The story of how a Washington state company used boys in underwear to draw customers and the man with a secret past who tried to stop them.
In January 2009, an ad appeared on Craigslist seeking “BOYS ONLY Ages 7 to 14” for a modeling shoot in Waterville, Maine. The ad was posted by a company calling itself RWE Productions and said the shoot was for a client called Tiger Underwear, a company based in University Place, Washington.
The ad promised “A-level” models $450 for a day’s work, but it emphasized: “IMPORTANT! You must have no compunctions about doing modeling in only underwear briefs in order to do this work, since that will be an important aspect of the photos to be generated for this job.”
The ad was soon posted to a message board hosted by the casting website backstage.com, along with a warning: “Child actor alert!”
One of the first to comment was Paula Dorn, co-founder of BizParentz Foundation, a Los Angeles area nonprofit created to support families of children in the entertainment industry.
“If anyone is not completely concerned about this ‘job’ by reading what is written here – feel free to visit tigerunderwearstore.com. The catalog pages are not like anything I’ve ever seen on an ad or packaging,” Dorn wrote.
Tiger Underwear’s website looks much different today than it did in January 2009. In fact, since I began reporting this story, the company's website stopped featuring boy models altogether. But you can still find cached web pages from that time by doing a search, as I did, of archive.org, which captures and archives web history.
That trip through the “Wayback Machine” reveals what Dorn likely saw in 2009. On the front page of the Tiger Underwear website, a shirtless boy, head cocked, stares into the camera. He looks to be 9 or 10. He wears a red stocking cap and a pendant necklace and holds a skateboard. His jeans are sagged to reveal the white briefs he’s wearing underneath.
When I clicked on the tab that said “Boy’s Underwear,” a looping video appeared of two boys in their underwear wrestling on a floor. There was also a series of links to pictures. The images included two boys in their underwear having a pillow fight on a bed.
On the “Men’s Underwear” page, I found more pictures of the pillow fight. But in these photos, the boys were joined by a young man, also clad only in underwear.
The Tiger Underwear website that month featured a link titled “You Can’t Show Boys Underwear Pictures!”
On that page was the following statement: “Most well-known department stores from the 50s to the early 80s proudly used boys to model underwear in their catalogs … Time for some Americans to just relax and understand that boys modeling briefs is not a bad thing.”
There was also a description of the company: “Tiger Underwear specializes in high quality briefs for active men and boys. A retro style from the 1960s and 70s, similar to what you wore as a kid, Tiger Briefs sport blue or red dashes on the waistband and are available in both a single and a double seat (for greater comfort and absorbency). Now you have the opportunity to relive or experience this style of classic full fit brief! Tiger Underwear for men and boys is a design fashion from the past, with the retro look for today!”
That month the boy’s and men’s underwear were on sale for $19.99 per pair. Customers could also buy a 12-month Tiger Underwear membership for $49.99 and receive a free catalog featuring one of the shirtless boy models on the front.
In January 2009, Dorn was not familiar with Tiger Underwear but she was aware of RWE Productions and its owner, Richard Emerich, who also operated a website called Modelteenz.com that sold CDs featuring photos of boy models.
“This individual and company is known to us, but I am shocked at the boldness of this Craigslist post,” Dorn wrote on the backstage.com message board in response to the Craigslist ad for the Tiger Underwear shoot. “This one is a NO, NO, NO …. and we are looking to see what, if anything we can do.”
Part of BizParentz’s mission is to promote the safety of child actors and models. A Craigslist ad seeking boys to model underwear was an automatic red flag for Dorn and her co-founder Anne Henry.
Dorn flagged the ad in hopes it would be pulled down. Henry, meanwhile, contacted the Waterville, Maine, police department.
“I thought that they should know that this was happening in their town,” Henry said. “My goal was really for prevention for those kids that might show up to that shoot.”
A couple of weeks later, a detective named David Caron emailed Henry to let her know that the general manager of the Hampton Inn in Waterville had called to report that Emerich had canceled his reservations for the upcoming photo shoot.
While that model shoot apparently didn’t happen, other Tiger Underwear shoots of boy models did.
