Ross, of the Tampa area, made a name for himself on YouTube with low-investment stunts, usually involving unsuspecting people in public places.
He stacked slices of bread on the heads of sleeping people on the beach (120,000 views), dressed up in military fatigues and screamed at strangers (82,000 views), and put hot dogs (1.4 million views) and pickles (256,000 views) into the pockets of unsuspecting shoppers in stores. And he dressed up as a pirate mascot and dug up a cemetery plot (502,000 views).
The stunts have gained him about 2 million followers across two channels on YouTube: Vlog Creations and RossCreations. And they have made him a somewhat regular presence in local news for what is now a lengthy track record of arrests.
Police in Sarasota County charged Ross with a felony last week, saying he dressed up as a police officer for his latest prank. It was Ross’s sixth arrest in Florida, each of which stemmed from stunts he performed in pursuit of viewers on YouTube. Ross’s record is another example of the ways the digital media ecosystem, with its strong incentives for those able to grab attention, encourages certain negative and, in some cases, illegal behaviors.
Ross appears proud of his record in his videos, saying the only thing on his mind during his arrests is whether the person filming him “got the shot, because if he didn’t I’m going to be pissed.”
He has said he felt remorse one time, when he had to call his mother from jail. Those feelings were quickly overpowered by a stronger motivation: Internet traffic.
“I didn’t care then because I was blowing up on YouTube, and every time I did something wild I’d just get more views and more money, so it didn’t even matter,” Ross said.
But even after the second, third and fourth times Ross was hauled off and charged, he never faced serious consequences for the alleged crimes. In fact, they remain “alleged” — Ross has never been convicted of anything related to his stunts.
A phony officer writes a fake ticket
It’s April Fools’ Day, around 4 p.m. A woman in a strip mall parking lot in Sarasota, Fla., sees a man who looks like a police officer standing nearby. He is dressed in a blue uniform with gold chevrons on it, as if he were a sergeant, and he is writing in a notebook, according to court records in the case.
He has a baton on his belt.
“Ma’am, I’m going to have to write you a ticket,” he says to the woman, according to records — apparently for a parking violation. But the woman, busy wrangling two children and loading groceries into her car, knows she is legally parked, she later told police.
She asks him whom he works for and begins to raise her voice to draw attention to herself, concerned for the safety of herself and her children. The man becomes more aggressive, then tells her it was a prank and offers her “concert tickets,” she told police.
He turns from her and walks to his own car, but drives back across the lot to where she’s parked and verbally harasses her some more, police said.
Ross was arrested for the incident on April 3, and released on a $10,000 bond. He is charged with a single count of impersonating a police officer, a felony punishable by as much as five years in prison.
Ross did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article.
A YouTube spokesman said the company doesn’t think video of Ross’s parking ticket stunt was ever uploaded to the site.
When stunts go wrong
The world of pranks is a bustling one on YouTube, drawing on in-your-face stunt culture that blossomed pre-Internet, such as the MTV show “Jackass.” Some YouTube pranks are harmless, if a bit inane, like those of Jack Vale, who has gained about 1.4 million subscribers who log on to see him do things such as make fart sounds around strangers in public places.
But it is a competitive niche, and pranksters have incentive to outdo one another with increasingly outrageous stunts and challenges.
It doesn’t take much to cross legal lines. Vitaly Zdorovetskiy, another Florida denizen, has been arrested multiple times — once after a “Russian hitman prank” in which he placed a briefcase at the feet of a stranger and told the man he had 60 seconds to get away. Zdorovetskiy has also been arrested after rushing the field during the 2017 World Series and for climbing the Hollywood sign.
It gets worse.
In 2017, a 19-year-old fatally shot her boyfriend through a encyclopedia volume that was held to his chest. The couple had apparently believed the book would stop the bullet, in a stunt they designed for YouTube.
Heather and Mike Martin, who had gained about 750,000 YouTube subscribers on their “family prank channel” that depicted them screaming at their children or falsely accusing them of household grievances, lost custody of two of their five children and were later convicted of child neglect.
YouTube has made attempts to rein in the pranksters, recently updating its terms to prohibit dangerous or potentially deadly challenges, those that make victims believe they’re in “serious physical danger,” and those that could inflict “severe emotional distress” on children.
But a scan of YouTube yields many videos where pranksters continue to be richly rewarded with viewers for pushing the limits of that rule. These include: “Killing My Own Kid PRANK!” (56 million views); “Murder PRANK on Girlfriend” (6.6 million views); “Third Story Fall Prank” (26 million views); and “Flashing Children Prank!” (39 million views).
YouTube declined to comment or answer questions on the record.
An arresting record
Ross has built up a lengthy arrest history — six separate arrests with at least nine criminal charges, a stream of media and news articles trailing behind each incident. But a review of his criminal record suggests he has never been seriously punished for any of the charges, beyond some fines and community service hours, all of which were levied in three counties around Tampa: Sarasota, Manatee and Pinellas.
“Somebody that builds up this kind of record, you think eventually [prosecutors] would want to do something to him,” said Jeff Haynes, a defense lawyer and former prosecutor in Sarasota who spoke to The Washington Post.
After Ross’s first bust, the flip over the police officers, he was put on a pretrial diversion program, which allowed the charges to be dismissed if he stayed out of trouble for three months, paid a $165 fine, and completed 15 hours of community service.
It is unclear whether the court was aware, but Ross had been arrested for another stunt just two months prior to this March 2013 agreement, on a misdemeanor battery charge after police said Ross was giving people wedgies outside a movie theater.
But Haynes, who reviewed Ross’s history at The Post’s request, said he was particularly troubled that prosecutors waived a felony charge in 2017, after police said he removed two stop signs at an intersection. Prosecutors in Manatee County allowed Ross to enroll in a pretrial diversion program, similar to what he had done with his first charge — an opportunity offenders were only supposed to be given one time, and before they had an extensive record, Haynes said.
“We’re lucky if we can get it once for a client,” Haynes said. “That’s a program you’re only supposed to do one time."
He noted the pretrial diversions were issued in separate counties, though they should have been able to see all of Ross’s records. Haynes said that could have been an oversight.
Charles Near, who was the prosecutor on the case and is now a private lawyer, declined to comment on the case when reached by phone. Ed Brodsky, the state attorney in charge of both counties, declined to comment on the case through a spokeswoman.
Ross has been able to skate free from other charges he’s been given, as well.
In St. Petersburg in 2013, he was charged with trespassing, resisting a merchant and disorderly conduct after he ran onto the field of a Tampa Bay Rays game and tried to dive into second base. Adjudication on the charges was “withheld” — another agreement that allows a defendant to accept some responsibility for a crime without it going on their record. Ross paid hundreds of dollars’ worth of fines and court fees, and was given credit for the day or two he had been held after his arrest.
In April 2014, he was arrested and charged with two counts of battery in Manatee County after he jumped on a parade float, pushed a person to the ground and elbowed another, according to court records. Those charges were later “dropped/abandoned,” according to his criminal history from the state of Florida, though the reasoning was not clear from court documents.
Records show Ross went without an arrest for about three years until the stop sign incident in 2017. Investigators said the video showed Ross taking down two stop signs at an intersection and walking away with them as a “self appointed city traffic flow coordinator.” He was charged with a felony. But the pretrial diversion agreement he signed stipulated that he stay out of trouble for 18 months, complete at least 150 hours of community service, and pay some nominal fines and fees.
“He’s encouraged, because from 2013 to the present they’ve done nothing to him,” Haynes said.