beauty of a hotel. Francis acquired the land in 1999, and has built it twice — the second time in 2021, after most of it burned down. I figured it was impersonal by design, since these days, his income comes almost entirely from renting out the property for anywhere between $21,000 and $55,000 per night, depending on the season. It’s something of an Airbnb for the incredibly rich — past guests include longtime friend Mario Lopez and his wife, Courtney Laine Mazza, plus celebrities like Selena Gomez, Jennifer Aniston and the Kardashians. A representative for Kim Kardashian and Kris Jenner declined to comment for this story. None of the other celebrities replied to my requests for comment on the nature of their associations with Francis.
Francis lives in a 6,000-square-foot apartment on his compound.
When Francis gave me a tour of the property, including the 6,000-square-foot apartment where he lives, I thought I’d see some homey touches. But there are remarkably few; even his own quarters look like a vacation home staged for an elegant bachelor party. The his and hers closets were pretty barren, except for Francis’ own thin wardrobe: a few t-shirts, a few pairs of shorts, several pairs of Converse low-tops.
Francis lives in paradise, and he said he doesn’t miss LA, or Bel Air, or Hollywood, or any of the life he once had. “I just regret ever going to that shithole,” Francis said about Panama City Beach. To him, what transpired there cost him his reputation. “People still think I was caught with drugs on that plane,” he added. (Sullivan was delighted to hear how much Francis wished he hadn’t come to the panhandle. “Thank you, Jesus,” he said.)
Throughout my time at Casa Aramara, Francis remained unable to sit still. A devotee of the speech-to-text function, he shot off countless missives to associates. (“I’m in an interview right now and I can’t talk,” he said, dictating one message. “Just please buy them. I will pay you back.”) Sometimes he’d take phone calls in the middle of our conversation. Other times he’d vanish to his quarters or the bathroom for 20 or 30 minutes, or wander his property to find things that needed cleaning or repairs.
Francis showed me four other high-end rental properties on the compound, which featured spas, pools and tennis courts. Some rooms, according to him, house Basquiats. He stopped to show me a small bedroom dedicated to his 8-year-old twin daughters, who now live with their mother, Abbey Wilson, in Oklahoma. The couple’s acrimonious breakup and subsequent custody battle have been Francis’ focus lately.
“Take a picture of me here,” he directed our photographer, positioning himself on one of the beds and holding up a stuffed elephant, looking longingly at the camera. He then asked to have the same photo taken of him with his phone. “It’s for my daughters one day, to show them I really care,” he said. “Their mom has told them through the nannies that I have thrown away all their toys and don’t want them anymore.”
Francis has two daughters, who live with their mother in the U.S.
It’s hard to verify much of what Francis claims. Frequently, he would send me a digital pamphlet about kidnapping, suggesting his ex-partner was guilty of it. He also said he brought in former Donald Trump operative Roger Stone to create the strategy for his Panama City trial. (“In all honesty, my memory of the entire period is fairly vague,” Stone told me over text, though he did confirm that he and Francis had been friendly.)
At one point during our interview Francis said, “You’ll never find anyone who has ever said that I have hit them or been violent against them.”
In fact, numerous people have brought allegations forward against him. In 2000, the property manager of his Santa Monica apartment got a restraining order against him after she said he harassed her and twice climbed up to her bedroom window to yell at her. In 2003, a party planner filed a police report against Francis after he allegedly threatened to kill her because she couldn’t return his $25,000 security deposit after Francis’ 2,000 guests trashed a venue after a Halloween party. (Two weeks later, she miscarried; Francis settled out of court.) In 2006, Los Angeles Times reporter Claire Hoffman wrote a profile of Francis that starts with him pressing her up against a car, twisting her arm and shouting, “This is what they did to me in Panama City!” Francis had an answer for all this, too: “She tried to kiss me and I wouldn’t kiss her! She was trying to hook up with me. Totally unprofessional. And then she wrote a fucking hit piece.” (Hoffman did not respond to my request for comment.)
Then, in 2013, Francis was sentenced to 270 days in Los Angeles jail for taking three women home, refusing to let them leave and bashing one woman’s head against his tile floor. (Francis never served the time; he left for Mexico instead and has not returned to the U.S. since.) In 2021, he was arrested in Mexico for allegedly grabbing a woman by the neck and spitting on her after reportedly testing positive for COVID-19. Charges were dropped after the woman in question forgave Francis under the condition that he attend therapy.
