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6/18/2009

News

If you think this doll is creepy...
Wait until you meet the guy who created it

 

The timing couldn’t have been worse. Unless, of course, you believe the adage, “Any publicity is good publicity,” in which case the timing was just right.

On the morning of Jan. 26, Jacksonville entrepreneur Jaime Salcedo distributed a press release on behalf of his company, Showbiz Promotions, announcing the launch of his newest ripped-from-the-headlines novelty: the Caylee Sunshine Doll, named after murdered toddler Caylee Anthony.

“The search and discovery of Caylee Anthony has been on all of our minds daily,” the release said. “While we understand this is a very tender issue. We knew we had to do something to raise awareness of such a terrible and recurring crime, while honoring and respecting a beautiful life.”

The day Salcedo launched the doll, the media was already abuzz with the latest chapter in the Caylee Anthony tragedy. Three days earlier, Caylee’s grandfather was Baker-Acted after he wrote a six-page suicide letter and sent a series of suicidal text messages to family members. His granddaughter’s skeletal remains, bound with duct tape and tossed into a wooded area not far from the Anthony home, had been positively identified just a month earlier. The girl’s mother was in jail, charged with her death.

If attention is what Salcedo sought, he got his fill. By noon on the day the release went out, vans emblazoned with the call letters of local and national news syndicates crowded the street outside his modest rental home. By 4 p.m., it was a full-on media circus. Salcedo took advantage of the opportunity to publicize his latest venture, granting on-camera interviews as time allowed, responding with disconcerting composure to queries intended to get at the big question: Why the hell would someone make a doll named after a murdered girl?

The seemingly obvious answer, and what reporters and their viewers assumed, was to make money. Salcedo attempted to convince them that wasn’t the case. The doll was intended to “raise awareness” about crimes against children, Salcedo explained over and over, and “a large portion” of the profits would be donated to a charity not unlike National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. (It wouldn’t be that particular organization because, according to Salcedo, the group declined to accept money generated by the controversial toy.)

Initially, members of the news media reported on Salcedo and his newest creation with restrained outrage, just a hint of revulsion in their overwrought reporter voices. So perhaps Salcedo didn’t know what he was in for when he agreed to appear on the Nancy Grace show that evening.

If he didn’t know beforehand, it became abundantly clear once the program started. Before Salcedo was brought into the conversation via satellite from a studio in Riverside, guest Andy Kahan, Houston’s Crime Victim Advocate and an opponent of what he calls “murderabilia,” commented, “You know, just when I think I’ve seen it all, from serial killer action figures to serial killer calendars, and now you’ve got some sleazebucket company that’s trying to use the likeness of a poor murdered girl on a doll, trying to make a profit off. This is about the lowest I’ve seen anybody ever stoop to.”

Once Salcedo was invited into the conversation, Grace – who has engaged in her fair share of Caylee exploitation – was unbridled in her suspicion of Salcedo’s motives. She demanded to know exactly how much money he’d be donating to charity and exactly to what charity the money would be going. Salcedo attempted to explain himself.

“All right, first of all … a portion of the sales are going to charity. Now, I …”

“How much,” Grace interrupted. “Who?”

“Now, at this point, a big portion of it is going,” Salcedo offered. “We don’t know …”

He agreed to an almost equally disastrous interview with CNN Headline News host Mike Galanos the following day. Galanos blasted Salcedo for equipping the doll with a voice box that plays “You Are My Sunshine,” a song Caylee Anthony was shown singing in a highly publicized home video.

“My wife sings it to my daughter,” Salcedo said in his defense, adding, “You were probably sung that by your mother.”

“What’d you say?” Galanos shouted. “It’s a beautiful song, and my mom just passed away, so don’t start going there, buddy boy! What you’re doing is gross!”

In a matter of 24 hours, the Caylee Sunshine Doll – 18 inches of molded plastic and blindingly blond synthetic hair – made a pariah of its creator. Jaime Salcedo became a symbol of exploitative entrepreneurism and a target of widespread indignation. And he only sold eight dolls.

Jaime Salcedo – which he pronounces “Jay-me” rather than “Hi-me,” despite his Colombian heritage – hasn’t proven to be the shrewdest businessman. The Caylee Sunshine Doll, besides becoming a public relations nightmare, was so expensive to produce that Salcedo eventually had to jack the price from $29.99 to $80 just to break even. His erratic professional conduct has prompted numerous customer complaints to the Better Business Bureau for such things as unreasonable shipping delays and poor product quality. His inability to meet customer demand after his 2007 launch of a dog chew toy modeled after Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick turned what initially appeared to be a chance to exploit national outrage into a costly embarrassment.

