Vigilantes versus pedophiles

Web group baits would-be abusers; Critics decry its punitive 'justice'

Toronto Star/September 29, 2004
By Christian Cotroneo

There's a new sheriff in town.

And he acts like a little girl.

At least online, where getting tangled in his world wide web begins with a chat-room conversation.

"Would you have sex with a girl my age?" asks the 15-year-old.

"Well, I might if I believed that she was serious and hopefully that maybe even she cared for me as a person and was not just trying to get me into trouble," replies the 59-year-old.

The man surrenders his digits, hoping she'll agree to a rendezvous.

But when the conversation ends, a massive network spanning North America begins the process of his destruction.

The man's personal details are posted on the Internet, along with a transcript of the chat. Then an army of invisible strangers scours public records for every scrap of information available about his life. His wife, work, and even his neighbours receive call after call. Strangers drive by the house; the neighbourhood is covered with fliers. They all sing the same refrain: There's a pervert in your midst.

This is Perverted Justice, a website that specializes in using Internet decoys to draw out the darkest thoughts of men - and punish them accordingly. Or, in the words of one website administrator, "an army of volunteers that will go out of our way to find every person you have ever known and let them know what a disgusting piece of human excrement you really are."

And it's poised for a Canadian debut.

So far, the note on the Canadian version of the site reads simply "Future home of Perverted Justice Canada," but the organization's creator says its brand of justice is nigh.

"The (age of consent) of 14 in Canada should be considered ridiculous by anyone's estimation," says the administrator, a 25-year-old native of Portland, Ore., who calls himself Xavier Von Erck. "Online, pedophiles are very organized, and they trade tips on how to meet young kids ... unfortunately, especially in Vancouver, B.C., Canada is the growing answer for American pedophiles."

And Perverted Justice, he vows, will follow.

Cue the modern lynch mob, says Klaus Pohle, a media law professor at Carleton University. He characterizes the organization as a brand of mob justice that targets today's latest bogeyman, the cyber-predator. Ironically, the idea is nothing new.

At one point in history, "we would have tarred and feathered them and run them out of town on a rail," Pohle says. "This is the technological equivalent of that."With hundreds of members hailing from places as far-flung as Texas and Prince Edward Island, his site already boasts substantial Canadian content. The new site should land within a year.

When Scott Morrow of Russell, Ont., discovered the original website, his first thought was, "This is awesome. They're protecting the Internet for children."

But it didn't take long for the retired Air Force sergeant to see a dark underside to this righteous army. The website's brand of retribution struck him as anything but just.

"Even a murderer has a right to stand up and face his accuser," Morrow says. "How do you stand up and face someone who you can't identify? The accuser is basically a ghost."

So, earlier this year, he joined a Toronto man and four Americans to fight these ghosts-in-the-machine with their own cyber posse: Corrupted-Justice. com.

If Von Erck's mission is to save children from "wannabe pedophiles" at any cost, his arch nemeses have swung to the opposite extreme - saving "wannabe pedophiles" from Von Erck.

When Morrow's camp offers counselling, resources and consolation to the "busts," Von Erck says they sympathize with the devil. When Von Erck destroys a life in the name of a child's innocence - before any crime has been committed - they say he is the devil.

"Three, that I've personally dealt with, were on the brink of suicide," Morrow says of the men.

But not one of the more than 700 people busted in the past two years, Von Erck is quick to point out, has gone all the way.

"Specifically, people like to ask me, `How would you feel if someone committed suicide?'" Von Erck says. "My answer is, and will always be ... `Fine.'"

Besides, he adds, his cyber squad has wracked up real-world results.

Steve Chamraz, an investigative reporter for KCTV in Kansas City, has seen those results firsthand.

"Perverted Justice made these claims that some people think are outlandish - that men are waiting on the Internet for your children," he said in an interview. "We set up an experiment."

Chamraz rented a house, hired two retired vice cops for security and waited for Von Erck to do the rest.

"As Perverted Justice found the men who wanted to meet an underage teen, they'd send them to us," he says. "They would find me and a camera. And I'd have some questions for them."

Over four days, 16 men showed up, including a retired federal police officer, a Porsche-driving young professional and a 72-year-old looking for a 14-year-old boy. One man dug a Bible from his truck and told the TV crew he was only spreading the gospel. He then knocked on the door of the neighbouring house.

After the series, the local police department hired two full-time detectives and one part-time prosecutor to do similar work. Buoyed by high-profile success stories, experts say, Perverted Justice could spawn a legion of similar sites."These kinds of sites are going to proliferate," Pohle says. "Nothing is going to be done about them because these people think they are doing a public service."

There's a great leap, he cautions, between catching someone talking about sex with a seemingly underage girl on the Internet - and branding that person a "wannabe pedo."

In many cases, he adds, people are aware they're not really chatting with a 14-year-old, but using the Internet to nurture a kind of cyber fantasy.

Even so, lawsuits against the organization are unlikely because many "busts" are content to simply drop off the face of the earth.

"It is such a serious, serious allegation these days," Pohle says. "There is nothing, including murder, it seems to me, to which more vilification is attached than the accusation of being a pedophile."

In a rare exception, a California man launched a civil suit against the organization last month, claiming his neighbourhood was plastered in fliers, his face broadcast around the world and his name stained forever.

Perverted Justice claims he was talking dirty to one of its decoys. He says it simply wasn't him.

"It's a damn outrage - the most outrageous thing I've heard in a long time," his lawyer, Dennis Roberts, told a local newspaper. "This is not the police - it's a group of `well-meaning' people who march to their own drum and think it's a good thing to destroy people's lives. It's vigilante justice, and I hope they have a lot of money."

In any case, local police have refused to pursue the website's allegations, saying Perverted Justice ruined any chance of prosecuting the man - if indeed he was guilty.

The website does offer "busts" a chance to clear their name with a "Right of Reply," in which the men must confess and prove they are seeking psychiatric help.

"This is my reply for my words I spoke on the Internet to a guy who said he was a girl who was 13," wrote a Marine reservist from Michigan, adding, "Will I ever be forgiven and given a chance to live my life?"

"There is not a day that goes by that I don't feel remorse and regret for my actions," wrote another man from New Hampshire. "I'm embarrassed and ashamed. I want to deeply apologize to everyone at Perverted Justice. What I did was sick and criminal."

Names rarely disappear, but confessions are mounted like trophies on the website. The words, Morrow says, are written out of blind fear.

Von Erck lashes back, saying it's people like Morrow who keep busts from clearing their names.

"I'd remove many more if Corrupted-Justice didn't tell these guys that they've done nothing wrong," he says. "The tragedy of Corrupted-Justice is that they tell these guys not to co-operate in getting counselling."

The bust never sleeps.

"All they know is their phones have started ringing and they're getting hundreds of e-mails and Internet messages on Yahoo," Morrow says. "They're getting windows popping open on their screen, calling them babyf----r and all this sort of this thing.

"Usually, they're terrified."

Von Erck knows the spoils of his armchair campaigns.

"Some of these guys have been on national news, face shown, name given," he says. "A lot of these guys have lost jobs, wives, kids, you name it."

And, in this brave new world of cyber crimes and punishment, some have even lost their youth. Morrow recently counselled a boy who was "busted" after talking to what appeared to be a 15-year-old.

"He's a 17-year-old, for God's sake," he says. "He's not a pedophile. He's a frigging horny teenager. But they lambasted him. They called his family. They called his school.

"Sometimes it's difficult for computer weenies to do this, but they have to step back and realize this is not a game. These people's lives are really being destroyed."

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