Next story: The John Scott Saga
by J.B. Sesom
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
Unless you slept through all of 2014 you’ll remember that not long after Ralph Wilson died rocker Jon Bon Jovi and a group of Canadians wanted to purchase the Buffalo Bills. For many Bills fans this presented the terrifying possibility that their beloved team would be moved to Toronto. Most fans just held their breath and hoped it wouldn’t happen. For Charles Sonntag, Republican operative Michael Caputo, Charles Pellien and a few other friends from the Big Tree Road area near the stadium, hoping was not enough. Sonntag created 12thManThunder.com to collect petition signers against a Bon Jovi purchase and they placed a few hundred BON JOVI FREE ZONE posters all over Western NY. The small band of Bills fans also initiated a Bon Jovi boycott at radio stations, bars, restaurants, dentist offices, auto shops, and hundreds of Western New York businesses.
Local, national and international media picked up on the story. Why not? It was a good story of the passion and anxiety of hometown football fans that didn’t want to lose their team fighting against the power and celebrity of a rock superstar and wealthy Canadian businessmen.
A New York Magazine headline about the group read: “Jon Bon Jovi Is the Most Hated Man in Buffalo. All because he wants to buy its football team. Over these guys’ dead bodies.”
What made the story even more moving was that the fan drive was led by Chuckie Sonntag, a cancer survivor and a double-amputee in a wheelchair living on only $825 a month from social security. Life might be tough but Chuckie loved his Buffalo Bills and didn’t want to lose them.
Then something unexpected happened. In 1922 Texas A&M’s football team was shy a few players. A young fan sitting in the stands volunteered to play if needed. He suited up and though he didn’t play he was lovingly dubbed the 12th man. The phrase now is commonly understood to mean fans cheering so loudly they inspire the team. The Seattle Seahawks, who reportedly have the loudest fans in the league, even have a #12 flag they raise during games. But Texas A&M trademarked the name in 1990. They sued Seattle in 2006 and the Seahawks had to pay A&M $100,000 plus an annual licensing fee. A&M also sued the Baltimore Colts.
And then Texas A&M did something really stupid. They sued Chuckie over 12thManThunder.com. It’s one thing to sue a billion dollar NFL team and another to sue a double-amputee cancer survivor in a wheel chair living on $825 a month who just wants to express his love for his team and get a petition signed. It was a publicity nightmare for Texas A&M.
Within days, Caputo, who had press connections and lots of experience with intellectual property litigation, had every news organization on the planet screaming down the university for threatening to sue a non-profit run by a double amputee. Former MSNBC host Keith Olberman featured Texas A&M’s president in his “Worst Person In The World” segment.
“Bad optics are really expensive to adjust,” Caputo said. “And in midsummer 2014, Texas A&M attorneys had created the worst optics of all time.”
The university eventually reached an agreement to make it all go away. The group changed their name to Bills Fan Thunder, registered as a 5013c nonprofit with the mission to take underprivileged kids to Bills games. Texas A&M donated five figures of startup capital for the organization.
Now the group works with area youth services to take local inner-city kids to Bills home games. The founders of Bills Fan Thunder all grew up around the stadium, worked the private car lots, went to games. They know what an exciting thing an NFL game can be for a kid–they lived it.
“These guys are the greatest, they’ve taken dozens of our most deserving kids to games,” said Brian Pilarski, executive director of the Seneca Babcock Community Center. “We just don’t have the funds to organize a kid-friendly tailgate and a whole row of good seats. It’s a real treat for our kids; they normally don’t get these opportunities.”
Joe Scarsella, director of the John F. Beecher Boys & Girls Club said, “The kids had a blast hanging out at the tailgate playing the cornhole game and meeting members of Bills Fan Thunder. For most of the kids this was their first time at the stadium and the seats were great, so close to the action.”
Sometimes at the pre-game tailgating there’s half a dozen “Superfans” posing for photos with the kids who at their first NFL game. Superfans are members of the Thunder who were recruited to join the group by Sonntag, Paul Rooda and Tony Lynch. They’re a cross between comic book superhero and Bills fan–TV networks show them in the stands at every game. Jake “Billsfoot” Gauda is the ringleader; he’s decked out in an eclectic costume that’s half Bigfoot, half linebacker. He’s usually flanked by Mexican bandit Pancho Billa, Fred Billstone (Fred Flintstone in red, white and blue), and other costumed Superfans.
