On Monday, Mark Dougan, a former deputy with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, noticed a truck that had been idling outside his Palm Beach Gardens home for an unusually long time. He stepped outside to question the driver and was quickly surrounded by at least a dozen FBI agents.
They slammed him on the ground, he says, then handcuffed him and began asking about his friends in Russia. “If you want, you can tell us about these people and it will make it easier on you,” Dougan remembers one of the agents telling him.
The agents were apparently there to investigate the recent hacking of thousands of names and addresses of law enforcement officers and others living in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, which were published last month on a website founded by Dougan. A significant portion of the targeted individuals were FBI agents themselves. A few days after the first of these hacks, the local press reported that the sheriff’s office was launching an official investigation. One strange detail in those reports stuck out: The suspected hacker was apparently located in Russia, 5,000 miles from the beachfront county he targeted.
The man who claims to be responsible calls himself БадВолф, or BadWolf to his English-speaking friends and enemies. He lives in Moscow, where he works in IT for a local government agency (he won’t say which), and is alternately puckish and self-righteous when describing his strikes against American law enforcement. He says he lifted the Palm Beach names and addresses from a database maintained by the county property appraiser and published it as retaliation against the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, which he believes is a deeply corrupt institution. The Miami-Dade address dump, which was published weeks later, also appears to target the PBSO.
“I was born in the Soviet era and I remember the fight for honesty in our government,” he told me via an encrypted messaging app, his preferred mode of communication, several weeks before the raid on Dougan’s home. “We have long to go but we strive to be like America. Now I see a sheriff leader in American government trying to be dictator like Stalin.”
At first blush, Palm Beach County would seem an unlikely place to compare to Stalin-era Russia. A two-hour drive north from Miami, it is a land of emerald golf courses and outdoor shopping complexes, where wealthy New Yorkers buy retirement mansions in gated communities. The beach is dotted with luxury resorts, among them Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club. Bernie Madoff was a man-about-town with a membership at the exclusive local country club until it was revealed that he’d victimized many of his neighbors and associates as part of the largest fraud in U.S. history.
Alas, not even our classiest zip codes are immune to vulgar corruption and venality. A 2013 article in the Palm Beach Post makes reference to a “conga line” of public officials who went to federal prison on corruption charges, including one county commissioner who made seven figures on an underhanded land deal and another who took bribes from business owners in exchange for favorable commission votes. “Is Palm Beach County ready to retire its ‘Corruption County’ reputation?” reads another Post headline, from last year. The answer to that question put forth in the editorial that followed was a resounding “maybe, maybe not.”
In vague terms, BadWolf alleges that the culture of corruption in Palm Beach County extends to its sheriff’s office. He claims that PBSO deputies used official resources to harass and intimidate political opponents and journalists who gave critical coverage to the sheriff’s office, namely two reporters who contributed last year to an investigation of hundreds of shootings by PBSO deputies.
That investigation, published in April 2015 as a joint effort between the Palm Beach Post and the local NBC affiliate WPTV, triggered a typically outspoken defense of the office by Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw. “Channel 5 and the Post have tried to literally just beat law enforcement into the ground, and especially the sheriff’s office,” Bradshaw said in a video statement that was played at a law enforcement convention and later leaked to the press. “I can be like some of the police officials, and tuck my tail between my legs, and say, ‘Yeah, you know what, maybe we need to talk about this.’ No, that’s not it, and I’m not going to back up, because we have not done anything wrong.”
Before his election to the office of Palm Beach County Sheriff in 2004, Bradshaw worked as commissioner of the West Palm Beach Police Department, one of the many municipal departments within the county. A South Florida Sun-Sentinel article about his first electoral campaign characterized him as an obsessively dedicated cop, and noted that he’d faced accusations of racism from black employees of the West Palm Beach department. “He’s nothing but deceptive,” one black ex-cop was quoted as saying about Bradshaw. “He’s not tough or a good decision-maker at all.”
Bradshaw went on to win that election and each of the two that followed. Three men who ran against him over the years all believe that the PBSO improperly used its resources against his opponents during campaign seasons. Two of them told Gawker that when they looked out their windows at night, they routinely saw PBSO helicopters buzzing overhead, looking back at them.
