Man trying to start newspaper publishing mug shots of people arrested in Harris County

August 17, 2012 10:46:54 AM PDT
Actor Nick Nolte, musician Randy Travis and former house speaker and Sugar Land Rep. Tom Delay, are all public figures whose mug shots became as famous, or infamous, as them.

But what if we told you a picture of anyone who gets arrested in Harris County may be plastered on the front pages of a newspaper.

While a lot of papers are struggling in this age of the Internet, there's one that's found a niche -- a very successful niche capitalizing on other people's misery.

Think you've had a bad day? Probably not as bad as Jeremy Westmoreland. Or Jonathan Gary. Not only were they arrested, but their mug shots were printed in a Raleigh, North Carolina weekly called "The Slammer".

"It's always sold very well for us. I would say it sells like hot cakes," Family Fare Convenience Store employee James Hanson said.

It sells for a dollar, with catchy headlines like 'Hairdos and Don'ts,' 'Wrinkly Rascals' or 'Tatted Up and Locked Down.'

"Whoever is in trouble is on the front page and a lot of people see a lot of their friends in here," Hanson said.

Isaac Cornetti is "The Slammer"'s mastermind.

"People love to know what's going on in the community," Cornetti said.

He's a self-described serial entrepreneur.

"Mug shots capture a moment in time that a lot of people find irresistible," Cornetti said.

So what does a small newspaper in Raleigh have to do with Houston? Well, the publisher has some big plans and wants to do for mug shots in Harris County, Texas what he's done for them in Wake County, North Carolina.

Already "The Slammer" is published in nine different counties across the country. And Cornetti's worked for more than a year to lock up a deal in southeast Texas.

"Unfortunately, we've met with a great deal of obstruction and delay," Cornetti said.

The Houston Police Department doesn't quite see it that way.

"Basically, they've requested all HPD mug shots for whatever time period they're looking for," said HPD's open records manager Jeff Monk.

In Houston and Harris County, that's 2,300 mug shots a week, up to 10,000 a month -- roughly 120,000 a year.

"Our technology doesn't allow us to just push a button and create one file that we can send out to him. We have to go into each individual file, pull out the photo, give it a name and save it," Monk said.

That takes about 2 minutes per photo. So HPD told "The Slammer" it would do it -- for $15 per hour, or roughly $60,000 a year.

Cornetti calls that highway robbery. While Harris County, which releases 8,000 mug shots a year on a case-by-case basis, has essentially told him no.

"We do not have the man and woman power to devote just to that task of releasing 120,000 mug shots a year," said Alan Bernstein, director of the Harris County Sheriff's Office Public Affairs department.

While Texas law does not require the release of mug shots until after conviction, publishing mug shots for profit is legal.

"As a human, I think it's pretty reprehensible, but as a lawyer, mostly there's nothing wrong with it. There's certainly nothing illegal about it," Houston attorney Geoff Berg said.

So "The Slammer" is handcuffed in southeast Texas right now, but there's evidence from its other successes that it would be a siren's song to those who like looking at other people's misery.

The publisher insists that if they were able to print "The Slammer" here, it would help solve crimes and it would bring 30 new jobs to the area.

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