Update: The Case of the Cobra Killer
By Michael Joseph Gross
In a few months Grant and his boyfriend parted ways, and Grant's protective feeling for Sean turned romantic. From the start, Grant also saw business potential in the relationship: 'I said 'Look, I could shop you around to all these other studios and they'll pay you a nice chunk of money. But if you really want to do this right, I'll help you start a company, and you can do your own thing. That way, when you're old and gray, if we do it right, this thing's still gonna be paying.''
As their business plans grew serious, so did their romance. When Sean went to Pennsylvania for the summer, the new couple agreed that 'we'd be exclusive sexual partners,' Grant says, 'other than the work that he was doing.'
Sean's memories of that summer are mostly unhappy ones. Though he and Bryan sometimes socialized with visiting Cobra models, Sean felt isolated: 'Bryan didn't want me to have any friends. I was there basically to have sex with him.' He considered his relationship with Bryan to be essentially transactional. It was 'trading the company of a younger man for the money and experiences that an older man can give. Lavish restaurants, fine wines, horseback riding lessons, nice clothes.'
'Looking back,' says Sean, 'it all seems silly and superficial, of course.'
Bryan, though, probably had higher hopes for their relationship. He tried to talk the boy into going to college down the street at Misericordia. One weekend that summer, Bryan also made a rare attempt to integrate his family life and his gay life. Robert Wagner, a close friend of Bryan's who appeared in Cobra videos under the name Aaron Phelps, says that Bryan rented a limousine to take Sean and his family to New York together for the Fourth of July. After they all checked into the Plaza Hotel, Bryan went to see the fireworks with his family, and Sean went to a party, where, according to Robert, he hooked up with another man. Bryan spent the night alone in his hotel suite, wondering where Sean had gone.
The next month, things got worse.
Grant decided to 'start playing with a little bit of publicity' for the next step in Sean's career. From their separate bases in California and Pennsylvania, Grant and Sean participated in a fan forum on a porn portal site called Juicygoo.com, where they discussed Sean's plans to start producing his own videos'even though Sean had just renewed his contract with Cobra.
Bryan was enraged. Sean says they fought so bitterly that his 'best friend' at the time'a boy he chatted with online, whom he never met in person, and whose screen name he says he does not remember'advised him to flee. In the Volkswagen Jetta that he'd received from Bryan when he signed the contract, Sean drove across the country to Grant's house in San Diego.
Safely in California, Sean called Bryan on August 16, 2005 and informed him that he'd been a minor when he made his first videos. Their relationship imploded.
Sean reported his claim to the FBI, and soon his Cobra Video releases were recalled. Bryan applied to the U.S. Trademark and Patent Office to trademark the name Brent Corrigan. He filed a federal breach of contract suit against Sean. And he wrote Sean long, impassioned e-mails, arias of wounded emotion ('it still amazes me to see how people who are supposed to be close to me can be so heartless and selfish enough to take advantage of me the way they do'
I really wanted the best for you'), menacing clich' ('Such a tangled Web we Weave / When we practice to Deceive''), and an ultimatum.
Bryan offered Sean a choice: Be reconciled or be cast forever out of his good graces. 'No second chances here,' Bryan warned. 'Your only decision, to be the Prince,
or the Pauper.'
Soon the feud was tooth for tooth. Juicygoo.com became a battleground between Bryan, writing under the screen name 'King Cobra,' and Grant, who called his alter ego 'Cobra Killer.'
The mainstream gay porn industry took note, and the best-known studio, Falcon, gave Sean the lead in a big-budget movie called The Velvet Mafia. In a bizarre coincidence, the movie'about a porn industry turf war over an insolent twink named Fox Ryder'had been written before the Cobra scandal broke. 'We had to have Brent Corrigan as the star because he was this character in real life,' says director Chris Steele.
