By fall of 2010, Andrea was 18 years old, fresh out of high school, and had just started her freshman year at the University of Texas – San Antonio. A communications major, she visited information booths lining the halls of the university’s Humanities and Social Sciences building, searching out jobs, internships, and any way to get experience in publishing or television.
That’s where Gemase Lee Simmons found her. Simmons offered Andrea what he called the opportunity of a lifetime. It was one of at least two times Simmons set up shop on campus.
“I thought he was with the school or some organization they’d let in,” Andrea testified. She found Simmons warm, charming, and professional. After a brief chat, she signed up at his booth heralding “G2News,” what Simmons called an up-and-coming news network. Andrea thought she’d found a promising writing gig. Simmons told her “G2News” would fast track her into the world of journalism.
“It was freshman year,” Andrea said. “I felt like I needed to get involved with something.”
Within months, Andrea found herself trapped in a hellish universe of Simmons’ own creation. She fielded threatening text messages and emails from powerful executives she’d never personally met. Convinced she had unknowingly signed a strict modeling contract, shadowy voices prodded Andrea into casting “sessions” with Simmons, where he sexually assaulted her on camera. The voices threatened to make the images public if Andrea didn’t do as they demanded.
(All victims in this story have been given pseudonyms).
In one session, after being raped by Simmons, Andrea cried so much she had to run to the bathroom, about to vomit. Simmons filmed the whole thing, telling her they’d have to start over if she ruined the take.
This month, Simmons emerged from his federal trial as the poster-boy of online predators, a whole new breed of con man. FBI agents who investigated Simmons and federal prosecutors who took him down say they’ve never seen anything quite like the scheme Simmons crafted and deployed on over 100 women and men — that authorities know of.
With numerous email accounts, fake Twitter feeds and Facebook pages, Simmons barraged his victims with bogus personas. He used textNow and TextPlus apps on his iPhone to text from a litany of phantom numbers.
These alter egos coerced numerous young men and women to send nude photos and videos. They conned many into having sex with Simmons on camera. And they threatened any who tried to back out. The end result was thousands of graphic texts, nude images, and even child pornography, all discovered on Simmons’ iPhone, computers, external hard drives, and iPads.
“It was absolutely a blueprint,” federal prosecutor Bettina Richardson told the Current. “If nothing else, he was consistent.” The feds indicted Simmons last year for extorting eight of those victims, six of them minors.
After days of grueling testimony, U.S. District Judge Fred Biery convicted Simmons, who asked for a bench trial in lieu of facing a jury, on all 39 felony counts ranging from extortion to bank fraud and production of child pornography.
As the trial progressed, prosecutors “pulled back the curtain,” Biery wrote in his verdict, revealing “multiple personas reminiscent of Catch Me If You Can and The Great Imposter.”
The government’s case painted Simmons a hypnotic assailant, using “wizardly manipulation,” as Biery put it, to sexually exploit and prey on the naiveté of teens. Simmons created a sleazy, faux underworld that chewed up and spit out terrified — and in at least a couple cases, suicidal — victims.
Simmons’ attorneys urged him to enter a plea and to avoid testifying. He ignored them. On the stand, he spun delusional, convoluted, and contradictory excuses in an attempt to explain his sins.
Biery wrote that Simmons’ “mental gymnastics” on the stand perhaps indicate he truly believes his own defense: that unknown phantoms victimized these men and women. That the multiple personalities Simmons created reside not only on his iPhone, iPads, and iMac, but also in his head.
“Another title apropos for this drama,” wrote Biery, “is Something Wicked This Way Comes.” ***
Gemase Lee Simmons, 36, is a chameleon of the digital age. He’s taken to the web to call himself an R&B artist, political consultant, accomplished author and actor, TV producer — even a minister.
According to available records, family, past acquaintances, and court testimony, he’s none of these things. Simmons had a lengthy rap sheet before the FBI caught up to him. In 2003 he was slapped for public lewdness, caught having sex with a man in a public restroom at HemisFair Park. In 2004, Simmons was arrested for failure to ID when he gave police his younger brother’s name instead of his own. He faced numerous theft charges in 2002, 2007, 2008, and 2009.
