Beginning with the “disappearance” on July 27 of evidence that was to have been provided to me to confirm the allegations of the mysterious informant I had been calling “Deep Throat,” I’ve been living with a growing sick feeling in my stomach that we have been played and taken advantage of.
Stephen Sydebotham had claimed to be in possession of photographs and audio recordings which would prove beyond all doubt that the Deep Throat allegations he was providing to us were true. But the evidence never got into my hands. There had been a full week of frustrating delays, supposedly caused by technical difficulties created by cyber-attacks. Audio recordings were e-mailed to me, but the voices in them were electronically modified and there were puzzling inconsistencies in the content.
Based on Stephen’s word, I had scheduled a Friday afternoon interview with a child sex trafficking investigator at Homeland Security to arrange for the turning over of this evidence as required by law. On the morning of the scheduled interview, Stephen called and said, “We have a problem.” The file with all the evidence in it had been stolen, he said.
How convenient, I thought. As I discussed this strange turn with colleagues who have known Stephen longer than I have, we discovered many inconsistencies in the stories he had been telling us all along. We realized that Stephen had continually mediated contacts between us in such a way that we would have limited opportunities to compare notes.
One of the first things I did was to send James Prindle a postcard suggesting that we begin communicating directly, and not through Stephen. I gave him my phone number and put $25 on a prepaid calling account.
On July 29 I had all references to Stephen, the accounts he managed for Blade and James, etc. removed from The Redemption Project websites.
After I received a message from the Homeland Security investigator that they would not be pursuing an investigation because they did not consider the audio recordings and other leads to be credible, I sent Stephen an e-mail on August 2 formally severing our relationship based on the fact that I no longer had confidence in him or the information he was providing. A copy of this e-mail was sent to James’ new attorney Mike Scholl.
We launched an internal investigation of Stephen, his identity, background, claims, and practices. Background checks had been run previously but had turned up nothing to raise our suspicions. But this time we dug deeper, interviewed people who had previously worked with him, and we found troubling evidence of a pattern of lying and fraud. Our investigation is continuing, but on the basis of what we have already learned, we have concluded that we’ve been the victims of an elaborate deception which has endangered the welfare of the young people for whom Stephen has been advocating, as well as our other work.
I have raised and disbursed a little more than $30,000 for Blade Reed and James Prindle (most of it paid directly to lawyers and other third parties) based in part on information provided to me by Stephen—information which I now believe to be questionable and unreliable.
This is very serious, and I have informed our largest donors most directly affected. (The first donor I informed not only expressed his continuing confidence in The Redemption Project, but raised his commitment to James’ defense. This experience has been repeated.)
On August 12 I finally received a call from James Prindle and I learned that at least one of my blog posts was based on reports that were not factually true, so I took down that post right after I got off the phone with James. I have also taken down two other July posts about which I no longer have confidence in their basis in fact.
I now believe the very existence of “Deep Throat” was an invention, and that the revelations reported in the two posts titled “Allegations” 1 and 2 are a blend of fact, theory, and fiction which can now be sorted out only with great difficulty. All post deletions now appear as white dates on the July calendar appearing in the right-hand column of the blog.
Because these allegations were revealed after the guilty verdict in James’ trial, I believe that Stephen’s motive must have been to create more “reasonable doubt” than had been available for James’ defense in the trial and to influence the actions of the judge through public pressure. But remember, Stephen has never admitted to me that Deep Throat and his revelations were an invention; in fact, Stephen has even tried to convince me that someone matching Deep Throat’s description was in Stephen’s Wisconsin hometown after July 27 making inquiries about Stephen. Lies buttressing lies—or so it appears to me.
As I explained to James, the introduction of any falsehoods into his defense could undermine everything.
Dishonest prosecutors regularly get away with spinning innocuous things into damning evidence. But for the accused, the truth is the only source of exculpatory evidence. It is bad enough when a kid who is wrongfully accused of a crime tries to lie his way to exoneration, but for an adult advocate to facilitate any deception for that purpose—well, that is simply beyond the pale.
