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Pee-wee Herman Actor Paul Reubens and the Child Porn Accusation

We look at the rumor he possessed child pornography, which re-emerged after he died from cancer in July 2023.

Published Sep 28, 2023

 (Screenshot via Facebook)
Image Via Screenshot via Facebook

Decades-old accusations of possessing child pornography have long clouded the career of the late actor Paul Reubens, known for the character of Pee-wee Herman. Since the comedian's death in July 2023, many have recalled his legacy as well as his controversies.

For instance, a viral Facebook post claimed, "I just learned today Reubens was charged in 2001 for possessing child pornography (photos of a 17 year old) and pled guilty."

Based on newspaper archives and other records, we found the underlying assertion was factual, though deserved some extra context.

It was true that, in 2002 (not 2001, like the Facebook post claimed),¬†Reubens was arrested and¬†charged with one misdemeanor count of possessing obscene material improperly depicting a child engaged in sexual conduct ‚ÄĒ which, under¬†California law, is defined as child pornography. However, he was not convicted of that crime, exactly. Roughly two years after the charge, in 2004, prosecutors agreed to drop the child pornography charge in exchange for Reuben's guilty plea to a less severe misdemeanor obscenity charge.¬†

California law criminalizes the possession, and control of, any matter or image depicting a person under the age of 18 engaging in, or simulating, sexual conduct.

Ultimately, in 2004, Reubens was ordered to pay a $100 fine, serve three years of informal probation (that type of probation requires offenders to comply with all court-ordered conditions, but they do not have to report to probation officers), attend one year of counseling, and avoid unsupervised contact with minors, according to The Associated Press (AP) and The Los Angeles Times.

The initial charge against Reubens, according to a 2002 report in the L.A. Times, was the culmination of a yearlong investigation by the Los Angeles Police Department after a 17-year-old boy made a complaint to the department. (The L.A. Times¬†report did not state the nature of the complaint, nor any details about it.) According to reports, the boy contacted law enforcement after he was allegedly¬†made to pose for sexually explicit photographs by Jeffrey Jones ‚ÄĒ another actor who was arrested in the same investigation, which we address later in this story.

Reubens was booked after police said they found evidence of "erotic images" in his art collection in his Hollywood Hills home. (It's unclear if those images depicted the above-mentioned 17-year-old.) Authorities seized the collection, as well as his personal computers, saying they had obtained 30,000 images total. The offending images were found in one book, 25 magazines, and one film, according to the motion filed by his legal team, as reported by BBC.

(We should note, the 2002 arrest wasn't Reubens' first. In 1991, he was arrested on suspicion of indecent exposure at an adult movie theater, and he pleaded no contest. He served 75 hours of community service in that case.)

What Did Police Find in Reubens' Possession?

At the heart of the 2002-2004 case against Reubens was a debate over what imagery constitutes child pornography or art. The materials were never released to the public.

The city attorney's spokesperson, Ana Garcia, alleged in the 2002 criminal complaint reported on by the LA Times that the actor committed a misdemeanor for possessing "material depicting a child under the age of 18 engaged in sexual conduct as defined by California state law." Considering that child pornography, prosecutors said the material showed minors with their genitals exposed, and in sexual situations.

However, Reubens' legal team disagreed with the city's definition of child pornography. They maintained the items in question were antique art works without any sexual undertones. While they acknowledged the materials featured nudity, they claimed it was unknown whether the subjects were under the age of 18. 

"[Reubens] has never at any time knowingly possessed any artwork from his extensive vintage and antique art collection even remotely related to anything improper," Blair Berk, Reubens' attorney, said in response to the misdemeanor charge in 2002.

In late January 2003, a Superior Court judge gave Reubens' legal team a chance to submit a motion to challenge the criminal complaint. In that motion, reported on by the BBC, Berk stated some of the in-question items were from the early years of the 20th century, decades before California's 1989 child pornography law, and therefore should not be subject to it.

