Once and for all, here’s the complete story of how Jimmy Iovine’s copy of ‘Chinese Democracy’ made it into my hands, and everything that happened afterwards.
On June 18th, 2008, I sat at my desk in an office building in a part of LA called Ladera Heights, which is sort of like a ghetto Culver City. This means nothing to anyone living outside of Los Angeles. Whatever, just picture downtown Atlanta, with better Mexican food.
Around 1:00 or so, I got a message from a person in “the industry.” I’m going to protect this person’s identity by referring to them as a male named Steve, with no particular association to speak of. But I will say that if you were to Google this person’s real name, you’d have to go through a couple pages before finding anything related. Steve has a cool job, but as far as the media is concerned, he’s just some guy. Nobody special. At the time, even the bands Steve worked with were pretty obscure, and none were at all related to GNR.
I forget exactly what Steve’s message said. Something to the effect of, “Are you a Guns N’ Roses fan?” And of course I said yes. He started sending me a file, roughly the size of an album. This was completely unexpected. Why me? I don’t know. Maybe Steve had read this editorial I had published on June 6th, predicting the album would leak. I knew that the album was done. And just sitting around. But in that moment, I didn’t let my mind go any further than verifying what I thought I was receiving. I didn’t think Steve was bullshitting, but this was a unicorn with a couple of holy grails up its ass. I was… skeptical.
But he sent me nine tracks that were without question the bulk of Chinese Democracy. I had heard most of them, in one form or another, but nothing had sounded so close to finished. The story I got from Steve was that a year prior, a friend of his, a courier of some kind, walked into Jimmy Iovine’s office, and walked out with a CD. Ten tracks; these nine, plus another version of Better that I never bothered to get from Steve. These mixes were done by Andy Wallace. It was never clear if Steve’s friend stole the disc outright, or conned an assistant into trusting him with a copy. Steve seemed to think it was the former. I assumed the whole story was bullshit. Who knows. Hearsay.
Within 30 minutes or so of confirming that the tracks were legit, they were up on Antiquiet.com. I didn’t put a ton of thought into this act, but I knew this much: As I’ve said, If I were to simply announce that I had the tracks, no one would believe it. My intent was not to spread it, but to allow it to be played through a streaming player to obliterate any doubt. I knew I was starting a fire, and that original editorial does a pretty good job of laying out the mindset behind my actions. But I didn’t think it through past that.
At 2PM, I sent two brief emails out, to Maura Johnston, who was at Idolator at the time, and to Wookubus at ThePRP.com. I knew that’s all I needed to do to get that shit splattered over every music site on the internet. According to the FBI, I threw a link up on Digg as well. Fair enough.
I texted my girlfriend something about what was going down, that I’m sure ended with LOLZ. She was working in politics at the time, and at that moment was pretending not to be bored at some super-liberal socialite’s circle jerk brunch in Beverly Hills. This turned out to be a small bundle of kismet, but we’ll get to that in a second.
Within a matter of minutes, Idolator and ThePRP linked the post, and the news spread like a nuclear blast across the whole internet. Antiquiet buckled under the traffic almost immediately. I had to reboot our poor little server just to have a chance of logging into it, and the only way I could bring Antiquiet back to life was to disable a ton of features, and remove the audio player & GNR tracks.
So at that point, Chinese Democracy had come and gone, without any incident besides a sharp traffic spike.
At 3:00 or so, I got a call from a guy named Fernando Santos, the son of Axl’s manager and primary babysitter Beta Lebeis. He identified himself as someone in the “Guns N’ Roses camp,” and talked tough. He asked if I had put up some Guns N’ Roses tracks. I said I had. He asked if I was going to put them back up. I said sorry, I don’t think I can. I was being a smartass, as if he was a fan wanting to hear the tracks. He told me I shouldn’t. I blew him off and he hang up.
The second call I got was from Andy Greene at Rolling Stone. He wanted to interview me or something. My memory is a little fuzzy, but I think I blew him off at the time. I think it was just a voicemail that I got and didn’t have time to respond to.
At 4:48 PM I got an email from Laurie Soriano at Davis Shapiro Lewit & Hayes, the law firm representing W. Axl Rose. It was confidential, but you can imagine what it said. I didn’t blow her off. I replied respectfully: …We have not replaced the stream, nor do we intend to. Furthermore, I’ve completely deleted the streaming files from the server, and even my personal computer. I apologize for any inconveniences, blah blah blah… I finished my workday, went home, moved on. I ignored the media requests that came in, pretty much. I think I told Bloomberg to email me questions if they wanted to, but they didn’t. There was a funny conversation with my girlfriend, but I’ll come back to that later.
