Busted! How we unmasked the man behind the Internet's cruelest celebrity death hoaxes
In February, a site called eBuzzd.com reported that “92-year-old Hollywood icon,” Betty White, star of television sitcoms such as The Golden Girls and Mary Tyler Moore Show, had been “found submerged,” “face up” and “wearing a white nightgown” in a luxury hotel bath tub. The following month the site claimed that “Pawn Stars Funnyman,” Chumlee, had died “of an apparent heart attack” at the age of 31. A few days later Seinfeld actor Wayne Knight, who once played “Newman” the postal worker, had been “killed in [a] tractor-trailer accident.”
While other news sites (and on some occasions, tweets from these celebrities) quickly revealed the stories to be hoaxes, the fact that eBuzzd mirrored the design of celeb news and gossip giant TMZ, even copping the title "TMZ today," ensured that many thousands -- perhaps millions -- of people were fooled. In several cases, even the friends and family of those "killed" by the site were suckered by eBuzzd's stories.
And it's not just death hoaxes: over the past months, eBuzzd has published page after page of fake celebrity news – “Phil Collins loses right arm in a tragic accident,” Selena Gomez is pregnant with twins and Justin Bieber is the father, Tom Cruise quit Scientology “after heated interrogations,” former governor “Jesse Ventura carjacked in Mexico."
(Perhaps made aware that the site infringed TMZ's intellectual property, eBuzzd stopped using the name "TMZ TODAY" and changed the design to be less similar, although it maintained TMZ's red and black motif. Then it stopped using it all together, and now TMZ.TODAY redirects to eBuzzd.com.)
On its “about” page, eBuzzd claimed it “is not a site about hoaxes, rather the eBuzzd site is itself a hoax,” but the person behind the site clearly counts on the confusion of visitors -- and the ensuing media outrage when his hoaxes are exposed -- to drive traffic and garner attention.
eBuzzd hawks ad space at prices ranging from $800 to $1,200 for a six-month purchase. It also displays banner ads from Google Adwords. Tim Stevens, an editor-at-large for CNET, told CBS News that when hoaxes go viral, sites like eBuzzd “can make tens of thousands of dollars off of one of these fake stories over just a couple of days."
Recently, the anonymous owner of eBuzzd has registered other impostor domains, including names similar to those of US Weekly and OK Magazine.
For all the pain and confusion caused by eBuzzd, until now no one has been able to track down the site's owner, who has gone out of his way to remain anonymous. He deploys several aliases and used a proxy to register domain names.
Like many Internet trolls, however, eBuzzd's owner wasn't as careful as he thought. By following a twisted digital trail, involving homophobic Facebook pages, truck driving licenses and even conspiracy-jock, Alex Jones, Pando has found what evidence strongly suggests is the name of the creator of eBuzzd. He’s a 36-year-old former trucker from San Antonio, Texas, who lost his job after failing a drug test for smoking marijuana. He hangs out on Tea Party chat threads and on his Facebook page has photos of the Confederate Flag and men dressed in Ku Klux Klan-like white robes and hats.* His name: Ryan W. Wren.
Searching for a name
The eBuzzd website is a decidedly slap-dash operation. One day earlier this week several links were broken while others pointed to incorrect pages. A piece on Jesse Ventura ended with a nonsensical mention of an academic study. Under "featured stories" a photo of Seinfeld alum Wayne Knight sat next to a headline announcing the death of Pawn Stars' Chumlee and led to an article on "the most fertile man in Europe" who has fathered 98 children and offers sex advice. It was, bluntly put, a mess.
The homepage contained no information about its creator. If you visited the “advertising page” you could fill out a contact form but there was no e-mail address provided. The stories were either posted without a byline or with the byline “eBuzzd.” A Whois search reveals only that the site was registered using a proxy domain in Arizona and hosted by Go Daddy. Moreover, eBuzzd maintains accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+, although they contain no biographical information.
Our first clue to the identity of eBuzzd's owner came from a lucky Google search. A search of “eBuzzd” mostly showed articles about the hoaxes, but it also brought up a post from San Antonio’s Craigslist page, in the business/commercial section:
Currently I am offering to promote your website or YouTube video on eBuzzd.com for only $5. This is a permanent article that will be available to millions of visitors. If you're looking for a quick, easy and professional way to promote and showcase your YouTube video, a website product or even your own website/company then check me out on Fiverr. I'll have your article up and running in less than 24 hours!
Get Started! The URL at the bottom of the post brought us to a similar sales pitch on Fiverr.com, written by someone bearing the username: “CDLTest.”
A search for “CDLtest” mainly brought up pages related to the Commercial Driver’s License test, which you have to pass before you can drive trucks or other vehicles weighing 26,000+ pounds. Combining the terms “CDLtest” and “eBuzzd” didn’t help. But then we noticed the @eBuzzd Twitter account followed several other accounts bearing the CDL acronym. One of them, @cdltesting, displayed a URL in its profile: CDL-testing.com, which provides free practice quizzes to help a user prepare for the written portion of the CDL test.
