By the time Jonathan Lee Riches finished serving a ten-year prison sentence last year, at age 35, he had gained a reputation as the most prolific jailhouse lawyer of all time. He’d contested his own case, naturally. But he’d also sued the president, sought to intervene in the bankruptcy proceedings against Bernard L. Madoff and filed civil complaints against public figures ranging from Allen Iverson to Timothy McVeigh.
During his incarceration, Riches had filed some 3,000 briefs “in virtually every district in the country,” according to federal prosecutors.
Riches was hardly the first inmate to confound the justice system on its own bureaucratic terms. Until Congress enacted new restrictions in 1996, there was little to stop inmates from using the time on their hands to rectify perceived injustices or strike out against distant enemies. His predecessors included Clovis Carl Green, a convicted rapist who once drew a rebuke from an appellate court for filing more than seven hundred hand-written complaints in the late 1970s, and John Robert Demos, a burglar who appealed his own case to the United States Supreme Court more than thirty times. (Demos later expanded his focus, seeking monetary damages from companies such as Hallmark, which he unsuccessfully accused of endangering his safety with a malign greeting card envelope.) Over the years, a few true redemption tales emerged as well, such as Shon Hopwood, a failed bank robber who emerged from prison to become a skilled Supreme Court litigator.
But if jailhouse lawyers have been around almost as long as jails, Riches’ story a more modern one. Green and Demos, after all, were creatures of the pre-Intenet era, a time when an inmate might file petition after petition in order to appease inner demons—or, heaven forbid, fight against real injustices. By the time Jonathan Riches went behind bars, though, a torrent of unsolicited legal pleadings could also be a pathway to fame. And by the time he left prison, that’s just what had happened to him.
In the early 2000s, when the less affluent, the technologically unsophisticated and the simply reluctant masses were just starting to find their bearings online, Jonathan Lee Riches helped develop the identity theft technique known as phishing. He was in his mid-twenties, living in Florida and collaborating with teenaged chat room acquaintances in Texas, who used spam emails to trick victims into disclosing personal information. Riches’ role was to monetize the data, which he accomplished by seamlessly navigating the online and offline worlds.
In contemporaneous news accounts, investigators described the way Riches would stroll into a bank, flash fake identification and coolly impersonate his mark, convincing tellers to hand over thousands of dollars in cash. The consequences reverberated widely. By the estimate of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the group charged more than $1.4 million to accounts opened in the names of about two thousand people. The ringleader remains in prison. Riches’ own parents, who live in a small town in Pennsylvania, served probation for failing to fully cooperate with investigators.
Sentenced to 125 months in prison for fraud and conspiracy, Riches kept up a steady legal correspondence on his case. In March 2006, from a medium security prison in South Carolina, he filed a motion seeking the return of confiscated assets including 23 new Playstation video games, a commemorative Super Bowl football, 66 new shirts with tags, a plunger, a subwoofer and a box of life vests. The document drew little attention, or sympathy (a judge ordered the items forfeited to the FBI for donation to Goodwill Industries).
In hindsight, though, his signature on the sworn statement—“Jonathan Lee Riches©”—signified the start of an improvisatory publicity campaign. He used the copyright symbol that same month in a nine-page conspiracy complaint seeking damages of “379,111,339,000,000 Trillion dollars backed by gold or silver.” Filing his suit in the eastern district of Pennsylvania, he named several hundred defendants, including President Bush, Pope Benedict XVI, Bill Gates, and Kofi Annan.
Riches’ allegations included standard wing-nut bugaboos – the New World Order, the Uniform Commercial Code, a UFO defense system—along with some more imaginative theories involving presidential time travel. Not to be taken for a run-of-the-mill conspiracy theorist, though, he used his choice of defendants to flash hints of research skills (“David W. Anderson, assistant secretary for Indian Affairs” and “Charles Moose, former Montgomery County Maryland police chief”), a sly sense of humor (“Shawn John Combs d/b/a ‘Puff Daddy’ d/b/a ‘Ditty’”) and a rambling imagination (“Meals on Wheels,” “Brad Pitt, and his adopted son Maddox Pitt/Jolie,” “Air and Space Museum,” “AskJeeves.com,” “Christopher Reeves’ widow,” “Ming Dynasty,” “Phil Donahue,” “Knights of Malta,” “Yellow Cab Company,” “The Olsen Twins,” “Paul Revere,” “The Eiffel Tower,” “Holy Grail,” “German Federal Police,” “Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon” and “Skittles Candy.”)