But the group’s work doesn’t stop at the stadium, according to John Calaci. “What does Bills Fan Thunder do? They drive hours away to visit my son in the hospital with leukemia,” said Calaci, whose son spent the day with the Superfans.
Not surprisingly, Bills Fan Thunder was voted Best Activist Group in the Artvoice Best of Buffalo Awards 2015 and Thunder cofounder Charles Pellien was voted Best Individual Activist.
The flegling non-profit group was hugely successful. Plans were to double the season tickets devoted to the kids in 2016, and the steady stream of online donations were averaging $850 each month. By October 2015 donations were already one fourth of the total they needed to make that happen.
Then, in a matter of days in October, Bills Fan Thunder’s fundraising came to a screeching halt. After taking hundreds of at-risk youth to their first Bills game, the group’s funding suddenly dried up. They realized they might be forced to disband even before training camp this year.
What happened? Oddly, there’s someone who believes the Bills Fan Thunder organization must be destroyed.
That would be James Kriger of North Collins, the blogger behind BuffaloBruises.com, who believes he’s also somewhat of a Superfan. In fact, he is a self-styled Buffalo Bills fan vigilante, protecting the honest fans from Bills fans he believes are flawed. “I’m one of the few good honest people still out there,” he wrote in a recent post. “I’m going to continue fighting against the bad people in this fan base. At the top of that list is fighting bad guy’s [sic].”
So let’s call Kriger “Billsman the Sheriff of Fandom”, suited up to save Bills fans from, well—Bills fans.
It’s unfortunate behavior for a superhero, but Kriger seems to pride himself on littering his blog posts with profanity. He launched his raunchy blog right about the same time the Superfans were featured in the New York Magazine double-truck, at the height of the Bills ownership controversy.
Through his first summer, Kriger wrote articles slamming Bon Jovi for wanting to buy and relocate the team to Toronto. Like any smart blogger, he promoted them on Facebook and Twitter, but with a tiny follower base, few read them. Small wonder: In one, he described at length how he would cover a letter from Bon Jovi in diarrhea. In another, he urged a Toronto reporter to “shut his dick filled mouth”—and that’s just the headline.
In October, Kriger thought he stumbled on his first bad guy: A New England sports blogger, accusing him of sexually harassing a female Bills fan while attending a Patriots game at the Ralph. He presented no real proof that the blogger, Aidan Kearney, was the culprit but took him apart nonetheless in a series of articles.
Kriger wasn’t even at the game, but insists “sources” told him it was Kearney. He identified the Boston-area school where he worked, then emailed school officials links to his blog accusing the teacher of sexual harassment. He contacted Kearney’s students on Twitter to get them talking; he encouraged his social media followers to do the same and provided contact information.
The school received 300 calls and emails in 24 hours. Kearney got death threats and finally had to be escorted by police out of the building. As a result he could no longer teach–and the man has a family to feed.
“I didn’t do anything Kriger described in his article, and he refused to provide proof,” Kearney said. “And when I hired a Buffalo lawyer to get some justice, Kriger telephoned my attorney over and over, even called his wife. He threathed the same harrassment for my attorney as he unleashed on me. To protect his family, my lawyer quit the case.”
When Kearney withdrew the case, Kriger celebrated online, even boasting he got him fired. He’s treated others similarly, including a local artist who paints for charity and there’s a Facebook fan group called Bills Fanatics that he started a war with.
One year later Kriger went off on Bills Fan Thunder. Once a friend of the group, members say he became angry in October when Charles Pellien refused to kick the charity painter Kriger had been targeting out of his stadium tailgate. Pellien had known the painter for years and wasn’t buying Kriger’s claim that the painter was a scammer. “He absolutely insisted that we distance ourselves from the artist and I refused,” said Pellier. “That really set him off.”
As a result, Kriger posted a short series of articles calling Pellien and BFT members “scumbags” and alleging that contributions were being stolen and used to buy horses and to fund vacation travel. “I tried to tell him I own no horses and that I pay for my own travel with my personal money,” Pellien said. “But he wouldn’t listen and insisted he had proof.”
