I FOUGHT THE LAW: Riches at home in Pennsylvania after being released from prison in 2012.
One afternoon in February 2006, federal inmate No. 40948-018, also known as Jonathan Lee Riches, opened his prison mail to find a letter from the U.S. District Court, South Carolina. Riches, then 29, scant of body at five feet ten, 120 pounds, was three years into a 10-year sentence for wire fraud and had petitioned a court to stop his transfer to the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Williamsburg, a medium-security prison in South Carolina where, Riches claimed, "named and unnamed" persons were waiting to do him in. The truth was much simpler and less sinister: Riches had been comfortable in his prison in Bennettsville, South Carolina, where he'd made friends with members of a group of antigovernment fraudsters known as the Montana Freemen, and didn't want to move. His petition, which he'd handwritten as a pro se litigant—one who represents himself—and which offered no evidence of his impending doom, was dismissed "for frivolity." News of the unsuccessful appeal had arrived late—Riches had already been transferred to Williamsburg a few weeks earlier—but the letter pushed his agile mind into overdrive. He walked to the prison's law library, sat down at a computer, and logged in to the LexisNexis legal database. The judge had labeled his petition a "frivolous pro se pleading." Just what did that mean?
As Riches watched the computer screen fill with bunk case after bunk case, he noticed one name recurring with remarkable frequency: "Reverend" Clovis Carl Green Jr., a convicted rapist who had bombarded the courts from the 1970s through the 1980s with at least 700 frivolous filings, an unofficial record at the time. If you believe in cosmic forces, or that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, this would be the moment when the mechanics of fate (aided by computer algorithms) precipitated an American legal phenomenon. Riches leaned back in his library chair, a dark epiphany taking hold: "I gotta pass this guy."
Over the next few days, Riches hunkered down at the library, and before the week was over he had filed his first suit, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, accusing President George W. Bush of being a time traveler who "conspired with Duke of Normandy at Battle of Hastings 1066 A.D. to pervert the English Dictionary and Law." The lawsuit had 900 "codefendants," including the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Bumble Bee tuna, and a massive statue that was destroyed more than 2,200 years ago, the Colossus of Rhodes. Riches' suit demanded $379 trillion in damages. Although a judge dismissed the case, Riches found an appreciative audience: The guards at FCI Williamsburg were in stitches over the complaint, and the Philadelphia City Paper published a story on the local boy made bad (Riches grew up in the Philly suburb of West Chester).
This sparked an epic burst of pro se productivity. Hundreds, then thousands, of handwritten lawsuits would follow, along with a roster of self-applied nicknames—Johnny Sue-nami, the Patrick Ewing of Suing, the Crackpot Matlock Judicial Sasquatch—all the products of a rigorous, hyper-focused regimen: Riches would run 10 to 15 miles daily on the prison track, fueling his obsession. "When you're running, the ideas start spinning," he says. "The mind gets more creative. Every day was run, file lawsuits, run, file lawsuits."
In his cell, he'd scour the Wall Street Journal and local periodicals to determine what might garner the most attention in a lawsuit. He identified which federal courts were easiest to work, which motions allowed him to intervene in suits, masquerading as a victim or an attorney, and he learned how to file in forma pauperis, a motion that translates to "in the form of a pauper," to waive fees. He honed what would become his signature style: assaulting a big-name defendant with wacky humor. One in particular, wrote a judge in an opinion, "reads like a cross between Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start the Fire' and a Dr. Bronner's soap label, if Dr. Bronner had been a first-year law student with untreated paranoid schizophrenia." In August 2007, Riches accused the embattled NFL quarterback Michael Vick of stealing his two pit bulls and turning them into fighting dogs, then selling the dogs on eBay and using the proceeds to buy missiles from Iran. Fox News ran a piece on the absurd suit, rewarding Riches with his first-ever nationwide coverage.