In coming years, Tiger Underwear would use those images on its website and social media platforms as a key marketing tool. Over time, the boy models would attract a fan base of men online. Eventually the photos would draw the attention of a mysterious sleuth who would alert school officials, police and prosecutors in hopes they would intervene. But there would be nothing anyone could do to stop Tiger Underwear from using the images of boys in underwear — because ultimately there was nothing illegal about the photos.
In that sense, the story of Tiger Underwear reveals the chasm between what many parents might find inappropriate and what the law says is child exploitation.
Or, to put it more bluntly: “It’s a sick gray area.”
Those are the words of Julie Kays, a former senior deputy King County prosecutor who handled sexual assault and child pornography cases.
“Anybody who looks at this is going to say, ‘What the hell? How is the person allowed to do this?’” Kays said.
But in a court of law, she said, lawyers would argue the images constitute protected speech.
“I think what you get is people saying, ‘Is this going to be an infringement on someone’s constitutional right of expression?’” she said.
Tiger Underwear formed in Washington state in January 2008.
The application for a limited liability company filed with the Washington Secretary of State’s office said the company’s purpose was “to oversee, promote and manage the design, manufacture and sale of men’s, women’s and children’s fashions in the United States and in Southeast Asia, particularly the Philippines.”
As I set out in the spring of 2017 to find out more about Tiger Underwear, I ran into difficulties trying to reach the company. The phone number on the website rang to a full voicemail box. The company’s mailing address traced back to a UPS store in University Place.
So one day I went to Columbia Center in downtown Seattle where the company said its headquarters was located. I found a virtual office suite on the 42nd floor where the person at the front desk told me Tiger Underwear had at one time rented space but no longer did.
So I went to the home of Tiger Underwear co-founder David Anderson in University Place. Anderson lives in a two-story, tan house in a neighborhood of cul-de-sacs and 1990s, traditional-style homes. On the day I visited, there was a black Cadillac Escalade in the driveway, but no one answered my knocks. The front door was monitored by a video camera. I left my business card.
The next day I had a voicemail from Anderson. The callback number was his business line, but the voicemail box was still full. I kept trying and on the second day he picked up the phone.
We talked for about two hours.
Anderson told me that he runs the business out of his house with the help of his 21-year-old son.
“I’m calling you from my home right now and my house is full of underwear,” Anderson said.
He explained that he and his business partner in California started the company because they thought there was a market for classic men and boy’s white briefs like department stores used to sell.
Anderson said he sought out both men and boys to model the product because that helps sell the underwear.
“People want to know what this product looks like [on an actual person],” Anderson said. “This is the full cut, this is the double-seat, this is how the leg bands and the fly are supposed to look.”
Anderson said he was inspired by underwear catalogs of the past that featured boys modeling underwear.
“In the back of my mind, I’m thinking this is how it should be done,” Anderson said.
As he launched the company, Anderson said he sought out modeling agencies and photographers willing to shoot boys wearing Tiger Underwear.
When I asked him which agencies and photographers he worked with, Anderson wouldn’t tell me. “I think I’m going to stay tightlipped about that one,” he said.
In their small New England town, news of a photographer looking for youth models traveled mostly by word of mouth. He came recommended by other families.
He’d shoot some portfolio shots, put them online and try to get the kids paid modeling gigs. A couple of the boys he’d shot had done a national commercial in New York City.
The photographer was Richard Emerich. The moms liked him.
It turned out Emerich had a client, a retro underwear company from Washington state, that needed boy models. If your kid was comfortable in underwear, he could earn a bit of money, he told the mothers. Who knows, it might lead to something bigger down the road.
The company was Tiger Underwear.
To the moms we spoke with, who didn’t want to be identified to protect their sons, the underwear shoots didn’t raise any red flags. They saw the product, they got to meet David Anderson, and they could chaperone while their child was photographed.
After the photos were published, the reaction of the moms ranged from unconcerned to unsettled. Some didn’t like how people on the company’s blog commented about their children.
(Anderson told me he received one call from a parent of a model who was angry about the images. He agreed to remove the photos of that particular boy from his website.)
Years later, moms of Tiger Underwear models would still express a range of emotions from nonplussed to anger to a sense of not having done enough to protect their children.
Two thousand miles away, in Utah, another family would meet another photographer.
