Luring online sex predators to their demise is commendable,
but is vigilante justice the best way to go?
Watching it on TV, the whole scene is sad and pathetic: From his mother’s dark PT Cruiser emerges 26-year-old Dustin McPhetridge, struggling to move his weight to the cane in his left hand while locking the door with the keys in his right. He’s driven five hours to Bowling Green, Ky., to meet the girl who’s now standing at the door of a palatial suburban house, offering a sympathetic smile. McPhetridge has cerebral palsy, which is making the short walk from car to house quite awkward.
It’s the first time he’s met the girl in person; they’ve only chatted online. He’s probably stoked because he thinks the petite brunette, dressed like a standard post-9/11 mallrat with shorts that may not pass as a bikini bottom, is about to screw him. There is lubricant, a man’s electric razor and a digital camera in the PT Cruiser. He thinks his new friend is 13 years old.
Part of you wants to scream at him to stop, that it’s all a setup. Then you remember he’s a sexual predator, a pedophile at that, so you root against him as the scene plays out like perverse professional sport — the hunter is the hunted. McPhetridge waltzes into the trap like some maimed idiot, unable to measure his urge to have sex with a little girl against the distinct chance that he’ll end the night in jail or, even worse, on national TV.
And then, just as the conversation is getting to the point, a tall, stately man with broad shoulders and dirty blonde hair appears from some other room and suavely switches places with the girl, who we understand was only a decoy in the sting. He spends a few minutes chiding the offender, chat logs in hand, before announcing who he is — a parade of cameramen in tow.
McPhetridge is all denials. He almost cries. Many of these men do when they realize they’ve just become part of the new American witch hunt, burned at the stake of nationally televised infamy.
This moment of realization is the draw of Dateline NBC’s “To Catch a Predator,” which aired its first Kentucky sting last month. Six were arrested in the operation, which, as they all do, came with the aid of Perverted Justice, a group of activists and volunteers whose mission is to out as many child predators as possible in the hopes they’ll be tried, convicted and locked up. The group’s zeal for publicly humiliating pedophiles mixes well with the show’s “gotcha” journalism; Perverted Justice conducts much of the heavy lifting for “Predator,” with its hundreds of volunteers logging crazy hours in online chat rooms posing as young girls, waiting for men to make a pass.
The Perverted Justice stings in Kentucky last year — there were three, with the final one appearing on “Predator” — provided a blast of good PR for former Attorney General Greg Stumbo just as he left office. They were the first stings of the sort here, netting 27 arrests. Of those, 11 pled and were sentenced. None of the six who were nabbed in the “Predator” sting have been tried, though all were indicted earlier this month for attempted unlawful solicitation of a minor, a class C felony that carries a five- to 10-year sentence.
Attorney General Jack Conway, Stumbo’s successor, ran last year in part on a plan to expand his office’s dominion over Internet crimes, and has already made inroads in that regard just two months into the job. But the decision to work with Perverted Justice, which boasts no trained law enforcement officers, left the AG’s office ineligible for federal funding marked specifically for this kind of work. As such, it does not currently work with the Kentucky State Police, Louisville Metro Police and other organizations directly on these investigations.
Meanwhile, Conway and state Rep. Johnny Bell, D-Glasgow, floated a bill two weeks ago that would strengthen penalties for online predators; it passed the House 94-0 last week on the effort of some high-minded rhetoric among lawmakers, none of whom would want to appear weak on child predators; it is expected to pass the Senate easily. Among other things, the bill would amend state law to allow non-law enforcement officers to conduct online investigations. It would also change the penalties associated with crimes uncovered by such investigations: A person nabbed in a sting using non-officers could be charged with a felony rather than a misdemeanor.
As for McPhetridge, screen name wrestlingdudeasttn, he’s been indicted for attempted unlawful solicitation of a minor and goes to trial April 28. Among a litany of online requests, including one to shave her pubic hair, he had asked the 13-year-old girl to send him a pair of her panties — ones she’d worn for two or three days first.
