THE NEW AMERICAN WITCH HUNT
To Catch a Predator claims it is outing dangerous pedophiles. But are the show's faceless vigilantes scarier than their prey?
NO ONE IS HOME AT THIS HOUSE ON THE JERSEY Shore — no one, that is, except a very cute and horny fourteen-year-old. Her parents went to Atlantic City for the weekend, she is telling guys online, and she wants to get laid. Dozens of men are now making their way to the house, hoping to get lucky with an underage kid. One hopped on a motorcycle for the six-hour drive from Pennsylvania; another grabbed a train from New York in a SpongeBob SquarePants jacket, armed with a bottle of K-Y Jelly. One by one, they pull up to this white shingled, weather-beaten house at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, with no cars in the driveway and the window shades drawn. A mailman stuffs some bills into the shark-shaped mailbox next door, pulling open its door of tiny white teeth.
This, as the men will soon discover, isn't just a house: It's the set of the Dateline NBC show To Catch a Predator, the ratings phenomenon that zooms into America's living rooms to humiliate sexual perverts. The program's gotcha! moments are like those on any reality show; who can forget the time they made a bespectacled twenty-year-old come over naked for sex play with some Cool Whip? Except Dateline sends people to jail and claims a high-minded purpose: warning the American public about what it calls a "growing national epidemic."
To transform a house into a giant flytrap for sexual predators, it takes more than forty people, many of whom are hanging out in the living room on this Friday afternoon. There's the face of the operation: host Chris Hansen, a blond Dateline correspondent, discussing helicopter trips to more glamorous assignments with his producer. There's the eyes of the operation: Mitchell Wagenberg, a spy for hire wearing a long, skinny braid down to his butt, presiding over seventeen cameras hidden in dried-flower wreaths and the toaster. And there's the body of the operation: Casey, a sexpot college student and aspiring dancer in tight jeans who is playing jail-bait decoy today because her landlord dad owns this house. (Added bonus: Local prosecutors wrote her college a note so she could get out of a chemistry test.)
Casey gabs to potential predators on the phone. "Come on over, we're not going to get caught," she says. "If we got caught, I would get into trouble, and everybody would call me a slut, and I don't want that, either. I'll pay for your gas. It's no big deal, trust me. My dad gave me plenty of money for the weekend." When the guy fails to take the bait, her voice rises in pitch. "OK, fine, whatever, lame. L-A-M-E. You're being a baby. I told you I've done it a million times!"
None of these people, however, are the brains of the operation. Those, appropriately enough, are located upstairs, in the house's third-floor attic. For the Dateline sting, the space has been converted into the warren of Perverted Justice, a secretive citizenry of seventy-five predator-fighting zealots determined to save children from the long-term scars of sex abuse. The group is an assortment of Genesis-loving fatsos from Texas, introverted copywriters from Wisconsin, and New York nightclub doorgirls, with a dedicated core of West Coast anarchist tech geeks and gamers in their twenties and thirties. For those downstairs, To Catch a Predator is just a TV show; for those upstairs, hunting predators is both the coolest online game they've ever known and a life calling. Many members of Perverted Justice use pseudonyms, keeping their real names secret even from one another. One of the few who know their true identities is their elusive leader, Xavier Von Erck, a twenty-eight-year-old libertarian and atheist who kills on Civilization IV.
IT'S GETTING LATE, AND THE four top-ranking members of Perverted Justice here in the flesh — Del Harvey, Frag, Pibb and Don Pedro — are arranged around computers and video monitors balanced on the attic's chairs and beds, eagerly awaiting their afternoon prey. "Friday night, baby — hookup central!" says Del. At twenty-five, she's a computer geek's fantasy female: androgynous, beautiful, pierced, with comprehensive musical knowledge and a house overrun by pet Maine coons and an iguana. One of her favorite shirts features two cars crashing into each other under the symbol CTRL + Z, "Get it?" she asks excitedly. "It's a car crash, and Control-2 is the command for undo!"
Del pecks madly at her keyboard, coordinating the thirty-five volunteers who are working on this sting remotely. They chat with men on Yahoo!, AOL and MySpace about topics such as "have u ever given a bj b4?" and "do you have thick or thin pussy lips?" In the past few days, PJ members posing as young girls and boys have chatted with nearly 300 men. About thirty will actually show up at the house this weekend. A few guys are scheduled to appear soon — a salesman, a printing-press operator and a college student who has revealed that his uncle is a captain at a nearby police department.