It was 2010. They responded to a Craigslist ad for a modeling agency in Las Vegas, Nevada.
It was run by a man named William Thompson who offered the chance for their son, who was about 10 at the time, to build a modeling portfolio.
“We were brand new in the modeling industry, and this was more of an experience so you can say you have modeling experience,” said the mother, who also did not want to be identified to protect her son.
The first photo shoot was just headshots. But soon there were modeling gigs. They didn’t pay much, maybe $50, if that. But her son was getting modeling experience.
He did a shoot for wetsuits on the California coast. For a sneakers ad. And for Tiger Underwear.
“It was presented as a professional photo shoot for Tiger Underwear, and so I expected everybody to be professional,” the mother said.
Her understanding was that Tiger Underwear was designed for boys with bladder issues who needed an extra layer of absorbency. As a nurse, it was something she could appreciate. Thicker underwear might save a boy from embarrassment at school.
The mother said her son did three shoots for Tiger Underwear — two in Las Vegas, one in California. She or her husband always accompanied him to the photo shoots.
The mother recalled later seeing one picture of her son in Tiger Underwear. “To me it was just a marketing ploy and it looked fine. I thought that one was okay.”
The family worked with Thompson for about a year. After that, their son decided he didn’t want to model anymore. They moved onto other things and didn’t really think about Tiger Underwear again until I contacted them in May 2017.
When I first called the mother in Utah, I knew her son had modeled for Tiger Underwear, but I did not know what photographer or which modeling agency they had worked with.
When I asked her and she said William Thompson of Las Vegas, I searched his name online and immediately found a January 2013 news article headlined “Vegas photographer arrested for child porn.”
I asked the mother to look at Thompson’s mug shot, and she confirmed it was the same William Thompson they had worked with.
Las Vegas Metropolitan Police also later confirmed that Thompson had worked with Tiger Underwear. Thompson had been arrested for taking explicit photographs and videos of a boy who had been modeling for him. There is no indication the boy was ever a model for Tiger Underwear.
Thompson has pleaded not guilty and is currently awaiting trial in Nevada. His attorney did not respond to requests for comment. He also has charges pending in California.
When I asked the mother for her reaction to learning that Thompson had been arrested for child pornography she said she didn’t know what to think.
After a pause, she added, “Not that I really care anymore.”
It had been a long time since he’d been in their lives.
A few days later, the mother called me back. She was angry. Something alarming had happened. Her son had been contacted on Instagram by someone who recognized him from his modeling work.
“Your long hair was nice,” the person wrote. He wanted to know what had happened to one of the other boy models from Thompson’s agency.
The mother demanded to know if I’d sent the message to her son, since I had just contacted them about her son’s modeling. I assured her that I hadn’t, but that the safety of the child models was a concern I’d come across in my reporting.
I suggested she do an internet search for her son using the stage name he’d used as a model. She did and quickly found a site — not Tiger Underwear — with images of her son that concerned her. The site she found was a blog that contained images of young boys in various stages of dress aggregated from the internet.
“Absolutely I’m upset about this,” she said.
“We thought we had a great experience with [modeling] and now the whole idea has been ripped out of [our] memories,” the mother said.
She still wasn’t sure what to make of Tiger Underwear.
“If their intention was to sell underwear … and then it got out of their hands, then they’re not at fault,” she said. “If it was misrepresented or there was an ulterior motive, then of course I’m angry.”
In 2015, two years after Thompson was arrested in Nevada, Richard Emerich, the photographer who had shot for Tiger Underwear on the East Coast, was charged in federal court in Florida with production and distribution of child pornography. As with Thompson, the charges were unrelated to his work with Tiger Underwear.
In January 2016, Emerich pleaded guilty to one count of distribution of child pornography. He’s serving a 76-month sentence in a federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut. Emerich did not respond to a letter sent to the prison.
Once I learned of Emerich’s conviction and the charges against Thompson, I wanted to speak again with Tiger Underwear’s David Anderson. I called, emailed and texted. Ultimately I even sent a certified letter. But he did not respond.
During our only interview, Anderson told me there had been approximately 20 Tiger Underwear photo shoots with kids over the years, but none since 2013 because it was getting too expensive.