BadWolf’s unlikely interest in the PBSO came after he befriended Mark Dougan, who is an unceasing and occasionally hyperbolic critic of his former employer. Dougan is the founder of PBSOTalk.com, an anonymous web forum and wiki site where members, many of whom purport to be current and former deputies themselves, gather to commiserate and talk trash about the titular sheriff’s office. Their discussions run the gamut from internecine department drama to dissections of leaked documents or PBSO rules and regulations. Often, they are outright cruel, such as a recent thread devoted to a particular deputy’s weight. (“Besides being only like 5-2, he must be pushing 300 pounds. No wonder he’s a miserable fuck.”) When BadWolf needed a place to publish his cache of hacked personal information, he chose PBSOTalk.
Dougan is well known as a thorn in the side of department officials. In 2012, a local scandal sheet called Gossip Extra reported that Ric Bradshaw’s electoral campaign attempted to buy the PBSOTalk domain from Dougan for $20,000, presumably with the intent of shutting it down. That same year, Mike Gauger, Bradshaw’s second-in-command, sued Dougan for defamation, accusing him of running a “shocking anonymous campaign of character assassination.” The animosity goes both ways. “This motherfucker is Hitler reborn!” Dougan recently texted me of Bradshaw.
He cited the example of Jeremy Hutton, a 17-year-old with Down’s Syndrome who was shot by a PBSO deputy in 2010, as evidence of what he sees as corruption at the department. The deputy who shot Hutton stated that he did so because he feared that Hutton would hit him with the minivan he was driving after Hutton made a sharp turn toward him. However, in a subsequent lawsuit against the department, the Hutton family’s attorney noted that dashcam footage from the incident seemed to show Hutton’s vehicle turning away from the deputy, not toward him. Investigations by PBSO’s internal affairs department and the state’s attorney found that the shooting was justified, but the PBSO reportedly settled with the family in January, paying out about $500,000. “They use their power in an absolutely corrupt manner. In Palm Beach County, there is no checks and balances,” Dougan said.
Dougan worked for the PBSO for four years beginning in 2005, and said that he resigned after submitting a tip to a superior that one of his colleagues was repeatedly alluding to beating up suspects on Facebook. (“Like a good batterer i know the areas that hide the marks well,” one of the posts read.)
After that, Dougan said, a number of internal affairs complaints were opened against him, which he believes were frivolous and designed as retaliation against him for tattling on a colleague.
Now, Dougan works as a cybersecurity contractor. The job often takes him to Moscow, where he fell in with a local community of hackers that included BadWolf, he says. BadWolf, who shares Dougan’s affinity for hyperbole, told me he thinks of his friend as an American counterpart to Alexei Navalny, a prominent Russian anti-corruption activist and enemy of the Putin administration.
I first contacted Dougan and BadWolf after reading an article about the Palm Beach hack on the website Photography Is Not a Crime. Taken at face value, the details of the story were sensational, but they ultimately left me with more questions than answers. Why does this Russian guy care about what goes on at a sheriff’s department halfway across the world? Are deputies in Florida really spying on journalists? Does BadWolf even exist?
It was easy to imagine Dougan or some other local PBSO critic fabricating a “Russian hacker” persona to avoid being prosecuted for breaking into a government computer. A Russian-American colleague and I even tried to devise a way to subtly test BadWolf’s Russianness during my first chat with him, until he slipped into his native tongue and called someone a крутой—a slang word roughly meaning “badass” or “tough guy”—and allayed our skepticism. Over weeks of subsequent correspondence with BadWolf, it became clear that he, at least, was the real deal.
The warrant that FBI agents served to Dougan on Monday alleges probable cause that a search of his home would reveal evidence of federal conspiracy and computer fraud crimes:
Dougan said that the agents informed him that they would be seizing his cell phone and all of his computers. They were accompanied by local police, and by two or three deputies from the PBSO. Monday afternoon, an FBI agent called Dougan to tell him that the agency had concluded its search, but that he couldn’t go home quite yet. The Palm Beach County State Attorney had also procured a warrant, the agent said, and the PBSO would be conducting a search of its own.
BadWolf claims that in addition to the database of law enforcement officers’ personal information, he also accessed the personal computer of a contractor and part-time PBSO investigator named Mark Lewis and found a “treasure box” of information implicating Lewis in schemes to intimidate PBSO critics. He wasn’t able to produce much of this information, however. Lewis took his computer off of the internet before BadWolf obtained copies of these allegedly compromising documents, BadWolf said, and the sole piece of supposed documentary evidence for the hack that he provided to me was a file with the improbable title “Reporter Sabotage Campaign.”
