Trial in a Miami restaurateur’s defamation case against Baltimore City Paper and the reporter who mistakenly identified him as a federal fugitive of the same name opened Monday in U.S. District Court with the reporter admitting but explaining the error.
Senior staff writer Van Smith testified that it was principally a brief August 2008 phone conversation with plaintiff Ioannis Kafouros’ son, Alexios, that led him to imply the plaintiff was Ioannis “Crazy John” Kafouros, a convicted trafficker in stolen goods who skipped town before sentencing a decade ago.
“I thought it was extremely odd, but Alex had said what he said,” Smith said Monday afternoon.
Kafouros’ attorney, Joel S. Magolnick, showed the jury Smith’s scant notes from the conversation and peppered Smith with questions about what he could have done to catch the mistake before it appeared on the publication’s website and, days later, its print edition.
He asked whether Smith had fully appreciated what it might mean to link the plaintiff with Milton Tillman Jr., an ex-con currently facing federal tax charges.
“You don’t know who might be looking to collect that money from ‘Crazy John’ Kafouros…,” Magolnick said.
The plaintiff claims Smith’s Aug. 22, 2008, blog post and Aug. 27, 2008, article, which were later corrected and removed from the newspaper’s website, have caused him to live in fear and beef up security for himself and his family. His lawsuit, originally filed in Florida, asked for more than $1 million.
“The City Paper didn’t do its job,” Joshua R. Treem, another of Kafouros’ attorneys, told the jury in his opening argument.
Speaking after Treem, City Paper attorney Peter F. Axelrad described Smith as a competent reporter who “knows what to do” and said Kafouros did not call Smith back as the reporter had asked.
Axelrad also questioned whether Kafouros’ fear, which allegedly has led him to carry a gun and install security cameras, makes sense.
“The issue is, ‘Is it reasonable?’ We’re not talking about ‘The Godfather’ here,” Axelrad said of Ioannis “Crazy John” Kafouros. “This is a character, a Baltimore character.”
He noted the Kafouros’ Miami restaurant, Mykonos Greek Restaurant, is doing well even in the down economy and that there has been “no impact at all anywhere.”
Reporter: Son said ‘yeah’
The event that led Smith to call Mykonos was the Aug. 18, 2008, raid of six properties associated with Tillman.
“Crazy John” Kafouros owned one of those properties, Smith discovered, and he wondered about the whereabouts of the man who left Baltimore about a decade earlier. (In 1999, federal prosecutors said “Crazy John” had fled to his native Greece before he could be sentenced to more than four years in prison for buying and selling stolen tuna fish, watches and other items.)
A Google search turned up an Ioannis Kafouros in Miami, so he called the Mykonos in that city. According to Smith’s blog post of Aug. 22, 2008, Alexios confirmed during the call that “his father is the same Ioannis Kafouros as the same one from Baltimore, and [that] his mother, Diane Kafouros, lives in Baltimore.” Testifying Monday that Alexios did this by saying “Yeah,” Smith called the mother detail the “clincher” that he and Alexios were talking about the same man.
Alexios has yet to testify — he sat outside the courtroom Monday with his mother, Maria — but Magolnick and Treem have said Alexios never confirmed such false statements.
Alexios called Smith about the mistake after Maria Kafouros saw the stories during a Google search of her own while planning a surprise birthday party for her husband.
“To her horror, what she sees is the City Paper blog posting and article,” Treem told the jury. “It says her husband is ‘Crazy John,’ a federal fugitive… .”
The City Paper ran a correction on Sept. 24, 2008, but the plaintiff found the wording inadequate, so a more complete correction appeared that October. But, according to Treem, “the taint is still there.”
In response to questions, Smith said he did the best he could given the nature of a breaking news environment.
“But you don’t get to break the rules when you’re breaking news?” Magolnick asked. Smith, who admitted he never called the restaurant back or that he had any record of calling the attorneys in the criminal case against “Crazy John,” agreed.
Smith, who has written for the City Paper off and on since the late 1980s, earnestly answered questions all afternoon, first from Magolnick, then from one of the newspaper’s attorneys.
The trial, which is being heard by an all-white, mostly female jury, is expected to last the rest of the week.