“I had enough photos and I didn’t want to keep paying to do this,” he said.
Anderson said he had personally attended about half of the photo shoots over the years. “I wanted to go out and put my input into it, meet the parents, meet the models and make sure everyone was happy,” he said.
After the photo shoots, Anderson said he would receive all the photographs from the photographer. It was his job to pick the ones he wanted to use, edit them, put the Tiger Underwear watermark on them, and post them to the website.
In the beginning, he said, it was all very rudimentary. “I barely knew how to make a website,” he said. “I couldn’t figure out how to crop a photo.”
In those days, Anderson said, he might post a full length photo of a boy in underwear. Nowadays, he said he would crop that photo to emphasize the features of the underwear.
“Over the years I’ve definitely reduced the amount of skin,” he told me.
Some of the photos from the shoots, he said, would not be appropriate to post online. He noted that during a photo shoot the camera is clicking all the time and there might be images that revealed too much or where the pose or look on the child’s face might be “implied the wrong way.”
“There’s always photos that I don’t think are meant to be,” he said.
One of Tiger Underwear’s marketing strategies was to give its boy models stage names so they weren’t just nameless kids in underwear.
The Tiger Underwear blog included updates on the boy models, like this one from 2011: “Tiger Underwear hired three new models this past spring. Scotty was introduced in March and Tristan in April. Next month in May we will add Sean to our Tiger lineup but in the meantime I have a sneak peek of him in the photo above.”
In May 2011, the company offered its blog readers the chance to name its “littlest model ever,” a 7-year-old boy with a mop of blondish hair. He was given the name “Tyke.”
Tiger Underwear also produced short videos with the models.
A 2011 “March Madness” video featured three boy models, all clothed, sitting in butterfly chairs.
“Get to know who these boys really are in this exclusive Tiger Underwear behind the scenes interview with Spencer, Logan and Rudy,” read the description of the video.
In the video, adult voices off camera coach the boys to talk about their favorite sports and why they like Tiger Underwear. “They’re comfortable, they’re trendy and they fit nice,” the boys say at the end of the two-minute video.
“I thought it would be a good idea if we could do a little video for the customers,” Anderson said. “[The models] obviously liked the underwear … I just thought it seemed very real.”
Another video on Tiger’s YouTube channel showed two shirtless boys playing in a stream. They’re wearing shorts, but their underwear is showing. A voice off camera instructs one of the boys to fall down in the water and the other to point and laugh.
“I thought it was funny,” Anderson said.
A third video titled “Summer Beach 2010” featured a boy of about 11 alone on a beach. He’s in a red T-shirt and jean shorts. Over the course of the 40-second video, he disrobes down to his white Tiger Underwear and sits down in an Adirondack chair.
The boy models developed mini fan bases online.
A 2012 blog post, showed a model known as “Spencer” in his underwear holding a Tiger Underwear “Boy’s Catalog” that featured him on the cover. That blog entry drew 14 comments, including one from a commenter named “Rich”:
“Spencer looks so innocent. Like a little angel in his white Tigers. I’d like to see Tiger develop some wrestling tights for these young men. How about some shots of them wrestling?”
Another commenter, “Kristopher,” who referred to the Tiger youth models as “cubbies,” wanted to see a video of a flag football game featuring the boy models “in just nothing but their Tigers with color matching flags hanging from their waistbands to match the dashes on the pair of Tigers they happen to have on for a video shoot!”
“Kristopher” also wanted the adult male models to be in the video as referees for the game.
Tiger Underwear’s website has often featured a disclaimer: “Please Note: Tiger Underwear uses the services of a talent production company. Only professional (contracted) models are selected and parents of the young boys are present during all photo shoots.”
By 2014, Tiger’s blog was no longer available to the public. And by August 2015, the company had a new website and URL. This version had a more professional feel to it.
There were no more videos of boys wrestling on the floor or pictures of pillow fights. Instead, visitors to the website could browse an online catalog that featured pictures of boys and men modeling the underwear.
When I spoke with Tiger Underwear co-founder David Anderson in May 2017, I asked him if he was producing images designed to appeal to men with an interest in boys.
“I’m just showing part of their underwear; it’s not sexual in any sort of way,” he told me. “But if somebody does think it’s sexual, it shouldn’t make me not be able to show how my product fits for the boys.”
