Dallas Writer Hal Karp Shares His Harrowing Experience In Helping Make The Engrossing Doc, Tickled.
The first time I heard about this documentary Tickled, I imagine I reacted the exact way that the film’s marketers wanted me to react.
“That sounds like a weird movie,” I thought. “I definitely have to see it.”
Here’s the set-up: The film follows journalist and director David Farrier as he dives into what he thinks is a pop-culture story about the world of competitive tickling; only, instead of finding a weird underground sport that you would only see on ESPN’s The Ocho, he gets sucked into a deeper and far more terrifying story.
And, yes, it lived up to all my expectations and its hype alike.
Tickled sucks you in from the beginning. You think you’re watching a silly story, but every turn the movie takes just becomes more and more unbelievable. Secrets get unveiled and lives get threatened. It’s a cautionary tale of greed, power and how dangerous the internet is when it falls into the wrong hands.
Hal Karp, an investigative journalist from Dallas, came across this same story as Farrier, but years beforehand. In many ways, the work he did uncovered the path and paved the way for Tickled to happen. Here, in advance of the film’s Dallas debut on July 29 for a screening at the Magnolia at which Karp will host a Q&A, we talk to him about what his experience with the competitive tickling world was like.
Be warned, though; This interview is a bit spoilery. So, if you want to go into the movie fresh, stop reading now.
How did you get involved with this documentary?
My history with the story goes way back to 2000. I was working as an investigative journalist for several publications, including Reader’s Digest, where I was a contributing editor. I was developing a story profiling a group then called CyberAngels. They were basically online semi-vigilantes who were helping victims of cyber-stalking and cyber-harrassment. The internet was still quite young, and it was even more like the Wild West then than it is now. Law enforcement agencies had little or no experience in how to handle complaints of online harassment. CyberAngels filled that void. It was a nearly all-volunteer group that spanned the globe. In working with the head of CyberAngels, I explained that I wanted to speak to several people who had been helped by CyberAngels — that I needed some real anecdotes, true stories, etc.
They put the word out through their network, and one of the stories involved a rather famous online persona and cyber-terrorist who went by Terri Disisto. As it is explained in the film, Disisto was supposedly a college-age girl in Boston who collected tickling videos of teenage boys — and paid the boys very handsomely. I was put in touch with a 16-year-old boy named Gary in Australia who Terri had found through the boy’s rock band’s website. And it seemed Terri had developed a bit of a crush on Gary.
Terri implored the Gary to make some tickling videos for her. Gary refused, and Terri doesn’t like to be told no. So Terri stole Gary’s identity, hacked Gary’s website, and went about the internet pretending to be Gary. Imagine you are a 16-year-old boy with a garage band in a small town in Australia and suddenly, an adult has turned your life upside down. Terri also sent Gary a collection of pictures — Gary’s house, pictures of Gary’s parents and siblings, pictures of Gary’s school — and told Gary that she was going to ruin his life forever. Gary found CyberAngels, and one night, a CyberAngel sent Gary a zip file, telling him: “Send this file to Terri, and she’ll leave you alone, promise.” Gary did as he was instructed, and sure enough, Terri backed off completely.
I asked Gary what was in the zip file, and he really didn’t quite understand the scope of it, but he offered to send me the file. Because of the time difference, it was in the middle of the night when I opened that file in my little office above my garage in East Dallas, and I recall it like yesterday. It was the smoking gun. Obviously, someone had hacked David D’Amato’s hard drive, likely at his office, and the zip file held the contents. It contained his resume, a list of the stolen Social Security numbers that he had been using, a list of the P.O. Boxes he was using as Terri Disisto, letters from Terri to people he had been harassing, letters pretending to be some lawyer, threatening to sue people, etc.
I used several paid online background check services to cross-check all of the addresses and dates. Every time David D’Amato moved to a new school, Terri Disisto got a new P.O. Box within a few blocks from the school. D’Amato also routinely received mail under his name as well at the P.O. Boxes or at a P.O. Box at the same facility. D’Amato also had several credit cards in Disisto’s name, and he had been using stolen Social Security numbers of dead people to create the Disisto identity.
Perhaps most alarming, of course, was the discovery that he was a school guidance counselor and assistant principal — and had been for over a decade. Ironically, I was also working on an article about how bad apples slip through the background check systems of schools to get jobs, and one of the biggest red flags that someone is a predator is a resume where no job lasts longer than a year or two.
