Business section staff reporter Claire Hoffman opens her piece in the Sunday magazine West with a graphic scene. The screaming phone calls, accusations that she has a crush on her subject and what sure reads like the alleged rape of a drunken girl come later.
Joe Francis, the founder of the "Girls Gone Wild" empire, is humiliating me. He has my face pressed against the hood of a car, my arms twisted hard behind my back. He's pushing himself against me, shouting: "This is what they did to me in Panama City!"
It's after 3 a.m. and we're in a parking lot on the outskirts of Chicago. Electronic music is buzzing from the nightclub across the street, mixing easily with the laughter of the guys who are watching this, this me-pinned-and-helpless thing.
Francis isn't laughing.
He has turned on me, and I don't know why. He's going on and on about Panama City Beach, the spring break spot in northern Florida where Bay County sheriff's deputies arrested him three years ago on charges of racketeering, drug trafficking and promoting the sexual performance of a child. As he yells, I wonder if this is a flashback, or if he's punishing me for being the only blond in sight who's not wearing a thong. This much is certain: He's got at least 80 pounds on me and I'm thinking he's about to break my left arm. My eyes start to stream tears.
This is not what I anticipated when I signed up for a tour of Joe Francis' world. I've been with him nonstop since early afternoon, listening as he teases employees, flying on his private jet, eating fast food and watching young women hurl themselves against his 6-foot-2-inch frame, declaring, "We want to go wild!"
I wriggle free and punch him in the face, closed-fist but not too hard.
"Damn," bystanders say. Francis barely blinks. He snatches at my notebook. He is amped, his broad face sneering as he does a sort of boxer's skip around me, jabbering, grabbing at my arms and my stomach as I try to move away, clutching my notebook to my chest. He stabs a finger in my face, shouting, "You don't care about the 1st Amendment. I care about the 1st Amendment, but you are the kind of reporter who doesn't care."
That's when Francis' bodyguard physically separated us, escorting me to the edge of the parking lot, and when [Officer] Coary called for backup.
Yeah, it will be well-read. Overall, it's a refreshing infusion of personal reporting by a Times staffer into the mix at West. We learn about Hoffman that she is 29, has done lots of skinny-dipping with groups of friends, and is not easily intimidated by jerks like Francis. She describes a scene where one of the drunken "Girls Go Wild" virgins claims she was penetrated by Francis while repeatedly saying no, and calmly reports on Francis calling Hoffman's editor to complain that the reporter had come on to him. Francis' previous troubles with women and the law are explored, as well as the success of his business. Hoffman covers Hollywood and the adult entertainment business for the Times.