Riches’ lawsuit was eventually dismissed on the grounds of failure to pay a $250 filing fee. But a more portentous result did emerge: His work had been sucked into the Internet’s slip-stream, with viral results. “The guy's a comic genius,” raved a blogger in his home state. “Dude penned perhaps the most engrossing and amusing legal document ever.”
Riches finished his term at the Federal Medical Center in Lexington Kentucky; his writings have alluded to “grief and mental breakdowns,” although the reasons he was sent to Lexington were not disclosed. On video and in pictures, he cuts a frail figure, shaved bald with mildly emaciated facial features and a nasal speaking voice. (Riches did not respond to interview requests.) He once estimated his height at 5’10, with a “hunger strike” weight of 105 pounds. In the mug shot favored by bloggers, his brown eyes gaze directly into the camera, alert but expressionless.
Starting in 2006, his image began to appear regularly on legal blogs such as Dreadnaught, Above the Law and even the hard-hitting Smoking Gun, which published his work as esoterica. His handwritten missives, delivered by mail, scanned by court clerks, uploaded to PACER, and downloaded by a growing legion of online fans, conjured an anthropological quality. One blogger called him “America’s favorite serial litigant.”
Behind bars, though, Riches was not online in any direct sense. He was a ghost in the machine—the author of his fame, but separate from it, too.
Almost immediately, Riches’ work ran up against practical concerns. To overcome the filing fee obstacle, he started applying to proceed in forma pauperis. In one typical motion, submitted to the eastern district of Oklahoma in 2007, he listed his income as twelve cents a month from prison labor. Family donations to his commissary account, he wrote, provided an average monthly balance of $6.66. A magistrate judge approved the motion, allowing Riches to proceed against the country singer Carrie Underwood. Charging copyright infringement, he sought damages for the theft of a composition called, “I Sued Vick, Got on the News Quick,” an apparent reference to blog coverage (“Michael Vick gets sued by a crazy person,” declared one blog headline) of his lawsuit the previous month against the then-disgraced NFL quarterback Michael Vick. Eventually, a judge dismissed the case when Riches failed to promptly serve notice upon Underwood (or, as he called her, “d/b/a Country Music Singer.”).
Aside from the legal blogs, his filings began to gather local coverage in the home cities of his targets. (“Yes, this lawsuit is real,” an Oklahoma City news site wrote, posting an excerpt from the Underwood case. “However, it should be noted that Jonathon Lee Riches (sic) is a nutty prisoner who likes to file bizarre lawsuits against famous people.”) Among those who fill the Internet with “content,” he became a known quantity worthy of a search-engine alert, the modern-day equivalent of a journalist’s beat check. Before the year was out, he was awarded an entry on Wikipedia. And the comic possibilities soon became evident to nationally ambitious publications like Gawker.
For any serious jailhouse lawyer, the gold standard remains Clarence Earl Gideon, the Florida drifter whose handwritten appeal of his felony theft conviction prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to guarantee the legal rights of prisoners in 1963. While some inmates have perverted Gideon’s legacy with tiresomely self-interested claims, Riches perverted it in a more interesting way: As his jailhouse-law oeuvre became more baroque, it seemed he was using his court filings for a kind of social commentary verging on performance art.
In 2008, for example, in federal district court in Florida, he sought to intervene in Jacksonville Electric Authority v. Bernuth Corporation, a civil dispute concerning environmental cleanup expenses. The lawsuit, originally filed in 1988, had already generated more than 250 filings over a 17-year-span. By the time Riches presented his motion to intervene — which argued unspecified civil rights violations—a $22 million judgment had been rendered and the evidentiary exhibits had been destroyed.