Bishop David Copeland with San Antonio’s New Creation Christian Fellowship recalls when Simmons was part of his congregation in the late 1990s. Simmons routinely lied to new members, claiming he was a bishop, Copeland says.
“I had to stand before the congregation to inform members that Gemase was not, in fact, a minister,” he told the Current. Keith Graham, formerly a pastor with New Creation, testified in court that Simmons was eventually booted from the flock “because of an untoward relationship we found out about with a guy.” He did not elaborate.
Perhaps more than any other character, Simmons loved playing the role of supermodel. It’s a stretch, given Simmons’ short stature and unremarkable physical features.
Before the FBI caught him last year, Simmons was best known for a reality TV venture that bombed in spectacular fashion. An NBC Dateline piece that ran in 2008 chronicled how Simmons convinced dozens of young, aspiring models to participate in an America’s Next Top Model-esque reality show, which Simmons dubbed “Gemase Model Reality.” He lied about his past, how the program was funded (it wasn’t funded), and which networks would carry it (none had agreed to). He insisted contestants shout “supermodel on deck!” whenever he walked into a room.
Local freelance cameraman Izzy Cardoza remembers Simmons calling him in 2008 to film. “He told me he was a production assistant, and that their camera crew had backed out.” Simmons needed a crew fast, so Cardoza offered to gather a team that would shoot for $13,000. Simmons didn’t pay upfront, so Cardoza held onto the tapes as collateral.
“Looking back, it all should have dawned on me, it should have clicked sooner than it did,” Cardoza told the Current. “But it was all so rushed.” When Cardoza showed up to film, Simmons was no longer an “assistant,” but center of the show. Cardoza thought the crew should shoot round-the-clock —standard reality TV fare, he says — but Simmons insisted on having long, drawn out stretches with contestants where cameras weren’t rolling.
“Pretty soon, I got uncomfortable with the whole thing,” Cardoza said. One contestant, a young woman, abruptly left the show due to an unwanted sexual encounter with Simmons. More allegations surfaced from young male models claiming Simmons pulled them into his hotel room, promising them high-profile work in exchange for sex.
When Cardoza never got paid, he quit and contacted Dateline. Chris Hansen, of To Catch a Predator fame, aired it all out on national TV.
When Simmons finally sat down for an on-camera interview with Hansen, he gave many of the same ludicrous excuses he’d repeat in a San Antonio federal court five years later.
On his Facebook page, Simmons still has a photo posted of himself with Hansen.
Simmons is beaming. Hansen sports what appears to be a forced, uncomfortable smile.
Just a year after his Dateline drubbing, Gemase Simmons “discovered” Mackenzie through Facebook and MySpace. Calling himself “C.J.,” he reached out to her online.
“He told me I was pretty, that I should consider modeling,” Mackenzie testified. A recent high school graduate, Mackenzie took the bait, and soon enough “C.J.” told her to go meet Simmons in person. Mackenzie knew Simmons as “Jeff David” throughout her time with him. Mackenzie joined Simmons for “fittings” at outlet stores in San Marcos. She never saw him buy a single article of clothing, and the fittings were never coordinated with store staff. Meanwhile, “C.J.” pushed her to text headshots of herself. Then full body shots. Then “C.J” told her she had to send nudes if she wanted to be considered for any lucrative modeling jobs.
“C.J” soon enough demanded she take part in photo “sessions,” which eventually involved having sex with Simmons.
“I told myself, if this is what it takes to be a model, go for it,” Mackenzie testified, crying on the stand.
She tried to back out, but soon heard from an agency called “Kelly Reynolds Modeling” — another of Simmons’ online creations that exist only in emails, text messages, and on Facebook — instructing her to send more graphic photos and videos to be considered for high-paying work. She sent a few, then tried again to quit, asking the agency to delete her images.
