Tags: Joe | Francis | Free

'Girls Gone Wild' Founder Freed on Plea Deal

Wednesday, 12 Mar 2008 07:57 PM

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PANAMA CITY, Fla. -- ''Girls Gone Wild'' video empire founder Joe Francis pleaded no contest to child abuse and prostitution charges Wednesday under an agreement allowing him to go free after nearly a year in jail.

Francis, 34, returned to Florida after posting a $1.5 million bond this week in Nevada, where he is awaiting trial for tax fraud. The hearing in Bay County state court resolved his 2003 criminal case involving the filming of underaged girls during spring break on Panama City Beach.

''I have never committed any crime. I pleaded guilty just to get out of jail,'' a defiant Francis said after the Bay County state court hearing. ''A few corrupt individuals were able to keep an innocent man in jail for 11 months.''

Francis makes an estimated $29 million a year on videos of young women in sexually provocative situations.

He pleaded no contest to one count of felony child abuse and two counts of misdemeanor prostitution. He also pleaded no contest to two additional child abuse counts on behalf of his company, Mantra Films.

The charges were all that remained out of an original 73-count indictment brought after Bay County law officers raided Francis' hotel rooms and corporate jet in 2003. He also pleaded guilty in a 2007 case for having contraband _ sleeping pills and cash _ in the Bay County Jail.

Judge Deede Costello sentenced Francis to 339 days on Wednesday, the time he has already served in Florida and Nevada. Costello also ordered Francis to pay more than $60,000 in fines, court costs and restitution to the county.

Francis also agreed that his company would not conduct any filming between Escambia and Jackson Counties in Florida for the next three years.

Miami defense attorney Roy Black brokered the plea agreement.

Francis believed the women his company filmed in 2003 were over 18 because they signed agreements stating they were of legal age, Black said.

''But it makes no difference under Florida law, they still committed a crime,'' Black said. ''I understand why Joe is so upset. In his business, you can be doing your job and go to jail for 11 months.''

Black and Francis' other attorneys have said the 2003 raid was retribution against Francis by Bay County officials who unsuccessfully tried to block his company from filming spring break that year.

A Bay County federal judge ordered Francis, who had remained free on bond since 2003, back into custody last year after settlement agreements in a civil case brought by some of the underaged girls filmed by his company. Lawyers for the women said they were verbally abused by Francis and threatened during closed-door negotiations.

Bay County officials then revoked Francis' bond in the 2003 criminal case when jail guards said he tried to bribe them with cash for bottled water to swallow sleeping pills. Federal officials ordered Francis transported to Reno, Nev., pending trial there.

Francis stayed in Nevada in part because authorities in Bay County wouldn't allow bail in the case there. A federal judge in Nevada said the Florida bail issue had to be resolved first.

Francis said plea agreement negotiations are under way in the Nevada case and he hopes to resolve them soon.

''I'm going to go back to making videos, this afternoon,'' he said.

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