He continued: “We just do photos of boys wearing underwear. They have to be happy. Just sheer joy.”
Shortly after my conversation with Anderson, some of the photos I’d asked about were removed from the online catalog.
I also drew Anderson’s attention to some of the comments on Tiger Underwear’s Facebook page.
“Hey big happy Hello Spencer nice modeling,” wrote one commenter in response to a photo of a shirtless boy pitching a baseball. “Which team does Spencer pitch for?” asked another. “Would be quite a baseball game! Lol,” said a third.
Another photo of a boy model prompted this comment on Facebook: “love underwear and Scotty.”
Anderson said he had never given much thought to the Facebook comments unless they were “rude.”
“I honestly have not noticed what you are talking about,” he said. “I never really even read the comments.”
After I pointed out the comments to Anderson, he said one of the regular commenters on the boy models was not a customer.
“I would recognize that name if he was one of my customers,” Anderson said. “I think I need to get rid of that guy.”
Later I noticed several of the boy model pictures along with those comments had been removed from Tiger Underwear’s Facebook feed.
I had started looking into Tiger Underwear in the spring of 2017 after my editor at the time stumbled across the website while looking for underwear for her son. As a parent, she questioned whether the images were appropriate and wondered about the line between legal and illegal images of children. She thought it might make a good story.
It turned out someone else had been investigating Tiger Underwear for years. He was a true man of mystery.
In 2011, school officials and police in Maine started getting reports that some of the Tiger Underwear models were identifiable because they wore school outfits in their model portfolio shots.
The man who had identified the models and was calling the schools and the police was a retired teacher and former foster parent named Patrick Murphy.
He said if he could identify these boys, then anyone could. Murphy said he was concerned for their safety.
Murphy’s efforts to sound the alarm in Maine paid off. In March 2012, the Bangor Daily News published a story by Abigail Curtis headlined: “Maine police warn parents about firms that operate on the edge of child pornography laws.”
“Late last fall, an out-of-state man on a private crusade against online child erotica found a website that purports to sell vintage-style underwear to boys, teens and men,” the article said. “But what it actually sells, he believes, is access to photos of youth who are primarily cavorting in underwear.”
The article, which did not name Tiger Underwear, quoted Lt. Glenn Lang of the Maine State Police Computer Crimes division. “You’ve got to ask yourself,” Lang told the newspaper. “Are they marketing the children or the product?”
But Lang said investigators in three states — Maine, Connecticut and Washington — had concluded there was nothing illegal about the images.
“It doesn’t appear that there’s anything we can do about this particular thing,” Lang told the Bangor Daily News. “But even if they’re doing nothing more than it appears they’re doing, these children are getting exploited.”
The parents of the models apparently didn’t agree. Lang told the newspaper that the courtesy calls were not well received.
“Parents are often very proud of their children,” he said. “They think their children are beautiful, and that’s a great thing, but they have to realize, some people look at children in a whole different light.”
In addition to contacting authorities in Maine, Murphy also sent a letter to the prosecutor in Pierce County, where Tiger Underwear is located.
He got a reply from Grant Blinn in the prosecutor’s Special Assault Unit. “I appreciate and share your concerns for the welfare of the young children depicted in ‘child erotica’ websites,” Blinn replied. “As you note, there is (unfortunately) nothing illegal about these disturbing images.”
Murphy wasn’t deterred.
In 2012, he started contacting Internet Crimes Against Children task forces around the country alerting them to Tiger Underwear.
Among the responses Murphy received was one from Sgt. Greg Lombardo with the San Jose Police Department.
“I have viewed the photos and read the blogs,” he wrote. “I did not find any child pornography on the site. However, I do agree that the focus of the photos and blog comments is on the children, not the product.”
Lombardo signed off by saying he had forwarded Murphy’s email to the Internet Crimes Against Children commander in Washington state where Tiger Underwear was based.
In 2013, Murphy contacted police on Long Island after identifying another Tiger Underwear model and figuring out what school he attended. This time, Murphy got some pushback.
A school resource officer wrote back that he had contacted the parents.