“I was told I had to pay $10,000 to buy my way out,” she testified. “I was being blackmailed. They had my videos” and were going to post them on the internet if she didn’t pay. Or, she could continue to have sex with Simmons in “sessions” to pay off the debt.
Out of the blue, another voice appeared in emails and texts — “Chauncey,” who, according to Simmons, headed the modeling agency.
In court, prosecutors read a disturbing series of graphic exchanges between Mackenzie and “Chauncey,” who, according to a forensic analysis of his phone and computers, was really Simmons.
“I will find you,” he threatens in one exchange. “I release you when I say you’re done. Send the fucking pictures, hoe.” One night, “Chauncey” texts Mackenzie that he’s sitting outside, staring at her house.
“I was frightened,” she said on the stand. “I didn’t know what to do.”
To pay her way out, prosecutors say Simmons coerced Mackenzie into helping him carry out a check-kiting scheme that targeted numerous local banks. According to the government’s case, it appears Simmons' ventures and lifestyle were funded solely through bank fraud.
On cross-examination, one of Simmons’ defense attorneys, William Reece, delved into Simmons’ only available defense tactic, which can only be described as slut-shaming. Mackenzie sobbed as Reece asked questions like, “Have you ever been employed with an escort service? … How in the world did you think a legitimate modeling career would involve having sex with someone? … You’re just mad ‘cause you got beat out of your money, right? … Do you always do everything you’re told?”
Simmons’ older brother, James Simmons, quietly attended the whole trial. Visibly shaken by Mackenzie’s testimony, he apologized to her outside the courtroom. He’d repeat the apology to more victims as the trial continued.
“I’m very hurt at this point … I know that had to be tragic for her, too,” James said outside the courtroom.
“Chauncey’s” menacing texts still lingered in the air: “I can make this all go away. All you have to do is click send.”
Some of the strangest revelations about Gemase Simmons come from an atrociously-written self-published account he authored in 2005 titled, Worth Fighting For: The Tragedies & Triumphs of Professor Renee Simmons Torain.
Supposedly based on the life of his older sister, Simmons says he wrote the book after her death in 2004.
The book gives troubling, graphic, accounts of his family’s early history in the Chicago projects where Simmons was born. He portrays his father, James Simmons, Sr., as a cunning pimp and con man who sexually assaulted his sister at a young age. Of himself, Simmons writes:
“Gemase’s intellectual potential made him one of [his father’s] favorite candidates to inherit his uncanny abilities to persuade, influence and attain wealth.”
The family moved to San Antonio soon after Simmons finished high school. Simmons writes how he joined the ministry “to find God,” in the process becoming “a religious zealot” whose “strict adherence to the doctrine of holiness made him nearly impossible to live with.” “Everything was a sin.”
The most unsettling passages, however, cover Simmons’ father, and loosely foreshadow what Simmons himself would later become: “a pimp” whose “specialty was young girls. … He enticed teenagers into the ‘oldest profession’ with the promise of money, fame and stardom.
When this did not work he used the threat of their family’s safety … they were a target for him to recruit, employ, and ultimately destroy.”
James Simmons, Gemase’s older brother, told the Current the account is “fabricated, fictitious,” but didn’t elaborate.
Oddly enough, a foreword dedicates the book to “exploited and abused children,” with Simmons writing he aims “to expose the cowards that sneaks [sic] in the shadows to steal the innocence of children, of women and of men. These cowards prey on the innocent to satisfy their sexual and financial desires, and their reign of terror must come to an end!”
In an “About the Author” section, Simmons writes that he’s a “political consultant and activist supporting tougher laws designed to crack down on child predators.”
In his verdict against Gemase Simmons, Judge Biery wrote the case highlights “the dark side of computers, texting, digital photography and cell-phone technology, beyond the supervision and control of loving and cautious parents.”
But perhaps there’s another way to understand how Simmons pulled off his dumbfounding ploy, especially on his youngest victims.
