Former Fargo man exacts 'mental terror' on art gallery owners
FARGO - Michael Rohr's stomach still turns when he hears Jason White's name. Rohr felt a sense of d?j? vu when he read about the cyberstalking charges filed against his vindictive former employee in California federal court earlier this month. Wh...
FARGO - Michael Rohr’s stomach still turns when he hears Jason White’s name.
Rohr felt a sense of déjà vu when he read about the cyberstalking charges filed against his vindictive former employee in California federal court earlier this month.
White allegedly tried to extort a Los Angeles art gallery owner in exchange for taking down a phony, defamatory website, and sent hundreds of text messages and emails threatening to harm the owner, his business associates and their children.
Rohr, who owns Boerth’s Gallery in downtown Fargo, went through it all just more than a year ago: the website badmouthing his gallery and an ever-increasing price tag to take it down; dozens, if not hundreds, of text messages daily; and threats against his wife and children.
Rohr called it “mental terror.”
White, a North Dakota native and self-proclaimed art dealer, was convicted of disorderly conduct in Fargo last year for harassing Rohr. Not long after, White moved to Los Angeles, where he now faces up to five years in prison for a chilling pattern of attempted extortion and threats.
“I AM NOW FOCUSING ON YOUR [expletive] CHILDREN!!!! AND WIFE!!!! I WILL WAIT IN THE [expletive] BUSHES TO KNEE CAP A CHILD,” White wrote on a California artist’s Facebook page, according to his criminal complaint. “YOUR CHILDREN ARE MY END GAME!!!!”
White was arrested by the FBI earlier this month, and is in U.S. Marshals Service custody as his case progresses through U.S. District Court in California.
A short employment
White walked into Rohr’s recently purchased downtown Fargo gallery in spring 2012 with big talk about his resumé as an accomplished art dealer. The pair signed a work contract to bring White on as an independent salesman for a two-month “try out” period.
Within the first month, their working relationship had soured. Rohr said White was lazy, didn’t follow through on most of his work and was disrespectful. When a disagreement escalated, Rohr said he offered to cut White a check for his work and the two should part ways.
White left incensed, Rohr said.
“It didn’t take long for the first text message to show up,” Rohr said.
Rohr’s phone would buzz for an hour or more as hundreds of messages from White streamed in, demanding cash payment for his month of work at Boerth’s Gallery. White had also set up a phony website – with a similar address as the real page for Boerth’s Gallery – which said Rohr’s gallery was dirty, selling pieces of art warped or cracked by heat and humidity.
The price to have that website taken down, Rohr said White told him, would go up daily.
Rohr said he ignored White’s flood of texts for weeks until a day he’s come to call “Day X.” That’s when White sent a message saying he knew where Rohr lived, and said he couldn’t wait “to run into your family on a dark snowy night,” as Rohr remembered it.
Rohr went to Fargo police to get a restraining order and file a complaint against White, which eventually turned into a disorderly conduct charge. White was convicted in Fargo Municipal Court last February.
Rohr didn’t hear from or about White for months. White’s appeal of his conviction fell apart after he didn’t show up for several court appearances.
Then Rohr got a call from an art gallery owner in Los Angeles last fall.
Did you hire Jason White?
‘My goal is to take you out’
Rohr and the Los Angeles gallery owner, who is not named in the criminal complaint, made the same mistake.
They didn’t check the background of their new hire.
Had they looked up White’s criminal record, a handful of charges would have showed up: convictions for controlled substance possession in 2001 and 2010, another 2010 conviction for unlawful possession of a weapon, and a misdemeanor fraud conviction in 2005.
“You learn the hard way,” Rohr said.
When he called Rohr, the gallery owner in California was at the start of White’s months-long extortion scheme. It would eventually devolve into White sending threatening messages to the owner and his employees and clients, sometimes attaching photos of their children and threatening to harm them.
After landing a job there in April, White quit his position at the Los Angeles gallery in August through email, citing a poor working relationship with a gallery staff member, according to the complaint.
Just a week later, White sent the owner an email mentioning phony websites he had created – one of which he had registered a month before getting a job at the gallery – and allegations that the owner was selling forgeries. He demanded that the owner sign a nondisclosure agreement and pay him a $150,000 consulting fee – a price that would double in three days.
“A person with nothing left to lose becomes a very powerful thing,” White wrote.
White sent similar emails and text messages to people connected to the gallery, demanding a hefty payout to take his websites down. He mentioned contacting media outlets, accusing the gallery of fraud.
“I have been growing much stronger like a [expletive] Jedi,” White wrote in a text message to the gallery owner, his son and an employee, according to the complaint. “I am definitely in the art game and once again I have stated, it is my goal to take you out. Your ball bro.”
The harassing emails continued for weeks, eventually turning violent. He sent a gallery employee a string of texts with a picture of her minor child, noting that “accidents sometimes happen on the beach.”
“He’s a cute kid. It will be very unfortunate if something was to happen to him,” White wrote in January, ending the text with a renewed call for a payout.
“I have nothing left to lose,” White wrote in a separate email to an artist. “And maybe having a bed every night for the next 30 years in a little 8 x 10 room … doesn’t sound that bad.”
‘Will he come back?’
Sarah Levitt, the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting White’s case in California, couldn’t comment on whether his pattern of similar extortion schemes – from Fargo to Los Angeles – would come up in court.
That will depend on what court investigators dig up as they gear up for trial, she said.
In Fargo, Rohr is torn.
On one hand, White is in custody hundreds of miles away, facing up to five years in prison.
“The best news I’ve heard in a while,” he called it.
But still, he and the gallery owner in Los Angeles “are the unlucky ones to be on his list.”
“Do I have to worry about the day he comes out?” Rohr asked. “Will he come back?”