Seph Lawless: A Real American Horror Story
Posted: 01st June 2016
Since the article I wrote debunking the factually incorrect Trolley Tragedy articles about Cleveland photographer Seph Lawless, whose real name is Joseph Melendez, I’ve gone through a pretty ridiculous amount of online abuse from him. I’ve remained quiet about it for a variety of reasons, primarily because I think Melendez is digging himself in a pretty deep pit legally and I am exploring my options in terms of dealing with that. He has threatened me, the publisher of my book, and organizations I have had speaking engagements at. He has harassed my friends, and set up dummy accounts under my name to defame me and promote his own work.
A phony ripoff report filed about me, which is suspiciously similar to one filed about Seph months earlier. Note that this
report names a number of people who have been critical of Melendez, including the Haunted Librarian and Sean
Galbraith, and mentions my article debunking the trolley tragedy, as well as a number of other key words intended to
place it on certain internet search results.
There are many websites out there dealing with the misinformation Lawless promotes in his clickbait articles. I am far from the only person who has pointed out how ridiculously full of fabrications Melendez' trolley tragedy articles were; many respected bloggers including the DCist’s Pablo Iglesias Maurer explained how deliberately incorrect the trolley articles were, and quite a few of them also received online harassment and abuse by Melendez through dummy accounts after writing about it. In addition, many other respected and accomplished photographers of ruins including Sean Galbraith, Brian Ulrich, Johnny Joo, Eli Bishop, Peter Flint, Sherman Cahal, Kurt Tavares, Ryan Nye, and dozens of others have been on the receiving end of this harassment from his "fans" (read: his fake accounts), often for no apparent reason. I seem to have lucked out in terms of getting the most.
Pablo Iglesias Maurer's comment on my article about the so-called trolley tragedy
To be clear, this behavior on the part of Melendez had been going on for roughly a year before I ever wrote the trolley article. Since I wrote it, though, there have been fake claims about me filed on the glorified defamation and extortion hub Ripoffreport.com (suspiciously similar to ones that were filed against Seph Lawless months earlier), fake negative reviews of my book on Amazon that all popped up on the exact same day (using a fake Sean Galbraith account to plug Joe’s books instead, no less), and an entire page on Lawless’ website vilifying me for looking into whether or not he has made the donations he claims to have made to the Greater Cleveland Food Bank (GCFB).
To be clear, the reason I contacted the GCFB in the first place was that Melendez said in several major news outlets including WKYC, an NBC affiliate, Ashton Kutcher's website A Plus, and the NY Daily News that he was raising money via ebook sales for the restoration of the Variety Theater in Cleveland at the same time I was teaching a photography workshop there. The owner has never been given any of the money he raised from any of the sales, and I was suspicious that Lawless was repeating this with other organizations.
I called the GCFB initially and Samantha Martin told me that Lawless had donated $500 to them from a library fundraiser in December 2014. Considering that Lawless has claimed elsewhere to have raised $1000 for them just through that fundraiser alone, I wanted to be sure and asked them to confirm via email. Ms. Martin forwarded my query to a colleague, who responded “A fundraiser was hosted for us last December by Seph Lawless and we did receive funds from him. I have provided him all of the pertinent information he has needed including donation receipts as I understand that this has now become a legal altercation. We’re going to have to step away from this issue so please take up any requests for information with Seph Lawless or his team.” The colleague then forwarded the email to Lawless, who posted a deliberately altered version of the email along with the statement that I had been harassing the food bank for months and the president had to beg me to stop. Depending on the place, he's added that I have been or am being sued for defaming him, and that I have been or am being prosecuted for stalking and harassing him, none of which are true. The president of the GCFB never contacted me, and the extent of my contact with them is as outlined above. I have not been and am not being prosecuted for anything. I sent a total of four emails to them over the course of the exchange.
I remain skeptical that Melendez gave them the full amount he raised. While I have no evidence of how much was raised in the library fundraiser in December 2014 (other than his own claim to have raised twice as much as they verbally claimed he actually gave them), it is entirely possible that he was lying about the $1,000, only raised $500, and gave them the entire amount. However, he also had been claiming in news outlets like the Huffington Post and Telegraph that all the proceeds for book sales through his website of his heavily promoted book "13: An American Horror Story" in December 2014 were going to the Greater Cleveland Food Bank too, and this amount does not seem to be accounted for at all.
What I do know for a fact is that he did sell copies of the ebook he created and sold under the pretense of raising money for the Variety Theater - a book with 20 blank pages in the middle, no less, as though he never even bothered finishing it before selling it - and that the owner has told me multiple times as recently as today that they have received nothing. This is charity fraud. When I call Melendez a con man and say he is committing charity fraud, I don’t do so just to smear him, I do it because if you raise money for a non-profit and then don’t give it to them, that is what you are and what you are doing. He can claim all he wants that saying so is slander or defamation, but slander or defamation are by definition statements that are made that are deliberately untrue and said with malicious intent - essentially, what he's been saying about me, which is demonstrably untrue, said with malicious intent to damage my professional and personal reputation. I say what I do because I have verifiable evidence that my claims are true, and they are a statement of fact. If it comes to verifying this in court, I've kept records of all exchanges, so it's not really that hard - which is why Melendez keeps saying he either has succesfully sued me or that he is suing me, because I think on some level he realizes that if and when we go to court over this, his word isn't going to be enough and he's not going to be able to make a case, and will be wide open for a countersuit.