“The parents are very WELL AWARE of what their children are doing … and they are not concerned for the safety and welfare of their children,” the officer wrote. “They would appreciate if you would stop looking into their children’s lives and be assured that there is no wrong-doing in this situation.”
Murphy also contacted the BizParentz Foundation. In an email to Paula Dorn, he said he had tried to friend a couple of the Tiger Underwear models on Facebook to see how they would respond to a stranger.
He reported that one of the models accepted his request. “Clearly he doesn’t understand the implications,” Murphy wrote to Dorn. Another model though blocked him — “a relief to be sure,” Murphy wrote.
Murphy also explained to Dorn how he’d been able to track the models in Maine.
“With a few short clicks, you can find where they live, where they attend school, their athletic teams, view their neighborhood via Google Earth, and take a virtual drive down their street,” he said.
Murphy lives in Seattle. One day this past June, I met him at a coffee shop on Queen Anne Hill. Clean-shaven and gray haired, he looked the part of a retired science teacher – blue shirt, yellow tie, brown leather briefcase.
We sat outside in a cool breeze as rowdy junior high school students passed by at the end of the school day.
Murphy told me he’d grown up in a small town in central Illinois. He said he’d never been married, but had been a foster parent and had adopted one of his foster sons.
Murphy came to Seattle 15 years ago. He said he wanted to escape the Illinois winters and had heard the Puget Sound region was beautiful. He got a job teaching high school science and later taught anatomy and physiology at South Seattle Community College.
I wanted to know how he’d stumbled upon Tiger Underwear and why he was so determined to go after the company and the photographers Tiger had contracted with.
Previously, Murphy had told me he didn’t exactly recall. But when we met and I asked him that question again, he told me that several years ago he was hoping to self-publish a novel about teenagers growing up in the Midwest. He wanted faces for the book cover so he visited several modeling sites online. That, he said, is what led him to the modeling sites and eventually to Tiger Underwear.
“It seemed to be more about kids than it was about clothing and I thought that was odd,” Murphy said.
Murphy said for him, Tiger Underwear’s website didn’t conjure old Sears or JC Penny catalogs. He imagined a parent trying to buy underwear online for their child.
“You don’t need 50 pictures of the kids spraying each other with water or wrestling,” Murphy said. “That’s not how you sell clothing, certainly not to parents.”
The other thing that concerned him, said Murphy, is how popular the kid models had become online. “These kids have very definite followers,” he said.
Murphy said he didn’t take action until after the Penn State sex abuse scandal broke in 2011 involving assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and allegations that he had abused children over many years.
“As a parent and as a former teacher, it was something I wanted to follow up on,” Murphy told me. “I was worried that maybe these kids were actually at physical risk, posing for these types of pictures with men.”
Murphy said he was also worried for the long-term psychological well-being of these young underwear models — especially since images can live on for years on the internet.
“You know the type of damage that these activities can have on a kid’s life down the road,” he said. “It’s like seeing somebody drown; you just can’t walk away from that and I did not feel that I could walk away from it.”
On the surface, Murphy’s explanation for his crusade seemed convincing. As a retired teacher and former foster dad, it made sense that he would have a particular sensitivity to the well-being of children.
But was he telling me the whole story?
After we talked that afternoon on Queen Anne, I had enough biographical information about Murphy to check his background.
It didn’t take long to discover what he hadn’t told me.
In 2006, Murphy — whose actual name is Charles Patrick Murphy — pled guilty in Kitsap County, Washington, to three counts of possession of depictions of minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct.
Murphy had been a high school science teacher on Bainbridge Island when police raided his home in search of drugs. As part of the search, they seized his computer. During a search of the computer, a detective found images of “young boys engaged in sexually explicit conduct,” according to the statement of probable cause in the case.
Later, according to press reports, school district officials also found “inappropriate images and videos of adolescent boys” on a computer in Murphy’s classroom.
Murphy got a three month sentence and was required to register as a sex offender for the next decade.
When I confronted Murphy about his past, he initially refused to acknowledge his conviction.
I pointed out to him that he was pictured on the Illinois Sex Offender Information website labeled as a “Sexual Predator.”
“Unfortunately, what happens in Illinois I have no control over,” he replied. Eventually, though, Murphy was willing to talk about his conviction. But now the question of why he was going after Tiger Underwear wasn’t so simple.