The document uses an antiquated encoding system, and it is jumbled and full of non-text characters. BadWolf said that he recovered it from partially overwritten fragments of data on Lewis’ hard drive. It appears to contain logs of surveillance against Lawrence Mower of the Palm Beach Post and Katie La Grone of WPTV, each of whom contributed to last year’s joint investigation into PBSO shootings. It is dated May 15, 2015—just weeks after the investigation was published.
Mark Lewis did not return multiple calls asking him for comment on this story. The PBSO also declined to comment, citing an active investigation. It should be stressed that a text document would be trivially easy to forge for a person with advanced computer skills. Without confirmation from Lewis or the PBSO, it is virtually impossible to authenticate what BadWolf gave me. That said, it is not unthinkable that a person with the ability to hack a government database would have been able to access an employee’s personal computer as well.
Lawrence Mower has covered the PBSO as an investigative reporter for the Palm Beach Post for three years. Among his contributions to April’s sprawling Post-WPTV investigation was a story which found that the deputies involved in every single one of the 45 PBSO shootings between 2010 and 2015 had been cleared of wrongdoing by the department, including 10 deputies who fired at unarmed suspects. Mower’s piece also found that PBSO deputies shot at unarmed people much more often than officers in other departments across the country. “While many shootings were unquestionably justified, The Post investigation confirmed what critics have been saying for years: Many PBSO shootings didn’t have to happen,” he wrote.
The Reporter Sabotage Campaign document lists Mower’s name, address, and date of birth, and gives an apparent account of surveillance at the reporter’s home. “Got a friend to watch Mowers apartment. Used wire camera to see inside. Looks like a patrick bateman movie. Very modern d?cor. Need to check his background more to see if he is wanted or anyone else in investigating,” it reads. Mark Lewis’s name is listed as the author.
Mower himself is skeptical of the idea that he is the target of surveillance or any other underhanded tactics from the PBSO. “It would be pretty extraordinary. I’ve never heard of a local police department doing that,” he said when reached by phone. “On its face, it’s not something I would take seriously, unless there was some kind of evidence for it that was credible.”
He said that there is a gap “big enough to slip a couple magazines or a day’s newspaper” under his door, or a wire camera, depending on the size. However, the document’s allusion to the sleek, modern apartment from American Psycho did not strike him as fully correct.
“The description of my apartment is pretty vague—many of the downtown West Palm Beach condos have pretty much the same interiors, right down to the cabinet handles. I suppose my kitchen table would fit the Bateman description, but the rest of my furniture wouldn’t,” he said.
Katie La Grone, the other reporter mentioned in the document, did not wish to comment on the record for this story. The description of her home is even more jumbled than that of the Mower section, and it strikes a similarly flippant tone. “Spent the day watching the Lagrone apartment...8'?MF crack reporters??6??i?Rk??5????1'9??????;??a?G??(?’q??c?g??Xx?ZmB????-N??03 soon become victims of the crime in their community. I still think we can Q?k?UJ a road unit to stop them and arrest them on a 322 violation,” the file reads in part. (322 seems to refer to a driver’s license violation.)
La Grone’s entanglements with the PBSO may involve more than alleged surveillance. In May 2015, the same month as the date on the Reporter Sabotage Campaign document, the Florida Department of Children and Families began an investigation into La Grone and her husband, Gossip Extra reported. The DCF was reportedly acting on an anonymous tip that the La Grone’s six-year-old child was often seen wandering around their gated community alone, without supervision. La Grone said at the time that she was surprised by the investigation. “We do let our child play outside. He’s got parameters and he’s fully aware of them. He is a healthy, active 6-year-old who does exactly what I or Paul did as children. We also played outside,” she said.
Gossip Extra also reported that a PBSO deputy who was involved in a 2014 shooting lives on the same block as Katie La Grone. The shooting was one of many examined in La Grone and Mower’s joint investigation from April, which accounted for every PBSO deputy-involved shooting between 2000 and 2015. Without providing any evidence or outright accusing the deputy or the PBSO of any wrongdoing in the matter, Gossip Extra unsubtly used that tidbit of information to lead readers on, calling the coincidence “troubling at best.”
The DCF investigation into the La Grones was closed six weeks after it began. It reportedly found no instances of negligent behavior.