There have also been allegations against Francis beyond physical assault as well. When reviewing court documents between him and Wilson, 12 prior rulings between 2008 and 2022 were listed, and described as just “a cursory review” by Wilson’s lawyers. That list included a 2011 restraining order filed by Francis’ own mother, a 2013 judgment against him for “intentional infliction of emotional distress” by one of his former attorneys, and a 2014 judgment involving the filming of partially nude women, to name a few.
I’ve never had an unconsensual sexual experience. I want to go on the record with that.Joe Francis
In 2020, Francis and Wilson signed a “concubinage termination” document in Mexico, agreeing that neither had been violent against the other (despite allegations from both sides) and agreeing Francis would pay Wilson so she could find a home. Wilson’s lawyer, Ronald Richards, said that Francis has never paid any of the millions he allegedly owes his ex-partner as a result of this agreement. “He is a deadbeat dad,” Richards said. (Richards has an established relationship with Francis. He represented Darnell Riley, who robbed and held Francis at gunpoint in 2004, forcing him to “partially disrobe and pose for a demeaning videotape” for potential blackmail purposes. Riley was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2006, but has since been released.)
For the last few years, Francis has been publicly attacking Wilson, claiming she kidnapped their daughters when she returned stateside with them in 2021. But Wilson has made claims against Francis as well, namely in an August 2022 protective order in Oklahoma County.
In her petition, Wilson alleged that Francis had raped and physically abused her, and that he kidnapped her and their daughters. (Francis has denied all of these allegations.) Wilson also alleged in the petition Francis had threatened her, pulled her hair, and kept her isolated from her friends and family while in Mexico. She also alleged that he strangled Wilson in front of their daughters. The order was granted for “domestic abuse and/or stalking,” and it stated that Francis was to have zero contact with Wilson, either directly or through a third party, and he’s barred from posting about her on social media.
“He has violated the protective order issued against him in Oklahoma,” Richards said. While I was with Francis, he admitted to having Wilson tracked in Oklahoma and showed me photos his private investigator had taken of his children on their way to school. In emails sent to me earlier this week, Francis claimed that he is “the victim of a violent crime of kidnapping” and that Wilson stole thousands of dollars from him. “She is not a credible source,” he added. Francis’ Oklahoma attorneys said they will be appealing the protective order.
The most difficult allegation to parse from Francis is that Wilson claimed that he molested their daughters. “My ex is now trying to say I sexually molested my children,” he told me. But Richards said that Wilson has made no such claim about Francis abusing the children — none of the court records I reviewed demonstrated Wilson making that claim either. The only time it’s come up has been when Francis introduced these allegations himself.
When we met in person, Francis wasn’t shy about addressing any of Wilson’s allegations against him — he wanted to clear his name as expeditiously as possible. At one point, I asked Francis to address Wilson’s claims that he had raped her. He claimed he never raped her or anyone else.
“I have never raped a girl. I have never sexually assaulted a girl. And I’ve never had an unconsensual sexual experience. I want to go on the record with that,” he told me.
“You can’t rape your partner,” Francis added. I told him that wasn’t true. He was surprised. “Oh,” he said. “You can? OK.”
In Panama City Beach, a few of the girls, now women, seem to still be minor celebrities; people I spoke to there remember the scandal well. What they recall the most is how the girls involved with Girls Gone Wild should have known better than to go to the beach during spring break. After all, you know what you’re getting into, right?
In our final interview, Sullivan, Panama City Beach’s former mayor, said our conversations were making him reconsider whether he had done enough to protect the girls of Panama City Beach. “I do want you to know that you have traumatized the hell out of me,” Sullivan told me as we were wrapping up. “You have given me cause to rethink what was clearly a lifetime ago, and to question if I did the most appropriate things.” Sullivan rose from the table, readjusted his cowboy hat, and took his Beretta out of his boot to put it back in its holster. “You have made me believe that, possibly, I didn’t.”
His legacy lives on largely as the former CEO of a defunct porn company whose lasting impact is around how we think about the commodification of nubile sexuality.