Was he part of a group of sex offenders turned crusaders for children? Was his concern for children just a cover story so he could justify looking at pictures of young boys online? Was it revenge for having been convicted?
No, he insisted, in response to all those questions.
“Let’s just call it buyer’s remorse,” he said. “I’m still really angry at myself and I was probably taking some of that anger [out] on them.”
But Murphy was also insistent that he was motivated by genuine concern for the welfare of the kids.
“It looked to me like a serious situation and so I proceeded,” he said. “Maybe I am trying to atone for what I did.”
It turns out Murphy wasn’t the only one to alert law enforcement to Tiger Underwear.
Washington’s Internet Crimes Against Children Taskforce is located in the basement of a gray, three-story office building off Airport Way in south Seattle.
Captain Mike Edwards of the Seattle Police Department runs the multijurisdictional unit.
Edwards told me that shortly after he took over the taskforce three years ago, a “cyber tip” came in about Tiger Underwear from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Based on that tip, Edwards said investigators did a “full investigation” of the company and consulted with prosecutors, but the conclusion was the images of boys in underwear didn’t meet the standard for filing charges under state or federal law.
“Not only are we constrained by the statute, but more importantly how that statute is interpreted by prosecutors,” Edwards said. “So we’re kind of in this no-man’s land.”
Edwards said since then his unit has received complaints about Tiger Underwear. He also confirmed there had been an earlier investigation into the company before he took over the unit.
Edwards said there have been discussions about changing Washington's law, which defines sexual exploitation of a child even more narrowly than federal law.
But so far Washington lawmakers have taken no action. Other states have, however.
For instance, in 2012, West Virginia made it a misdemeanor to produce or possess images of minors who are partially clothed. But the law only applies if the images are unrelated to the sale of an actual product and are used for “purely prurient purposes.”
One of the challenges with regulating images of children is that it’s easy to run afoul of the First Amendment and disagree about what’s exploitative, what’s designed to appeal to prurient interests, what’s in bad taste and what’s art.
Take the example of photographer Sally Mann who in 1992 published a book that included naked pictures of her children. As The Washington Post noted in 2015, her work was both condemned as “immoral” by Pat Roberston and collected by top museums.
Or go back to 1980 when a 15-year-old Brooke Shields appeared in a Calvin Klein jeans ad with the tagline, “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.”
According to The New York Times, ABC and CBS banned the ad “for insinuating that Shields wasn’t wearing any underwear.”
Calvin Klein continued to face criticism of its use of child models into the 1990s. In 1999, the company scrapped plans to put a billboard in Times Square showing two young boys in underwear, arm-wrestling on a sofa. At the time, Calvin Klein said the ad “was intended to show children smiling, laughing and just being themselves.”
That echoed what David Anderson of Tiger Underwear told me. “The kids are super fun and happy and that helped market the product,” he said.
It’s also true, as Tiger Underwear has pointed out on its website, that in past decades, child models were often used to sell underwear in print catalogs and on TV.
Consider the 1980s TV ad campaign for Underoos by Fruit of the Loom. In one ad, five young boys in T-shirts and briefs dance and sing for the camera. In another, a boy who appears to be naked is shown putting on his underwear.
Search for vintage underwear ads online, and you’ll see a Fruit of the Loom print ad that shows a head-to-toe picture of a naked toddler with the company’s logo stamped on his bottom and the line: “My brand is Fruit of the Loom.”
However most major brands, including Fruit of the Loom, have since stopped using children to model underwear anymore.
“It is our practice that we do not use anyone under the age of 18 to model underwear,” said Kirby Jordan, vice president of communications for Fruit of the Loom. She said that practice had been in place since the early 1990s.
But even a clothed child model can engender controversy and debate. In a 2015 story headlined “Underage Models Return to the Runway and Reignite a Debate,” The New York Times reported on 13- and 14-year-old girls being used to model adult fashions.
So when is a photograph or video of a kid in underwear benign and when is it designed to appeal to someone with a sexual interest in children? When I put that question to police and prosecutors, the answer I often got was, “I know it when I see it.” That’s the line made famous by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in a 1964 pornography case.
