She was accused of faking an incriminating video of teenage cheerleaders. She was arrested, outcast and condemned. The problem? Nothing was fake after all

Madi Hime is taking a deep drag on a blue vape in the video, her eyes shut, her face flushed with pleasure. The 16-year-old exhales with her head thrown back, collapsing into laughter that causes smoke to billow out of her mouth. The clip is grainy and shaky – as if shot in low light by someone who had zoomed in on Madi’s face – but it was damning. Madi was a cheerleader with the Victory Vipers, a highly competitive “all-star” squad based in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. The Vipers had a strict code of conduct; being caught partying and vaping could have got her thrown out of the team. And in July 2020, an anonymous person sent the incriminating video directly to Madi’s coaches.


Either a woman with no background in digital technology had made a sophisticated deepfake on her iPhone 8, or a 16-year-old had panicked and lied to her mother about vaping, or mother and daughter had decided together to explain away behaviour they knew would get Madi in trouble, with an elaborate story about digital manipulation. The police chose to believe the first explanation.


A small police force made a mistake that became too big to fix. “Once it blew up, the police couldn’t extricate themselves without losing face.”

When The Daily Dot, a tech news website, looked into the deepfake claims in May 2021, and asked Reiss about the methods he had used to establish that the videos had been digitally altered, he admitted he had relied on his “naked eye”, adding, “We hope Mrs Spone during the course of the preliminary hearing or trial will enlighten us as far as what her source and intent was.”

These would be the last public comments Reiss made about the case. On 26 May 2021 he was arrested on suspicion of possessing images of child sexual abuse. Two images had been uploaded to his Gmail account, and detectives had traced them to his IP address. When they raided his home and seized his electronic devices, they found more than 1,700 images and videos depicting children, including 84 of toddlers and infants. Reiss pleaded guilty in March 2022, and was later sentenced to 11 and a half to 23 months in jail. To use Weintraub’s language, if anyone was “preying on juveniles”, it was the police officer who led the investigation. —Guardian

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