Houston ‘Crush’ Cases Were First Under Federal Statute
The sentencing last month of a Houston man for creating and distributing videos depicting the torture and killing of small animals brings to a close the first successful prosecutions under a 2010 federal statute specifically tailored to prohibit so-called “crush” videos.
Brent Justice, 55, was sentenced on August 18 in Houston to nearly five years in prison for making videos that featured a woman mutilating and killing puppies, chickens, and kittens between February 2010 and August 2012. The woman in the videos, Ashley Nicole Richards, 25, originally from Waco but residing in Houston, was also convicted.
The case against co-defendants Justice and Richards highlighted a little-known federal statute—The Animal Crush Video Prohibition Act of 2010—that criminalizes the creation, sale, and marketing of videos depicting cruelty to animals to satisfy a fetish. The law’s enactment followed a Supreme Court ruling in 2010 that struck down a 1999 animal cruelty law that was determined to be too broad and a violation of free speech rights.
Richards pleaded guilty last September to four counts of creating crush videos and one count of distribution, making her conviction the first under the 2010 statute. In the videos, which were distributed online, Richards is scantily clad and wearing a Mardi Gras-type mask while making sexual comments to the camera. Crush videos are part of a fetish subculture, with videos circulating online, often under the guise of ritual sacrifices.
Justice was found guilty in state court last February and sentenced to 50 years in prison. He was found convicted in May on the federal charges and subsequently sentenced to 57 months in prison.
The case was originally investigated by the Houston Police Department, where Officer Suzanne Hollifield followed a tip from the animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA.
“I knew what crush videos were, I had been trained to recognize them, but I never expected to see something like that in my career,” said Hollifield, a 22-year police veteran who served on her department’s animal cruelty squad. She quickly identified Richards and Justice in the videos, charging the pair under state animal cruelty laws. The hardest part of the case, she recalled, was reviewing—repeatedly—the horrific videos in order to identify Justice as the camera operator shooting and assisting Richards.
Hollifield, who years earlier worked with the FBI on a cyber crimes task force, sent the digital evidence to the FBI’s Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory (RCFL) in Houston. Federal prosecutors determined the case met the threshold for the 2010 animal crush statute. And the FBI began following the videos’ digital breadcrumbs, investigating the scope of the business venture, which had Internet-based customers across the U.S. and as far away as Pakistan and Italy.
“They were corresponding with people around the world and selling these videos,” said Special Agent David Ko, who was on the Houston FBI’s violent crime squad at the time. “They would ask Richards to put on certain clothing and perform certain acts and send her money. And then she would buy a certain animal and torture and kill it.”
Evidence presented in court included e-mail correspondence with customers containing links to download the video files and thanking them for wiring money transactions. One e-mail dated August 10, 2012 also included a link to a sample video of a dog being slaughtered.
“It is very cruel video with lots of action and sexy scenes you will like,” the e-mail stated. “Let me know if you like it and what you can afford.”
Richards was sentenced on state charges in 2014 to 10 years in prison. As part of her plea to the federal charges last year, she agreed to testify against Brent Justice.
Prosecutors showed that Justice handled the business side of the video venture, advertising and promoting the underground business, while Richards served as his performer. During his trial, one of the crush videos was played in open court.
“It’s extremely violent. It’s tough to watch,” said Ko, who reviewed more than 16 hours of video to prepare for the original grand jury indictments in 2012. “It’s gratifying to know they’re arrested, behind bars, and not doing these types of crimes anymore.”
“I am very satisfied with the results,” said Hollifield. “It was so horrific. We were determined from the outset to make this case.”
“They would ask Richards to put on certain clothing and perform certain acts and send her money. And then she would buy a certain animal and torture and kill it.”
David Ko, special agent, FBI Houston