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WKYT Investigates | Vigilante justice

Citizen groups online are doing their own undercover work to put predators in prison. Are they heroes? Or just in the way?
WKYT Investigates | Vigilante justice
Published: May. 26, 2022 at 2:17 PM EDT
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HOUSTON (WKYT) - Alex Rosen never expected to be a “YouTuber.” And while he did dream of becoming a police officer, he didn’t necessarily expect to spend his days trying specifically to get suspected sexual predators off the streets.

But: “It’s always been about catching bad guys,” he said.

As a 19-year-old in 2019, the Texas native stumbled across videos of someone posing as a child on social media to lure and catch predators lurking online. He couldn’t believe, he said, that there could possibly be that many adults out there hoping to have sex with underage children.

So, he said, he set up an undercover account himself and quickly realized how wrong he was.

“Now three years later,” he told WKYT’s Garrett Wymer via Zoom from Houston, “we’re traveling the country, have arrests in 27 states and this obviously has turned into a very big passion of mine.”

Rosen’s “Predator Poachers” organization is just one of many citizen-led groups that does its own investigative work - independent of law enforcement - with the goal of putting predators in prison.

“I want to catch pedophiles because they are - obviously besides murderers - they are the nastiest people on this earth,” he said, “and they’re the least talked about, I would say.”

The work of the different groups often follows a familiar script:

  • The setup, an undercover online chat between an adult and who they think is an underaged child;
  • The meetup, where the alleged predator comes to meet who they think is the underaged child;
  • The sting, when the predator hunters come out, phones either recording or live streaming, to confront the person who showed up. (Different groups differ in how they handle this part. Some simply shame, record the encounter and license plates, etc., then may turn evidence over later. Some may stay and include the arrival of law enforcement in their videos.)

If it sounds like something you’ve seen before, you’re probably right. Many videos follow the style of “To Catch a Predator,” the hugely popular Dateline NBC program that aired for several seasons in the mid-2000s before being pulled off the air following controversy stemming from the suicide of a district attorney being served with a search warrant.

Videos (whether livestreamed or later posted online) by such vigilante groups often rack up thousands or tens of thousands of views. Rosen’s latest YouTube channel has more than 57,000 subscribers; some of his videos have more than 300,000 views.

WKYT has reported at least two arrests of Kentucky men in the past six months stemming from self-described predator hunters. One in Pulaski County in December resulted from Rosen’s work, deputies there said. And investigators in Georgetown gave credit to another man - known as the Knoxville Predator Catcher - for an arrest in April.

Many of the civilian groups have their own websites, subscriptions and even merchandise with customized slogans or logos to help fund their mission and out-of-town trips for what they call “catches.” Their followings, as evidenced not just by the view count but by myriad comments praising their work, are loyal.

But not everyone’s a fan.

Law enforcement agencies asked for comment by WKYT Investigates indicated that they would rather such groups stay out of the way.

“We are aware of them,” said Matt Hedden, director of the special victims unit inside the Kentucky Office of the Attorney General. “We’ve seen them at both the local and national level.”

As part of the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force, Hedden and his highly-trained investigators often work with other agencies to conduct undercover sting operations to try to find predators, get them out from behind their keyboards and get them off the streets.

On a recent morning WKYT’s Garrett Wymer was allowed to witness several undercover chats performed on one online platform, which will remain unnamed at the request of detectives so as not to disclose one of their methods. The conversations turned surprisingly quickly from introductory to sexual in nature (“r u horny,” one person asked; “are you a virgin?” asked another) despite the undercover detective posing as a “teen” letting the other person know they were underage.

[MORE COVERAGE | WKYT Investigates]

“There are ways to do things and ways not to do things,” Hedden said, explaining the extensive training detectives go through prior to any undercover work - including training managed and produced by ICAC that covers legal aspects, operational aspects, safety, etc. “We try to always abide by the policies we’ve got in place, and that ensures we have strong cases that will result in convictions.”

A spokesperson for Kentucky State Police, also touting thorough training and peer-review processes, likewise said that their agency neither encourages nor supports groups working independently of law enforcement.

Among the concerns officials cited were potential interference with current investigations, and safety concerns with the possibility of violence at one of the confrontations.

“It’s terribly dangerous for these groups to go out there and do these operations on their own,” Hedden said. “There’s no coordination amongst law enforcement, they’re out there doing it sort of cowboy-style. And there’s certainly the potential for them or for innocent third parties to get injured, or worse.”

(Said Rosen: “I’ve been threatened with a gun - not pointed at me but threatened....It’s a risk we’re willing to take....In the end if you want to make the world around you better, you’ve got to sacrifice something or be willing to sacrifice something. There’s no reward if there’s no risk.”)

Freedom of speech protects these groups’ activities in many cases, legal experts told WKYT. But they can cross into some gray area by how far they go, leaving them open to criminal or civil liabilities in some cases.

“To take that next step and actually conduct the investigation themselves has a whole host of problems,” said Abe Mashni, a defense attorney and partner at Baldani Law Group, “and so that’s why you’re seeing some backlash from law enforcement and prosecutors across the country.”

The leader of one predator-hunting group has faced felony charges himself. (Those charges were later dismissed as part of an agreement that he stop performing sting operations.) That same group was also sued for defamation at one point. In some places, law enforcement and vigilante groups have openly feuded. Prosecutors have pleaded with them to stop.

Yet even after someone is charged, defense attorneys may be able to raise questions about the evidence collected by the civilian groups and whether it is admissible in court.

“There’s just a lot more questions that are raised when the investigation starts with them instead of law enforcement,” Mashni said.

A memo from an Indiana prosecutor details some of the issues that such evidence can pose in the courtroom.

A judge in Georgetown recently denied a defense attorney’s request to dismiss charges in the case of Daniel Messer - the Scott County man arrested after police say he traveled to Knoxville, Tenn. to meet up with someone he thought was a 14-year-old girl.

“I just don’t see the distinction - I’m not looking at that and seeing where there would be reason for me to throw out the case,” Judge Mary Jane Phelps, chief regional district judge, said during a hearing on May 17, “just because we had an initiating group called the Knoxville Predator Catcher, instead of law enforcement.”

In Pulaski County, the final test of the Predator Poacher’s Kentucky “catch” will come in a trial scheduled for August in the case of Floyd Adams.

But still, from investigators themselves, a word of warning: “Don’t take the law into your own hands,” Hedden said.

The attorney general’s office and state police agree that they would rather these groups not confront potential suspects themselves. Instead, they encourage them to provide whatever information they may have that can be used as an investigative lead by submitting it either to the National Missing & Exploited Children CyberTipline, state police or local law enforcement. In an emergency, call 911.

Despite these groups’ good intentions, officials say they are better off leaving it to the badge.

“I think we do leave it up to them,” Rosen said of that mentality. “Because in the end, we don’t have the handcuffs. All we’re doing is filming a crime being committed.

“We’re calling the cops, we’re turning it in,” he said. “And if they don’t want to do anything with it, why should we leave it up to them?”

So are they heroes or unwanted vigilantes?

It may depend on who is asked.

“In the end, it doesn’t really matter what their opinion is of me,” Rosen said. “There’s people who absolutely love me – there’s people who will copy me and do exactly what I do. Then there’s people who hate my guts. In the end, that doesn’t matter. As long as the person I’m confronting is exposed to them.”

Resources

The attorney general’s office encourages parents to have honest discussions with their children about the potential dangers they can face from strangers online. Here are several resources for parents and their children, including an informational tipline, cyber safety toolkit and conversation starters.

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