School administrators call this “passing the trash.” They essentially know that the teacher/employee is up to no good, but because of unions, it is incredibly difficult and expensive to fire a predator in your school. Instead, administrators will go to the predator and say, “We know what you’ve been doing, and here’s the deal: We’ll give you a good recommendation as long as you leave.” They pass the trash and make the predator someone else’s problem.
I was always convinced that D’Amato was up to no good in more ways than one, and I pounded the pavement in New York at the schools he worked at for a long time, but I could never find out more in that regard.
What happened next?
In the original CyberAngels story, we unveiled that Terri DiSisto was a man, but we did not name her. The magazine’s lawyers did some checking, and it was discovered that D’Amato’s family had deep pockets. D’Amato’s father was a powerful lawyer, and alas, they were afraid of the law suit.
Back then, the magazine also regularly partnered with various television news shows on stories. Another story I’d covered had been picked up by America’s Most Wanted, and in passing one day, I told the AMW producer about the David D’Amato story. AMW wanted to unmask Terri DiSisto. We actually spent two weeks traipsing around Long Island and NYC, pounding the pavement, tailing D’Amato and shooting a ton of footage. In the end, however, they too were afraid of the lawsuits and opted to never air the show.
Meanwhile, through someone involved with the AMW show, word got out to several FBI agents that I knew who Disisto was. At the time, D’Amato/Disisto was regularly shutting down entire college campus computer networks and pinning it on innocent victims. One day, I got a call from the president of James Madison University, and then I got a call from the president of Suffolk University. Both men explained to me that whoever Disisto was, he had cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars on each campus. And there were others.
“If you really know this person’s identity, please turn it over to the FBI,” they both asked.
One week after I turned over my files, they arrested D’Amato at his home and emptied out his entire condo with a search warrant. The narrative that was a part of the application for the warrant was literally cut and pasted from a written narrative I’d sent to the FBI to explain everything. The FBI agent told me they’d been trying to find Disisto’s identity for years.
I followed his case through the court system. Since it was a federal crime, it was tried in the district court out of Boston, close to the universities he’d targeted, far from Long Island. He also, not surprisingly, hired a very expensive attorney who cut the sweetest of deals for him. He was originally going to be able to plead guilty to only two federal misdemeanors and serve his time in a halfway house. The halfway house was allowed so that he could attend law school at Fordham University, where he’d already been accepted.
I became friends with the clerk of the district court where the case was heard. She called me on the day the case was finally settled and swore me to secrecy about how I found out. D’Amato’s attorney had arranged for the papers to basically be buried or lost in the system.
Once I had the court docs, however, I asked the U.S. attorney who tried the case if she was going to notify the school district where D’Amato was still teaching and working. “That’s not really my job,” she told me. Unreal. So I contacted a small local paper, The Three Village Times, in Long Island whose office was about a mile from his school. I faxed them all of the docs and handed them the whole story. They took the story to the school board, and D’Amato was escorted out of the building that day and finally fired. Until very recently, that story was still on that little newspaper’s website. But they’ve been bought by some larger media company and the archives are gone, sadly.
I then contacted Fordham to verify D’Amato’s acceptance. And then the Digest ran a short piece finally unmasking D’Amato and announcing his sentence, the law school thing, etc. Fordham rescinded his acceptance the day after the magazine hit the stand. When all of this happened, the magazine’s PR firm got all excited about jumping on the opportunity — and even drafted a great press release about our hand in sending D’Amato to jail, etc. In working on the film, I ran across that old press release. Lawyers got freaked out again, though, and the release was actually never used.
But that wasn’t the last you heard about him, was it?
I assumed he’d still served his trite sentence at the halfway house, etc., but then around 2003, I got a phone call from Brian McWilliams, a freelance writer who was writing a book called Spam Kings, and he wanted to include the Disisto/D’Amato story. I agreed to be interviewed, and the book came out.
In the process of being interviewed, I learned from Brian that when the judge learned that D’Amato had lost his acceptance to law school, he was re-sentenced to an actual prison and actually served a year in a real prison. I hate to say that made me happy, but yes, there seemed to be a small amount of justice at last. There were so many crimes — major felonies — that D’Amato had committed that were simply let go. It was unbelievable.
After Spam Kings, I didn’t hear anything about D’Amato for a very long time –until I got a phone call from a guy claiming to be a reporter in New Zealand. That was two years ago. He was a friend of David Farrier’s, and he had tracked me down because of the harassment that David had started to receive.