Now we have discovered that certain disbursements made directly to Stephen for the benefit of his kids were never used for their intended purposes. For example, nearly a year ago I sent him two payments totaling $1,650 that were have to been used to pay a paralegal named Torm Howse to prepare a writ of habeas corpus for Blade Reed. I was told by Stephen that the work was completed by Mr. Howse and utilized by Blade’s attorneys. E-mails from Mr. Howse were forwarded to me to pressure our prompt payment. Now we have doubled back on Stephen’s representations, checked with Mr. Howse, and are dismayed to learn that: “I recall the sporadic email conversation, but nothing really happened eventually, so I don’t believe an actual price or time required was even figured out. The guy writing about doing something for Blade never took it that far, as best I can remember–yes, clear back sometime last year.” Blade’s attorneys have also told me they never had anything to do with the presentation of a habeas corpus writ.
In other words, Stephen tricked me into raising $1,650 to pay for legal work for Blade Reed which was never done. The money was deposited into a UGMA account ostensibly for Blade Reed’s benefit, but it was apparently not disbursed from that account for the purpose that Stephen said it was. This is likely not the only such instance.
In the June 15-July 18 time period surrounding James Prindle’s trial and last two court dates, Stephen spent a little more than a month in Memphis on The Redemption Project’s dime. Originally Stephen was to have spent only about a week in Memphis and then returned for the sentencing hearing.
However, with the appearance of “Deep Throat” and the revelations he was supposedly sharing, it seemed to make all the sense in the world to keep Stephen in Memphis if the information he was developing there might exonerate James, so I kept transferring cash to him through MoneyGram. Now we see that this hope—and the rationalization for sending him money—was a chimera.
We provided Stephen with a total of $3,500 to cover his expenses, not including phone. While there, we calculate that his motel bill was only something like $1,000. He claimed to have been eating at Burger King and other modest venues, but because of car trouble and other purported problems, he kept running out of money. Now we have learned that Stephen also borrowed money from James’ grandparents and owes them about $300. Where did all our money go? I have asked for an accounting of Stephen’s expenses including receipts, but the deadline I set has come and gone.
This is adding up to only one reasonable conclusion: that Stephen has likely been engaged in fraud. Instead of helping the kids for whom he has been advocating, it’s more likely he’s in fact been using them—and us—for his own personal gain and who-knows-what other nefarious purposes. The staff at the Shelby County Jail have nicknamed him “The Predator.” Indeed, the man does give every appearance of being a predator, and a smooth and cunning one at that—as long as he is working the phones and Internet.
By all accounts, Stephen creates a much different impression when you meet or see him in person. People who observed him in the courtroom in Memphis have said that, based on his personal grooming habits and the way he was dressed, he looked to them like a “homeless person.”
When James’ dad Sam Prindle and I discussed this recently, all Sam had to say is that Stephen seemed so caring, competent, and convincing. Sam was taken in, too.
Stephen Sydebotham needs to be sidelined so he can never again do damage to the kids and families who trust him. I keep thinking about the profound disappointment and sense of betrayal James and Blade will experience when they learn the truth. Theft of money is a serious offense, but taking advantage of vulnerable kids is the worst of all possible sins in our work.
Even if we never recover any of the money he has apparently stolen from us and from the kids we serve, it would be worth it to see this predator taken out of circulation. Or at least, that is how I am rationalizing it right now.
We have reported all of this to the authorities in four states, and we will see (in this instance, at least) if the System is capable of dispensing honest and appropriate justice. Unfortunately, we are not off to a promising start.
The sheriff’s department in Sauk County WI, for example, wants to see the financial fraud as a civil matter and has declined to pursue it as a criminal offense. The FBI declined to get involved because the amount of money involved does not cross a six-figure threshold. So far just about everybody says Sydebotham is another jurisdiction’s problem. Nobody seems to give a damn about the damage being done to the kids, who (to them) are seemingly of the throw-away variety.
Only in Tennessee is there a shred of hope that law enforcement will open an official investigation. Several days ago we heard from someone close to Shelby County officials that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is looking into the Prindle Case and Stephen Sydebotham’s role in it. I contacted the TBI investigator I had spoken to earlier to check on this rumor. “At this time the TBI does not have an active investigation on the Prindle matter,” she said. “However, the information you provided has been forwarded to the proper authorities for review.”
Looking at this from law enforcement’s perspective, the bottom line is that the amounts of money involved are relatively small and the complexity (because of the multiple jurisdictions involved) is high—and most people, even cops and prosecutors, are basically lazy.
As I said to the agent I talked to at the FBI, it looks like we may just have to take matters into our own hands. There are plenty of perfectly legal things we can do. “Outing” Stephen as a wolf in sheep’s clothing through this post is one of them.
We are taking concrete steps so that this will never happen again.
One way or another, justice will be done.
We will see to it.
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