Over the next year, Riches was cranking out up to 10 suits per day—"On the continuum of self-determination, he's way off on the asymptote," says Kim Gorgens, a neuropsychologist who studies criminal behavior and teaches at the University of Denver. Riches' filings got ever more absurd—rambling, free-association screeds that mashed up references from pop culture, current affairs, and sports. It was rare for Riches to get a response from the headline-makers he accused. One exception was the NBA star Allen Iverson, who Riches claimed had hired him to be his personal trainer and then offered Riches money in exchange for having a sexual relationship with him. (Riches, the suit stated, needed a hair transplant, so he accepted, becoming Iverson's "white juicy fruit.") According to Riches, Iverson countersued for emotional distress and to recover attorney's fees, but there appears to be no court record of that.
By 2010, Riches had filed nearly 5,000 frivolous civil complaints and motions. This wasn't just a new record—this was Secretariat winning the Belmont by 31 lengths. Riches sued almost any public figure you can name. Barack Obama? "Yes." Tom Cruise? "Yes." Rupert Murdoch. "Of course!" As Riches says, "You're nobody if you haven't been sued by me."
On a hot day this past August, the scourge of the American legal system waits patiently outside a T.G.I. Friday's at the King of Prussia Mall, near Philadelphia. Riches stands on the sidewalk with sunglasses perched atop his shaved head, a gold watch loose around his left wrist, a wild Amish-style beard framing his boyish face. He has been out of prison for three months and has moved back into his parents' house in West Chester, the town where he got his start in petty crime and punking the system: By 16, he says, he was tipping over Porta-Potties, stealing car radios, and yanking fire alarms. "I wanted to be known as odd, eccentric, or just crazy enough to do things that most people would not," he says. At 19, Riches had gravitated toward an underground-chat-line scene of con artists and phone "phreakers." He says he learned how to access credit reports and DMV registries via computer and phone, how to defraud people with Western Union scams. The crime that sank him was an AOL phishing scam in which he and several accomplices harvested credit-card data for unauthorized purchases. In 2003, the FBI busted him as he exited a Bank of America in Tampa with several thousand dollars in his hands—he puked when he was arrested.
He may be a free man (albeit one on probation), but Riches, now 36, isn't done messing with authority. "I'm going to continue to file suits . . . and make fun of the judicial system," he says. Money has apparently never been a motivator. Sure, he'd love to profit from a reality TV show or a book, but he's not suing McDonald's after spilling hot coffee in his lap. "I love the opportunities and resources to expand my craft," he says. He considers himself an artist: "It's tagging. It's spray-painting. I'm on these dockets forever." This is not a man with the need to satisfy the cravings typical of his peers. "I'm not looking for a girlfriend, I'm not looking to go out drinking at a bar," he says as he drains a large Diet Coke and obsessively hollows out his burger bun, a tic acquired during years of crash dieting. "I'm delighted to sit in front of my computer. Delighted to go to the post office." What he really wants—maybe it's all he ever wanted—is to become a conversation piece. And he emerged from prison into an era when that's easier than ever. Within days of his release, Riches was running amok on Facebook, where he declared that he had no intention of becoming less litigious.
Which is bad news for his detractors in the Establishment, who say that even though Riches' filings are routinely dismissed almost as quickly as he can write them, his hobby drains money and resources from the legal system. "It is not clear whether these outlandish pleadings are products of actual mental illness or simply a hobby . . . Although they are amusing to the average reader, they do nothing more than clog the machinery of justice, interfering with the court's ability to address the needs of the genuinely aggrieved," wrote U.S. district judge Gregory A. Presnell in an opinion dismissing a 2007 suit (Riches had accused Steve Jobs of hiring O.J. Simpson as a hit man). "It is time for them to stop." In 2010, prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney's office in Lexington, Kentucky, sought an unprecedented nationwide injunction against Riches, claiming that if he wasn't stopped, the government would "suffer irreparable harm." A judge in Kentucky granted the request, giving the Bureau of Prisons the authority to review his outgoing mail. Riches, who considered the injunction unconstitutional, responded by suing Hulk Hogan, employing a prisonmate to put the petition in the mail. He filed a few more suits until his release.