Before the film's release, Falcon executives decided not to credit Sean as Brent Corrigan because Cobra's lawyer threatened to sue the studio. Every time Sean tried to work as Brent Corrigan, Bryan's lawyers quashed the effort'and Sean's lawyers sent him another bill. Sean began a fund-raising drive called 'Brent Aid,' during which he auctioned off a few of his belongings online. Someone bought his underwear for $1,000.
Last fall, when Grant and Sean saw that legal negotiations with Cobra would lead to settlement, the couple started looking for new models so they could prepare for Sean to film new sex scenes.
The best way to recruit men into porn, Grant says, is to browse gay cruising sites such as Manhunt.net, Adam4Adam.com, and DudesNude.com'where it has become the norm for men to post naked pictures of themselves and, increasingly, pictures of themselves having sex. To find the youngest men, he also canvasses MySpace, which offers an argosy of exhibitionist sexuality encompassing various orientations. 'I go to the place where guys are exposing themselves for the whole world to see,' Grant explains. 'If they're willing to do that much online, maybe they're open to doing porn. It's not going far to make that next step.' Grant's other casting resources include escort sites such as Men4RentNow.com, where he first came across Harlow Cuadra's profile.
Grant's eyes go big when he recollects the thrill of seeing Harlow's pictures and watching his sex videos on Boybatter.com for the first time. 'Wow,' he remembers thinking. 'This is what we're looking for.'
'I met Joe on Yahoo in a chat room,' Harlow Cuadra says. 'I think it was a straight chat room. Probably talking about skateboarding. Joe spams the room, 'Looking for a hookup,' and I'm like, 'Yeah!''
When they met seven years ago at a mall in Virginia Beach, Joe Kerekes said that he was in the Marines. At the time, Harlow was in the Navy and in the closet, and he was spooked by the idea of dating another military man. He cut the meeting short and told Joe he would call him the next week, after returning from a wedding where he was to be the best man.
One week later, to Joe's surprise, Harlow called. 'He said that when I told him I was going away for a week, he thought I was lying,' Harlow laughs. 'I said, 'One thing to know about me: I can't really lie very well. It gets me in trouble.''
They hooked up. 'We went to his parents' house and had sex for, like, four hours, and then we went to Wendy's at 2 a.m. He said he was an escort, and I was kind of put off by that, so I backed off, and we just became friends.
'We kept hanging out, and finally Joe was like, 'Will you go on just one call for me?' And it was an ex-NFL guy, and I walk in, and he's like, 'I just wanna play with your feet.' And I'm like, 'This is weird.'
'So I would do that like three or four times a week, and I was making a lot of money for letting this guy play with my feet.
'Then Joe and I started going out, and then eventually''Harlow's voice drops low, each word an ember of contentment, remembering the day that love walked in''Joe said, 'Harlow, I wanna be jealous of you.''
Joe grew up in a Christian family in Virginia Beach. He graduated near the top of his high school class and for a time worked as a youth pastor at Bethel Temple, a conservative Assemblies of God megachurch in Hampton, Va. Joe's gifts as a minister, especially his preaching, were so prized by the church that Bethel paid for him to go to a Christian college.
Joe had trouble controlling his temper, though, and after a few conspicuous flare-ups, he was asked to leave the church. He went to Marine boot camp and, his parents say, was discharged after a few weeks, following an angry confrontation with a drill instructor. (Government military records for both Joe and Harlow were unavailable at press time.)
Then Joe started working as a gay escort, hired others to work for him, and built a business so popular that Internet searches for the word Norfolk returned his Web site, NorfolkMaleEscorts.com, as a top hit. The Norfolk city attorney reportedly called Joe's lawyer to complain.
As an escort Joe was known as Mark. In Boy Batter videos he called himself Trent. With Harlow he was plain Joe; and after work was done, Joe says, he and Harlow 'didn't have much time for friends,' but they spent a lot of time with Joe's family.
