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News: Indecent Exposure

Artistic expression meets media sensation

By Renea Frey · November 19th, 2007 · News
  Michael Sanders and students photographed a nude model. Then police got a search warrant.
Natalie Hager

Michael Sanders and students photographed a nude model. Then police got a search warrant.

When I told my mother that I was writing a story on Michael Sanders, she asked, "Isn't that the professor who got caught filming naked women in the woods?"

This innocent question was based on her exposure to mainstream media. Her perception of the incident and of Sanders were created by the words she'd heard used to describe the events beginning Aug. 22 in Sharon Woods Park.

Sanders is the founder of the University of Cincinnati's electronic media technology program and the founding director of its electronic media communications department. He's a gifted teacher and talented artist.

So why did police raid his office? Why did they go to his home with a warrant? Why did they seize his children's computers, his family's vacation photos, TV programs he'd taped, his wife's client records, his grades and educational documents?

Sanders says there "were no clear reasons" for the Oct. 8 raid -- no charges had been filed, no official accusations made. Yet the police went to his home and to his office. Other instructors in his office suite had their property confiscated as well -- cameras, boxes of CDs and DVDs, jump drives, computers, all seized.

Lilith fair
Jon Hughes, the founder of UC's journalism program, called the basis for the warrant a "fishing expedition." Hughes, who has covered the courts and police as a reporter, found the press coverage of this event and the seizure of property itself "a very curious piece." Specifically, he found "what was included and what was excluded (in the press coverage) rather curious." On one hand, the first story he read made no mention of whether Sanders and his film crew had permission to be in the park, who was involved or the ages of those attending.

These facts "were not cleared up until the last story I read," Hughes said. But Sanders' salary was included in several stories, which Hughes found "bizarre."

So what really happened?

Sanders says he was working on a project focusing on the mythological Lilith as the central character.

"It was a concept-based, poetic portrayal dealing with issues of feminine spirituality ... and the creation of art by human beings aided by the central character," he says.

On Aug. 22 Sanders and students were shooting scenes of rocks, trees and water during daylight hours and had procured "a professional model at the last minute from the Art Academy" for the scenes involving Lilith. He'd invited several seminar students who had been working on projects related to this theme throughout the previous quarter, showing how a topic could be portrayed in a non-narrative, non-storytelling way. It was an opportunity for students to "gain a wider experience working with professionals." These students were "invited to come if they wanted. They were all advanced students, all adults."

Sanders had received permission to be at the park from 5-10:30 p.m., wanting the opportunity to shoot a couple of scenes after dark. At about 11 p.m. they were by a cliff when a park ranger shined his flashlight onto the group; Sanders assumed this was the signal that the park would be closing soon, so the crew began to pack up.

The ranger made no indication that he believed anything was wrong, according to Sanders.

"He made friendly small talk," Sanders says. "No one was ever arrested, detained, interrogated; no one asked for IDs or permits."

Andrea Rahtz, a university staff member present that night, agrees that the park ranger was friendly, making no indication that he believed any wrongdoing had occurred.

"Everything was very professionally done," she says.

She equates the scenes involving nudity as similar to "walking into a drawing class that was using a live model; it was art."

'Just hooey'
Asked why the ranger didn't ask for the ages or names of the participants, Capt. Rick Spreckelmeier, a Hamilton County park ranger, says the ranger was "caught off guard when he saw the nude person." He was aware that permission to film in the park had been granted "but not the parameters of the permission." The ranger wanted to check the permission letter to ascertain what exactly had been requested; the investigation into the incident began the next day, Spreckelmeier says.

The next afternoon park rangers contacted Sanders, asking why he'd been in the park and what he'd been doing. They also wanted to see the videotape. Sanders said it was "an unpleasant discussion" and that "the tone was threatening," so he contacted a lawyer. He was advised that there was no basis to provide information, as no charges had been filed. Sanders referred the law enforcement people to his lawyer.

"I wanted to protect the privacy of those who were involved," he says.

As he had neither committed nor been accused of any crime, he saw no reason to disclose private information, he says.

When Andrea Rahtz began to hear the press coverage of the event in which she had been involved, she felt "frustrated." She described it as "one-sided, inaccurate sensationalism. ... The press was covering the sensationalism but wasn't fact-digging." She heard that Sanders was arrested.

"This wasn't true," she says. "These were inaccurate facts."

Weeks later, in mid-October, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters announced, "No law was broken." A week later Sanders and the UC police retrieved the confiscated property.

Sanders found this incident "inconvenient and unpleasant," he says. "It was frightening dealing with legal issues while trying to protect other people's privacy ... (but) ultimately, I didn't do anything wrong." His children were "devastated" by the raid on their home and property and "felt violated." His oldest daughter, who plans to be an artist, understood somewhat the events that were occurring; the younger daughter, however, was much more upset.

For himself, he says that "the press coverage won't hurt me."

"Friends and neighbors who know me think it's just hooey," Sanders says. "The idea that I would be involved in a sexual scandal is just absurd."

The financial costs, however, have been all too real. Sanders plans to sell still frames to help cover legal costs and plans a benefit showing of the film when it's completed. ©



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