It started with an anonymous e-mail on Nov. 21: "You should get a mug shot of James Frey."
A typical suggestion for The Smoking Gun. The Web site features hundreds of mug shots, categorized by genre. But when the investigative team searched for a police booking photo of the author, they couldn't find one.
"What should've been a very brief pursuit, wasn't. We couldn't find anything — strange (for someone who said he spent three months in jail)," says William Bastone, 44, the site's co-founder.
Intrigued, Bastone bought "A Million Little Pieces," and read it, along with the 3.5 million who bought the book after Oprah Winfrey chose it for her book club.
"Lots of stuff did not ring true to me ... and read 'fake,' " Bastone says. So he e-mailed Frey.
"At that point, we were off," Bastone says.
The three-man team, including managing editor Andrew Goldberg and reporter Joe Jesselli, zeroed in on parts that could be confirmed by photos or legal documents. After a cop finally located Frey's mug shot, it led to his criminal record — that is, his very short prison stay.
"We knew right then and there that we had fire, a lot of fire," Bastone says.
The Smoking Gun quickly wrote a 13,000-word report — yes, with Oprah in the first line. They also immediately called Frey to alert him to the soon-to-be published report. Frey's high-profile attorney, Marty Singer, sent a five-page legal threat letter to stop them from publishing it. They were not dissuaded.
"Frey lied to us, lied to his lawyers, and lied to his fans," Bastone says.
Thanks to catchy headlines and mugs, The Smoking Gun draws about 50 million hits each month, Bastone says. Not bad for an operation run by just three guys. The trio work so well together they have held off hiring another person, budgeted since 2001, with a computer and desk just waiting.
Nestled into a large corner office on the 16th floor of Court TV's Manhattan East side headquarters, its space is shabby, corporate chic. Think fancy dorm room. Burnt orange file cabinets and an FBI circular rug bought on eBay stand out amidst walls of windows and slick computer monitors. Rather than a generic metal name plate, a tattered piece of paper taped to the door is the only indication of their location.
Their office bustles with energy from the friendly trio who seem to genuinely love what they do, their faces lighting up when they get animated by a story.
"We run things very smoothly," Bastone says. "We all report, hunt stories."
Jesselli echoes this point. "We all do everything," he says.
Almost all their leads come from tips via e-mails, such as the one that launched the Frey investigation. And recent media attention has raised their profile so tips come more readily, Bastone says.