Suddenly Frag leans toward his IM screen, which is scrolling rapidly with news from far-flung PJ members. "We got one — Ikeman!" he exclaims. "Ikeman coming from the south, in a blue Chevy Impala. He's bringing wine coolers!"
Everyone turns their attention to the camera following the Impala as it disgorges Ikeman, a.k.a. John Donnelly, a handsome twenty-one-year-old who is wearing a striped sweatshirt and a look that's equal parts sexual anticipation and terror. Casey runs outside to meet him, taking a seat in a chair on the beach. He approaches slowly.
"Where are the wine coolers?" she asks.
"I was going to get them after I met you because I was so paranoid," Donnelly says, looking around. "Man, I was just worried about this shit because I never met anyone under eighteen." He scrutinizes a couple passing by. "I guess there are no cops around, so it's cool."
"Yeah," says Casey, smiling. "You can see there's no one here."
He rubs his head. "I'm just worried that it's some crazy scheme," he says. "It's just like what you see on the news."
"I don't watch the news!" she says, snickering.
"Well, I don't watch the news either," he says. "But you know on Comedy Central's Daily Show, they make fun of the news, but it really is the news, right? And I heard there's cops who pretend they're girls and shit like that." He laughs as his body finally relaxes, like a cat finding a patch of sun. "I guess everything's cool," he says.
Just then, Chris Hansen streaks toward him, a camera crew not far behind.
THE DEGREE TO WHICH things are about to get uncool for Donnelly is amazing to contemplate. Twenty-eight men are caught in the bust, and the local prosecutor's office brings charges against all of them. If they're convicted, their sentences for attempted sexual assault will range from five to ten years in prison.
In direct response to the high-profile success of To Catch a Predator, laws against online predators have become increasingly hostile: Internet solicitation of a minor is now a crime in a majority of states, regardless of whether an actual minor is involved. By 2009, at least 600,000 of the country's convicted sex offenders — including those who, like Donnelly, never met an actual minor — will be required by a new federal law, the Adam Walsh Act, to be listed on a national registry of sex offenders. There, on easy-to-navigate maps for the entire country, their photos and home addresses will appear next to categories such as aliases, sentence and "computer used." Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch even thanked Perverted Justice for "directly impacting" the law's passage.
Twenty-four states now forbid sex offenders from living near a host of public places — including schools, parks, day-care centers and bus stops — effectively shutting them out of many cities. Florida and Oklahoma require some sex offenders to submit to GPS monitoring for the rest of their lives. Ohio lawmakers even tried to pass a bill in 2005 to force sex offenders to sport pink license plates on their cars, but pressure from Mary Kay cosmetics, whose logo is pink, stymied the plan. This year, legislators are trying again with fluorescent-green plates.
This is much to the glee of Perverted Justice, which views child sex abuse as a vastly underrated evil, one deserving of harsher punishment. "I'm just a guy working within the Constitution to make the world a better place, using my freedom of speech to chat with individuals on the other end of the screen name," says Frag. "How much more gratifying does it get than finding guys who are about to molest children and putting them in jail? Not many Americans have that."
In reality, though, the stings conducted by Perverted Justice are essentially designed to circumvent the Constitution. Police departments are largely overtaxed in the area of Internet crimes, and since Dateline reportedly pays Perverted Justice $100,000 per sting, the group is able to provide its services to the cops for free. In many ways, it is a subcontracted police force, with Del and Frag even deputized by local cops for one Dateline sting. But because its members are private citizens, their actions are impervious to charges of entrapment. Casey's come-on at the New Jersey house is not unusual: Perverted Justice tries to talk predators who have decided against a date into changing their mind, making calls in calming, baby-girl voices to men who are having second thoughts.
While some police departments enjoy the publicity that Perverted Justice brings, many in the criminal-justice field aren't so sanguine about the group's tactics. "We can't let anyone who wants too, simply become law enforcement," says Mike Iacopino, co-chair of a task force on sex offenders assembled by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "This is no different than letting a guy with a six-shooter walk around protecting your hometown." Indeed, many child-protection agencies express a disapproval of Dateline. "We've seen numerous cases that would constitute entrapment, and then Chris Hansen shoves a camera in these guys' faces and they end up convicted on the basis of the camera confession," says Brad Russ, director of training for Internet Crimes Against Children, a federally funded task force that declined to 'partner with Dateline.' "The whole thing is a perversion of the way the criminal-justice system is supposed to operate."
