Just Busted tears into Southern cities

Just Busted tears into Southern cities

March 31st, 2011 by Ellis Smith in Business Around the Region

Kevin Lewis works with others to place police mug shots in the "Just Busted" publication at the company's office in Red Bank. The company publishes weekly pictorial roundups of people arrested in Chattanooga, North Georgia, Knoxville, Nashville, Memphis, Birmingham, Ala., and Oklahoma City. Staff Photo by John Rawlston/Chattanooga Times Free Press

Wanda Gilham has no children, she says, as she works her way through a pack of Marlboros kept in her black leather jacket.

Instead, the Red Bank entrepreneur pours her life's passion into Just Busted, a 2-year-old newspaper filled with mug shots of criminal suspects.

In a typical week, Gilham flies around the country to launch new iterations of the paper, while Matthew DeGlopper, her executive editor, runs the 25-employee headquarters.

DeGlopper, an energetic and forceful proponent of the paper's concept, claims Just Busted has prevented crimes, brought fugitives to justice and bettered lives.

"We're giving people the tools to know their neighbors," he said. "We're filling a gap; we fulfill a need that exists."

In two years, Gilham has grown the operation from three employees to 300, and added eight papers that reach more than 150 American counties, she said.

Just Busted reaches 200,000 readers each week at $1 per copy, but Gilham claims her work isn't about the money.

Rather, she was prompted to start the weekly crime paper after a neighbor established a friendly relationship with her, she said, and then stole her car to buy drugs.

"If you can prevent the habitual criminals, or you can prevent people from going down the road of crime, that's why we do it," Gilham said.

Expanding market

Demand for the publication was intense right of the bat, Gilham said, so she immediately widened circulation throughout the entire Chattanooga metropolitan area. Then to Memphis, then to Birmingham.

In 2010, Gilham launched in North Atlanta, Knoxville, Nashville, Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and she plans shortly to launch papers in Chicago, St. Louis, Los Angeles and Albuquerque.

At the end of 2010, Gilham's Just Busted had access to more than 6.4 million potential readers.

Her expansion into Chicago will mark her first licensed franchise. If it succeeds, she plans to continue franchising the name out in other cities.

Aside from private consumers, bonding companies have a special appreciation for Gilham's efforts, according to Will Fix, owner of AAA Bonding Co.

"With Just Busted, we post a picture and a reward, therefore we get tips," Fix said. "We can pick those people up, and they are brought to justice, which prevents us from having to pay the courts the big sum of money."

Challenges to growth

Letitia Curtis, manager of the Kangaroo Express at 1005 Hixson Pike, said she doesn't see how Just Busted's popularity can last. The reason Just Busted has to constantly expand is because it doesn't hold customers' attention over time, she said.

"I've seen declining sales from when it first came out," Curtis said. "Here I sell only about 19 a week."

Part of her declining enthusiasm for the publication came when former employer Mapco started firing employees who appeared in Just Busted.

But that practice ended when a former employee sued the company, Curtis alleged, for wrongful termination.

"They ended up calling a big meeting and sent out a big memo saying it was to be looked at only as a tabloid," she said.

Some media outlets and critics worry that publishing pictures of the accused before they are proven guilty is unfair, and Just Busted often comes under fire for repeating errors within sex offender databases.

In fact, outdated sex offender databases, some of which contain the names of former offenders who have died or served their time, have forced the paper to retract some entries. Just Busted's publication of some mugshots has resulted in a number of lawsuits, including one from a purported sex offender who sued for damages after alleging he no longer was on the registry.

"What happens if you're not guilty, or if it's a girlfriend who made something up?," said Bryan Hoss, a Chattanooga defense attorney. "We run into a lot of people out there who get wrongly charged with crimes every day. It's common."