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Conspiracy Weary 

Joey Skaggs, media prankster, strikes out

Wednesday, Mar 11 1998
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There are few sights sadder than a champion off his game. And Joey Skaggs hasn't exactly been batting 1,000.

"I confided in total strangers all over the world," he offers by way of excuse. "I was dealing with people who aren't experienced. This isn't their life's work. They aren't trained actors."

Joey Skaggs, is, of course, the Joey Skaggs, the most accomplished hoaxster of our time. Two years ago, he convinced CNN and countless other media organizations that he had developed a computer program, named the Solomon Project, that could replace human juries. Before that, he fooled reporters into believing he was a Korean-American businessman offering to buy animal-shelter dogs for his cannery. Before that: an American Indian doctor who transplanted people's scalps to treat hair loss.

For the past 30 years Skaggs has been assembling hilarious hoaxes that have made fools of journalists, poked fun at cultural conceits, and generally provided a good time for Skaggs fans around the world. His Web site, produced by San Francisco's Maria Marchetti, details a third of a century of sublimely fraudulent genius. He's been profiled in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and other print media, and been a guest on Entertainment Tonight, Geraldo, and other television shows -- often represented by an impostor stand-in.

But Skaggs' latest effort, a complicated prank called "Stop BioPeep," suggests he's in a slump.

Skaggs distributed press releases worldwide a couple of months ago representing himself as Dr. Joseph Howard, an Australian conspiracy theorist hot on the trail of governments and corporations secretly planning to alter the genetic code of the human race. The release claimed spiked soft drinks would be distributed at the Sydney Olympic Games, targeting consumers' DNA to make them crave certain brand-name products.

Since we're fond of absurd conspiracy theories, after reviewing Skaggs' press release, we bit. The purported conspiracy-buster, Dr. Joseph Howard -- aka Joey Skaggs -- responded to our e-mail inquiry with a detailed reply inviting us to contact evil conspirators in Hawaii, Santa Fe, and Slovenia.

We called a telephone number in Hawaii that Howard claimed belonged to publicist Warren Dastrup, of the blandly sinister-sounding Pacific Research Associates.

"Err, how did you get my name? I'm not at liberty to talk about that right now," Mr. Dastrup said, before we managed to get a word in edgewise.

So we passed the phone to investigative reporter David Pasztor, who placed a second call to Mr. Dastrup.

"Err, how did you get my name? I'm not at liberty to talk about that right now," Mr. Dastrup said. Hawaii's telephone company described Dastrup's number as belonging to a residential address.

Disappointed, we went back to doing real work.
Skaggs explains that he was on vacation in Australia when he and some pals cooked up the genetic spiking scenario, then recruited more friends around the globe to help them pull it off.

But nobody seems to have bitten, with the exception of a few newspapers in Slovenia, where Skaggs had a cohort who helped perpetrate the prank. "The news media was going nuts in Slovenia," boasts Skaggs. "There's this big daily news-paper in Slovenia that wants me to go talk with them."

Slovenia? Joey Skaggs, court jester for a generation, is reduced to picking on journalists from a country with only four years of free press to its credit?

Skaggs claims his mistake was depending on those untrained in the art of quality hoaxing -- Mr. Dastrup for example. Though Skaggs scheduled an elaborately planned phony protest march in New York on the same day as President Clinton's State of the Union Address, he got paltry U.S. coverage.

In his own defense, Skaggs says he considers the BioPeep prank a success, because, like his other gags, it caused people to ponder issues of great import in today's changing world.

"STOP BioPeep was a complex performance piece that touched on many issues that face humanity and that deserve serious contemplation," he wrote in a follow-up press release.

We're still hoping Skaggs will return to simple, elegant, brilliant pranks, like his classic "Cat House for Dogs," a phony canine brothel where pet owners took randy dogs for relief at $50 a pop. Or "Fat Squad," in which he conned his way into an appearance on Good Morning America by claiming to be the owner of a company that kept people on their diets using physical force.

After all, Joey Skaggs fans don't need civics lessons. We need hoodwinked talk-show hosts, preposterous falsehoods perpetrated as truths, absurd lies crafted into national headlines.

We need Joey Skaggs, keeping ushonest.

About The Author

Matt Smith

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