Social scientists are just now beginning to understand how so-called digital natives — those of us who grew up in the information age with constant access to texting, emailing, and Facebook — approach relationships differently than prior generations. Lori Evans, a psychologist at NYU’s Child Study Center, has written how interactions among this group have become increasingly superficial and impersonal. Others have suggested that digital natives have brains hardwired in a way that makes it difficult to read social cues. In 2010, psychologists writing in The Future of Children, a collaboration between the Brookings Institution and the Woodrow Wilson Center, noted that the “initial qualitative evidence is that the ease of electronic communication may be making teens less interested in face-to-face communication.”
In court, many of Simmons’ underage victims testified they thought absolutely nothing of having entirely digital relationships with Simmons’ numerous personas.
Simmons approached Diana, then 16 years old, in July 2011 while she was working at Popeye’s. He connected her to a young, successful French model named “Claudia,” another Simmons alter ego, who could only text back and forth due to the language barrier. Simmons explained that a program on “Claudia’s” phone would take care of the French-English translation.
“Claudia” promised to guide the girl from afar, bragging about her own successful modeling career in Europe and telling Diana about her massive family estate in Nice, France.
“It’s fucking amazing,” Simmons, pretending to be “Claudia,” texted the girl. “It looks like a Disney castle.”
In an attempt to make his upcoming TV venture seem legit, Simmons would bring Diana’s mom and other parents to hear presentations at his “corporate board room,” in an office building off I-410 and Callaghan. Again, this was a ruse. Simmons had no corporate office. The friend of an underage victim worked in the building, and would occasionally shuffle them in to use a vacant conference room.
Diana testified she thought she had struck a solid friendship with “Claudia.” Soon “Claudia” asked for headshots and body shots. Eventually, she wanted nudes.
“But what does nude have to do with modeling?” Diana asked. “A lot. Are you familiar with modeling? … I’ll coach you on what to take and how,” Simmons responds, telling Diana to send photos of her privates, or “diamond area,” a bizarre term Simmons’ various personas repeat to virtually all of his victims.
Diana grew uncomfortable and told “Claudia” she wanted out. “Claudia” threatened to post her photos on the internet if she didn’t send more to “close out her file.” It didn’t make sense, but the threats soon grew in frequency and intensity. Simmons’ personas threatened to send the nude images to Diana’s pastor if she didn’t comply.
Simmons found Emily in 2011, when she was just 17 and working at Wendy’s. In text messages to the girl, Simmons pretended to be both “Keturah,” another European model, and “Kevin,” a modeling agent and Simmons’ childhood friend.
“Kevin” sent Emily photos of himself — they were, in reality, photos of a real-life sportswear model from New Jersey who knew nothing of Simmons or his scheme. Emily even developed a crush on “Kevin,” and testified she thought they were developing a romantic relationship.
When “Kevin” asked her to do a photo “session” with Simmons, she said yes. Simmons performed numerous sexual acts with the 17-year-old on camera.
“I felt belittled,” Emily said at trial.
Simmons met Natalie at a local Luby’s in 2010. Sure enough, she struck up a friendship with a “European” model via text message who convinced her to attend “fittings” with Simmons at The Shops at La Cantera, a high-end mall. In text messages, the fictitious model prodded Natalie to go to a Victoria’s Secret store with Simmons, claiming the girl was being considered for a new ad campaign. Astoundingly no one in the store noticed, or cared, when Simmons went inside the dressing room with the 17-year-old, snapping photos of her in lingerie on his iPhone. The model — who was, in reality, Simmons — kept texting Natalie to send photos of her “diamond area.” She took Simmons’ phone into the dressing room and took some nude shots.
Simmons approached Sasha, a 16-year-old, at a local H-E-B in 2011, telling her she could make serious cash as on-air talent for his new TV venture, “G2News.”
In texts, Simmons again played a young French model, this time named “Melissa.” Sasha eventually sent her nudes so she could be considered for modeling gigs.
When Sasha got scared and wanted out, she heard from another Simmons persona, “Cassandra,” who took a menacing tone. “Cassandra” threatened to post the girls photos to the porn side RedTube if she didn’t fall in line.