There is something undeniably disturbing about watching a delicate law-enforcement operation being orchestrated by a group of citizens hellbent on revenge, and anonymous ones at that. (During a Dateline sting in Texas, one alleged predator committed suicide while cameras waited down the street from his house.) In addition to the seventy-five "high-security-clearance" members who form the core of Perverted Justice, another 45,000 people have signed up for the group's online forums, where anyone can puff up their chest and play deputy dog. Despite warnings by the group, these nameless volunteers have made harassing phone calls to predators and mailed flyers to local businesses outing sex offenders. In addition, they post their own "investigations" under a section called "Human Shields." Perverted Justice also posts the pornographic material that predators have sent to decoys — Webcam photos of their penises, videos of themselves masturbating — alongside their first names and hometowns, thus disseminating the very perversions it fights.
Even more disturbing, anti-predator stings involving decoys may actually outnumber crimes involving real victims. On an early episode of To Catch a Predator, Dateline estimated that there are 50,000 predators online at any moment — a number the show pretty much made up out of thin air, though that didn't stop Attorney General Alberto Gonzales from citing it as fact in a speech last year. But a study conducted by the University of New Hampshire estimated that there were fewer than 2,900 arrests for online sexual offenses against minors in a single year. What's more, only 1,152 involved victims who were approached by strangers on the Internet — and more than half this number were actually cops posing as kids.
PERVERTED JUSTICE started out as a hobby. You could call it Stupid Pedophile Tricks —Internet geeks have long pretended to be young girls and boys in chat rooms and then turned the tables on unsuspecting guys ("u be the nurse"; "I jam the thermometer down the head 'til you feel it touch your pelvic bone"). In 2002, Von Erck, at the time a tech for a Turbo Tax-like computer program, and Frank Fencepost, a thirty-something tattoo artist and motorcyclist, began playing tricks in chat rooms in Portland, Oregon. Fencepost took things to another level, telling guys to come over with Taco Bell and pizza, then meeting them at the door with a raised baseball bat.
"Innocence is a very precious commodity, and it's in our interest to preserve a kid's as long as possible," says Fencepost. "There's nothing finer than the feeling when some bastard who thought he was about to 'score big' with a ten-year-old gets the surprise of his life: my face on his monitor, my voice on his phone and, in a figurative sense at least, my shit in his mouth."
Fencepost and Von Erck posted the logs of these chats, attracting a dozen others who wanted to get in on the fun. This new group increasingly took its tricks offline, bullying alleged predators with sinister phone calls. One PJ member who calls himself Antiperv said he posed as the principal of a local elementary school. "I'm having a 'Get to Know You Better Day,' and I'd like to have you come down and piss on all the kids," Antiperv told his victim. "Talk to us about the best liquids to drink to get a good yellow piss, and, if time permits, allow the children to piss on you." They also made inflammatory calls to the families, neighbors and employers of predators. "It's important to be very explicit in your calls," says a former member. "Once a predator is incarcerated, you can call the prison and say, This particular prisoner wanted to make a thirteen-year-old girl eat dog food while he fucked her in the ass.' One can assume that would stick in a guard's head."
But in 2004, Von Erck and Fencepost had a falling-out over tactics. "Xavier became much more oriented toward getting pedophiles arrested rather than just making them complete social pariahs in their neighborhood," says Fencepost. A Detroit broadcast on Von Erck caught the attention of Hansen, a smart reporter known for using hidden cameras, who took the idea to Dateline in 2004. All told, Perverted Justice has helped arrest about 250 men with the show, nabbed 200 more in other stings and scared straight hundreds of others.
In a move that whitewashed the group's prior bullying and abusive tactics, Von Erck has wiped all traces of early chats, including Fencepost's, from the Perverted Justice Web site. Earlier this year, he deleted entries from his personal blog as well, upset that journalists had located them and quoted some of his writing: "I wish I could fucking kill 9/11 conspiracy theorists. Yes, kill. I'd like to kill them. I want you to die. I wish you would die. Why don't you die? Just die." For a while clicking on his blog brought up a message addressed to "lazy idiots who aren't that bright." The subject line read, "You'll have to do some work now."
