For a decade, self-proclaimed filmmaker Matt Hickey combed the internet and scoured Seattle's Capitol Hill, looking for the next adult film star. Or so he said in his online ads.
A journalist and photographer, Hickey didn't have film credits in his resume. But he did have the sales pitch of a Hollywood agent: the power to make someone a star.
His studio of sorts was his modest Seattle apartment, and his staff consisted of himself and a female recruiter who, prosecutors say, was actually Hickey himself, posing as a woman named Deja Stwalley — the name of a grade school classmate who was unaware of the charade.
Some of the women who answered his online ads told authorities they were sexually attacked after arriving for a "screen test." In all, Seattle police interviewed six women who alleged they were forced to have sex with Hickey, though some said they couldn't recall details of the encounter because they were drugged or plied with alcohol.
Hickey, 41, is now charged with four counts of rape and — after a year in custody — could be tried as soon as this month.
Hickey's alleged trail of sexual offenses was exposed by the alternative newspaper where he once worked as a freelance journalist.
Some of the alleged victims in Seattle said they first turned to police but came away feeling that investigators weren't interested in pursuing their allegations. But when their stories began showing up on Facebook pages, an editor at the Stranger — an aggressive alternative newspaper for which Hickey had once covered Seattle nightlife — took note.
The editor, Charles Mudede, passed along the tip to one of his reporters, Sydney Brownstone, who got one of the women who'd posted their stories on Facebook to talk on the record. She led Brownstone to two other women who agreed to talk.
"The story snowballed from there," Brownstone said.
She said the newspaper, which is published biweekly, had no hesitation about investigating one its own former writers, who had also freelanced as a technology writer for Forbes, CNET and other online sites.
When King County prosecutor Dan Satterberg filed rape charges against Hickey last year, his office and police credited the Stranger for doing the initial detective work. Several other alleged victims had also come forward after publication of the story, "The Audition."
Police said their investigation had since turned up alleged rapes dating to 2001, and detectives speculated there could be dozens of victims. Hickey, who was arrested last November in Las Vegas — where he relocated after the Stranger published its story — has pleaded not guilty. He maintains that any sex with his accusers was consensual.
Ads that Hickey placed on Craigslist in Seattle and Las Vegas described the screen tests as consisting of a question-and-answer session to establish sexual preferences, posing for nude photos and having an "audition."
"You'll audition with one of our specially selected guys.… It's not for everyone, and if it's not for you, that's ok. But keep in mind, we're auditioning for hardcore, so the ability to have sex with a [stranger] while keeping a smile on your face is important," the ads read.
Hickey allegedly sought a mostly anonymous pool of candidates, typically women between the ages of 17 and 25 he spotted on Facebook, according to court records.
"He then contacted those young women through the [fake online] Stwalley profile and presented them with an opportunity to audition for a local indie/alternative adult film studio," and eventually earn up to $3,500 a day as a porn star, court records state — they just had to "audition with one of our specially chosen 'hunks.' "
In each case, prosecutors said, the audition was conducted by Hickey.
One alleged victim said she blacked out and in the morning woke up in bed naked, a condom wrapper nearby. She told authorities she didn't remember having sex with Hickey and certainly didn't want to. The woman told Seattle Police Det. Michelle Gallegos that she "cried and vomited through the day [and] felt disgusted and embarrassed."
Hickey has already been found liable of civil fraud in a consumer-protection case — the first of its kind in Washington — brought by the state attorney general. In March, King County Superior Court Judge Ken Schubert hit Hickey with $332,000 in fines and court costs for posing as a filmmaker and as his own female assistant to deceive six women with a porn scam.
Hickey, the state complaint charged, "posed as a talent recruiter named 'Deja Stwalley' in order to deceive women for his own personal gain … [with] no intention of securing jobs for these women. He created a fictional business and audition process to obtain nude photos for his photography portfolio and to satisfy his sexual desires."
The complaint said that Hickey continued to maintain possession of the nude photos he took of women who responded to his ads.
Hickey is being held on $200,000 bail.