“What proof? There is no proof because I don’t own any horses and I use my own money for my personal expenses,” Pellien said.
Still, Kriger’s social media posts and articles got increasingly aggressive. Within days, online fundraising dried up. The group had to cancel a planned Holiday season fundraiser that was expected to pay for the kids’ season tickets.
“We operate on a shoestring, relying on volunteers and donations to do everything we do,” BFT co-founder Sonntag said. “When there’s false accusations out there on the Internet all that goodwill dries up. It happened so fast, we didn’t know what to do.”
The group called in Caputo, who, even though a founder, is not officially involved anymore beyond being a donor. As the executive director of an international public relations firm, he helps major corporations protect their brand. Often this means overcoming online challenges—like damaging bloggers.
When Kriger threatened on Twitter to “go after a double amputee”, that set Caputo off. “I’ve been friends with Chuckie Sonntag for 40 years. If Kriger wants to go after Chuckie, he’s got to go through me first,” Caputo said.
“Bullies aren’t just waiting in dark alleys anymore. They’re on the Internet and they’re harder to stop. But if you know what you’re doing, you can shut them down fast and eventually make them pay for their abuse.”
Caputo moved quickly: He hired the powerful Bouvier Partnership to file an Order to Show Cause, obtain a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction. New York State Supreme Court Justice E. Jeanette Ogden signed off, and Kriger was officially ordered to take down the offending content. He complained and tried to flout the order by changing Web hosts when his web host provider was served with the takedown order. That didn’t work.
Starting with a November hearing, Kriger was challenged to prove his stories were true. Because Kriger continued to disobey the Supreme Court Order, BFT counsel Jeffrey Bochiechio filed a subsequent contempt complaint. He’s also prepared a lawsuit suing Kriger for $500,000 in damages.
Then, on December 23rd, Kriger did something even stranger than usual: He tweeted out a Top Secret Central Intelligence Agency document dated Jan. 24, 2007 alleging Caputo is a retired CIA agent aiding and abetting terrorists. Instantly, two of Kriger’s Twitter followers replied, telling him that being in possession of this document is a federal offense and advising him to delete his post. He refused.
“I don’t follow the guy, but a few people passed the document on to me,” Caputo said. “It’s completely fake. I never worked for the CIA and the terror accusation is false. But I understood Kriger is trying to force me to stop donating.”
Three court hearings later, Kriger had not answered any of the charges and Judge Ogden had lost patience: She set a trial date for February 16th, where Kriger must bring proof of his accusations of what would be criminal fraud.
According to Pellien, when Kriger heard the judge lay down the trial date and precisely what he must prove, the blogger broke out in hives. “It was wild, his face was bubbling up,” Pellien said. “It was like watching Chris Elliott as Woogie in Something About Mary.”
That day in court seemed to set Kriger off into full Billsman mode. Two anonymous Twitter account forwarded his December 23rd CIA document tweet to dozens of local, state and national reporters who had written about or quoted Michael Caputo in recent months. Then the two Twitter accounts disappeared.
A few reporters called Caputo and laughed off the forged document. Caputo said Sandra Tan, a reporter for The Buffalo News, called and said she planned to write a story. As a blogger at PoliticsNY.com and a WBEN host Caputo has been very critical of the Buffalo News.
“I don’t care what the Buffalo News writes. I’ve been insulted on the front page of newspapers in a half dozen countries, none of this bothers me,” Caputo said.
“But I’ll tell you what does bother me: Hundreds of inner city kids will not be able to attend their first Bills game because of lies posted online,” Caputo said. “And all the years to come of goodwill and positive outcomes from the Bills Fan Thunder program will be lost. Somebody has to stand up to bullies and tell them a face mullet and laptop doesn’t make you a journalist—and your online tantrums can be illegal, actionable and expensive.”
Last week, Kriger found a new whipping boy. He had discovered a registered sex offender is actually a Bills fan and decided to pounce. After being blocked by the man, whose crime was committed over a decade ago, Kriger tweeted to him from his Buffalo Bruises account, telling the man he has his address, his telephone number, and his wife’s name and her grade point average.
According to direct messages he posted, Kriger introduced himself to the man by saying: “Are you familiar with who I am?”
“I’m Billsman.”blog comments powered by Disqus
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