His father, Fred, a Navy veteran who worked for the Norfolk water treatment plant, and his mother, Rosalie, who worked for many years in a grade school cafeteria, say that Joe never explicitly told them he is gay, but they gradually came to understand that Joe and Harlow were a couple. Harlow, who grew up in Florida and South Carolina, was estranged from his family when he met Joe. Fred and Rosalie, sitting at their kitchen table, say they accepted Harlow as if he were their own son.
(Since his arrest, Harlow has been back in touch with his mother, brother, and sister. All three have MySpace profiles that proclaim Harlow's innocence and solicit donations for his legal defense.)
Fred and Rosalie say that as Christians they believe in hating the sin but loving the sinner. Although they disapproved of the men's relationship, they were intimately involved in Joe and Harlow's lives on an everyday basis. Rosalie cleaned their house, cooked for them, and ran their errands. For construction projects like the high fence around Joe and Harlow's backyard, Fred lent a hand.
Fred says, 'I found the architect for them for their in-call room,' pronouncing the final phrase, from the lexicon of prostitution, with jarring fluency. Fred is tan, hirsute, tall, and strong, with a long white beard like a biblical patriarch's that falls almost to his waist. He wears a purple baseball cap thickly embroidered with the word Jesus in rainbow-colored letters.
The in-call room, Fred says, 'had a hot tub, leather sofa, mahogany lockers for their clients, and a huge mosaic tiled shower with jets coming from every different direction.'
Rosalie, a gentle, steady woman, says, 'It was a super-duper shower. You could put 10 people in there.'
'They knew how to do things to please their customers. They had a big, fancy massage table,' Fred says.
'That's what I thought they did mostly, was massages,' Rosalie says. 'And physical therapy.'
Rosalie says she did not know the details of her son's professional life until after he was taken into custody in May after she and Fred celebrated their 37th wedding anniversary.
Fred says that he had his suspicions. He never voiced his hunch, but he cites it as the reason that he maintained a somewhat greater distance than Rosalie did.
'I wanted them to be a part of our lives,' Fred says, 'but I didn't want to be a part of their lives.'
'We started raunchy,' Joe says, 'but ended up being high-class.' In their years together, Joe and Harlow rose from renting a $300-per-month room in the worst part of Norfolk to purchasing a house worth about $500,000 in a new development on a cul-de-sac.
'They were eating out every night,' Fred says. 'They would have $500, $600 meals. Joe had a $6,000 chinchilla coat he bought in Vegas. It was leather inside'it was reversible. He wore a 3.5-karat diamond stud in his ear. Harlow's was 2.5 carats. They always wore Rolexes. They had five, six Rolexes. They went in and out of four [Dodge] Vipers,' Fred says, 'the poisonous snake that bites you and you die. The last one, that got seized by the cops, was yellow.'
They also invested in their bodies, working out almost every day at 5 a.m. at a private gym called Big House. The owner, a straight man named Lance Treadway, says, 'They lifted heavy weights, but their form was terrible.'
Fred describes his son as 'very, what's the word, very chiseled. The whole V shape. And he went to Phoenix to have liposuction done so that he would have the'what do you call it'the washboard abs. He went to Phoenix, where all the movie stars go to have it done, and it cost $6,000. He stayed in very good shape for his clients.'
When Fred says 'chiseled,' his palms cup an imaginary pair of pecs in front of his own chest. When he says 'V shape,' he traces the shape on the sides of his own body. When he says 'washboard abs,' his hand bumps down an imaginary set of them on his own stomach.
When he speaks of his son's body, as when he speaks of his son's big spending, Fred's voice is fraught. On the one hand, he is proud of Joe for living an American dream. On the other, he says, 'They would get so much credit'loan for this car, loan for that car'I knew they were out of control.'
By the time Harlow and Joe met Sean and Grant, the Virginians were almost $1 million in debt.
Communication between the couples began when Grant saw Harlow's profile online last fall. After some correspondence and phone conversations, the four agreed to have dinner in Las Vegas during January's Adult Video News convention, the largest annual porn industry gathering, where Sean and Grant were also meeting Bryan to finalize their settlement.