"[Claims by a prosecutor] mischaracterizes the art collection seized," Berk said in response to city attorney spokesman Eric Moses' claim that images showed minors with exposed genitals. "If [child pornography] means a black-and-white tintype from 1901, with a young man of indeterminate, 17- to 19-year-old age, laying on the beach after having gone skinny-dipping, […] then they got it. [...] It was clear from the start that we, along with the many distinguished art experts supporting Paul's art photography collection, vehemently disagreed with the city prosecutor's view of what constitutes art." 

Throughout the court proceedings, in interviews with journalists, prosecutors spoke about the contents of what authorities uncovered in the investigation. 

For example, in a Jan. 10, 2003, New York Daily News report, the city attorney's office claimed that, in addition to the "illegal images" mentioned previously, investigators found two questionable videotapes in Reubens' possession. In response, Reubens' representative told the New York Daily News that one of those videos was a sex tape featuring actor Rob Lowe, an adult. (The video had been taken by Lowe in 1988 and reportedly featured him with two girls, ages 16 and 23. Lowe told journalists he did not know the teenager was underage.)

However, while one film was cited as part of the 2002-2004 case against Reubens, there was no evidence to independently verify that it was the Lowe tape or other videos mentioned by prosecutors in the New York Daily News interview.

What Happened After Reubens' Guilty Plea?

In March 2004, Reubens pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge of possessing obscene material, including obscene images of minors. Moses said, with that plea, Reubens' legal team acknowledged possessing 170 images of minors engaged in sexual conduct, AP reported.

In an NBC interview shortly following his guilty plea, Reubens maintained that his art collection was not child pornography:

Reubens: Magazines. photographs. films. Incredible, beautiful stuff that I stand behind.

Phillips: Did you ever stop and think while you were massing this collection, maybe it's not such a good idea, especially given what had happened back in 1991?

Reubens: I didn't. I never did. I wasn't really thinking to myself, wow this is my creepy, weird stuff that I shouldn't be collecting. It's not titillating. It's not something that I use for any kind of sexual purpose.

Phillips: Is it sensual, erotic to you, you acknowledge that?

Reubens: I think some of it is erotic. Some of it is sensual. Most of it I don't view like that.  It seems so innocent to me. You would immediately look at that collection and to tell very, very, very quickly this is not a collection of child pornography.

Phillips: It wasn't obvious to the city attorney's office. They have characterized it quite differently. I mean, they say that in and amongst these magazines were photographs that depict people underage engaged in masturbation, oral copulation, in short, pornographic images.

Reubens: I know what they say. It depends upon whether it's you or the city attorney looking at them. It depends upon what one sees in those images for example.

Phillips: Well, it's pretty clear and pretty specific. I mean, were there photographs of young men, boys, underage people, performing, masturbating?

Reubens: No. Absolutely not. One hundred percent not.

Phillips: So what are they referring to when they describe it that way?

Reubens: One photograph for example has a young man with his hand on his thigh. It is close to his genitals, but not even that close. That's what they're calling somebody getting ready to perform a sex act.

[...] 

Phillips: If you're secure in your belief that this was art, nothing illegal, why not let a jury look at the evidence? Why settle?

Reubens: Personally, I think we're living in a very scary time. Do we let the legal system decide in a courtroom what's obscene and what's not obscene? I didn't want be in a situation where there was a possibility I could got to jail for something that's that material. I mean, that just seemed insane to me.

However, the city attorney's office told NBC that Reuben's images were much more graphic than he described in that interview. 

How Was Actor Jeffrey Jones Involved?

According to a 2002 Entertainment Weekly (EW) story, the 17-year-old boy who filed a complaint with police that led to the investigation into Reubens was the subject of a child pornography case involving another actor: Jeffrey Jones.

One day before Reubens' arrest in November 2002, Jones was arrested on suspicion of making the teenager pose for sexual photography (a felony charge), as well as a misdemeanor charge of possessing child pornography, according to Entertainment Weekly. Jones pleaded no contest to the former accusation and was required to register as a sex offender, according to CBS News.