Anyway, that’s how June 18th, 2008 went from my perspective in Los Angeles. Now I’m going to back up to 3PM, and tell another part of story that started in Sweden, where Jarmo from the GNR fansite Here Today… Gone To Hell came across news of the leak. He immediately notified Fernando Santos, who checked it out, and then did a Whois lookup on Antiquiet.com to get my phone number so he could talk tough to me.
At 3:20, Fernando emailed Laurie Soriano. His email began: I just got off the phone with Mr. Kevin Skewerl, and asked him to take down the leaks and make sure they don’t go back up. I said that the leaks would do nothing but slow down the process and that we would appreciate if he would take down the player… All of this was bullshit. The leaks were long gone before Fernando called, and there was no ethical lecture of any kind. Previously, I told at least one interviewer that Fernando had told this lie to the FBI, as that was my understanding at the time. Today, as I read the FBI’s classified notes from a meeting with Fernando in August, I can see that he told them the truth, rather than what he told Laurie Soriano in June. So I’ll award some credit to Fernando, and upgrade him from criminal liar, to regular liar. And I digress…
Back to the story. David Benjamin at Universal Music’s Anti-Piracy Office sent all of this information, along with my email correspondence with Laurie Soriano, and both of my Antiquiet articles (the one from June 6th and the leak), to Michael Connelly, RIAA Supervisor of Investigations, West Coast Region. At 5:39 PM on June 19th, Michael Connelly sent all of this to an FBI task force agent named Tommy Rackleff. Rackleff concluded it was sufficient information to suggest a violation of Federal Statute 17 USC §506(a)(1)(c). The report was sent to FBI Special Agent Jensen Penalosa, who was briefed and assigned to my case.
17 USC §506(a)(1)(c) refers to a very specific type of copyright infringement: Any person who willfully infringes a copyright shall be punished as provided under section 2319 of title 18, if the infringement was committed by the distribution of a work being prepared for commercial distribution, by making it available on a computer network accessible to members of the public, if such person knew or should have known that the work was intended for commercial distribution.
The funny conversation I had with my girlfriend was about Joel Stein, who writes for TIME and the LA Times, who you may know from his snarky commentary on shit like VH1’s I Love The 80s. He’s like a slightly more credible, slightly less funny Michael Ian Black. His TIME pieces are, for the most part, very thickly veiled satire, making a complete joke out of the most serious of topics, and a lot of people hate him for it. Naturally, I wanted to hang out with him, and my girlfriend wanted to bone him. Well, turns out Joel was at that socialite’s brunch, expecting to do a piece on the host. When he approached my girl (or when she approached him, both scenarios are equally understandable), the conversation turned to what I was up to, and at that point he decided he’d like to write about me instead. This actually strained various work relationships for my better half, but hopefully she won’t mind me laughing about it now that she’s long gone from that world.
So on June 19th, I did my initial press tour. This apparently consisted of little more than shooting the shit with Joel for awhile. I thought I had spoken to Wired, or called Andy Greene back that day, but I can’t find any evidence of any other interviews going down, at least until a week or two later when things really started heating up.
Across town, coincidentally, an old friend of mine named Charlie Amter was interviewing Slash at Canter’s Deli for the LA Times. My leaks came up. Some portions of this interview were eventually published, including, I believe, the part where Slash told Charlie that I was a thief, and that I should “rot in jail” for what I had done. I remember laughing at that bit, as it’s common knowledge that Slash was an unabashed actual thief at the same age, and that in fact he would proudly tell anyone who would listen that his iconic top hat was shoplifted from a store in Hollywood. At some point in between illegally dubbed cassette tape trades, I’m sure.
On June 20th, Mr. Penalosa performed a search for my name in the FBI’s databases. They found I had no car or driver’s license, and several (awesome) criminal charges: On 2/12/05, I was arrested for drunkenly waving a fake gun around in Hollywood. From Philadelphia, there were 3 counts of institutional vandalism, 8 counts of something called “criminal mischief” (with 7 counts of criminal conspiracy to commit said criminal mischief), and 1 count of “prowling at night.” What can I say, I can’t be tamed.
At that point, the FBI investigation into all of my shit was officially underway. Though if I call it the FBI investigation, it would be misleading not to clarify that the investigation part was actually carried out by Tommy Rackleff at the RIAA. The tail wagged the dog, for the entire ride.
The following people attempted to provide information about the leaks to Rackleff, who forwarded it to Jensen Penalosa: David Benjamin at Universal Anti-Piracy; Brad Buckles, Executive Vice President of Anti-Piracy at RIAA; GNR road manager & ally Del James; a fan named William; Longtime GNR leak hunter Mr. Saint Laurent; a fan named Maribeth; Laurie Soriano; Fernando Santos & Beta Lebeis.
