An Online Paper Trail

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In mid-February, over burgers and beer at EJ's Luncheonette in Manhattan, Daniel Green was having the same conversation as the rest of us. The one that went:

"Did you hear about that Fox show? The one with the multimillionaire and..."

"Yeah. The bride actually wasn't bad looking, but what's up with that? You know something's gotta be wrong with the guy."

Unlike the rest of us, Green, a free-lance writer, spent the next day scouring the Internet and calling courthouses in the San Diego area, where the TV groom, Rick Rockwell, lived. The producers of Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? supposedly had done their own check of Rockwell's background, and he had come up clean. But after a court employee suggested that Green try the Los Angeles area, he and his partner William Bastone, an investigative reporter for the Village Voice, stumbled on a 1991 restraining order filed by Debbie Goyne against her former fiance Rick Rockwell. "On several occasions the defendant ... threw me around and slapped and hit me in my face," wrote Goyne, alleging that Rockwell was unhappy with her attempts to break off their engagement. She added that "having lived with and known Rick for over 11/2 years, it is my belief that his elevator doesn't go all the way to the top floor."

After getting confirmation from Goyne's former roommate that this was the same Rick Rockwell (the birthdates on the restraining order and the TV marriage certificate differed suspiciously by one month, one day and one year), Green and Bastone displayed the document on their three-year-old website, , which unearths documents about the rich and famous. Thus they set in motion the meltdown of one of the most bizarre TV stunts of recent times. In response to the outcry over his past, Rockwell went on TV to insist, "At no time have I ever struck any of my girlfriends, ever, for any reason." His bride Darva Conger followed with her own round of TV interviews, vowing to get an annulment. Meanwhile, Fox canceled plans for any future editions of Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? and swore off all such exploitative shows in the future. (CBS said it has no plans to cancel two controversial real-life series it has in the works, Survivor and Big Brother.)

Green and Bastone launched with the intention, as Bastone puts it, of "paving a paper trail." The site has a retro look (thanks to Bastone's wife Barbara Glauber, who designed it) and a cheeky sensibility, but the real hook is the documents it obtains through the Freedom of Information Act, among them court records, FBI files and blueprints. "We had no idea how to do bells and whistles," recalls Bastone, sitting in a living room that mirrors the olive-and-orange palette of the site. Their operation has no office, and Green concedes that their "L.A. correspondent" is a 25-year-old guy who's "got a car, petty cash and directions to superior court."

The website boasts that it is a "Pierre Salinger-free zone," emphasizing its embrace of hard documents rather than rumors. It has made news before with such documents as Timothy Leary's FBI files, which showed he was cooperating with federal agents in the early '70s, and an invoice for evidence taken from the scene of Malcolm X's assassination, which led to the retrieval of his stolen bullet-riddled diary. More debatable is the relevance of some of the other documents--an affidavit filed by Demi Moore's former nanny that alleges "prescription-drug abuse by Ms. Moore," and the floor plan of Howard Stern's 3,136.23-sq.-ft. New York City apartment.

This is news in the post-O.J. era, and crime and celebrity junkies can't seem to get enough. The site, which is updated twice a week, averages 155,000 unique visitors monthly. That's small potatoes compared with traffic on its chief rival , a site devoted to crime and safety news that attracts more than 1 million visitors monthly and has a staff of 55 in-house journalists and 150 correspondents. "We're a news organization," says CEO Mark Sauter. "They put up occasional documents." Sauter's site has displayed some chilling data of its own, including a 360[Degrees], bird's-eye view of the Bronx vestibule where Amadou Diallo was shot.

was scrambling last week for its own scoop on the Rockwell story, and it turned up a computer printout that names Rockwell a suspect in a vehicle-tampering incident. Bastone's response: ho-hum. "They know we ate their lunch this week," he says with a smile.