Jose Lambiet, who operates Gossip Extra, is a seasoned reporter—he worked for years at the New York Daily News and other papers, and now has a gossip column at the Miami Herald—and is well-sourced at the PBSO. He believes that whoever called in the tip on La Grone was acting on the PBSO’s behalf. “It fit the mold of what they do when they are starting to look at people they don’t like,” he told me. “Is there ever proof that PBSO called DCF on Katie? No. It was probably an anonymous tip. But, I think if you put two and two together, there’s a lot there.”
In December, an audio file was posted to PBSOTalk that seems to support the idea. It contains a recording of what Dougan says was a conversation between himself and another former PBSO deputy, whom we’ll refer to by the pseudonym Hank Moore here. “Who is Mark Lewis investigating?” Dougan asks at one point on the recording, talking loudly over the thumping dance music of a nightclub or bar.
“He went after Channel 5, the people who were doing the investigation. Any time anybody fucking goes after Ric, he puts Mark Lewis on him, to try to get shit on them,” the other man answers. (Channel 5 is WPTV, Katie La Grone’s network.)
Later, Dougan mentions the DCF complaint against La Grone, noting that it came after La Grone “broke a big story on the sheriff’s office.”
“What a coincidence, huh?” the other man answers knowingly.
Speaking over the phone, Moore sounds quite similar to the man on the recording. He told me that he worked with Mark Lewis, and that he did not know him to act underhandedly or carry out retaliation campaigns at Sheriff Ric Bradshaw’s behest. “I don’t know who’s telling you it’s me,” Moore answered when asked if he was familiar with the recorded conversation between him and Dougan. “Let me tell you this: It’s not me. How’s that? I don’t know where you’re getting your information, but no, I haven’t listened to it. So I can’t tell you anything about it.”
I asked him whether he remembered talking with Mark Dougan about Mark Lewis investigating Channel 5. First, he said that he did not, and then added, “I spoke with him, months ago. If we sit and have a conversation, are you going to remember, four or five months ago, what you and I talked about casually?”
I said I wasn’t sure whether I would. “There you go,” he shot back. “Again, I haven’t listened to it. Have I spoke with him? Of course I have. Exactly what we talked about? No, I don’t remember that. Again, I don’t even know what you’re talking about, so I can’t help you, man.”
After my conversations with the Moore, Dougan provided me with screenshots of text messages that show the two men arranging to meet at a restaurant roughly five months before, seemingly corroborating Moore’s timeline.
Two men who have run against Bradshaw for Palm Beach County Sheriff over the years told Gawker that they believe they have also been caught in the PBSO’s web.
Alex Freeman is a retired major with the police department of Riviera Beach, a city in Palm Beach County. Later this year, he will appear on the ballot against Bradshaw, who is running for a fourth term as sheriff. Freeman said that he has noticed the increased presence of PBSO helicopters over his home ever since declaring his candidacy.
“Initially, when I saw them, I didn’t think much about them. Then, I noticed that they would hover over my house on the weekends, and at night,” he said. “Is it necessary for them to keep my daughter and my wife awake at night?”
Freeman regularly has breakfast and lunch at a restaurant in Lake Park, a town in northern Palm Beach County. Once, he said, he was greeted by a high-ranking PBSO deputy. “Alex, I thought I’d come over and say hi to you, because the aviation unit told me you were here today,” he said the deputy told him.
“It’s $1,800 per hour to keep that chopper in the sky. That is a waste of taxpayer dollars,” Freeman lamented later. “All because they want to intimidate any candidate who runs against Ric Bradshaw.”
Joe Talley, who served a decorated 22-year term with the Baltimore County Police Department before running against Bradshaw in 2012, has strikingly similar stories. “When I ran, I got harassed like crazy by his aviation division,” he said. “They would fly over my house, where I work.”
Finally, there is Jim Donahue, who also ran against Bradshaw in 2012. Four weeks after he filed his candidacy, PBSO deputies arrested him on charges of “uttering a false instrument,” allegedly for misrepresenting information on his application to become a deputy four years earlier. Prosecutors eventually dropped the charges against him, but not before the arrest rendered him unable to put his name on the ballot.
The auspicious timing was not lost on Donahue. “Bradshaw saw me as a potential competitor for sheriff,” he told the Palm Beach Post. “He saw me as a threat.”