Using civilians to conduct sting operations gets some people a little twitchy, particularly the police officers who are simultaneously scouring Internet chat rooms and social networking sites for predators.
Lt. Howard Logue is in charge of the Electronic Crimes Unit of the Kentucky State Police. His agency receives money from the U.S. Department of Justice each year for dispensation among members of the Internet Crimes Against Children task force, a 110-member body that receives tips through the Cyber Tipline (www.cybertipline.com) and functions as a dragnet for online predators, covering all 50 states, Canada, Australia, Germany and the United Kingdom. Kentucky received $400,000 in ICAC funding last year, money that is used for training and purchasing new equipment, like computer forensics gear, for members.
Logue said some of his officers maintain undercover online profiles and wait for men to approach, but that they’re passive — in other words, they do not lure. And while stings have their place, he said his focus is on using the federal money to train, expand and embolden the statewide network monitoring this type of crime.
“What we’re really doing is looking for the next 10 years in law enforcement, are we building the foundation so that 10 years from now, law enforcement agencies across Kentucky can have a reactive, proactive approach to this and know what they’re doing?” he said.
Logue also said that the ICAC rules prohibiting agencies using non-police from receiving funding and task force membership are in place to ensure accountability in these operations. “We don’t think it’s the best answer for law enforcement (to use civilians in stings), to be honest about it,” he told LEO.
Conway praised his predecessor for instigating the Perverted Justice stings. He said in an interview he’s “with the parents on this issue,” that he supports any group looking to raise the public profile of online predators. His attitude, shared by Perverted Justice and many others, is essentially that child predation is so repugnant, so pervasive, so damaging, that an “any means necessary” approach may be called for.
“Look, Perverted Justice, MSNBC, Chris Hansen, they have raised the awareness of this issue,” Conway said. “If nothing else, parents are far more aware of the dangers lurking out there for their kids that are unsupervised on the Internet, on these social networking sites, and they’re aware that sex offenders tend to cluster and that they are using the Internet. I actually commend them for raising the awareness. The only question I have going forward is, is this the most efficient way to set up these stings, to maintain the awareness, and to get these cases into a position where they’re going to result in convictions and jail time for those who are committing crimes like this. That’s my only concern.”
That is the crux of the problem with vigilante justice groups working on police investigations, according to John Shehan, deputy director of the Exploited Child Division at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Shehan said that sometimes, if “cyber vigilantes” are involved in the investigation, a court will toss a case. The reasons range from concerns about entrapment to improper preservation of evidence.
“In the end, we not only want to identify these types of individuals, we want to be able to arrest and prosecute them,” Shehan said in a phone interview. He said he would rather work with ICAC task force members than private groups.
Xavier Von Erck is Perverted Justice’s director of operations. He wrote in an e-mail interview that this is “a dumb criticism that doesn’t stand up to the record,” meaning the 266 convictions that have resulted from cases involving Perverted Justice, which began operations in earnest in the summer of 2003.
Von Erck called the ICAC rules “arbitrary” and said the federal government is attempting to lock Perverted Justice out of investigating Internet crimes for competitive reasons. “Imagine if their time was better spent, oh, I don’t know, focusing all their effort wholly on getting Internet predators arrested rather than waging financial turf wars with taxpayer money against other private groups,” he wrote. “I’d say that would be far more productive.”
Regardless, there is no question that “Predator” has raised the profile. Shehan said that two years ago, his office received about 50 tips a week of pedophiles trawling chat rooms or networking sites. Last week they got 233, and the total volume of reports of online enticement of children across the breadth of the ICAC task force — a wide-ranging network that includes federal immigration agencies, the FBI, postal inspectors and has the ability to pinpoint predators to the state jurisdictions in which they’re operating — is more like 2,000 leads a week.
“I think they are good in that they raise the community’s awareness of what is going on,” Laurie Buchanan, ICAC program coordinator for Kentucky, said of civilian groups in a phone interview. “But I think there is a lot more to it than what comes through maybe on Dateline’s ‘To Catch a Predator’ program.”
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