Murphy, Texas -- The show was an instant success. It lured would-be child-sex predators to a public shaming delivered by a handsome host. Ratings, awards and even praise from members of Congress followed.
But now "Dateline NBC's To Catch a Predator" series is taking heat. And so is the police chief of the Texas town that hosted it eight months ago.
The troubles stem from the show's visit to Murphy, where more than 20 people were arrested but escaped prosecution because of evidence problems. Also, a former district attorney ensnared in the sting shot himself.
A lengthy Esquire magazine account of the episode assails "Dateline" for overstepping the bounds of news-gathering, and quotes Collin County District Attorney John Roach blasting Murphy police for being there "like potted plants, to make the scenery."
The article follows other recent pieces questioning the "Dateline" program.
Along with the media scrutiny, "Dateline" is the target of lawsuits. In one, the dead prosecutor's sister blames the show for her brother's suicide. In another, a former "Dateline" producer accuses the network of firing her because she questioned the show's ethics.
"Dateline's" executive producer, David Corvo, says criticisms of the show are dwarfed by its accolades. Host Chris Hansen, formerly of Detroit's WDIV-TV Local 4, "could make a living just going to children and parent safety groups to receive all the awards he's been given or offered," Corvo said.
Murphy's police chief, Billy Myrick, said he set out only to put criminals in jail and doesn't understand the backlash.
"It's a tragedy on so many fronts that a lot of things have come out of this the way they have," Myrick said.
Perverted Justice consults
"Dateline" launched "To Catch a Predator" in 2004.
It filmed a group called Perverted Justice, whose volunteers posed online as children to expose would-be sexual predators. They chatted with those who sent explicit messages, then invited the men to a decoy house.
When they showed up, Hansen confronted them in front of cameras.
In the first sting, set up near New York City, 18 men arrived in less than three days. In future episodes, many more showed up, and "Dateline" invited police to make arrests. NBC began paying Perverted Justice as a consultant.
In 11 stings, the show has exposed more than 250 potential predators, many of whom have been convicted.
In November, "Dateline" producers brought the show to Murphy, a town of about 13,000, where police arrested more than 20 men during a four-day sting.
Officials say that one man who was sending sexually explicit messages to a supposed 13-year-old boy was former Kaufman County District Attorney Louis (Bill) Conradt Jr.
When Conradt couldn't be lured to the home, police got a warrant for his arrest.
When he didn't answer his door or his telephone, police forced their way into his home. But before they could arrest Conradt, he put a handgun to his temple and fired.
Police play role in show
Esquire's investigation into Conradt's death accuses "Dateline" of manipulating the Murphy police.
The magazine also accuses Murphy police of rushing searches and arrest warrants to accommodate "Dateline" and includes criticism of the police for entering the prosecutor's home.
Prosecutors have since said they couldn't prove they had jurisdiction over many of the cases -- that either the Perverted Justice decoy or the suspect was in Collin County when the crime was committed.
And according to Esquire, prosecutors believed the arrests might have been illegal. In each case, police had done little or no investigation prior to the men showing up at the house. Instead, Esquire said, they simply arrested the men who emerged after receiving a signal from the "Dateline" crew inside.
According to Esquire, Roach said: "The Murphy Police Department was merely a player in the show and had no real law enforcement position. Other people are doing the work, and the police are just there like potted plants, to make the scenery."
"Dateline's" executive producer shrugged off the criticisms in the Esquire story.
"The premise, the notion, that's been floated that Chris Hansen or his producers somehow could have controlled or manipulated a police department, prosecutors or the whole law enforcement organization is ridiculous," Corvo said.
Chief defends enforcement
Myrick said he has been caught him off guard by all the criticism. "Like coming around a corner and hitting a brick wall."
Esquire portrays the 49-year-old as a bad leader, eager to please "Dateline" and greedy for the vehicles confiscated in the sting. The article mentions an SUV that Murphy police seized in a previous investigation with Perverted Justice.
"Chief Myrick, who would eventually use that Ford Expedition as his ride-around vehicle, was hooked," Esquire wrote.
The chief, who wouldn't speak to Esquire, said the Expedition wasn't some shining prize, but a 9-year-old vehicle he drove for several months while waiting for his current vehicle, a standard police-issue Crown Victoria.
"I'm surprised and very saddened that things have gone the route that they have," he said. "We performed strictly what we believed to be a valid law enforcement operation."
Sister criticizes series
Patricia Conradt, sister of the dead prosecutor, has filed a $105-million federal lawsuit against NBC. In the suit, she says the show's host and producers are more interested in "sensationalizing and dramatizing the Predator series for profit than in news reporting." .