Tickled 2: This Time It’s War - Part 1
‘He seemed … shocked. He was like, “I don’t know how this came about or why, but I have to tell you that you are no longer to be tickled on film in the barracks”.’
Note: Names and certain identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals in this story.
Spending four weeks in lockdown has you doing some strange things. For me, it was sorting through old hard drives I thought I’d lost. On one of those drives was a folder called “Tickled 2”, full of footage of a documentary sequel that never happened.
But let’s rewind.
Tickled premiered at Sundance in 2016. The documentary told the story of a Long Island millionaire who’d spent a great deal of his adult life coming up with elaborate ways to get young men to tickle each other on film. It was a documentary about power, control and bullying. You can watch the trailer here, or you can watch the film on Hulu.
And that was that. Well, almost.
The thing about making a documentary is that you hear from a lot of people after you’ve made it. People you’d have loved to have known about back when you made the film.
So in August of 2016, I hit the road to go and meet some of them. I met teachers who had worked alongside D’Amato, and students who’d had him as their Guidance Counselor. I learnt that he was prone to telling tall tales (no surprise), and had a penchant for rewarding kids he liked with McDonalds.
But there was another group I met with over the course of a week who had a truly compelling story to tell: Former US Marines who claimed David D’Amato’s tickling empire had infiltrated the United States Armed Forces.
Now towards the end of filming Tickled, D’Amato accidentally made a large number of his personal files available online (they were even indexed on Google).
We used some of those documents in our film as evidence, but one of the things we didn’t talk about were the electronic voicemail messages left for D’Amato by his army of “ticklees”.
These didn’t make it into the film, but as we listened to them we noticed some of them followed a pattern:
Clip 55: Duration: 1’59”
“Good afternoon ma’am, it’s Gunnery Sergeant ********** here, just got through busting some motherfucking balls. It’s been a stage in PT, hazing these fucking recruits, excuse my language but I’m fucking livid right now, ballbusting all day, teaching these little motherfuckers how they can be good motherfucking marines. That’s how it works in this goddamn United States of A, Marine Core. [...] Hope you have a good day ma’am. Excited to do some work for you in April. [...] Appreciate the P-Pal blessings. I got to get my uniform squared away, look good for you on film. Good evening.”
Clip 22: Duration: 1’51”
[Laughter for duration of clip]
Clip 30: Duration: 51”
“Sorry about that ma’am, again it’s Sergeant ***********, I got cut off at the 3 minute mark of the message. Let me finish up here. Field-grade officer, 0-5 and above. You get the highest salute, the most respect, because the [inaudible] officer is watching how you treat the younger marines, how you treat yourself, how you carry yourself. Walk with pride, walk with your head up. I got to get back to my busy day. I hope you have a fantastic day, ma’am. I salute you, and God Bless. Thank you so much once again. Hoo-rah!”
They appeared to be messages left by US Marines. Of course, these could have just been young men acting. With the sort of money D’Amato was offering, it would certainly be worth the role. And we didn’t think much more of it.
But as I started to correspond with a contact in New York, I wondered if there was more weight to these messages than I’d first thought.
“I basically was a recruiter, after a number of times being tickled and as a tickler. When the person behind it all found out my brother was a marine and that I had connections to them, they were super interested and wanted badly to get them filmed,” Nathan, a model, told me.
“So, I did what I could, and recruited ones who were interested in making a buck to be tickled. I would tickle them first, and after that we would do group tickling, and pin the person down in different specific ways to be tickled as instructed.”
“In the end though, it caused a lot of drama. It’s a long story, but basically my brother’s comrade was kicked out of the marines because of it, not sure it was really anybody’s fault but his own. With the money he earned, he did some very reckless things.”
I asked Nathan if I could talk to his brother — the one in who was in the marines. I was hoping he’d lead me to the man who’d been kicked out.
It wasn’t long before his brother, Will, got in touch.
I jumped on a plane from JFK to Detroit. By the time I’d picked up a rental and driven the three hours to Grand Rapids, the sun was getting ready to set. It was dark by the time I finally drove down a narrow street surrounded by forest.
I found myself at a small house lit by a single porch-light. I knocked on the door and was greeted by Will. He was quietly spoken, wearing a blue Corona shirt. While he put his kids to bed, I saw photos of him in his uniform. Some gold service medals hung from a jacket, now retired.
“It’s hard to believe I was so close to something so large and had no idea,” Will told me.
He told me he started talking with someone claiming to be a wealthy female District Attorney. He said he never ended up taking part: Although some were rumoured to be getting $10,000 a tickle, his girlfriend at the time didn’t approve.
But others at his base did want to get involved, and the money started flowing in. The majority of the tickling operation allegedly took place in 2009 and 2010.
From what I could understand, it was almost a race to see who could please ‘Terri DiSisto’ and ‘Jane O’Brien’ the most, by making the best tickling videos.
Then a story I was very familiar with started happening: “She’d take these videos, and either post them direct to their Facebook page, or email them to the colonel.”
Will told me there was also an incident where ‘Terri’ sent them a crate of spirits and hired a hotel room. They got drunk, punching several holes in the wall. ‘Terri’ wasn’t happy, contacting not only the hotel, but the base.
“It was very interesting, because the colonel found out about it, and he was the highest ranking person stationed there. So he was in charge of the four battalions there. So over 600 people. So all 600 of us met at the same time on the parade deck, and he started talking to us all.
“And he seemed … shocked. He was like, “I don’t know how this came about or why, but I have to tell you that you are no longer to be tickled on film in the barracks!”
“And it was like he could not fathom why he was having to say this to people. He couldn’t understand what was happening.”
Will told me there was an internal investigation. He was interviewed, along with one of the main recruiters — his friend. The one his brother had told me about:
He was a 2.5 hour drive away. I spent the night in a two-star hotel room, wolfed down some paper-thin pancakes from a diner the next morning, and hit the road. I was eager to meet the man allegedly at the centre of D’Amato’s USMC tickling ring.
Questions repeated over and over again in my head as rain pelted the windshield:
Was all this real? If so, how big was D’Amato’s reach? What did the USMC do about it? What the fuck was going on?
I have reached out for comment from the USMC. Anyone with further information can reach me on firstname.lastname@example.org, or sound off in the comments below.