Registrant name: Ryan Wren
Registrant address: [Redacted], San Antonio, TX
Registrant e-mail: [email protected][redacted].com
Creation date: February 12th, 2010
In addition, by cross-referencing "Ryan Wren" with eBuzzd, we came across the following Google Search results that directly tie his name to the site:
When we conducted additional searches for “Ryan Wren” in combination with “eBuzzd” an image of its creator began to emerge. The next step was to tie these threads together.
A cached page from Statscrop.com dated March 11th, stated: “Ebuzzd.com is created by Ryan Wren.” The page has since been updated to remove any mention of Ryan Wren. Additionally, Snoop.io identified “Ryan Wren” as the creator of CDL-testing.com and ebuzzd.com. A Pinterest page for “Ryan Wren” contained two pins, both linking to eBuzzd. The Pinterest page also connected to a Facebook profile for one of his aliases, “Ryan Miller,” with the URL: www.facebook.com/cdltesting.
“Ryan Miller” lists his website as CDL-testing.com, and his timeline was previously covered with eBuzzd stories, although it has since been purged. (However, you can still find evidence of him sharing eBuzzd articles, and he even commented “love eBuzzd” at one point.) Ryan’s wall photos include a confederate flag, lots of trucks, and Jean Claude Van Damme. There are two photos of men in KKK-like robes and hats*, identical except that one contains the text: “Your leaders call this innocent fun!!! Google and research Bohemian Grove,” suggesting Ryan could also be a conspiracy junkie.
Given the evidence, it's highly likely that “Ryan Miller” is an alias for Ryan Wren, and, in fact, the display name on the Facebook profile had been changed: A webcache shows that on July 27th, 2012, “Ryan Wren” commented on Alex Jones’s Facebook page, where he spammed a link to CDL-testing.com. Today, that same comment shows the name “Ryan Miller.”
Given there was nothing in Ryan Wren’s past to indicate a background in journalism, we wondered about the passable-to-good writing on all these celebrity hoaxes. Had Wren missed his calling as a legitimate celebrity gossip blogger? No. In fact, most of the text appears to be cribbed heavily from other writers. This story, about Phil Collins losing one of his arms, appears to have taken its medical information from CNN, and the one on the search for Jimmy Hoffa’s skeleton republished multiple paragraphs from Reuters.
Then there was the Wayne Knight story. Here’s the description eBuzzd offered of the accident:
“…their vehicle slammed into a disabled semi-tractor-trailer late Saturday night along Route 446 near the Pennsylvania-New York state border in Eldred Township.”
Which was lifted from a March 14th article in the Bradford Era about a fatal car accident involving a young woman and her three-year-old son.
For his part, Knight expressed concern that a hoax story about his death might cause additional distress to the real family of the real victims, Tweeting:
Wren, however, seems less concerned about the feelings of those affected by his hoaxes. Back on the site's “About” page, eBuzzd’s creator wrote: “To state that you are offended…you must believe that you have some sort of right to dictate not only what people can and can't communicate, but what they can and can't think.” (Remarkably, even those words were lifted verbatim from someone else.)
On another page, he compiled hate mail from angry readers, which he shared “for your entertainment.” He didn't mind being labeled an asshole, or a “waste of good oxygen,” and seemed to revel in the negative attention.
Wren’s older brother, Ronald Wren, showed up in a discussion on eBuzzd’s Facebook page to laugh at those who took umbrage: “Seriously, all of the people that responded to this are idiots! Read the fine print! LOL! It is a webpage for hoaxes! Damn! Get out and do something with your life! Stop letting television rot your brain!”
In the aftermath of the Wayne Knight hoax, several news sources (including The Hollywood Reporter, Inquisitr, and CNN) identified “Ryan Wiseman” as the persona behind the fake UsMagazine website. These reports weren’t wrong per se but they only identified an alias.
We discovered that Ryan Wren registered more than a dozen websites, often using slight variations of his name and address. Many of the sites pertain to his CDL test business: CDL-testing.net, CDLQuestionsAndAnswers.com, Licensetesting.com; others to conspiracy: CabalReport.com, TyrannyTube.com; as well as other activities: RateEats.com, BWEpisodes.com, BuyAdZones.com, AppraiseMyURL.com, SEOranges.com, and others.
He mostly used the same email address and either provided his real name along with it or various aliases, including Ryan Wesley (his first and middle name), Ryan Wes Lee, Ryan Wiseman, Mister Wren, Ryan Rockefeller, Ryeen Wiseman, Wesley Wiseman, Orian Renn, and Bryan Wrenn -- all of “Shadow Glen” or “sHaDoW GlEn.”
Public records show there exists a Ryan Wesley Wren, born in 1978, who has resided in San Antonio for several years on a street called Shadow Glen.
Several of the domains that Wren registered (e.g. CabalReport.com) no longer resolve to active sites, making it difficult to trace his full commenting history. Still, we are able to draw some conclusions from what is still available online.
