The One-Man ‘Cult’ That Put St. Louis Under Surveillance

One bad actor became an excuse for the government to ruin everyone’s day. Or that’s how some drone pilots in Missouri are feeling right now, after the self-described “rat king” and “cult” leader Jomo Johnson offered pay-per-view surveillance of St. Louis and the city responded with ham-handed restrictions.

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen voted last week to require any drone pilot flying for commercial reasons to have a city license. (That’s on top of the Federal Aviation Administration license that commercial drone pilots already need.) The bill would also ban drones from flying within 25 feet of people without their consent or near public buildings and emergency vehicles.

Mayor Tishuara Jones says she’s looking forward to signing it into law. The site DroneDJ calls the move “another example of isolated obnoxious drone operation producing regressive rules for all users.”

While the bill throws barriers in the way of businesses like real estate photography, it exempts “members of the press who operate drones to collect video footage or photographs for journalistic purposes and activities protected by the Constitution”—which leaves room for exactly the kind of livestreaming that the aldermen were trying to ban in the first place.

“We want to respect privacy, but also, there is a right to photograph in public,” Johnson told a local NBC affiliate. “That’s covered under the First Amendment.”

The bill was a response to Johnson’s company, SMS Novel, advertising paid surveillance livestreams of St. Louis neighborhoods. SMS Novel offered to let users submit requests for surveillance of specific locations. Johnson described his service as a “unique opportunity for both entertainment and security.” 

It’s unclear whether the surveillance even existed in any meaningful form. The local news station First Alert 4 tried to pay for SMS Novel’s livestream on the first day of streaming but never gained access to the video. The two samples of SMS Novel footage that are posted to YouTube show jerky, nearly-unwatchable piloting.

Surveillance would not be Johnson’s first creepy business venture. Different versions of the SMS Novel website have offered different services. One version let people pay $200 to have their pet audition for a film about “the mythical tale of the dog that followed Jesus.” Another version sold AI-generated books for nearly $100.

In a video, SMS Novel described itself as a “writing cult” around Johnson, a “subservient rat king of writers devoted to the Almighty Word, joined at the tails by the power of AI.”

Speaking in defense of his drone venture, Johnson has presented himself as an upstanding crime fighter rather than an cult leader. He told a February 29 board meeting that “we shouldn’t demonize Black voices that try to create solutions for crime in St. Louis and other cities.”

Johnson said he was speaking “as someone who has frequented St. Louis much and also as a future resident.” Other people at the meeting shouted, “He doesn’t even live here!”

In his January 29 interview, Johnson also called himself “a drone businessperson who represents drone pilots.” Many in the drone community, however, see Johnson as a threat to their ability to self regulate.

“If you’re in the drone business and you’re trying to create a drone business that’s going to create this kind of havoc, keep in mind that there will be an overreaction,” flight instructor Greg Revardiau said during his weekly Pilot Institute news video. “Everybody—in this case, in St. Louis—can owe it to [Johnson] that now they may not be able to fly in certain areas.”