Some of Riches’ motions took the tone of unhinged rants (“Was forced fed. Security and Exchanges commission stole plaintiff’s money,” he claimed in his much-lampooned civil rights lawsuit against President Bush et.al). Others offered nuanced satire. In a bail petition filed in 2008, for example, he pledged an escalating series of self-improvements including, “I plan to give blood if I’m released on bail to help the needy, and if released on bail I will visit sick children in Tampa hospitals. I will recycle cans, conserve energy, plant trees in my community.”
As his fame grew, Riches refined his showmanship. He sued Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, for civil rights violations. He sued himself for civil rights violations (a judgment was rendered in favor of the defendant). He claimed to represent fellow inmates. He employed aliases ranging from the obscure (“Gino Romano”) to the less so (as “Bernard Madoff,” he sued several targets, including the WNBA for “wearing sexually explicit clothing on the basketball courts during games”). He sued the Guinness Book of World Records, claiming that its publishers had sought to honor his achievements in the category of lawsuit-filing: On the one hand, he wrote, the book’s custodians had undercounted. On the other, “the defendants are slandering my name by calling me ‘the Litigator Crusader,’ ‘Johnny Sue-Nami,’ ‘Sue-per-man,’ ‘the Patrick Ewing of Suing.’”
“Just the latest in his growing stash of outrageous court filings,” wrote ABC News.
If there were worries about exploiting a troubled inmate, they did not appear to slow down the online enabling. To his most ardent fans, bloggers on sites like Dreadnaught and Uhhyeahdude, Riches became known as JLR. He struck up a correspondence with Owen Black- the proprietor of Trumbull Mind Power & Creative Productions, an art collective in Williamsburg, Brooklyn—who curated his letters online under the heading “Dear Jon.”
“I regard Jonathan as an artist,” Black told me. “Maybe a crazy artist, yeah, but the best artists are crazy.”
Black doesn’t think he was taking any advantage. “I believe the driving force behind our correspondence was a desire to create challenging content that neither of us alone could have produced. What I tried to do was expand upon his work and present it in a more dynamic and accessible way than Jonathan's methods of 'publishing' allowed. The project sprang from sincere curiosity and in the spirit of collaboration—and with any luck, will come to fruition in the form of a book compiling some of Jonathan's best filings along with extensive footnotes, photos, letters, history, and plenty of good old unconstitutional civil liberty.”
Eventually, federal prosecutors obtained a broad injunction limiting his access to the entire court system. Riches made no direct reply. Instead, he filed eleven additional documents in various districts over sixteen days, including a new civil rights lawsuit (against Hulk Hogan). In an eight-page order quoting liberally from Riches’ back catalog, a judge ordered the Bureau of Prisons to monitor his outgoing mail for court documents deemed “facially frivolous, fraudulent, malicious, or without any basis in law or fact.”
As Riches neared the end of his prison term, he circumvented the injunction with apparent ease. In 2011, he sued Jared Lee Loughner, the defendant in the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, because “I’m in fear that if the defendant transfers to FMC Lexington he will be placed in solitary confinement where I’m currently being illegally detained and possibly being my cell mate in which he could use his bare hands or a prison shank to kill me for being a moderate democrat.”
Confined to his immediate physical surroundings, then, he shaped an online persona in absentia. In turn, his behavior seemed to be shaped by the Web’s ability to manufacture celebrity.
Upon his release in April 2012, Riches was ordered to serve five years of probation, participate in any mental health treatment deemed necessary by his parole officer and pay restitution of $92,680 at a rate of $200 a month. In a legal filing, he pledged to capitalize on his fame by running legal workshops and selling T-shirts. He went home to live with his parents in Pennsylvania. But his parting shot, the Loughner lawsuit, marked a darker turn.
A little more than a month later, courts in several states received requests for a restraining order against Jerry Sandusky, the Penn State assistant football coach convicted of child molestation. The plaintiffs, who typed similar accusations in all caps, included people calling themselves Jonathan Bollinger, Tom N. Jerry and Gino Romano.