Internet slap fights have never been my interest in creating Abandoned America, and while there are other people that I’ve had differences with, I’ve never used this as an attack platform to call people out. However, Melendez has said I have been convicted of crimes I have never even been charged with, and claimed he has successfully sued or is suing me when there is no evidence that he is and certainly no legal basis for a case considering that I can back up everything I’ve said in a court of law and would in fact be happy to do so.
In addition, he recently he created an entire fake version of the website of Lesia Miller Schnur’s The Haunted Librarian blog. Schnur wrote several articles calling out the lies in his book “13: An American Horror Story”. Schnur's assertions are backed up by numerous actual sources, unlike Melendez' claims to source things and then not actually provide any aside from his own statements. The fact that Lawless rereleased images of many of the same places that were in "13: An American Horror Story" this year in his new ebook "Hauntingly Beautiful" with completely different location and background information should give some idea of the truthfulness of his work. In his fake version of The Haunted Librarian website, Melendez wrote a public retraction and apology of the articles she had written about his work, pretending that Schnur was the one writing them. He then went on to post her name, address, a picture of her young daughter and husband, and made threats against them all. This isn't what you do when you are honest and trying to make your case, just like defaming someone for checking if you contributed to a charity isn't something you do if you have nothing to hide.This is what you do when you're dishonest and want to frighten people into silence. It also doesn't make sense that she'd post a retraction and then immediately after post her own address, family pictures, and threats against herself, but I don't claim to understand what passes for logic with Melendez.
Above: Not the real Haunted Librarian website
I encourage anyone who sees any of Lawless’ spurious claims or the ones made under fake accounts of "supporters and fans" including Domi Seitz, Chel McKee, Tori Skees - who are impostor accounts of real young women - and many others, to look into discovering the truth for themselves. The difference between what I am claiming and what he is claiming is that I am doing so under my name, not a pseudonym, under my own website (which he has not done excepting the “fan club” post on his website about me which he has paid to promote in my Google and Amazon search results), and there are dozens of other real people who have experienced similar behavior from Melendez and are calling him out for it. Go ahead, ask us about it. Do some research on your own and come to your own conclusion.
I’m tired of it, Joe. We’re all tired of it. Don't contact me, don't make fake accounts of me, don't contact my friends or family, don't contact organizations I work with. As a community of photographers, we're not jealous of you, we're fed up with this amateurish, unprofessional garbage. Your behavior is illegal, cowardly, immoral, and dishonest. I’d encourage you to discontinue it, but we both know you likely won’t until you’re arrested for it. My sincere hope is that the day when that happens is coming much sooner than you think.
UPDATE (11/15/2015): One or two people sent me a note letting me know that Seph Lawless put up a link to yet another website that was supposedly "independently" debunking my recent posting about his appalling behavior. Since the original posting, Lawless filed another Ripoff Report about me - as my sister, no less - and set up yet another website that surprisingly has absolutely no content except attacking me. For an 'independent website", all it really does is link to Seph's site, claim to correct my debunking of his article - with nonexistent/irrelevant "sources" and more lies: the trains were now moved to the salvage yard after Seph posted his article, which anyone can tell you is false. He's essentially trying to smear me with things dozens of people can tell you Seph himself has been doing for some time.
People with nothing to hide don't attack people who question them and certainly don't hide behind a network of fake accounts to smear anyone who dares to openly address things they say. It's as simple as that, and I refuse to be silent about it.
Seph actually sunk this low: posting a Ripoff Report about me under my own sister's name. Shame on you, Joe.
By Molly fritcher: That is COMPLETLY RIDUCLIOUS!!!!!!! that man should be hunted down and jailed for the rest of his life!
By Adam P: Joe's bad grammar and spelling errors are amazingly consistent across all of his false enterprises.
By Judy Wilkey: I'll say it again after posting to your FB page this all definitely needs to be turned over to the FBI, especially where he's offering a book only to also ask for credit card information. You'd be surprised at the thefts of ten and twenty dollars here and there that most people don't miss or question, but it adds up to a lot for the thrives. In addition, holding himself out to be someone that he is not is fraudulent as well a,d while your followers may know him well and his pseudonyms, many won't and the propensity for them to become a victim is greater. It may very well be that his pseudonym of "Lawless" points to his intentions from the start of his illicit practices but also may be what he's eventually convicted for....being lawless in a lawful society.
By Attacked Also: He also attacked me and my children publicly last Christmas and made a fake page about us and used their photos and threatened us also. He is a real piece a work to go after innocent kids at Christmas. May he Burn in Hell!!
By jb: Holy Cow. Sad to read this. I just found your webpage while surfing the net and decided to take a look. Beautiful pics. My Father is a Professional Photographer (Spike Bell with Masters in two countries) who is in his eighties and just went digital in the last five years. He is learning how he has to watch and be on guard over the illicit uses of his photos in this digital day and age. He actually caught the Mayor of our City using one of his Photographs on a billboard without his permission!!! From what I can see your are a dedicated Professional and a fine Photographer. Keep up the good work.