Murder suspect Ryan Alexander Jenkins raises questions about reality TV background checks

By Derrik J. Lang, AP
Friday, August 21, 2009

Murder suspect raises reality TV questions

LOS ANGELES — Reality shows have good reason to vet contestants through background checks, and most do: There are issues of liability, employability and, of course, marketability to consider.

But not all background checks are the same, and even the professionals can miss key details. The most comprehensive checks can be expensive, leaving shows to largely trust that contestants are forthright and honest.

51 Minds, the production company behind VH1’s “Megan Wants a Millionaire,” said Thursday that it had commissioned a check on the 17 wealthy bachelors vying for the love of former “Rock of Love” contestant Megan Hauserman — but it didn’t turn up the troubled past of Ryan Alexander Jenkins. According to the Alberta, Canada, Ministry of Justice, Jenkins was sentenced to 15 months of probation in 2007 on an unspecified assault charge in his hometown of Calgary.

U.S. and Canadian authorities were on the hunt Friday for Jenkins, who was charged with the murder of his ex-wife, a 28-year-old former swimsuit model whose strangled and mutilated body was found Saturday stuffed in a suitcase in a trash bin in Southern California.

Jenkins vanished and may have gone back to Canada after police found the body of Jasmine Fiore, whom he married in Las Vegas in March after production on “Megan Wants a Millionaire” wrapped. Jenkins — worth $2.5 million, according to the show — had appeared in the first three episodes of the kitschy dating series, which VH1 has since yanked off the air.

51 Minds issued a statement Thursday that said it was not aware of Jenkins’ record when it cast him on the show and would not have allowed the 32-year-old “smooth operator” — as he’s referred to on the show — to participate, had it known.

“The company did have in place what it thought was a thorough vetting process that involved complete background checks by an outside company for all contestants on its shows,” it said. “Clearly, the process did not work properly in this case. 51 Minds is investigating what went wrong and taking steps to ensure that this sort of lapse never occurs again.”

Along with pulling “Megan Wants a Millionaire” off the air and iTunes, VH1 also eliminated all mention of the show on its Web site. Network spokesman Scott Acord said in a statement that “all outside production companies are responsible for the screening/vetting process of contestants for reality TV shows.”

Veteran reality TV producer Scott Sternberg, who is not associated with “Megan Wants a Millionaire,” said the producers — not the networks — are responsible for vetting contestants, and that Fiore’s murder is a wake-up call that should put more emphasis on the process.

“If we’re being given the opportunity by a network who’s going to pay us for our work as producers because they trust us,” Sternberg said, “then we’ve got to do everything we can to do the work appropriately and securely.”

It’s not the first time an ex-convict has appeared on a 51 Minds reality show that aired on VH1: Andre Birleanu, the feisty Russian-American male model who was the runner-up on “America’s Most Smartest Model” in 2007, had been to prison several times before appearing on the show on charges including assault, harassment, criminal contempt, criminal mischief and trespassing. His prior arrests came to light when he was arrested for harassment and sexual abuse — charges which were later dismissed — while the show was airing.

“Different networks and production companies have different tolerances,” said Elaine Carey, national director of corporate investigations at the Control Risks Group, which has screened participants for reality TV production companies and cable and broadcast networks for nearly 10 years. “What they’re looking for often depends on the type of show.”

Reality TV contestants across the board have had skeletons emerge from their closets, both during shooting and long after the spotlight fades. In 2000, after the conclusion of the Fox TV show “Who Wants To Marry A Millionaire,” it was revealed that an ex-girlfriend had accused the millionaire Rick Rockwell of assaulting her; contestant Darva Conger annulled their marriage.

Carey said standard game shows do not dig as deep as reality shows that isolate groups of strangers in environments where they will have physical contact. Her company typically finds that one out of every 100 contestants submitted for a background check has a criminal record, but she noted that suspicious behavior is often found in civil records, too.

Facts often slip through the cracks, depending on how much networks and production companies are willing to shell out for rigorous record scouring — or how open wannabes are about their backgrounds, such as where they have lived. Carey said if investigators do not know where to look, they often cannot find unsavory details from records or personal interviews.

Even “American Idol” has booted contestants after revelations of less-than-squeaky-clean backgrounds. In 2003, Frenchie Davis was dropped because of a previous appearance on an adult Web site, and Corey Clark was disqualified after reaching the finals for failing to reveal a previous arrest. Clark later claimed to have an affair with “Idol” judge Paula Abdul, who denied the allegation and was cleared by Fox. His pattern of bad behavior continued — in 2006, Clark’s wife filed for a domestic violence protective order in June in Yuma, Ariz.

In contrast, the Fox singing competition allowed past contestants David Hernandez and Antonella Barba to stay on after it surfaced that he once worked as a nightclub stripper and racy photos that appeared to be her leaked online. And Nikki McKibbin says she was upfront with “Idol” producers about her stripping past before she became a finalist during the show’s first season.

“Sometimes there may be a fact that surfaces about a person that is considered negative but is not so negative that (producers) won’t go ahead and use that person, and they want that fact to come out in the course of the show because it makes it more interesting,” said Carey. “Most shows just want contestants to be upfront with them from the beginning.”

While casting ex-cons isn’t illegal, Douglas Johnson, an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles who has represented reality TV production companies and contestants, thinks dating shows that involve intimate feelings like “Megan Wants a Millionaire” have a bigger responsibility to ensure the emotional well-being and physical safety of their contestants.

“In these situations, these production companies have a duty not to be negligent,” said Johnson. “To be safe, and to make sure you’re not putting yourself in a situation where liability would be attached, I would advise them not to put someone on a show that had a criminal background because they have a propensity to not abide by social standards.”

Jamie Huysman, a psychologist in Miami who has specialized in treating talk show and reality TV contestants, said background checks and psychological evaluations before production starts are not enough. Huysman believes producers should seek treatment for participants after filming is completed because such an experience can be emotionally volatile.

“Clearly, everyone wants to watch a train wreck, otherwise these kinds of shows wouldn’t receive the ratings they do,” Huysman said. “However, in my professional opinion, the least producers can do is take care of these contestants, if they are their most precious commodity, after the show.”

VH1 is owned by Viacom Inc.

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