Quite honestly, when that guy first contacted me, my first response was that it wasn’t legit. I assumed it was actually D’Amato. I’d heard over the years that he blamed me for what happened — rightly so — and actually, for a long time, I simply stayed off line, had no social media accounts, etc., for that very reason. I told the New Zealand guy that I didn’t believe him at all, but if there was a TV station where I could call him back the following day and request him by name, we could talk. He turned out to be real and legit.
A few weeks later, I got a call from David Farrier, and then Dylan Reeve. They had decided to raise money via Kickstarter to do a little documentary on the D’Amato thing. Since I knew more about D’Amato than anyone, they asked if I’d help with the background, help them find him, etc.
I’d actually left journalism when all this happened, so it was kind of a kick to dip my toe back into it, and I agreed to be a part of the film. I went to N.Y.C. with them and then to L.A. with them. We videotaped a variety of interviews, I turned over all of my docs and records to them. Some of all that made it into the film. I’m just glad I had the opportunity to help out and be a part.
When I was working with those guys two years ago, I honestly had no idea the film would turn out as amazing as it is. But it truly is a great film — and they did an astonishing job of putting it together. Rarely have I enjoyed working on something so much. When it was announced that it had been accepted to Sundance, David sent me an email to tell me. I was in the frozen foods section of a Tom Thumb when I read that email. I was so excited, I started telling strangers.
Did you ever think that your original story would turn out the way it did?
Absolutely not. There is no way I could’ve foreseen where this story went. Consider that it began for me with a late-night conversation in my home office in 2000 in East Dallas. The fact that it would end up being part of a documentary 16 years later? Really? It’s unreal — and also incredibly satisfying.
You mentioned Sundance. I know the filmmakers behind Tickled have had some interesting Q&As at screenings recently. Didn’t some protesters show up? What was their problem?
A variety of interesting people have shown up at the screenings — all on behalf of D’Amato. Then, at the premiere in Los Angeles about a month ago, D’Amato himself showed up. The interaction with D’Amato and Dylan Reeve, one of the co-directors, was actually captured and webcast live on Facebook. It was surreal.
The film in Los Angeles ended, and then suddenly, two of the “bad guys” from the film were in the audience, ranting — D’Amato and Kevin Clarke, who works for D’Amato. The looks on the faces of the audience in the theater that night were like nothing else I’d ever seen. Double takes, wide eyes and jaws on the floor. The drama of the movie they’d just seen had suddenly spilled off the screen into the theater, live.
Kevin Clarke showed up at one of the screenings at Sundance and was also at a screening at the True/False Film Festival in Missouri. Two private detectives that D’Amato hired had to be escorted out of the theater at True/False because they tried to film the movie by hiding a phone in a coffee cup. We actually stopped the film and called the police. The phone was confiscated.
Before the film was released, D’Amato seems to have gone to great lengths to keep it from being released. An anonymous agent contacted the producers, offering to buy the film outright, several times. And the week before Sundance there was a break-in at the New York offices of the PR firm handling the Sundance screenings. Computers and desks were ransacked. Their office building had never been broken into before, ever. Coincidence?
David and the other filmmakers have since been sued by D’Amato in several states, and at the Los Angeles screening, D’Amato made clear threats to Dylan that implied imprisonment. D’Amato seems a narcissist, and as such, he always thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room. It’s stunning to witness up close.
Have any other tickle subjects come forward to share their story now that this film is out?
David Farrier has been contacted by quite a few, yes. And, of course, in the course of the filmmaking there were many. But they were afraid to go on camera.
What do you hope the audience gets from watching Tickled?
I hope the audience gets a variety of things from Tickled. First, I hope they are entertained. It is such a well-made film. It’s like a perfect cross between Errol Morris and Michael Moore. David Farrier does such a great job on camera. His disarming and charming nature make him a great person to watch as he hunts down the truth. Second, the other lesson to the film is that with enough money, people can get away with unbelievable things — and that our justice system truly has two tiers. If I committed the crimes that D’Amato did back when I gave my files to the FBI, I’d still be in prison today. There’s something terribly unfair about how it all went down. Last, I hope the film will give people the strength to stand up to bullies in their lives. No one likes a bully — and we have far too many of them still around.
Tickled is currently streaming across HBO’s platforms.