FOR A GROUP DEVOTED to exposing those who hide behind online anonymity, the masterminds behind To Catch a Predator are only sporadically accountable themselves. Perverted Justice didn't respond to my e-mails for nearly two weeks, claiming that my account had blocked its return messages because the "perverted" in their URL was registering as pornographic, NBC, for its part, refused to provide any phone numbers for New Jersey predators, citing a "standards and practices" provision that bars it from sharing unpublished news-gathering. And a particularly disaffected former member of Perverted Justice left me a vaguely threatening voice message: "The reason I'm calling is one of the things that makes PJ cult-like is I spent some time wondering if you are who you said you were or a PJer trying to see what they could find out about me. I spent a half-hour poking around, I found out you and your husband are thirty-three years old, and he's been arrested in California for something minor, and you and I went to the same school ... Also, you post too much information about yourself on the Web. I wouldn't add to it. I just wanted to let you know I had that thought."
The predators themselves were incommunicado as well. I searched for more than a hundred men busted by Perverted Justice and found only eleven with listed numbers, all of whom were terrified, worried about being evicted from their homes, losing their jobs, even becoming targets of random violence. (One study shows that as many as one in two sex offenders experience some form of harassment by strangers.) I sat behind a noisy waterfall in a vegan restaurant with one Dateline predator and in a banquette with high seat backs in a Mexican cafe with another, and they were still worried about who was watching them. "Maybe I'm paranoid, but I've got good reason to be paranoid," wailed one. A divorced father of two started to weep: "I love Dunkin' Donuts, but I won't go in anymore. I'm so scared of the first encounter with someone I know who has seen me on TV"
Although To Catch a Predator fosters the belief that child molesters are largely violent and untreatable, sex offenders actually have the lowest rearrest rates of all convicts. According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, only five percent of convicted sex offenders re-offend in three years, and studies show that fewer than one in four commit another sex crime in fifteen years. Men who rape women are more likely to return to their old ways than pedophiles who molest girls.
What's more. Perverted Justice's tactics may actually make the threat of child sex abuse worse instead of better. While the group has caught dangerous predators who eluded other law-enforcement methods, ninety percent of the men busted on To Catch a Predator have no rap sheet, and few have any sort of sex offense on their record. By whipping up public frenzy about online strangers, Perverted Justice diverts attention from the real source of child sex abuse: relatives and acquaintances. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, ninety-three percent of perpetrators of child sexual abuse are known to the child. "The focus on 'stranger danger' makes most people less suspicious of those they know," says Jill Levenson, a leading sex-crimes researcher at Lynn University in Florida. "And that could make it easier for known abusers to fly below the radar."
What Perverted Justice leaves in its wake are a lot of disturbed men with deep psychosexual problems whose national humiliation robs them of any real chance of re-entering society. Wesley Brannen, a twenty-five-year-old carpenter from San Bernardino, California, who was busted by the group, was released in January after eighteen months in prison. At six-one and 265 pounds, he looks like a white-boy gangster: shaved head, Vandyke beard, red plaid shirt. His parole officer is making him wear a GPS bracelet, but Brannen looks on the bright side. "The good thing is that not only child molesters wear these things, but gang members too," he says. "So I figure people will think I'm in a gang."
At first, Brannen speaks softly, talking about how he has slept with only four women in his life. He says he even wrote Perverted Justice an apologetic letter. But soon he's bursting with a toxic mix of anger and bravado. "These thirteen-year-old girls don't look like thirteen-year-olds no more!" he says. "Man, when I'm off parole, maybe I'll get a woman from Peru, one who doesn't speak English, so she won't ask about my past."
As he talks, Brannen drives aimlessly around San Bernardino in his Lexus. His dad and mom both live too close to schools, so Brannen is staying at a halfway house in the hills. Though he's clean now, he used to be a meth addict who made his living scamming credit cards. He hit on Perverted Justice's thirteen-year-old decoy, he says, only because he had just returned home from a weekend smoking meth with some girls at a roadside motel and was still hot and bothered when he got on Yahoo! chat. "I was thinking to myself, 'This ain't right,' but I was so spun everything was off-kilter," he says.