Most of the information sent to the RIAA was bullshit and/or pure speculation. For example, this guy William, whom I know absolutely nothing about, emailed Del James, saying that he had “access to information that may be of use in locating the original source” of the leaks. He claimed to be “convinced” of the source, with sufficient proof to back up his theory. William
claimed implied that I received the songs from Billy Howerdel of the band A Perfect Circle. Ultimately, his evidence was little more than the facts that Billy and I are friends, and he was one of many people who had worked on Chinese Democracy. As a result, a large portion of the investigation was focused on Billy, before it was concluded that Andy Wallace’s mix didn’t even exist until long after Billy had moved on. To this day, I don’t know if Billy ever had any idea how close the FBI was to knocking on his door because of some dipshit named William and his wild bullshit theory. Sorry, Billy, and anyone else who may have been irresponsibly implicated. Lord knows I have plenty of other friends that worked on the album, none of which had anything at all to do with any of these leaks.
Mr. Saint Laurent is an interesting player. As long as I’ve known about this guy, he’s lied about having leaks, in order to get leaks from others in scam trades. This hustle worked out for him in 2007, when he obtained some tracks he then leaked, ironically gaining credibility in the process. In June of 2008, he was telling anyone who would listen that he had obtained the tracks that I leaked, previously, from someone in Portugal, and that more leaks were coming. Maribeth was passing a lot of MSL’s wild claims (and some others’) to Beta, who then led pre-emptive strikes against MSL and all of the big talkers on message boards, through Laurie Soriano and the RIAA’s goons. I should thank MSL for sending my accusers on a few wild goose chases I had fun learning about. In the end, everything that the RIAA and the FBI checked out turned out to be hot wind blowing over bullshit.
Brad Buckles spoke about the monetary damage of the leaks. UMG had invested a sum of $12 million up front in the project. Buckles stated that these were real dollars that were spent, that might never be recovered because of the damage done. One email closed with: Looking at it this way… properly displays the role of the labels as venture capitalists that stand to [lose] millions when things like this happen. It’s a respectable opinion.
On June 23rd, while most of this information was still being collected, I received a visit at work from Jensen Penalosa and a female agent named Robin Davis. My “Mulder & Scully,” if you’ve followed any of my previous retellings or interviews. I had forgotten the female agent’s name entirely until looking it up just now, though I’ve remembered Penalosa’s, mostly because his name has since become code for The Man, between Johnny and I. Also because he has… How can I put this? Kept in touch.
I have the FBI’s notes from our initial meetings and phone calls, and nothing in them hasn’t already been stated here. I didn’t tell them anything about Steve, the courier, or Jimmy Iovine’s CD, because at the time, I hardly believed any of it to be true. They wanted to know technical details. Forensic stuff. What computer did I use, what version of Linux does my web server run. Stuff like that. I invited them to my apartment the following morning. Despite the first visit being a surprise, I took it far less seriously than it actually was, and remember it as cordial and mostly amusing. I’m pretty sure my first words to them, when I saw them sitting there, were something like, “what are you guys, FBI agents?” The visit to my apartment was no more intimidating. I voluntarily lent them my laptop for a couple of days so they could copy its hard drive. They promptly gave it back after doing so. They did have some questions about why it appeared to have been recently wiped, which I answered as best I could.
These early visits have been called “ambushes” and “raids” in various reports, and some of these statements were made using my own words. I can be sarcastic. That is not how I ever would have seriously characterized them.
The RIAA’s investigation continued through July and August. On June 26th, Penalosa accessed my FBI records once again. There were a few brief phone calls. On August 21st, Mr. Penalosa called a good friend of mine, who I’ll refer to as Dan, who was hosting Antiquiet.com at the time. Dan provided server logs from June 18th, and confirmed the IP address that uploaded the files. Once again, sorry for the inconvenience, Dan.
I have the server logs in front of me now, and they confirm the timeline as I remember it. The logs show all of the large data traffic (audio files) exploding between 2PM and 3PM Pacific time.
On August 23rd, I spoke to Mr. Penalosa over the phone. Apparently he wanted to know if I had shared the tracks with anyone else in my office. I told him I hadn’t. On August 25th, Penalosa spoke to Fernando Santos, and got the more true version of his call to me.
The next part of the story is not told in my files, so I’ll have to re-construct it from memory, though it’s a vivid one that I share with some witnesses. On Monday, August 25th, I was speaking with Mr. Penalosa over the phone, and I asked him some sort of casual curious question, to which he replied, “I can’t discuss any matters going before the grand jury,” or something very close to those exact words. I had been flippant up to this point, not taking any of it too seriously, but the phrase grand jury scared me. I knew what that meant. I told Penalosa something I had said before: If he needed to arrest me, he could just call me, and I would come down promptly and willingly. I wanted more than anything to avoid a big scene at my work, or apartment complex. And then I started looking for lawyers.
