A retraction the following week doesn't make things right, says Suddarth, who says he and his parents have been traumatized by the mistake.
ONLINE ONLY PIC: Crime Times names its April 1 edition "April Fools."
Nobody ever wants to see their picture in a mugshot magazine, but one man says his concern over a misdemeanor arrest was compounded into utter humiliation and outrage when Crime Times printed his mug with a more serious set of charges. Now, he's planning to sue.
"People called my parents, they called me, there were rumors all over town," says J.T. Suddarth, 46, who was arrested for driving while intoxicated but shocked to find his picture appearing in the March 20 edition with these three charges, two of which are felonies: Reckless handling of a firearm. Discharge of firearm in an occupied building. Possess/transport firearms by convicted felon x2.
"I've never owned a gun," says Suddarth, an Albemarle High School and Longwood College grad who says he'd never before been arrested and portrays the label as a two-time felon who'd shoot a weapon indoors and around people as particularly traumatic.
"The DUI is not a good thing," says Suddarth. "This is 10 times as bad as that."
When his boss at the used car dealership, where he works in sales, summoned him and confronted him with the firearms allegations, Suddarth braced for dismissal. He kept his job after explaining the error.
He did retain the Central Virginia Litigation law firm, and while attorney Dustin Rosser declines comment on any potential lawsuit, Suddarth maintains that the damage is clear. Compounding the mistake, he says, was the fact that he couldn't reach anyone at Crime Times to request a correction.
"They don't list a phone number," says Suddarth, who resorted to asking the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail to forward a message to Crime Times.
While Suddarth says he never got a response, Crime Times publisher Brad McMurray claims he responded quickly by attempting to call back, getting no answer, and then promptly running a retraction in the March 27 edition.
"We ran a retraction the next week," says McMurray.
As for the absence of a contact phone number, McMurray says he removed that option for the calling public. "We had a high volume of drunken people calling after midnight," he explains.
Mugshot magazines have soared in popularity in recent years. Even as free publications proliferate, the mugshot mags typically sell for a dollar per copy, a fact that has recently attracted Daily Progress parent Media General into the business. If the mags offer a chance to see neighbors and friends posed like deer-in-headlights, they rarely offer any follow-through, i.e. acquittals, exonerations, or even explanations.
Despite the controversies and despite the obviousness of Crime Times' mistake about Suddarth, he faces an uphill battle in civil lawsuit– particularly since he was convicted on the DUI on April 16 in Charlottesville General District Court.
"Defamation is a hard case to bring," says Hook legal analyst David Heilberg, noting that while the mistaken charge is "insulting," it might not rise to the level of defamation.
"Times have changed, and there's a lot of insult in society," Heilberg notes. "There's a pretty high threshold, and juries would expect you to have thick skin."
Even after printing the retraction, publisher McMurray offers little sympathy.
"Of the thousands of people that have been in the paper, I think getting one drunk-driving used car salesman upset isn't bad," he writes in an email. "If Mr. Suddarth doesn't care about endangering people's lives by driving drunk, I don't care that his family is upset and wants to direct their anger anywhere but where it belongs."
McMurray further claims that the positive impact of the magazine has been far greater than any negatives.
"I think it's ironic that lately we have received numerous comments and compliments from parents thanking us for 'waking up' their sons or daughters, but we garner attention from this," writes McMurray, noting that he donates advertising space for missing persons and unsolved crimes and claiming he's heard anecdotes of students toting copies of Crime Times to school to "debate in their history class."
McMurray asserts than some of the "Wanted Sex Offenders" whose pictures appear each week have turned themselves in after seeing their mug, and he also suggests the magazine has had a positive influence on teen runaways.
"When we first started publishing the missing children from the area we cover, there would be 15 to 18 recent endangered runaways or missing children per week," he says. "This week there were only two."
Corinne Geller, spokesperson for the Virginia State Police, which tracks sex offenders through a registry, did not return reporter's call. And while the ability of Crime Times to keep would-be runaways home and push sudden pangs of conscience on sex offenders may be debatable issues, McMurray says one thing is sure: his magazine isn't going away. In fact, he says, circulation has exploded.
From its initial print run of 6,000 last June, McMurray says he now prints and distributes 30,000 copies each week from Lynchburg to Fredericksburg, and he's hoping to expand into Fairfax and Prince William counties, where he says he's faced resistance from various legal entities.
"They're saying that the records don't exist and don't contact them again," he notes of Prince William, suggesting he's planning a lawsuit of his own. "We're in the process of taking them to court."
For Suddarth, an avid UVA sports fan and proud father, he says he hopes the courts will help him redeem his reputation.
"Obviously, a DUI doesn't help your reputation," he says, "but it doesn't convict you of being a two-time felon and carrying guns around Charlottesville. That is something you can't take back."
Any retraction, even when printed boldly, which he says didn't happen in this case, can't restore his reputation.
"People may not see it," says Suddarth, "and I'm already proven guilty in their mind."
Special online-only editor's note posted two weeks after this story ran: Due to the high volume of calls we have received from frustrated readers unable to find contact information for Crime Times, here it is as retrieved from the pages of the magazine: firstname.lastname@example.org