A Martha’s Vineyard woman is suing a man to whom she rented her seasonal home, alleging that he allowed the residence to be used as a set for a “multitude” of scenes for pornographic movies that prominently featured her artwork as background props.
Leah Bassett, a longtime resident of the town of Aquinnah on the island, has sued Joshua Spafford, the man she says leased her home under false pretenses, and production company Mile High Distribution Inc. and its associates. Two entertainment companies that distribute pornography are also named.
According to documents filed in US District Court this week, in September 2014 Bassett was contacted by Spafford about an “extended ‘winter’ rental” of her Martha’s Vineyard home, which she built and designed with her father.
The two met and spoke by phone several times before Spafford agreed to rent the fully furnished home from October 2014 to May 2015, according to the lawsuit.
Bassett alleges Spafford never mentioned the residence would be used to shoot “commercial porn” with his employer, Monica Jensen, one of the other defendants — conduct that Bassett says violated the lease.
Stephen A. Roach, an attorney who represents three of the defendants — Jensen, Mile High, and another individual he declined to name — said the suit “arose out of a basic landlord-tenant dispute.”
He said Bassett became upset because someone he does not represent failed to pay rent.
“The allegations are unfounded,” he said during a brief phone interview Wednesday evening.
Attempts to reach the defendants themselves were unsuccessful.
In March 2015, before Bassett knew about the porn shoots, Spafford e-mailed Bassett to tell her he had vacated the house because he had been fired by Jensen — who goes by the pseudonym Nica Noelle — and could no longer pay rent, the suit claims.
Bassett asked her parents, who live on Martha’s Vineyard, to inspect the property after she received Spafford’s e-mail. Bassett’s parents were “shocked by the deplorable state of condition in which they found their daughter’s personal residence.”
In the following days, Bassett’s mother returned to the house to find “two strangers” unpacking suitcases and groceries, court documents say. The two people told Bassett’s mother they were guests of Jensen. After Spafford “unexpectedly ended his employment,” she took over his lease for the remaining months.
Bassett’s mother took the key to the home from Jensen and informed her daughter about what had taken place. Bassett later refused to advise her mother to return the house key to Jensen, the court filing says.
When Bassett returned to the property in May 2015, the damage was worse than first realized, according to court documents. As “circumstances evolved,” Bassett independently discovered that her home had been used for “the production of graphic pornography” credited to Mile High Distribution, Jensen, and those listed in the lawsuit.
“Arising from her profound anger, embarrassment, and general sense of personal violation in response to the discovery of her home’s use for commercial porn production, Ms. Bassett proceeded over the ensuing weeks/months to engage in periodic — and admittedly somewhat obsessive — review of Internet sites” maintained by Jensen, Mile High, and adult-film actors who starred in the films and “publicly boasted about their porn shoots on chic and tony Martha’s Vineyard.”
The suit alleges photographs and videos posted online included nude and graphic scenes showing Bassett’s home, furnishings, and artwork.
During her own investigation, it became clear to Bassett that the defendants had allegedly “utilized nearly every room of her home for their porn production,” including shooting scenes on top of her dining room table, and in her bathrooms, basement, and on her sofas,” according to court filings. “It also became clear that they deliberately moved some of her more distinctive pieces of art from room to room in order to ‘aesthetically enhance’ their porn scenes.”
Bassett alleges that at least 24 films or videos were shot “wholly or in part” on her property and that the use of her art in the productions violated copyright law, since the defendants profited by depicting her works without permission.
The suit says Bassett sought mental health services in 2015 to help her cope with the “emotionally and psychologically traumatizing” experience.
“She has found it difficult to reside comfortably in her own home, leaving it vacant for much of the ensuing 2+ years,” court documents say. “And while she has had financial need for the rental income that she could have been earning during her periodic absences, she has been emotionally unable to rent out her personal residence long-term to strangers again.”
Bassett is seeking monetary compensation, alleging breach of contract, copyright infringement, civil fraud, trespassing, and a host of other charges. The complaint was filed in federal court because some of the defendants are in other countries, and copyright infringement is a federal offense, the suit says.
Danny McDonald of the Globe staff contributed. Steve Annear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.