And there may be worse to come. In April, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum filed a civil suit against Salcedo and Showbiz Promotions, of which Salcedo is the president and sole employee, seeking some $20,000 in damages associated with hundreds of customer complaints filed with consumer advocacy agencies.

Born in Bogota in 1964, Salcedo relocated to West Palm Beach with his family at age 3. One of seven siblings, Salcedo comes from a family of entrepreneurs. His brother in Charlotte, N.C., invented the Soccer Corral, a portable miniature soccer field intended to make teaching soccer to children easier by eliminating the time and energy spent chasing stray balls. His sister in Hong Kong, who helped him find a manufacturer for his chew toy, created and marketed a press used to make tostones, a dish that consists of smashed deep-fried plantains.

Since the Caylee doll fiasco, Salcedo’s become suspicious of the news media, perhaps justifiably. The healthy symbiotic relationship he previously enjoyed with the media – they’d help him publicize his products, he’d provide fodder for their inane 24-hour news cycle – has soured.

But some mix of hubris and a desire to tell his side of the story leaves a crack in his otherwise media-hostile exterior. He agrees to be interviewed, and shows up at a Jacksonville restaurant a few minutes late due to the inclement weather. His hair is closely cropped and graying, and his T-shirt features the dog Blue from the Nickelodeon show Blue’s Clues, a wardrobe choice that’s likely the result of having a 7-year-old daughter.

Salcedo is friendly, but wary. It takes almost three hours for him to recount how he got to where he is today: jobless (he claims no one will hire him), in debt up to his eyeballs and maligned by an unforgiving public.

Prior to founding Showbiz Promotions in 2007, Salcedo worked in a variety of professions – as a DJ in nightclubs from North Carolina to New York City, a bartender and, most recently, designing websites. He has had occasional trouble with law enforcement, which he attributes, in part, to drinking. According to his own admission, he was arrested in December 1997 on charges of defrauding a West Palm Beach innkeeper. He has also been arrested on charges ranging from pawning a computer owned by a health care company he’d worked for to illegally stopping payment on a check. His most recent arrest was on a 2005 charge of grand theft, in relation to a car he was driving. The majority of the charges, including the grand theft charge, were subsequently dropped.

Salcedo says he kicked his drinking problem when his wife was expecting. The 2005 incident notwithstanding (and another arrest in 2002), Salcedo says he’s been on the straight and narrow for at least eight years. “Ever since my wife got pregnant and my daughter was born,” he says, “everything has changed. It’s been an about-face. I try to do the right thing.”

In 2007, he was working at the Internet tech firm Web.com. In fact, it was on the company’s smoking deck that the Michael Vick Chew Toy was born. Earlier that year, Vick had been arrested on suspicion of operating a dogfighting ring, and a chew toy in his image seemed a cute and culturally relevant gag gift. Salcedo partnered with co-workers Darren Usher and Mike Stott, and launched the website www.vickdogchewtoy.com the same night they came up with the concept. He listed the toy for sale at $7.77 (a nod to Vick’s jersey number) plus $2.95 shipping and handling.

Much to his surprise, by 8 a.m. the following day about 100 toys had sold. By noon, he had orders for 1,500 toys. The public was responding, and the media came knocking as well. The only problem was the toy didn’t exist. There was no prototype, no manufacturer. Their company, Aim to Beginn, wasn’t even incorporated. There was just a clever idea and a website enabled with PayPal – that’s it.

A disclaimer on the website indicating that toys wouldn’t ship for 30 days gave the trio a month to get their game together. (At the time, the website also indicated that a portion of sales would benefit animal welfare.)

Twenty-five days after the site was launched, more than 15,000 toys had been sold. The enterprising trio eventually tapped a company in China to produce the toys, but by the time the dolls were ready to ship, the lead-paint scare struck and the manufacturer was unable to export the toys. The only option was to hire a U.S. company, Alabama-based American Precision Products. They began making the toys in late September, a full month after people had begun placing orders. The company estimated it would take another 30 days to get the toys ready to ship.

Fed up with what he describes as his partners’ lack of action, Salcedo backed out of Aim to Beginn and began pursuing the project on his own. After all, the website and PayPal account were in his name, and (according to Salcedo) he was the one doing all the legwork.

On Oct. 3, Salcedo quit his job, and on Oct. 4 he licensed his own company, Showbiz Promotions LLC. With 20,000 orders pending, Salcedo was desperate to receive the first batch of toys. Unfortunately, when that first batch arrived on Oct. 28, it contained a mere 100 toys.

“I’ve refunded a lot of orders by that point, but I’ve got around 22,000 toys to ship. I think, ‘What am I going to do with 100 toys?’” he recalls. “And, um, faced with the fact that I’ve got the media after me for toys now … they want ’em. CBS wants them, Sportsline wants them, they’re saying, ‘[The toys are] supposed to be done, so where are they?’ So what do I do with the 100 toys? Do I send them to a couple of customers? Or do I try to increase revenue by showing them to the media, and then I’ll sell more?”

