The last photo of Michael Jackson taken through the ambulance window as he lay dying (or already dead) was probably one of the luckiest photos of the decade. It sold to the highest bidder. But that was just a drop in the paparazzi bucket. MJ died this past June, but the death of another celebrity — or rather, son of a celebrity — in January was back in the news.
Only recently have John Travolta and his wife been seen in public since the death of their beloved son Jett. Medical problems had dogged Jett's life: seizures, and a form of autism. Because they are members of the Church of Scientology, the family's management of Jett's medical issues only added insult to injury. Jett died January 2, 2009 while the family was on Christmas vacation. They were too distraught to attend the cremation ceremony (this may also be part of the belief system), remaining in their secluded holiday hideaway for weeks.
The circumstances surrounding the death were not suspect. The nanny tried to revive Jett and he was rushed to the local ER in the Bahamas. But the couple who transported the family saw it differently, and apparently saw an opportunity for extortion. The couple threatened to release documents that incriminated John Travolta, though there were no such documents. The plot was exposed, and John made plans to return to the Bahamas, where his son had died, for the trial.
The price tag from the blackmailers in this case was $25 million. What were they thinking? The ransom was exorbitant, but many other would-be sellers are getting paid for information marked "confidential." The sources are surprising, and often official, according to Nightline.
The selling of celeb secrets is a lucrative business. This black market is often supplied by those on the lower rungs of the employment ladder who don't have much to lose.
Two Ohio police chiefs illustrate this greed best. Ironically, however, they were turned in by paparazzi, arrested for breaking and entering into Sarah Jessica Parker's surrogate's home in an effort to get information to sell to newspapers or tabloids.
In the case of the Michael Jackson photo inside the ambulance, it was snapped by a tenacious photog who had been waiting outside of Jackson's rented mansion for something, anything, to happen. In this case something did. The photographer did nothing criminal, unless you call standing in wait outside a private residence for days criminal.
TMZ openly admitted that they too will pay for secrets and gossip from good sources, especially if they lead to a real story. One of the most outrageous secret leaks came in the case of Farrah Fawcett. She sued Lawanda Jackson for leaking news of her medical condition. Farrah set up the "sting" before she died. She told her doctor that she would tell no one that her cancer had returned, so if it got into the tabloids she would know the leak was from the inside. The story hit the tabloids the next morning. This type of theft is nothing new.
Often celebrity sightings at hospitals, clinics, or on vacation are the initial reason for gossip. Soon afterward, actual medical information begins its short journey to willing buyers. As a former medical records technician I know that medical records are literally a paper trail. The records are hard copies filed with the patient's number on them and the records are retrieved by a number. And how much security is that really? The thought of selling someone's medical information is beyond criminal. It's crazy.
While the Travolta extortion case did not involve medical records per se, it did involved dubious documents that the sellers thought would bring a fortune. So, be it photos, medical records, or false documents, the paper trails laid out from the Earth to the Moon are a lucrative business in a world where death sells better than sex.