“Yea, that’s right, I know who you are, bitch,” reads one text from “Cassandra.” “Cassandra” told Sasha she sent copies of the photos to her house. Sasha rushed home every day to check the mailbox before her parents could. “Every minute I was gone I was scared,” she said at trial.
Andrew, an aspiring web designer, was 16 years old when he joined Simmons’ “Genius Group” in 2010, evidently named after Apple’s in-store “genius” teams. Andrew considered it an internship, convinced Simmons’ “G2News” would eventually take off. Throughout the year Andrew worked for him, Simmons only cut him one $100 check. It bounced.
Sometime that year, a European rep from “Kelly Reynolds Modeling” began texting Andrew, asking that he participate in an ad for skinny jeans. But to be considered, they needed photos of Andrew in his underwear “showing bulge.”
“She [the modeling rep] told me it’s not really that provocative over there (in Europe),” Andrew testified. Soon after they wanted nudes “to make sure I’m healthy.” Simmons then told him the agency needed to ensure he’d be comfortable around male models without being aroused.
“I guess it was some sort of a homo test,” the teenager testified. “Like, to make sure I’m not gay or something.” Simmons proceeded to sexually assault the teenager in his living room.
The modeling job never came. Simmons’ defense team, for whatever reason, asked Andrew why.
“Um … because it wasn’t real?”
In late 2010, Cassie, then an 18-year-old physical therapy student living in Florida, got a message from “Kelly Reynolds Modeling” on Facebook. After exchanging routine headshots, agency rep “Melissa” started texting and asking for nude photos. Cassie resisted, but “Melissa” told her it was the only way she’d be considered for Victoria’s Secret, Herbal Essence, and Neutrogena ad campaigns. Cassie reluctantly sent them.
When Simmons traveled to Miami in August 2011, “Melissa” texted the girl saying she needed to meet him. “I was told that he’s some big guy that wants to start this G2 company with models,” Cassie testified. She met him at a beachside hotel. During their “session,” Simmons sexually assaulted her on camera.
When Cassie got out to her car after the assault, her phone lit up with a text from “Melissa”: “That’s how you become a model.”
Cassie tried to back out, but “Melissa” threatened to make her nude photos public. On Simmons’ next trip to Miami, on “Melissa’s” orders, Cassie helped Simmons set up a “G2News” information booth at Miami Dade College to recruit more students.
“Melissa” and other Simmons personas, meanwhile, kept demanding more nude photos — sometimes as many as 200 a day. By Fall 2011, Cassie was ditching class, stripping naked in public restrooms on campus and sending photos to meet their demands. By the end of 2011, prosecutors say, Cassie was visibly crying in nearly every photo she sent.
In January 2012, Cassie was again told she’d have to meet Simmons in Miami. She dreaded it — along with more “sessions,” they were scheduled to set up booths at the University of Miami to recruit more students.
On January 26, 2012, the day FBI agents served a search warrant at Simmons’ apartment near UTSA, Cassie got her last text from any of Simmons’ personas.
Cassie was driving to class when she got a call from a FBI agent Larry Baker days later. She wept in her car as he told her it was all over.
Gemase Simmons spotted Natasha Goodlow on New Year’s Eve, 2010 while shopping at the Eisenhauer Road Flea Market on San Antonio’s Northeast Side. Simmons told Goodlow, then 20 years old, he planned to make a TV program about “empowering women of all shapes and sizes,” and wanted her in it.
Goodlow took the bait, and soon after “Keturah,” started texting Goodlow, telling her she could be in high-paying fashion shoots. Simmons again stuck to the blueprint: “Keturah” wanted face shots, body shots, then photos of Goodlow’s “diamond area.”
“Keturah” began sending Goodlow strange code words for sexual positions she had to do in photo “sessions” with Simmons — “Pose 17” was code for oral sex, “Pose 11” missionary, “Pose 16” doggy style.