"Enjoining him strikes me as a violation of his due-process rights, which include access to the courts," says John Capowski, a law professor at Widener University in Pennsylvania. "Simply because a person files frivolous lawsuits doesn't mean the person will not have or does not also have a legitimate claim. Closing off the courts to his legitimate claims would be wrong." Not everyone has such a charitable view of Riches. "He's insane," says Darren McKinney, the spokesman for the American Tort Reform Association. "There is no way to logically justify what he does."
Questioning the mental health of a man who peppers his legal writing with mentions of brain-devouring aliens and time-traveling presidents may seem understandable—Riches sued LeBron James for failing to build a UFO-defense system for his prison. While he was at Federal Medical Center (FMC) Lexington, a federal prison in Kentucky, in 2009, Riches says, a prison psychiatrist diagnosed him with schizophrenia and several personality disorders. But Riches insists he's not crazy—he's merely "prone to doing irrational things." According to Dr. Gorgens, those "things" amount to a fairly major case of emotional projection—seeking to evoke in others emotions he can't process himself. "Riches may not describe himself as feeling hopeless, despondent, or powerless because he's outsourced it to the environment. If only it weren't for the collateral damage, it's really a pretty adaptive strategy."
Riches finds work-arounds to try to avoid running afoul of the law, filing under aliases or other people's names, or shifting jurisdictions when a particular judge threatens to hold him in contempt of court. "While his actions violate court rules, I don't believe they're a crime, and not one for which he likely would be charged," Capowski says. Silencing Riches would be costly for the courts, which would have to invest more time and effort in imposing sanctions and attempting to collect fines, which Riches likely can't (or won't) pay anyway. "The difficulties and downsides of stopping Riches may be greater than allowing him to continue," Capowski says.
And, in truth, the federal government may no longer be the biggest threat to Riches' one-man war on the legal system. Social media and the Web in general have provided a fertile breeding ground for his growing notoriety. During the pre-election fervor, he tweeted about suing Michele Bachmann and followed up with a suit, filed under an alias, claiming the Kardashians had assaulted him while at Busch Gardens in Tampa that was reported by Radar Online before the outlet realized it was the work of Jonathan Lee Riches. Then Glamour UK announced that a suit had been filed alleging that Justin Bieber had cheated on Selena Gomez with Ke$ha (Ke$ha denied the claim during an Australian radio interview). But this increased exposure may well be the death of Johnny Sue-nami. "His impact has been reduced the longer he's been around," says Ronda Goldfein, the executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Philadelphia, who in July 2012 represented an HIV-positive teen suing Pennsylvania's Milton Hershey School over its refusal to admit him. When a complaint was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania by a man named Gino Romano alleging that the principal of the school had given him AIDS, Goldfein instantly recognized it as Riches' handiwork. "When he was first at this, people had some idea that he could actually be a real plaintiff," she says. "As time went on, it was a matter of 'Oh, it's that guy.' So when we got his complaint, we immediately knew who it was, even though he filed under an alias. We didn't bother responding—we had faith the judge would dispose of it appropriately." The judge obliged.
And yet… "I remain intrigued by him," Goldfein says. "I think he's trying to clog up the system, to make a statement. Lawsuits are terrible, life-sucking, emotionally draining events—and I sue people for a living. The idea of voluntarily immersing yourself into that fray is kind of fascinating." Back at T.G.I. Friday's, Riches has finished picking at his burger and scans the room, an impish smile on his face. He's hunting for suit fodder. "The waitress's attire offends me," he says. He pauses. "I could sue them under your name." Even better, he says, he could sue Details under my name. While experts ruminate on the motives of the man, Riches, who's gotten up and is ready to wend his way through the mall crowds to head back home, to the sanctuary and succor of his computer terminal, appears to have a very uncomplicated view of his mission in life. "It's my own twisted entertainment," he says. "Because I have a right. And no one can stop me."