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Mark Leffingwell

Alek Komarnitsky — flanked by his sons, Kyle, left, and Dirk — holds one of three Web cameras that allow visitors to www.komar.org to watch as they turn on and off the lights at the Komarnitsky home in Lafayette.


Lights prankser goes legit

Christmas scene now raises money for charity

By Kate Larsen, Camera Staff Writer
December 17, 2005

LAFAYETTE — Yeah, OK, it was a trick.

The 17,000 Christmas lights on Alek Komarnitsky's house couldn't actually be controlled by the click of a computer mouse last year. But this year, all 26,000 of them really can, he says.

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And this year, the guy that duped the world, and — oh, my — the media, is using his fame to raise money for charity.

"I fibbed; it was a scam," Komarnitsky said. "Now I'm thinking maybe we can do some good here."

He's using the nearly 7 million weekly hits to his Web site, www.komar.org, to raise money for celiac disease research. His two sons suffer from the auto-immune disorder triggered by protein gluten.

His oldest son, Dirk, went through months of medical testing, painful vomiting and weight loss before doctors scraped part of his intestine to determine the cause.

Komarnitsky's updated light tricks have raised nearly $3,500 so far for the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research.

"As many as one in 133 people have celiac disease," said Pam King, director of operations for the center. "It's certainly a disease that needs some attention drawn to it."

King said she knew all about Komarnitsky's hoax and had no reservations about working with him.

"I truly believe with his children having celiac disease that he wants to help," she said.

Not surprisingly, not everyone was convinced immediately this year's setup was legitimate. Earlier this month, staff from the Rocky Mountain News' Web desk did extensive testing and couldn't prove a hoax.

One Daily Camera reporter secretly sat outside the house this week while her friend in California clicked away, and it appeared to be the real deal. An 8-foot-tall snowman deflated on command. Lights went off and back on again.

As a computer specialist, it wasn't hard for Komarnitsky to trick everyone last year. He'd been doing it on the Web site since 2002.

He used doctored pictures to convince Internet browsers and dozens of media outlets that Web users could control his light display.

People thought they were making the lights go on and off, but they actually were viewing changing images on their screens. The lights never flickered.

Well, almost never.

When a local TV news crew offered to fly Komarnitsky above the house in a helicopter, he got excited. Really excited.

"I said 'Man, a helicopter ride sounds like fun,'" he said. So he told his wife to use a remote control to turn the lights on and off while they flew overhead.

After what he called a "tsunami" of media attention, Komarnitsky said he wanted to come clean. He did just that to the Wall Street Journal the day after Christmas. Another firestorm followed.

He won the title of "unethical Web site of the month" by one online publication. A New York Times reporter called him a "shameless media hound" and a "liar."

Komarnitsky prefers words like "prank," "hoax" and "trick."

And he is quick to point out that any profit he earned from the Web site traffic last year was "pennies." The Google banner advertisements running on parts of the site had been up for several years, and he makes money only when viewers click on them.

Additionally, he turned down a $10,000 offer from a Denver radio station to advertise on the site last year.

"If Alek had charged everybody $10 to click on his lights, then I can see where that would be wrong," said his wife, Wendy Komarnitsky.

She said 90 percent of the thousands of e-mails he received on the prank were positive and from people who "thought it was funny."

"Personally, every time I turn the corner I'm embarrassed and I think, 'I can't believe I live here,' but the kids love it," she said.

Contact Camera Staff Writer Kate Larsen at (303) 473-1361 or larsenk@dailycamera.com.

 
 

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