Child pornography is defined in state and federal law as images that depict children engaging in sexually explicit conduct. Generally this means sexual acts. But it can also include the “lascivious exhibition of the genitals or pubic area.”
Images of clothed children can cross this line.
The test is whether the focal point of the image is the genitals, whether the setting or the child’s pose is sexually suggestive and whether the image is intended to elicit a sexual response from the viewer.
Prosecutors call this the Dost test after a 1986 case called U.S. v. Dost where the defendants had taken nude pictures of two girls ages 10 and 14. While neither was engaged in sexually explicit conduct, the court determined that the nature of the photographs met the test for “lascivious exhibition.”
If the Dost test isn’t met, then prosecutors don’t have a case.
“Sometimes that means that in cases where our personal discomfort and dislike of something is abundantly evident, [it] doesn’t necessarily [mean] that a crime is being committed,” said Cecelia Gregson, the senior deputy King County prosecutor assigned to Washington’s Internet Crimes Against Children taskforce.
One afternoon last May, I met a Homeland Security Investigations special agent named Tim (last name not published due to the undercover nature of his work) at his office in a bank building in downtown Seattle. Tim specializes in investigating child pornography and exploitation. He agreed to speak with me about what law enforcement officials often refer to as child erotica websites.
That term, child erotica, means images of children that don’t constitute child pornography under the law, but that are arousing to someone who has a sexual interest in children.
(In a 2009 scholarly article, Mary Graw Leary of The Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law, called for an end to the use of the term “child erotica.” She argued that it normalizes the “sexual objectification” of children. She also objected to the term “child pornography” and noted that there was a movement to replace that term with “child abuse images.”)
Tim said child erotica sites often offer some sort of legitimate product, but actually make their money selling catalogs, videos and other materials that feature the child models.
“There are a lot of people out there who have a sexual interest in children and have money and they’re willing to pay for access to pictures of kids,” Tim told me. “It can be an enormous moneymaker.”
These “cutting room floor” images, he explained, might get progressively more provocative, but still not cross the line into illegality.
“At the same time it allows these child predators to get the same kind of stimulation they would possibly get from actual child pornography,” Tim said.
In fact, Tim said some pedophiles will justify looking at child erotica by saying it helps them not look at child pornography.
As for the operators of these websites, Tim said it’s impossible to know their motive without doing an actual investigation, which can take months or even years.
When I spoke with Tiger Underwear’s David Anderson, he told me that over the years he had amassed “thousands and thousands” of images.
But he denied that he was selling those images.
“There’s nothing to buy,” he said. “The only interest here is having, I think, nice photos and selling underwear.”
While Tiger Underwear’s boy models have received “likes” and comments over the years, so have the underwear themselves.
Tiger Underwear’s website and social media pages feature comments and words of thanks from customers, especially those with incontinence, who said the product helped them avoid embarrassing accidents.
In 2016, Tiger Underwear won the best of men’s clothing contest on Seattle’s cityvoter.com website. Tiger Underwear also says its underwear was featured on a child actor in the 2013 sci-fi movie “Dark Skies.”
Anderson told me that selling retro underwear was his “little contribution to society.” He also said that in the 10 years he’s been in business, he’d never been contacted by law enforcement.
Before we ended our two-hour phone call last May, Anderson mentioned that he often videotaped the photo shoots with the boy models. If he couldn’t be there to videotape himself, he’d ask one of the parents to do it.
Anderson said he took the videos as a kind of documentary to show that the kids were having a good time and not being forced to participate.
“The video is basically a way if the kid comes back in 10 years,” he said, “and says we were treated really bad as an underwear model. I’d say, ‘Well this video shows differently.’”
When I asked him if that was something he was worried about, he said he didn’t give it much thought, but added, “I’m glad I have it.”
By September 2017, the Tiger Underwear website had undergone another update. Gone were the boys and men in underwear. Instead, on the homepage were pictures of a male model and a boy model each wearing black Tiger T-shirts. All of the other images on the website were of underwear. They were on sale for $26.24 per pair.
We ordered a pair of royal blue underwear with red trim. Shipping was $16 for priority mail, the only option available, which brought the total cost to $55. We paid with a credit card, but bitcoin was an option too.
The underwear arrived as promised.