Long battle between online vigilante and Arkansas man will soon be decided in Camden court

The Star-Ledger, New Jersey/September 12, 2010

Bruce Raisley had been fooled.

For months, he had traded steamy online messages with a woman calling herself "Holly." Now Raisley, a burly 40-something from Arkansas, had left his wife and son and stood at the Little Rock National Airport, waiting with flowers for his new lover.

But "Holly" wasn't real. She was the creation of an online organization called Perverted Justice, whose volunteers masquerade as children and troll the darkest corners of the internet, hoping to expose and humiliate pedophiles. Raisley was no pedophile; in fact he once supported the group. But authorities say he had been feuding with its members since 2005, when he accused them of using a photograph of his 10-year-old son to lure a predator.

Perverted Justice's founder, Xavier Von Erck, denies using the child's picture. Von Erck does, however, acknowledge setting a trap for Raisley using one of his volunteers who posed not as a child, but as a woman.

"He fell for her," Von Erck - a 31-year-old community college dropout whose group worked with "Dateline NBC" to produce the reality program "To Catch a Predator" - said in an interview last year.

"Holly," of course, never showed up at the Little Rock airport. But Von Erck sent an emissary to photograph Raisley with his bouquet. Within hours, that picture was posted online along with an X-rated exchange between Raisley and "Holly."

The episode humiliated Raisley. It cost him his job as a software programmer. And it triggered a bizarre series of events leading to a federal trial beginning this week in New Jersey.

The story of Raisley's feud with Von Erck is about vengeance and vigilantism in a shadowy world where people lie about their names, ages and genders - all in the name of justice. At the center are two sharp-tongued internet fanatics. One apparently knew when to quit the fight; the other allegedly did not.

For while Von Erck set the trap in Little Rock, Raisley is the one standing trial beginning Wednesday in Camden. That's because months after being duped, Raisley was embarrassed yet again when two magazines - Rolling Stone and Radar - published exposés detailing the "Holly" episode.

In response, authorities say, Raisley created a malicious program infecting thousands of computers and directed them to simultaneously attack the websites of the magazines and the Rick A. Ross Institute of New Jersey, which also posted the articles. Prosecutors say Raisley caused more than $100,000 in damage. He is charged with accessing computers without authorization. If convicted, he faces 10 years in prison.

"I have some sympathy for Bruce Raisley. He was humiliated by Perverted Justice. But that doesn't make it all right for him to attack websites and make it impossible for people to get information," said Rick Ross, whose site archives tens of thousands of articles about cults and controversial groups.

Raisley, now 48, declined interview requests made through his lawyer, John H. Yauch, a federal public defender. Von Erck answered several questions by e-mail but eventually stopped responding.

Raisley's nemesis

Von Erck, who founded Perverted Justice on the premise of protecting children, once said in an interview that he doesn't actually like kids. "I'm not a kid person. I don't like being around 'em; I'm never gonna have 'em. But I don't like pedophiles more," he told the Oregonian newspaper in 2007. A one-time tech support worker who became enchanted with internet chat rooms as a teenager, Von Erck describes himself as a "childless atheist libertarian" on Perverted Justice's website. He is married, tends to wear black, has described himself as reclusive and writes about his infatuation with Italian sodas and other ultra sweet drinks on his blog, which - in a sarcastic nod to his detractors - is named EvilVigilante.com.

Born Phillip J. Eide, he was raised in Portland, Ore., by a single mother and legally changed his name several years ago, blending her maiden name with that of his favorite basketball player, former Seattle Supersonics star Xavier McDaniel. Von Erck writes on his website of being in a Yahoo chat room several years ago and becoming angered at seeing young girls swamped with come-ons. "I've had a lot of female friends in the past who had been taken advantage of. The scars that left them were very real, and as a person of empathy, especially for the female plight in society, they strike me as very tragic," he wrote.

Von Erck - who has said he has never personally been abused - and another man began posing as 13- or 14-year-old girls and having sexually explicit chats with men around 2002, according to his website. They would talk them into e-mailing photographs, revealing their names, phone numbers and addresses - then post it all online with the text of the obscene chats. They gave their website a name detractors came to find ironically fitting: Perverted Justice.

By 2004, they were forwarding their findings to authorities, who began prosecuting the men and sometimes calling Perverted Justice volunteers to testify in court. That same year, the group began working with Chris Hansen, the host of "To Catch a Predator." The show transformed rented houses into high-tech traps for men hoping to have sex with underage girls, wired with dozens of secret cameras and microphones.