“It was probably a mistake,” he admits, “but I gave them to the media.”

Meanwhile, his former partners, Usher and Stott, began marketing their own product, a larger toy that looks more like Michael Vick than Salcedo’s version, which they dubbed the “Official” Michael Vick Chew Toy. (Salcedo’s version is small, rather sloppily painted and, since parting ways with American Precision in favor of cheaper production in China, hard plastic rather than the chewable material most dog toys are made from.)

His former partners are furious at him and considering litigation. In an April 9 blog post on his website, officialvickdogchewtoy.com, Usher wrote, “Our trials and tribulations with Jaime and Showbiz have been well chronicled. We now know him as a fraud; one that stole your money and our original idea.”

Back in 2008, when the Attorney General’s Office caught wind of the wave of Better Business Bureau complaints about Showbiz Promotions – some 192 complaints have been filed since September 2007 – they asked Salcedo to turn over all documents relating to sale of the chew toys. That meant producing every e-mail, invoice and receipt, a process Salcedo says was costly and labor-intensive. In lieu of a trial, McCollum’s office offered Salcedo a deal, a chance to make a donation to an animal welfare charity as well as make a $5,000 “contribution” to the Department of Legal Affairs Revolving Trust Fund. Salcedo balked. He says he told the AG’s office, “I’d rather the judge tell me I have to make a contribution to you. If I’ve done something wrong, let him decide.”

In response, the AG’s office filed suit. According to the attorney general, besides failing to resolve numerous refund requests, Salcedo engaged in blatantly deceptive practices. An exhibit attached to the suit shows what appears to be a receipt for a $5,000 donation in Salcedo’s name to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The Attorney General’s Office says they found the “receipt” via a link on cayleedoll.com labeled, “We are proud to announce that we will donate 100 percent of the profits from sale of the Sunshine Doll Collection to charity (click here to see the first donation).”

Upon double-checking with the center, the AG’s office says it found that Salcedo’s donation was for $10, not $5,000.

Salcedo doesn’t deny the $5,000 receipt is a fake, but suggests that whoever submitted it to the AG’s office faked it.

“It’s clearly Photoshopped,” Salcedo says, leaning across the table to look more closely at the receipt. “What bothers me,” he continues, “is that this is very similar to my receipt. How somebody got my receipt I don’t know. Or they just made it up, I don’t know. But this is not on our website.” As for the fact that he only donated $10 when he claimed that 100 percent of the doll’s proceeds would go to charity, Salcedo says it’s simple: There weren’t any profits.

He says he’d always intended to donate all of the profits to charity. (He didn’t make this claim to either Nancy Grace or Mike Galanos; he told both he’d donate an unspecified “portion” of the profits.) Asked why he would make a product that wouldn’t make money, especially when he was already in the red from the Vick chew toy, he responds almost defensively. “To draw more attention to the company and try to increase sales. Now, some people will say that that’s how I’m making a profit off of a dead child. Because I’m trying to increase sales for my company. You know what? Even charities do that, churches do that – they donate to draw attention to their cause, then more people come to church and put money in the plate.”

An Attorney General’s Office spokesperson declined to comment on the case, but McCollum has been quoted as saying, “Any company that intentionally misleads innocent consumers to believe they are contributing to worthy charitable causes is absolutely reprehensible. It is disgusting that a company would exploit a tragic situation for personal gain.”

In light of the charges against him, it seems fair to ask Salcedo: Are you an honest person?

Salcedo responds, “Uh, no, I don’t think that I used to be. I think in the past I’ve been deceitful with some of the things that I’ve said. … But that’s part of my past, when I was drinking. … Am I a stand-up guy? I’m not perfect. Never perfect. Am I somebody who cheats people or tries to deceive people or goes out to make a buck off of somebody else’s tragedy? No. I just want to be an entrepreneur.”

In the wake of the Caylee doll disaster and with the attorney general’s civil suit looming, Salcedo has diverted his attention from novelty products. He’s focused primarily on selling only current events–related T-shirts. He has his own press, so overhead is low and flexibility is high. He and his wife are currently working on a line of T-shirts, bracelets and stickers called Christ Life. During election season, Salcedo had a website selling Sarah Palin paraphernalia. He also had a site selling Obama shirts, one dedicated to Anna Nicole Smith’s daughter, Dannielynn Birkhead, and another selling Tim Tebow gear.

Salcedo doesn’t currently have any novelties on the horizon, but he remains open to the possibility. “If [a product] pops up, and it’s a great idea, then I’ll do it. In the meantime … I’ve got to rest.”

A version of this story appeared originally in Jacksonville’s Folio Weekly.

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