Conclusion

In sum, while the above posts about Reuben being charged with possessing child pornography were correct, they missed important details of the complex case ‚ÄĒ including the fact that the charge was eventually dropped in exchange for his guilty plea to a lesser misdemeanor¬†of possessing obscene images that included images of minors.

While a debate over the nature of the in-question items remains unresolved, with prosecutors calling them child pornography and Reubens' legal team describing the materials as art, Reubens was never convicted of possessing child pornography.

Sources

"Actor Arrested on Obscenity Charge." Los Angeles Times, 16 Nov. 2002, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2002-nov-16-me-peewee16-story.html. Accessed 2 Aug. 2023. 

"Actor Defended over "Historical Erotica."" BBC, 28 Jan. 2003. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/2701119.stm. Accessed 3 Aug. 2023. 

"How Paul Reubens Became Pee-Wee Herman." Time, 31 July 2023, https://time.com/6299801/paul-reubens-pee-wee-herman-dies/. Accessed 2 Aug. 2023. 

"Jeffrey Jones Guilty: "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" Actor Didn't Update Sex Offender Status." CBS News, Sept. 29, 2010. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/jeffrey-jones-guilty-ferris-buellers-day-off-actor-didnt-update-sex-offender-status/. Accessed 2 Aug. 2023. 

Susman, Gary. "Paul 'Pee-Wee' Reubens Charged in Kid-Porn Probe." EW.Com, Nov. 18, 2002. https://ew.com/article/2002/11/18/paul-pee-wee-reubens-charged-kid-porn-probe/. Accessed 2 Aug. 2023.

"Paul Reubens, Actor Best Known as Pee-Wee Herman, Dies at 70." NBC News, 31 July 2023, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/paul-reubens-actor-best-known-pee-wee-herman-dies-70-rcna97343. Accessed 2 Aug. 2023. 

"Paul Reubens, Actor Who Played Pee-Wee Herman, Dies at 70." Reuters, Aug. 1, 2023. www.reuters.com, https://www.reuters.com/world/paul-reubens-actor-who-played-pee-wee-herman-dies-70-2023-07-31/. Accessed 2 Aug. 2023. 

"Paul Reubens Pleads Guilty to Obscenity Charge." TODAY.Com, 19 Mar. 2004, https://www.today.com/popculture/paul-reubens-pleads-guilty-obscenity-charge-wbna4563512. Accessed 2 Aug. 2023. 

"Pee Wee Herman Actor Charged." CNN, Nov. 16, 2002. https://www.cnn.com/2002/SHOWBIZ/11/15/reubens.artwork.flap/. Accessed 2 Aug. 2023.

"Pee-Wee Herman Creator Speaks Out." NBC News, 3 Apr. 2004, https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna4653913. Accessed 2 Aug. 2023. 

"Pee-wee says his porn was legal kitsch." New York Daily News, Jan. 10, 2003. https://web.archive.org/web/20100830071650/http://www.nydailynews.com/archives/gossip/2003/01/10/2003-01-10_pee-wee_says_his_porn_was_le.html. Accessed 2 Aug. 2023. 

Sciaudone, Christiana. "Actor Paul Reubens Pleads Guilty to Obscenity Charge." Los Angeles Times, 20 Mar. 2004, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2004-mar-20-me-plead20-story.html. Accessed 2 Aug. 2023.

Shanfeld, Ethan. "Paul Reubens, Pee-Wee Herman Actor, Dies at 70 After Private Bout of Cancer." Variety, 31 July 2023, https://variety.com/2023/film/news/paul-reubens-dead-pee-wee-herman-1235683504/.

"Why Rob Lowe Calls His 1988 Sex Tape Scandal 'the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me.'" People, Oct. 21, 2019. https://people.com/tv/rob-lowe-1988-sex-tape-scandal-best-thing-that-ever-happened-to-me/. Accessed 2 Aug. 2023.

Nur Nasreen Ibrahim is a reporter with experience working in television, international news coverage, fact checking, and creative writing.