This month’s hack of officer names and addresses was not the first time the PBSO ran afoul of BadWolf. Last year, the hacker published hours of recorded phone calls between Mark Lewis and a fawning, helium-voiced woman named Jessica. Lewis talks candidly about his work for the PBSO on the calls. “Whenever we have a bad contractor or person who attacks one of our judges or the sheriff or the state attorney, that’s one of the things I do,” he is recorded as saying at one point. “I start picking their life apart, and their businesses, their family.”
On another call, he discussed the demographics of Riviera Beach, a primarily black city, in troubling terms. “You have a lot of poor, uneducated blacks. And that’s a lot of what’s on the city commission. And they make, in my opinion, a lot of really stupid decisions,” he said. (Alex Freeman, the retired Riviera Beach major running against Bradshaw, is black.)
“In my career, I have never worked a case where a white guy has broken into a black guy’s house or stole a black guy’s car. Never,” Lewis said later in the same conversation.
Later still, Jessica expresses her own feeling about the types of people who live in communities like Riviera Beach. “They seem to act, well, I don’t want to say like animals, but—” she says, before Lewis cuts her off: “Well, some of them do.”
Listening to these recordings, it can sound like Jessica is egging Lewis on, provoking him to divulge sensitive information or make an outrageous statement. That’s exactly what she was doing. Jessica was a fabrication, invented by BadWolf and others for the sole purpose of catching Lewis with his guard down and recording him.
BadWolf laid out the plot on the website where he posted the audio:
Jessica is woman in her mid 30’s who contacts contractor Mark Lewis to renovate a home for her and her boyfriend, who is moving from New York to Florida. Jessica breaks it off with her boyfriend and turns to Mark Lewis for solace and comfort. In the course of their conversation, Lewis announces to Jessica he is also a special investigator with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office with nearly unlimited resources to investigate people with differing opinions (attacks, as he calls it) than those held by Palm Beach County Elected Officials, judges, politicians, the State Attorney, the Sheriff, Ric Bradshaw, and the Chief Deputy, Michael Gauger. In other words, people in a position of power.
When the story broke, Lewis did not attempt to deny that he was the man on the calls. In an interview with Katie La Grone for WPTV, he admitted that Jessica had contacted him through the website for his contracting business, and that they had struck up a personal relationship. He claimed that he suspected quickly that Jessica might not be what she seemed, and explained counterintuitively that he’d only divulged information about department operations in hopes that Jessica would let slip some secrets of her own. “We said this, ‘Let’s just play along, see what we can do and if we can get some information,’” he told La Grone.
Lewis can also be heard on the tapes discussing Jim Donahue, the man who was arrested while campaigning against Bradshaw in 2012. He claims to have spent two years investigating Donahue before his arrest. “I went to Michigan, I went to Canada, I went all over the place,” he said.
After BadWolf published the recordings, PBSO announced it would investigate Lewis’ conduct. According to an anonymous FBI source contacted by Jose Lambiet of Gossip Extra, that agency is investigating as well.
Voters in Palm Beach County will go to the polls to elect a sheriff in November. In his last two elections, Bradshaw won with overwhelming public support, taking 89.1 percent of the vote in 2008 and 78.5 in 2012. Alex Freeman said that he is not deterred by the numbers—or, for that matter, by the helicopters. “They were simply trying to intimidate, which didn’t impact me one way or the other. I’m not worried,” he said. “I believe without a shadow of a doubt that I will be the next sheriff of Palm Beach County.”
It is not clear whether the searches of Dougan’s home are part of a larger investigation into his own conduct, or into BadWolf or PBSOTalk. Dougan says that he no longer owns the website, having passed it to a friend in Russia. (The site’s registrar data was updated in January and contains a Russian name and address.) He said that he did not pass BadWolf’s identity or any information about him to the agents who searched his home.
BadWolf could not immediately be reached following the raid. Weeks before, he claimed that he will continue hammering the PBSO until a change is made. “I was little boy when all Stalin statues pushed over and crushed. People were cheering. Now is time for that to happen in Palm Beach County,” he wrote to me, with characteristic bluster. “If we wanted we could have destroy al [sic] systems and they would have to restore. This was never goal. Goal was to bring awareness to people. To waken police to illegal behavior. We do not wish to destroy. It is like navy sending shot across bow of ship as warning.”