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YouTube prank victim: Video apology doesn’t cut it

A Florida fast-food worker is unhappy with the court-mandated YouTube apology posted by two teenage boys who played the widespread “fire in the hole" prank on her: throwing a drink at her, then posting the video online. “I don’t think the lesson is completely learned,” she said.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

A face-to-face apology would be better, said a Florida fast-food worker who is unhappy with the court-mandated YouTube apology posted by two teenage boys who threw a 32-once drink at her as a prank, then posted the video online.

“I don’t think the lesson is completely learned, because they are still young and to some of their friends, this is going to make them heroes,” Jessica Ceponis told TODAY’s Matt Lauer Tuesday in New York. She said that she has never had a personal apology from either of the boys, who are 15 and 16 years old. She also noted that while her face was shown clearly in the video they posted, theirs are never shown in their apology, nor are they identified by name.

Blame the criminal justice system, Tony Hernandez, the attorney for one of the boys, replied.

“In Florida, we have to go through the state attorney’s office. It would be inappropriate in my opinion to contact her personally while the case is pending,” Hernandez said. “We had the boys write a letter of apology. I gave it personally to the state attorney’s office a few months ago. I do not know if they have provided her with those letters of apology.”

‘Fire in the hole!’Last July, Ceponis was working the drive-through window at a Taco Bell when the two teenage boys pulled up to pick up their order. She gave them their 32-ounce drink and turned to get the rest of the order. When she turned back toward the car, the boys yelled, “Fire in the hole!” and threw the drink at her. It hit her in the jaw, stunning her and soaking her with blue soda.

The “fire in the hole” prank is popular on YouTube, and even today it’s not hard to find plenty of examples there. But Ceponis didn’t know that then; she thought it was a personal attack on her. Then a co-worker told her that it was a video prank that was posted online, first on a prank site and then on YouTube.

Ceponis went from feeling victimized to being very angry. She viewed the video and tracked one of the boys to his MySpace site, where she befriended him. She eventually found out where he lived and called his mother, who gave her the name of the other boy.

Thanks to Ceponis’ detective work, both boys were charged with assault as juveniles and were ordered to perform 100 hours of community service, pay the Taco Bell restaurant where Ceponis worked for the costs of cleaning up the mess, and post an apology video on YouTube.

A scripted scene?
In the apology, the boys reenact their prank, but this time don’t go through with it. Instead, they talk about how smart it was not to do something that could get them arrested. They are shown with their hands behind their backs lying across the hood of a police cruiser. But their faces are not shown, and the video appears to have been scripted by attorneys, not written by the boys themselves.

“They did get, to an extent, what they deserve,” Ceponis said. But the prank video may have been seen by a million people, and as of Tuesday morning, only a couple of thousand had watched the apology.

Ceponis also said she’s unhappy that the boys’ faces are not shown, as hers was: “That was a

problem for me. I was approached at work by people I’ve never met before who recognized me from the actual YouTube video that they aired.”

Hernandez said that the video sanction might have been more effective if the court had made the boys show their faces — but they were prosecuted as juveniles, which meant that their identities are protected by law.

“It might have certainly served as a deterrent,” the lawyer said. “But we have to keep in mind that these are 15- and 16-year-old kids who are in the juvenile system.”

YouTube’s fault?
Hernandez pointed a finger of blame at Web sites that post such videos in general, and at YouTube in particular.

“I believe the true story here is not juvenile conduct. I believe the true story is corporate irresponsibility on the part of YouTube allowing these videos of people who have been hurt and humiliated to be posted on a Web site,” he said. “They have to take some responsibility.”

When the boys were prosecuted, YouTube agreed to take down all the “fire in the hole” videos posted by copycat pranksters. But, said Hernandez, “If you searched today, you would see dozens of videos. They know they’re posted on their site. Remove them today. It’s their responsibility,” he said, referring to YouTube.

A single mother, Ceponis left Taco Bell after the attack and now works inside at another fast-food chain. “I really don’t think I can ever work in a drive-through again and not be watching myself very carefully to make sure that I’m checking every customer’s face, every customer’s car, make, model, license plate — things like that, because it might happen again,” she told Lauer.

During the interview, Hernandez apologized for his client.

“I would like to take this opportunity on behalf of the family and my client to apologize to Jessica,” he said. “What she went through is absolutely unacceptable.”

Ceponis nodded as he spoke. But she still wants to hear it directly from the boys.