During dinner at the Bellagio on January 11, which Grant describes as 'the most expensive meal I ever had in my life,' Grant says Joe speculated that a video of Harlow and Sean could make a million dollars. Grant says he explained that they were hamstrung for the moment by legal problems with Bryan, and 'that's when Harlow brings up the question, 'What if Bryan goes to Europe?' '
Sean, uncomprehending, responded, 'He'll come back.'
'Harlow said''Grant assumes a coolly insinuating voice''What if he goes to Canada?' and I grabbed Sean and said, 'No, you guys.' Then Joe says, 'Harlow has this client that's in this sort of business who will do anything for him.' I said, 'If Bryan dies, no matter who does it, this thing has been so ugly, we're the first ones they'll come to. Don't even say anything like that.''
Though Grant says Joe and Harlow's remarks struck him as odd, he didn't think they were serious. 'That was, like, three or four minutes out of a three- or four-hour meal, where we'd all been drinking so much that we were just gone,' he explains.
The Virginians apparently left Las Vegas the next morning. (Pending trial, Harlow and Joe would not answer most questions directly pertaining to the case.) Then Grant and Sean met with Bryan and his lawyers to finish most of their negotiations and returned to San Diego for the crossing of the t's the following week.
On the morning of Tuesday, January 16, Joe and Harlow called Sean, angry that Sean had not posted an announcement of their plans on his blog. Grant was furious at their impatience. 'I'm in the middle of the settlement, and I had gone to great lengths to explain our situation, and they're all pissed off because we don't have a blog post on? Who the fuck do they think they are? I called them and said, 'We've got a lot to do. You're calling Sean and harassing him.' Joe starts getting angry with me, saying wild things, threatening me that if we don't 'put up a post,' the deal is off. I said, 'If you don't understand us, leave us the fuck alone.' And I told Sean, 'Screw those guys. Don't talk to them anymore.' That was it.'
Joe and Harlow seem to have returned from Las Vegas with new confidence in Harlow's pornographic possibilities. On January 14, NorfolkMaleEscorts.com sent an e-mail blast announcing Harlow's impending collaboration with 'Porn Twink mega star 'Brent Corrigan.'' More ambitiously, Harlow even applied to be a model for Falcon Studios on January 18, citing Brent Corrigan as a reference. Then, on January 22, Harlow created the screen name dmbottompa on Yahoo.com, an account he used almost exclusively for correspondence with Bryan Kocis.
'DM' stood for Danny Moilin, an alter ego whose address was listed as King of Prussia, Pa. As Danny, Harlow completed a model application form on the Cobra Video Web site, and he e-mailed Bryan to say that he 'would like to meet you and talk about filming and stuff. don't have much experience with this at all. may need to be taught first.'
Police say that Harlow used a Visa card to buy a knife similar to the weapon found at the murder scene, and also a gun, in Virginia Beach on January 23; he rented a car; and, using Joe's driver's license as identification, they checked into the Fox Ridge Inn, across the valley from Dallas Township. E-mails show that Harlow, as Danny, had arranged to meet Bryan at his house on January 24.
That night, Bryan Kocis was killed. His house was ransacked for documents relating to the business of Cobra Video, two computer towers that were the nerve center of the company, two video cameras, and his monogrammed Rolex watch. By the time a Dallas Township squad of volunteer firemen arrived at 8:34 p.m., flames had consumed most of the interior of the house.
In falling snow, newspaper and TV reporters and a straggling mass of neighbors assembled on the street. Fire blew out Bryan's picture window, and cold air from outside rushed into the home that he had long kept hidden. Later, a friend of the deceased went inside and noticed something strange. The 65-inch plasma television screen that had been Bryan's Christmas present to himself. Melted by the fire, drooped and curled, like a wilted petal plucked from an immense, mechanical, imaginary flower.