Along with the promise of lucrative modeling gigs, Goodlow was promised she’d be Simmons’ executive assistant and a producer on his TV network. She even filled out an employment application for “G2News.” Simmons only once cut her a check, for $300. It bounced. The FBI initially considered Goodlow another victim lured in by Simmons. But the feds charge that Goodlow wound up helping Simmons find other victims, and even had sex with a minor on camera. Indicted on production of child pornography charges, Goodlow cooperated with prosecutors, testifying against Simmons in court this month.
On the stand, Goodlow said Simmons’ various personas texted her throughout her year with him, warning that people associated with the modeling agency physically harmed girls if they didn’t do as they were told. One model was shot in the head for disobeying, one of Simmons’ personas texted her. Others who put up a fight simply “disappeared.”
It’s hard to understand why Simmons’ young victims believed what they did, Goodlow said at trial, “Unless you’ve participated in the little fantasy he’s created.”
Goodlow recalled Simmons telling girls to drop off their panties after “sessions,” explaining that a modeling agency in Europe needed them to take exact measurements for an upcoming fashion show. Shortly before the feds raided his apartment, Goodlow remembered rummaging through Simmons’ closet. When she kicked a Steve Madden shoebox, the top flew off. It was filled with panties. Goodlow recognized her own.
At trial, Simmons admitted they were “like notches on a belt.”
*** When the FBI knocked on his door on January 26, 2012, Simmons “had a big smile, he waved us on in,” said local FBI agent Larry Baker.
While his team executed a search warrant, Baker first questioned Simmons about bank fraud.
“Mr. Simmons provided us with a number of false statements,” Baker said.
Simmons adamantly denied knowing anything about child porn when Baker brought it up. Another agent grabbed Simmons’ iPhone off a nearby table and, after tinkering for a few seconds, nude photos of underage girls flashed across the screen. “Oh, I guess I didn’t delete that,” Baker recalled Simmons saying.
Meanwhile, in another room Goodlow told FBI agents she feared for her life, saying “Keturah” and “Chauncey,” personas Simmons had created, would harm or even kill her if she talked.
Simmons broke down, and gave a scattered confession over the next five hours, Baker said. He admitted the various personas threatening his victims were actually himself, then backpedaled, claiming he was the victim of a vast conspiracy — one that he claimed he was “investigating” for “G2News.”
Baker and Simmons drafted a written statement, in which he admitted to everything, Baker claimed. Then, abruptly, Simmons tore it up and wrote his own. It simply read: “I am not a monster or a threat to anyone.”
When Simmons, against the advice of his attorneys, took the stand this month, his excuses were just as nonsensical as in his interview with Dateline’s Chris Hansen five years ago.
Judge Biery grew indignant when Simmons insisted his victims, seen red-eyed and sobbing on video during and after sex with him, were simply suffering from allergies.
“All the tears that have been shed in the courtroom this week … were all those tears because of allergies?” Biery asked.
On the stand, Simmons said he was being “factitious” during his confession to the FBI last year. In his verdict, Biery responded to that claim by simply writing “LOL.”
“I kind of brought this on myself through karma, if you will,” Simmons testified. His years of “going around, chasing girls, and being a Casanova” had simply caught up to him, he insisted. Perhaps Simmons truly views himself as the victim of a massive smear campaign championed by bitter ex-lovers.
Biery shook his head. “Have you been here in the same trial that we have been for the past week?”
Given the seriousness of the charges, and the tone of Biery’s written verdict, Simmons could very well spend the rest of his life in prison when the judge sentences him this coming May. Biery called Simmons a man with an “evil heart fatally bent on mischief,” and capped his verdict by saying, “Dante wrote of only nine circles of hell. Defendant’s pervertedly cruel behavior created a tenth earthly level for the victims, including one who wanted ‘out of this hell hole.’”
Remnants of the fake universe Simmons created still live on in cyberspace. Messages posted to the “Kelly Reynolds Modeling” Facebook page take on a new, ominous quality knowing Simmons was indeed the man behind the curtain.
Before posts suddenly end in January 2012, someone we can only assume is Simmons writes, “Are you the preetiest girl on campus?”