By the end of my in-person interview with Francis, he had grown tired and agitated. He had been emphatic about setting the record straight every time we spoke over the last six months. But when I started getting into the specifics of the countless allegations made against him over the years (sexual assault, harassment, groping, assault, intimidation, tax evasion, tax fraud, false imprisonment ― the list is endless), he grew short-tempered.
“Is this going to be one of those things where I have to go on record with all these things, though?” he said. When I asked if he had any sexual contact with any of the girls in Panama City Beach who claimed he did, he got even more irritated. “Are you going to slam me?” he asked. “I’m not going to answer all these questions. That’s as far as I’m going to go.” Other times during our conversations he was simply suspicious. “I haven’t done an interview in 10 years,” he said. “Is this going to be a slam piece on me?” In an email he sent earlier this week, he was even more exercised. “YOU KNOW YOU ARE LIEING,” he wrote, “AND YOU BETTER THINK TWICE.”
In the last decade, Francis has largely dropped out of public consciousness. His legacy lives on largely as the former CEO of a defunct porn company whose lasting impact is around how we think about the commodification of nubile sexuality. Francis and his company helped build spring break into a global industry, along with MTV and Señor Frog’s, but that only took him so far: In 2013, Girls Gone Wild went bankrupt and the following year, Francis sold whatever was left of the company to porn studio Bang Bros for a very modest $1.8 million. Now, if you want a Girls Gone Wild T-shirt, you’ll have to scroll through eBay to find one. So as other figures from the recent past have garnered their own reconsiderations, it makes sense Francis has long been hungry for his own.
Francis fixes his hair while looking at his reflection at his home in Punta Mita, Mexico.
Now that he’s reached his 50s, it seems that he’s yearning to be recast in a new, more sympathetic light. The problem is he just doesn’t deserve it. He made his money off girls and women who should have owned their sexuality themselves. His ex-partner is fearful of having him around their twin daughters. Several former Girls Gone Wild employees I spoke to for this story asked to remain anonymous, worried Francis would reenter their lives. Others simply think he’s an asshole and don’t want to be associated with him anymore. “I’m tired of Joe Francis coming up when you Google me,” one former employee said.
Schmitz, the cameraman who was arrested alongside Francis in Panama City Beach, said he ended up taking a plea deal. These days, he doesn’t speak fondly of Francis or his time at Girls Gone Wild. “I have a feeling I will never pay back the karma for what I created. I’m ashamed to have even been a part of it,” Schmitz, now 46, told me. “I don’t like to talk bad about anybody but he is the biggest low-life, jerk, scumbag that I would ever come across. He was a total subhuman being.”
Francis helped create a culture that has objectified and harmed girls and young women for decades — “Show us your tits!”— and commodified them for eager public consumption. His pernicious effect on culture will continue to fester, even if people eventually forget his name altogether.
A reappraisal is a beautiful thing; it gives people the chance to retell their stories accurately. Francis’ legacy does actually require a second look, but not for the reasons he wants. Buried in the Francis saga are a handful of girls and women who merit reappraisals of their own. His legal cases may have largely been forgotten by time, but Francis’ legacy has had a lasting impact on an entire generation.
The central question to the Girls Gone Wild story has always been who should have control over the profit and distribution of a woman’s — or in some cases, a girl’s — burgeoning sexuality. And for a long time, Francis was the answer; it was men like him who owned both the means of production and distribution. That just isn’t true anymore, and Francis knows it.
“Hundreds of thousands of women appeared on Girls Gone Wild just like hundreds of thousands of women appear on Instagram in their bathing suits and on Twitter topless,” Francis said in an email to me earlier this week. “No one seems to care. They are free to do as they wish.”
But it’s the women in question who should be responsible for their own commodification, should they so choose. It’s a cultural evolution that Francis may never have anticipated: In his lifetime, it would become increasingly normalized for women to own their sexuality without pleading men behind a camera.
Joe Francis wanted a reconsideration. Instead, he lost control of the narrative entirely.
If you appeared in a Girls Gone Wild tape or have a tip about Joe Francis and Girls Gone Wild, we’d like to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scaachi Koul is a writer, author, and podcaster based in New York.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.
This article has been updated to clarify details of the arrest and conviction of Darnell Riley.