The first few lawyers I got a hold of ran through a script. Most were civil attorneys. None of them knew anything about my case, and would only speak in abstract general terms. None seemed willing to fight, only to represent me during my imminent ass fucking. I needed federal, criminal defense. And fuck me, I found my guy at federalcrimesdefender.com. When I spoke to David Kaloyanides, I knew I had found the mushroom cloud laying motherfucker I needed. His voice was booming, like the voice of a God. He knew my story already. He had a plan. We’d work out the money somehow, because he told me this one was going to be fun. I’m a Kinsey zero, but I was in love with this guy. We set an appointment for that Thursday (three days later). And then he told me to shut the fuck up. Actually, I’m sure he told me that before anything else. He told me to stop talking to the FBI, to tell them that I had a lawyer, and that as soon as I did so, they will stop being nice.
The following day, Penalosa called. I told him I had found a lawyer. He calmly accepted this news, and hung up the phone. As if he was ready for that, and had his next move all ready to go. I knew shit was about to go down, but my scheduled meeting with David kept me calm for the time being.
That night, I dreamt that FBI agents stormed my apartment, hauling me off in handcuffs. I was awoken from this dream by FBI agents banging on my door, at 7:00 AM, on the dot. It took me a second to un-blow my mind, and then I answered the door, in my boxers. There were at least six handguns pointed at me from at least six different angles. Scary yes, but unfortunately, far from the first time, and FBI agents are slightly less prone to accidental weapon discharge as my old friends in the Delaware County local police forces. Jensen Penalosa was holding one of the guns, aimed the left side of my face, about 30 feet away. I looked at him, and told him that all of it was unnecessary. They yanked me from the doorway, handcuffed me, and then escorted me to a black car. I didn’t say anything else. They didn’t “raid” my apartment.
It was a long, quiet ride from Culver City to the federal lockup downtown in LA morning traffic. The car pulled into a strange garage / basement thing. I was taken to an office there, booked, fingerprinted, swabbed for DNA. I forget if there was a strip search. Maybe. Certainly not a cavity search. Nothing traumatic. There was a poster though, in the lobby, that I’ve talked about. It showed, I believe, “Hanging Judge” Isaac C. Parker, with the phrase “Let No Guilty Man Escape.” In this building, criminals were executed by the state, and this was a matter of pride.
I was taken to a cell with a bunch of other hardened criminals. I hit it off with this guy Cerrano, who had snuck back into the country after five deportations, and pistol-whipped a cop. Nice enough guy. A kid in his 20s was in deep shit for mailing meth or something across state lines. When I told them I was in there for some MP3s, we all had a laugh. We drank orange juice out of cartons, and avoided any unwrapped food that might have cop dick in it.
My primary focus, however, was on pretrial. This is a crucial, but not very well known part of the court process, through which a lot of people can be saved, or super fucked. As you wait to be arraigned, you typically are given the opportunity to have a pretrial interview, in which you will give a court secretary your background, work status, financial situation, etc. This information is used to help the judge decide your fate, and important details like your bail. This information is generally unbiased, insofar that it comes directly from you, and not an officer or prosecutor. Sometimes, the pretrial interview doesn’t happen, for whatever reason. In these cases, the judge will simply go on what he has been told by the prosecutor, and your lawyer, or public defender. Whether that’s the way it’s technically supposed to go, or not.
My meeting with David was set for the following day, so technically, I didn’t yet have a lawyer, and was given a public defender. Between you and me, most public defenders are as good as most lawyers, unless you really need to get lucky, or prove a nuanced point about your disagreement with Johnny Law. So my guy was fine for the time being. His name was Gabe, I believe. However, the court was trying to get me in front of a judge before I had had my pretrial interview. I fought until I got it, and that fight consumed most of my day. Had that not have been an issue, I would have been out by lunchtime.
After pretrial, still in cuffs, I was taken to a courtroom, or more specifically, the side of a courtroom, which had a giant sheet of plexiglass in front of it, as if a hockey game was about to break out between the opposing legal teams. In the gallery sat Johnny and my girl. As I was walked in, Cerrano was being walked out, also in handcuffs. He spotted Penalosa and Davis sitting by the penalty box, and nodded towards me, saying something like, “yo, be good to my boy.” I loved that shit.
Gabe had me plead not guilty just as a matter of formality, to keep my options open, and, thanks to my pretrial interview, I was released on a signature bond. This meant that my girlfriend signed a statement saying I wouldn’t disappear, or else she’d have to pay $10,000. Luckily, at least at that time, killing me wasn’t worth $10,000 to her. The judge was suprised that they arrested me at gunpoint. He actually said, “I don’t understand why this wasn’t a summons case, like I recommended.” Tell me about it. Anyway, a bunch of news outlets reported that I had “pled innocent,” (which is not a thing) which a lot of people considered ridiculous, but it was meaningless.