After a while, Brannen reveals that he was molested by an older man when he was seven. "For so long I carried that around," he says, "like it was my fault that he did that to me." Deep down, he wanted revenge and became obsessed with searching for registered sex offenders online. "If a guy did something serious, like molest a young kid, I'd try to get the homeboys to go over there and clean out the guy's house," Brannen says, stroking his beard. "Now I'm in the same situation myself, and I'm worried about who is going to come get me."
IN RECENT WEEKS, IT HAS started to seem like Perverted Justice may have overstayed its welcome on the national stage. For the first time, its tactics are starting to backfire. A district attorney in Texas recently refused to prosecute twenty-four men busted by Dateline, citing insufficient evidence, and the city manager who put together the sting was forced to resign in disgrace. NBC also got rid of the show's producer, who retaliated with a suit alleging that she became a target when she expressed reservations about the ethics of the show. NBC denies that claim, but a source within the network says that the days of To Catch a Predator, unpopular with advertisers, are numbered: NBC plans to phase out the show after four more stings.
None of this bothers Xavier Von Erck, whose obsession launched the franchise. "Hey, the TV show could go away tomorrow, and it doesn't matter to me," he says. "Perverted Justice will still do what we do, roll how we roll."
Von Erck, whose nickname is X, is sitting in a bookstore cafe in Portland, dressed all in black. He looks a little like Philip Seymour Hoffman, five-eleven and round all over. He wears tinted eyeglasses and walks with a limp because he spends so much time at the computer that his eyes are now light-sensitive and his leg muscles have seized up. In a way, he's an odd dopplegänger for Brannen, another guy who seems childlike but wants to be a gangster.
Though he wasn't molested himself. Von Erck felt robbed of his childhood by his father and legally changed his name from Phillip Eide to eradicate the last vestiges of his paternal namesake. "My dad was an alcoholic scumbag commercial fisherman who hit my mom," he says. "She left him when I was one, and he went on to impregnate ten more women up and down the West Coast. His name is garbage." As a teenager, the only thing that brought Von Erck back to a state of innocence and wonder was the computer — until he decided that the online world was teeming with sex offenders. "I was so into the computer," he says. "I went into chat rooms thinking it was going to be Utopia, and it was dystopia."
It's easy to see how Perverted Justice resembles a game to Von Erck. Intentionally enigmatic himself, he demands utter transparency from predators and Perverted justice members, like a junior-high-school kid playing D&D who always wants to be the dungeon master so he can control every aspect of the game. He guards his power closely, requiring members to give him their entire Internet history (all screen names, all pages joined) and going to war with "stupid" people who dare to criticize Perverted Justice. He exacted a particularly sadistic form of revenge against Bruce Raisley, a software developer from Arkansas who launched an aggressive anti-PJ crusade. Posing as a woman named Holly, Von Erck began an online flirtation with Raisley, who was smitten enough to leave his wife and rent a new apartment. On the day Raisley went to pick up Holly at the airport, Von Erck sent a friend to snap his photo and posted it with a warning: "Tonight, Bruce Raisley stood around at an airport, flowers in hand, waiting for a woman that turned out to be a man … He has no one. He has no more secrets … Perverted-Justice.com will only tolerate so much in the way of threats and attacks upon us."
Here, after all, is the point of Perverted Justice: to destroy and vanquish, to reestablish Utopia, both online and off. With or without To Catch a Predator, the man known as X is onto the next stage of the game, taking on even bigger prey than horny guys who stalk young girls. Von Erck's new obsession is what he calls "corporate sex offenders" — online sites that don't do enough, in his view, to rein in the pedophiles who use their services. My-Space is exempt from the campaign — since March, at the request of PJ, it has removed more than 3,000 predators from its site and forwarded their addresses and online profiles to the police. But Von Erck is mobilizing his thousands of followers to write letters to companies advertising on LiveJournal and YouTube, demanding they withdraw their support.
"Corporations have a choice about having the pedophile community use their service and upload videos on their sites," he says. "People want to know if you're responsible on this issue."
Von Erck looks out into the distance, imagining a world in which every predator has been ferreted out and Cyberspace is his again. "When it comes to the Internet, pedophiles got there first," he says. "It's a check game, where they make one move and we try to check it. But slowly but surely, we're catching up."