A crime paper flourishes by printing mug shots
Isaac Cornetti, aka ‘Dash Dangerfield,’ finds an audience for ‘The Slammer’ in North Carolina – a publication that some think provides a public service but others call an unethical crime rag.
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Mr. Cornetti – “Dash Dangerfield” on the masthead – is a 30-something publisher with a thick shock of hair and a Philip Marlowe fascination with America’s “simmering undercurrent of low-level crime.” To him, The Slammer offers entertainment and, yes, social value as well, tracing the thin line many Americans tread between upstanding behavior and the occasional lapse into lawlessness.
“You look at this paper, and you’re amazed by the amount of illegal stuff going on in what you thought was a sleepy little city,” he says, referring to Raleigh. “The appeal is voyeurism and schadenfreude, and it has some redeeming qualities, too, like helping people protect themselves, their families, and their businesses.”
Cornetti, the son of a well-to-do Smithfield, N.C., family, spent a lot of time in courtrooms as a kid: His mother worked at the courthouse, and during Cornetti’s middle-school summers, he spent days watching lawyers and judges, then went home to watch “Law and Order,” “Perry Mason,” and “Matlock.”
In his late teens and early 20s, he ran afoul of the law himself, and spent a year serving time for drug and larceny charges involving marijuana and a stolen TV. After that, he says, he grew interested in practicing law, and took the LSAT in 2004 in hopes of becoming a criminal attorney.
Instead, he took a series of entrepreneurial jobs in sales and software, then read about Jail (the Orlando-based publication) on a business trip and was inspired. He hopes The Slammer can become “the kind of wake-up call that I wish I’d had when I was younger.”
To some extent, that may be happening: Some readers claim they’ve thought twice about drinking and driving, for fear of ending up in The Slammer. And Slammer readers have helped Charlotte police locate several felons with major warrants, Cornetti says.
Even when arrests turn out not to be justified, Cornetti insists, The Slammer can do some good. A Charlotte lawyer who is in the process of trying to settle a case with the police department for what he says was a wrongful arrest recently contacted him. The client had appeared in The Slammer.
“Obviously we won’t run a correction,” says Cornetti of cases like these. “But we’d be happy to tell a client’s story.... If people are being arrested unlawfully, The Slammer is going to be a barometer for that.”
A die-hard reader of the Sunday New York Times, Cornetti is modest in his assessment of his own publication, which is produced by a staff of 12. “I don’t think [The Slammer] deserves the ‘journalism’ title,” he says. “But we do try to present research and we hope that when [readers are] finished with the newspapers, they’ve learned something.”
More colorful and more professionally produced than its counterparts, The Slammer’s eclectic spread includes features such as the “Slammer Salon” of crazy arrest-night hairdos; a “mug shot extravanganza [sic]” of the bleary-eyed; the “Kiddie Korner” of busted young adults; and “Mature Menaces,” featuring senior alleged larcenists and check forgers. A Wendell, N.C., woman was singled out for repeated driving violations, becoming a recent edition’s “featured impaired driver.”