On Wednesday, YouTube prankster Vitaly Zdorovetskiy climbed to the top of the ‘D’ of the Hollywood sign, a GoPro strapped to his head, and waved a banner with the words “I’m back.” When he came back down, park rangers were waiting to arrest him.
The Russian-born Zdorovetskiy — who co-starred in the recent direct-digital feature “Natural Born Pranksters” alongside fellow YouTube stars Roman Atwood and Dennis Roady — was taken into custody and booked on trespassing charges, which could result in a sentence of six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
Released on bail, Zdorovetskiy (whose YouTube channel VitalyzdTv has more than 9 million subscribers) told reporters from ABC7, “I did this because adrenaline man, you only live once and you have to explore things. I got high on life.”
Zdorovetskiy might want reconsider his cavalier stance. Authorities from California to Melbourne have been cracking down on the increasingly outrageous stunts committed by social video pranksters, and in some cases there has been backlash from viewers, as well.
Last month, Danh Van Le, co-founder of the YouTube channel Trollstation, was sentenced to nine months in jail by a British court for a September 2015 prank that involved leaving ticking clocks in suitcases in public spots in London. It was intended to be a tribute to Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old Texas boy who was arrested when the disassembled clock he brought to school in a case was mistaken for a bomb, but the connection not apparent to the bystander who phoned police, resulting in the arrest of Le.
Earlier this month, Le got an additional 12 weeks tacked on to his sentence for his part in a pair of mock heists at the Tate and National Portrait galleries in London July 2015. Trollstation members pulled stockings over their faces and, with one blasting an audio recording of an alarm, stormed the galleries with bogus stolen paintings in their hands. At the National, one woman reportedly passed out and others were trampled by fleeing patrons. According to the Mirror, four other members of Trollstation involved in the incidents were sentenced to a total of 72 weeks in jail after pleading guilty to two counts of using threatening behavior and causing fear of unlawful violence.
On the other side of the world in Melbourne, Australia, brothers Max, Arman and Rebeen Jalal have been in legal hot water for a series of prank videos posted to their YouTube and Facebook accounts in which they don traditional Middle Eastern robes and stage fake drive-by shootings and bombings. In February, their home was raided by a team 30 counter-terrrorism officers, who seized toy guns, costumes and computers. After being interrogated for six hours, they were arrested.
Released on bail, the Jalal siblings, who range in age from 16 to 20, complained that they were the victims of racial profiling, pointing out that when fellow prankster Zdorovetskiy staged a bomb threat hoax in the U.S., it was handled by local police, not counter-terrorism officers.
The Jalals were referring to a 2012 incident, captured in a YouTube video title “Russian Hitman Prank Gone Wrong!” (below), in which Zdorovetskiy approached a stranger in Boca Raton, Florida, with a suitcase and told him that it contained a bomb that would detonate in 60 seconds. The hoax victim was not amused, nor were police, who called in the bomb squad. While Zdorovetskiy was not arrested, the person manning the camera, Jonathan Vanegas, was, but he was never prosecuted.
The authorities were not so understanding in Brazil, where Zdorovetskiy was fined $100 in 2014 after running across the field in his underwear during a World Cup match.
The threat of arrest is not the only thing YouTube pranksters have to worry about as they push the boundaries of the law and common sense in their efforts to attract viewers.
Prior to the arrests for their art gallery and faux bomb pranks, Trollstation had been warned by police officials that their pranks like one in which they fired Nerf guns at officers could inadvertently trigger a shooting involving very real bullets. Members of YouTube pranskters Nelk received a similar warning from the LAPD after they tricked officers into thinking they were trying sell cocaine on the Venice Boardwalk, when all they really had was a trunk full of Coca-Cola.
It’s easy to see how the kidnapping and murder prank staged by Sam Pepper could’ve gone sideways. In November, the British prankster — who was dropped by multi-channel network Collective Digital Studio in 2014 after a video of him pinching women’s butts caused an outcry in the YouTube community — posted a clip in which Vine stars Sam Goldbach and Colby Brock are kidnapped by a hooded figure, and Brock is shot in the head. The action is presented as real, but, at the end of the video, Brock gets up and reveals it’s all a prank. Once again, there was a public outcry. A petition was circulated calling for Pepper’s removal from YouTube, and it received more than 222,000 signatures.
Pepper later apologized for the video, as well as assorted past transgressions, and, in February, revealed a new non-pranky direction that kicked off with an exploration of an abandoned mall, followed by a vlog titled “If you like PUPPIES, you’ll LOVE this” and a DIY video about how to make a table top out of pennies.
In spite of their legal troubles, the Jalal brothers are not giving up their pranking ways. The New York Times reports that they plan to move to Los Angeles to better pursue a career in the entertainment industry.