City Paper senior staff writer Van Smith appeared in U.S. District Court yesterday to testify in a defamation case brought against the alt-weekly by Miami restauranteur Ioannis Kafouros, whom Smith mistakenly identified as a federal fugitive of the same name in an August 2008 City Paper story. The Daily Record has the whole story (subscription only).
"City Paper didn't do its job," said Joshua Treem, an attorney for Kafouros in an opening statement. Kafouros claims the story has put his life in danger, forcing him to increase security for himself and his family, and is asking for $1 million in damages.
The midtaken identity came in a story about the August, 2008 raid of six Baltimore properties associated with Milton Tillman Jr., a convicted felon facing federal tax charges. Iannnis "Crazy John" Kafouros, who owned one of the properties, was thought to have skipped town a decade ago to avoid theft charges. Van Smith sought to locate Crazy John and a Google search turned up a Iannis Kafouros in Miami. Smith doubted that a man on the run from the law would have such a public life, but he called Mykonos, the Greek resturant that Kafouros was associated with and reached his son, Alexios. In his story, Smith claimed that the son confirmed that "his father is the same Ionnis Kafouris as the one from Baltimore, and [that] his mother, Diane Kafouris, lives in Baltimore."
"I thought it was extrememly odd, but Alex had said what he had said," Smith testified in court yesterday.
Alexios hasn't testified yet, but the Kafouris family claim he never confirmed the false information. The family's attorneys pointed out that Smith never called the restaurant back or contacted lawyers in the case against Crazy John. "You don't get to break the rules when you're breaking news," said Joel S. Magolnick, another lawyer for the family, and Smith agreed.
Among the lessons for journalists here: Google and other search engines are great investigative tools, but information found there needs to be confirmed by multiple sources—especially in so sensitive a case as this. Also, as I was once told by a great journalist, if a scoop seems too good to be true, it probably is. And finally, any case with a main character called "Crazy John" might be better off left alone.
The trial is expected to last the rest of the week.