None too amused, a judge in Wisconsin identified the plaintiff as “Jonathan Lee Riches, who has vexed the court system with thousands of frivolous lawsuits before his recent release from federal prison, and whose recalcitrant zeal for filing meretricious actions against newsmakers, celebrities, athletes and politicians continues unabated.” Threatening to hold Riches in contempt, the judge wrote, “aside from the incredibly tasteless act of filing these false accusations in light of the very real victims of sexual assaults against children, the individual involved here appears to have committed a fraud on this court.”
The admonition carried serious consequences, including the threat of a report to his probation officer. In a letter to the judge dated July 13, 2012, Riches denied any knowledge of the lawsuit. He requested an attorney and a mental health evaluation because “I don’t know what this paper work means.”
Though he was now free to build his own fame without the intervention of intermediaries, Riches must have faced some version of the grim reality before everyone else competing for eyeballs on the Internet: Your traffic never spikes for very long.
Soon a Facebook page in his name featured a person known as Naomi Riches, deployed in much the same way comic book artists use spinoff characters like Batgirl. The ruse drew some click bait—“Casey Anthony Sued for $3 Billion: Naomi Riches Claims ‘Tot Mom’ Threated to Kill Her: Report,” the Huffington Post wrote, citing a scoop by RadarOnline and posting three paragraphs of the rant—while the lawsuits, unsurprisingly, went nowhere.
Riches’ online avatar seemed to be turning his focus to the most sensational subject matter possible. In postings to the same Facebook page, his mug shot appeared alongside pictures of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer, and James Eagan Holmes, the young man accused of attacking a crowded movie theater in Colorado. The Facebook page claimed Riches had forwarded Holmes’ mail to his own residence, displaying the evidence online.
A decade removed from his days as the suave bank lobby operator using personal profiles culled from the Internet, the authorities eventually said, Riches was venturing into the real world in search of material to post online. After the massacre of twenty-six children and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary in December, Riches filmed himself driving to Connecticut. In the car, he displayed a photo of Adam Lanza, the accused killer, attached to a doll. He drove past recognizable landmarks, tried to approach the Lanza home and turned back at a police checkpoint. Later, newspapers quoted a man identifying himself as an uncle of the gunman, “Jonathan Lanza.”
After years spent testing the patience of judges, prosecutors and law enforcement, Riches regained the attention of the police via the Internet. His probation officer reviewed videos of the excursion posted to YouTube. Aside from violating his travel restrictions, the officer wrote, Riches had fallen in arrears of his restitution payments by $1,320. A federal judge issued an arrest warrant.
Remanded to the Chester County Prison, Riches remained a presence online, where supporters posted messages in his handwriting. The blurry images of his neat block letters appeared within the familiar confines of status update boxes, curated and catalogued, framed with words of encouragement typed in the familiar font of the world’s most popular social network. One letter was addressed “To my Facebook Community Friends.” At times, the Facebook page went quiet. At other times, the attribution standards of the Internet produced a baffling cacophony of aliases, including posts made under the name Jonathan Lee Riches but written in the third person. In January, one correspondent on the page asked, “I saw Gino Romano posted yesterday, does that mean JLR is out?”
By late spring, though, even as his avatar’s presence remained strong, Riches himself was starting to vanish from the Internet. His supporters posted no verifiable records of any new letters or lawsuits. Owen Black, the Brooklyn archivist, agreed to reach out to Riches on my behalf, to no avail. Even the federal criminal court handling his case reported no new developments after the parole revocation arrest warrant.
At the Chester County courthouse, I reached a clerk named Patricia Zwiebel. On February 7, 2013, she said, a judge sentenced Riches to serve between two and a half and five years for violating probation on old state charges, dating to the mid-1990s, of intercepting telephone communications.
“We wonder,” Zweibel said, “why these people who are so smart don’t spend their time doing smart things.”
Michael Brick, a former New York Times reporter, is the author of Saving the School: The True Story of a Principal, a Teacher, a Coach, a Bunch of Kids and a Year in the Crosshairs of Education Reform.