Joe Francis: 'The Only Criminals Are Those Persecuting Me'

"Girls Gone Wild" founder talks to Martin Bashir from jail.

ByABC News
February 18, 2009, 6:42 PM

Nov. 9, 2007 — -- Joe Francis built a multimillion dollar business literally off the backs (and fronts) of seminaked women.

"We go out and we view girls going wild," he said, calling it "fun."

Francis doesn't believe that his product should necessarily be considered porn. "You know what I like to call it?" he said. "European television. It's naked girls having fun."

Francis has made more than $100 million selling footage of young women "having fun" exposing themselves. And it's given him an enviable lifestyle. But earlier this year, the party came to a crashing halt -- Joe Francis is now in jail.

"I think this is an abuse of the criminal justice system," Francis said. "And frankly, I just didn't think the criminal justice system could be used to get revenge on someone."

Francis' fall from soft-porn CEO to prisoner number 07-12000 started as he prepared for the biggest event in the history of "Girls Gone Wild." It was due to take place during Spring Break 2003 in Panama City, Fla. At the time, former police chief Lee Sullivan was the mayor of Panama City, a community he described as devout, rural and "Southern, in the truest sense of the word."

"The challenge of having visitors is simply this: You set parameters, then you require everyone to stay around those parameters," Sullivan said. "And those that can't can either leave or go to jail."

Sullivan did not believe the "Girls Gone Wild" production team would abide by those parameters.

"Here comes a company that is going to put on a show and basically turn our community into a theater for some soft porn movie," he said. "They are very good at getting young people that have been drinking to do things that are, at best, risque. But more appropriately, illegal and nasty."

"A pretty whacky mayor came out against me and said, you know, 'you're not welcome and if you come here you'll be arrested. You're scum-sucking trash,'" countered Francis.

Francis filed and won a lawsuit allowing him to roll his trucks into town, but it set the scene for an ugly conflict. As film crews set about capturing spring breakers, the police were watching closely. Then, just two days after "Girls Gone Wild" started filming, police raided Francis' production locations.

"I was actually driving back from the gym and I parked. And then some guy said, 'Are you Joe Francis?' And I said, 'Yeah.' And they started running after me," he said.

Francis said he wasn't told what was going on "until later that night when I rolled into jail. They were just piling us all up in the holding cells. I'm like, 'What the hell happened?' And I found out that everything had all been taken," he said.

Francis' private jet had been impounded and his were cars taken away for forensic examination. He was charged with 71 separate offenses, from racketeering to prostitution and drug trafficking. Florida state attorney Steve Meadows said the number of charges "was based upon the review of the evidence that was seized."

When asked if every charge was a viable count, Meadows said "absolutely."

But within weeks, the indictment was torn apart by Judge Deedee Costello, who found that investigators had acted "with the intent to deceive the court, or with reckless disregard as to the truth."

And she singled out one particular police officer: Chief Investigator Richard Bagwell.

When asked if he regarded Bagwell as a competent investigator, Meadows said, "I'm not gonna answer that question. He's not employed by me. And I'm not gonna comment." Meadows also wouldn't say whether he was confident in Bagwell's abilities.

Days after Costello's condemnation, the number of charges was reduced from 71 to just eight.

Francis felt vindicated, but his celebrations were premature. It soon emerged that two girls in Panama City had lied about their ages to a "Girls Gone Wild" cameraman. They'd been paid to perform sex acts in a hotel bathroom and they were just 17. Francis was now charged with child prostitution.

When "Girls Gone Wild" arrived in Panama City in 2003, Franics held his usual briefing with the crews.

"I had a meeting with all the cameramen and just gave my policy discussion -- ID's, releases. That's my mantra," Francis said.

All performers must sign a release giving "Girls Gone Wild" the rights to sell the footage. Consent and identification that confirms the girls are 18 is often captured on tape, but two girls lied to a cameraman filming a shower scene at the Chateau Hotel. The girls were actually 17, and according to the state attorney, the burden for ensuring they're of legal age rests solely with the filmmakers. It's known as strict liability, and is a reading of the law which Francis contests.