Wren is a fan of Alex Jones, the reactionary radio host who spouts vast conspiracies and strongly opposes socialism and the New World Order. Wren also comments frequently on far-right political sites like Tea Party News Network and Minority Report Blog, where he mocks Michelle Obama (“she so nasty”) and admires the recent violent political protests in Venezuela, saying: “Looks beautiful to me. Wish it would happen in Hellmerica.”
He voices disgust for homosexuality. Wren created a Facebook group called “Homosexuals are nasty!” which boasts two members: “Ryan Miller” and “Ryan Rockefeller.” (“Ryan Rockefeller” was one of the aliases Ryan used when registering domains, and at the moment, the “Ryan Rockefeller” Facebook timeline is still covered with links for eBuzzd.)
The kids are probably brain washed [from] being molested and subjected to sick and perverse activity. Gays will ruin a child and I hope they turn out okay but they likely have seen so many shit covered cocks at the age of 13 than anyone. Can you imagine what those kids smell if they walk into the room after their ‘LOVE’ making? Must smell like shit and ass hairs. Fucking sick freaks. Fucking scum of the earth.It seems that Wren sometimes took the “Sliverbreed” portion of his email address and used it as a handle in discussion threads around the Internet. In this comment Sliverbreed from San Antonio asks advice about failing a pre-employment drug test for a trucking company after he “smoked a little weed” and was fired. He “was crushed beyond all belief” and wanted to know how he could get back into the game. “Sliverbreed” asked fellow truckers to contact him at [email protected][redacted].com. Elsewhere, he promoted CDL-testing.com.
Armed with this information we contacted Wren via the various email addresses we were able to find for him, as well as dialing two phone numbers and leaving voicemails. The person responding to Wren's addresses confirmed he is the man behind eBuzzd, although he would not directly confirm his name. He told us via email that he doesn't understand why the site has attracted so much negative attention. "The way people have responded to the site actually perplexes me. eBuzzd is fake (as of today) -- if you're looking for a news source filled with lies, stick with MSNBC. Anyone who doesn't like eBuzzd, should simply not go to it or share it."
eBuzzd, he continues, "is truly nothing more than a site thrown together in a few hours and filled with nonsense. I honestly couldn't care if it is popular or not." Despite all the media coverage he claims he has made only a few dollars from it. "The revenue I bring in from eBuzzd is laughable and obviously not my motivation in keeping the site active. I've had no one contact me for advertising either."
As for the site's future, he said, "I have no plans for eBuzzd and really don't plan on making plans for eBuzzd. Tomorrow I may wake up and turn it into something else all together."
Then, he added, "there are so many crazy things happening in America and around the world. I can assure you eBuzzd should be at the bottom of that prioritized list. Maybe I'll take my own advice (time willing) and report on things that are actually relevant."
On that point at least, Wren seems to be a man of his word. We followed up with several other questions, pointing out that one reason that some people were upset was because he used details about a woman's real death as material for the hoax. How would he feel, we asked, if someone pulled a prank based on something tragic that happened to one of his own family members? We also wanted to know if representatives from TMZ or Us Magazine had contacted him to demand that he take down the fake websites. We confronted him about the Confederate flag on his Ryan Miller Facebook page, statements that he contributed to a 'Homosexuals are nasty' Facebook group, and the comments by "Sliverbreed" on Indeed.com involving a failed drug test.
Wren didn't reply. Instead, as of this morning, he pulled all the hoax stories from the eBuzzd website. Now you'll find the full text of legitimate news articles: "CNN Producers Busted Trying to Get Into WTC Site." "Obama: I'm Concerned About a Nuke Being Detonated in Manhattan." "Woman Claims Police Forced Her to Poop In Yard." With each, eBuzzd's founder cites the original source -- New York Post, The Weekly Standard, CBS Tampa Bay, although it's not clear that he obtained permission to publish their full text.
The debacle around Newsweek's alleged outing of the creator of Bitcoin has made all journalists wary of definitively naming a previously-anonymous online personality without an unequivocal in-person confession. To be clear, we were not able to visit Wren at his Texas home, nor did we speak to him on the phone -- two numbers registered to him appear to be active but we were unable to reach him on either. That said, there is no doubt that the person we reached by email, using addresses registered to Wren, was the site owner of eBuzzd. Furthermore, all other evidence of eBuzzd's ownership points to Wren, whose address, age and background we have taken steps to verify.
For Wren to not be the owner of eBuzzd would mean that the actual owner has taken implausibly complex steps to frame him, including creating and erasing fake web profiles, creating and erasing a fake commenting history and also creating a fake domain registration paper trail using Wren's actual information.
An abundance of caution, and the lessons of Newsweek's recent embarrassment, oblige us to say that these things are all theoretically possible. But if Wren is being set up, the prank would have to be more ingenious and effective than every other eBuzz hoax added together, multiplied by a thousand.
*Correction: Shortly after publication Ryan Wren contacted us to complain about our characterizing the picture as a Ku Klux Klan photo. He denies this. The men in the image are in white Ku Klux Klan-like robes and hats but aren't necessarily members of the Klan. We regret the error.