Ryan Jenkins' murder-suicide puts reality TV casting under a harsh light

August 28, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT

On Aug. 12, Ryan Jenkins walked into the Los Angeles offices of 51 Minds Entertainment and picked up his $5,200 paycheck for appearing on the upcoming VH1 reality show I Love Money 3. Three days later, the mutilated body of his wife — model Jasmine Fiore — was found in a garbage bin. By the time police named Jenkins as their prime suspect, he had fled to his native Canada, where he hanged himself in a motel room. One of Jenkins’ castmates from another 51 Minds/VH1 show, Megan Wants a Millionaire (which was shot before Money 3 and pulled off the air immediately after the murder), told EW on condition of anonymity that the news came as a complete shock: ”If someone said, ‘You have to pick the top three [guys from the cast] who you think would do something like this,’ I wouldn’t have picked him.”

It seems no one would have pegged Jenkins as dangerous, at least until news surfaced that he had a criminal record for assaulting a woman in Canada in 2007 — a crucial piece of information that, according to 51 Minds, failed to turn up on his background check for Megan and surfaced only during the police investigation into Fiore’s murder. Now the case has opened up a Pandora’s box of questions about the casting of reality programs, a genre that thrives on putting volatile, often mentally unsound individuals in high-pressure situations for dramatic effect. ”It’s quite damning,” says a prominent reality TV producer. ”The fact is, those shows work only because of the irresponsible casting. If you force people to cast upstanding citizens without criminal records, you’re not going to get the same show.”

There was a time when criminal wrongdoing immediately disqualified would-be reality stars. But as the genre infiltrated the TV landscape over the last decade, standards took a nosedive. ”It got to the point where [producers] were running out of people to choose from,” says casting director Robert Mazza, whose credits include the 51 Minds-produced Flavor of Love, Rock of Love, and I Love New York. ”So they started easing up on people who may have had this minor thing on their record.” Under the new standards, a DUI or a minor drug charge could get a pass. And most insiders agree that cable channels are more lax than networks. ”One, because they’re not scrutinized as much, and two, because they don’t have the same financial resources,” explains a network exec who specializes in reality. To compete on CBS’ Big Brother 2, Will Kirby had to endure private investigators and background checks, as well as hours of psychological tests — though his experience on cable was less taxing: ”I’ve done a million bad reality shows. There were shows where they didn’t do any psychological testing whatsoever.” Maybe that’s because, with some series, time has become a disappearing luxury. ”They’re turning these shows around a lot faster,” says Elaine Carey, senior VP of investigations at Control Risks, which has vetted applicants for Big Brother and The Amazing Race. ”It used to be that we would have three weeks to work on somebody. Now sometimes we’ve got four days.”

For all of the shifting rules, most experts say any history of violence is still a deal breaker. ”The nonnegotiables are battery and assault — they’ll get you off a show,” says Carey. How, then, did Jenkins get cast on two series? According to a statement issued by 51 Minds, ”his criminal record escaped notice…as a result of an error by a Canadian court clerk.” (The studio declined to comment further.) But that doesn’t explain Becky ”Buckwild” Johnston, who made it onto Flavor of Love 2 even though she had spent time in jail for assault with a deadly weapon (which she discussed openly on I Love Money 2). Or Brittanya O’Campo, who got out of jail just two days before filming 51 Minds’ Charm School With Ricki Lake and was shown attending a court date, which she later revealed was for charges including assault with a deadly weapon.

Meanwhile, over on CBS, Kirby’s Big Brother 2 castmate Justin Sebik was kicked off for holding a knife to housemate Krista Stegall’s throat in 2001. It was later disclosed that Sebik had been arrested three times for assault and twice for robbery. (The charges were all dismissed.) Then there’s the seemingly endless stable of contestants who butt up against the law during or after filming. In 2003, two participants from The Real World: San Diego were arrested in separate incidents — on the same night. (One, Robin Hibbard, pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery after assaulting a Marine on camera.) Also that season, a 22-year-old woman claimed she was drugged and sexually assaulted while unconscious in the Real World bathroom by a friend of a cast member. (Police did not press charges.)

Now there’s murder and suicide in the mix. So where does that leave reality TV, particularly the tawdry strand that is 51 Minds’ stock-in-trade? VH1 currently has no plans to air the remainder of Megan or Money 3. Many insiders hope this horrific episode will serve as a wake-up call to the company. ”How can they justify doing this kind of shock dating show again when this is hanging over their heads?” says the reality producer. ”I’m angry about it. I’m embarrassed to be part of this world. This is one of the worst moments in television history.”

(Additional reporting by Jessica Shaw, Dan Snierson, Tanner Stransky, Adam B. Vary, and Kate Ward)

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