Working at computers across the nation, Perverted Justice volunteers trolled chat rooms, telling their targets they were home alone. When the men arrived, Hansen calmly grilled them on camera. After making them squirm, Hansen allowed the men to walk outside, where they were usually arrested by a throng of waiting police.

The show became a ratings juggernaut and lifted the sails of Perverted Justice. Its volunteer staff swelled to 250. The organization earned a consulting fee of $75,000 per hour of programming from NBC, according to a Florida appellate court ruling upholding a conviction. (A spokeswoman said the network does not comment on financial arrangements with program consultants.) By 2006, Perverted Justice had incorporated as a nonprofit organization and reported $825,000 in annual income, according to a form filed with the Internal Revenue Service. As president, Von Erck earned $120,000 a year, also according to the documents.

Between 2004 and 2007, "To Catch a Predator" led to the arrests of 263 men in 12 stings, including 28 during a 2007 episode set in the Ocean County borough of Mantoloking, according to a spokeswoman for NBC. Thomas F. Kelaher, who was Ocean County prosecutor at the time, said every conviction stuck. "I have no complaint about this outfit Perverted Justice. I thought they were a model for how this stuff can be done," said Kelaher, now mayor of Toms River. Despite the convictions, some law enforcement organizations have said it is dangerous for police to depend on volunteers. Children's advocates, meanwhile, have argued the group distorts the public's view of sexual abuse by sensationalizing the threat of strangers instead of focusing on the larger problem of abusive relatives and friends. Scrutiny of "To Catch a Predator" peaked in 2006 when a prosecutor in Texas was caught in a sting and shot himself to death as cameras approached. NBC later settled a lawsuit with the man's family asking for $105 million; the network never disclosed how much it paid.

The falling out

Perhaps no critic of Perverted Justice was as dogged as Bruce C. Raisley, a ham-radio buff and self-taught software programmer. He grew up in a small town in southern Indiana, the son of a carpenter. "He was very intelligent. But he was pretty silly sometimes," said Larry Dean, 73, who taught Raisley high school math. After quitting high school, Raisley earned a certificate in electronics from a vocational school in 1981.

By 2004, Raisley was living in Arkansas with his wife and son. He was a Boy Scout leader and worked for a software firm. He stumbled across Perverted Justice's website while researching instant messaging systems, according to a transcript of a 2008 interview in Newark with Erez Liebermann, an assistant U.S. attorney. The extent of Raisley's early involvement with the group is in dispute. He told prosecutors he helped hunt predators. Von Erck said Raisley participated only in the group's chat rooms.

Raisley told authorities he grew concerned after realizing one of his "predator" targets was only 16. When he raised the issue, Raisley was banned from Perverted Justice's chat room, he said. So Raisley began criticizing the group in other online forums. Then in April 2005, he called the FBI, saying Von Erck used a photograph of his son as "bait." Von Erck denies it. Raisley's wife, Doris Raisley, later told federal investigators the group did not, in fact, use her child's picture, according to court documents filed by Lee Vartan, an assistant U.S. attorney.

Regardless, Raisley was furious, authorities say. He continued his online criticism. And, according to members of Perverted Justice, he began trying to incite violence against the group's volunteers. "That is when we got really concerned about Raisley, especially because we were not being listened to by police about that very dangerous situation," Von Erck wrote in an e-mail.

Enter "Holly."

A lover conned

It's unclear who played the role of Raisley's fictitious online lover. Federal prosecutors have said it was Von Erck. But he denies it, saying only that the role of Holly was played by a woman. The conversations began in late summer or fall of 2005, authorities said. When he asked for a photograph, "Holly" sent Raisley a picture of the actress Naomi Watts. After two months of talking, Raisley agreed to meet "Holly" at the airport, according to court documents.

The blurry photograph showing Raisley at the airport was posted on a now-defunct site once affiliated with Perverted Justice. The picture was accompanied by sexually explicit messages - which Raisley told prosecutors were heavily edited.

Raisley moved back in with his wife and son, according to public records. But he was fired from his job at Lindsey Software after his boss saw the photograph, authorities said. Raisley took a job in Ohio. But he backed out when the company wanted to announce his hiring, a move Raisley feared would prompt someone to tell his new bosses about "Holly." Eventually, Raisley found work in Florida. His wife and son stayed in Arkansas. While he was away, a pipe bomb exploded in the family's mailbox in Arkansas. Raisley blamed Perverted Justice. But his wife told prosecutors she suspected neighborhood children. Still, Raisley quit his job and moved back to Arkansas, hoping to protect his family, authorities said.

Finally, in September 2006, the first article appeared, in Radar Magazine. It focused on Perverted Justice but recounted the Holly episode. The following July, a similar piece ran in Rolling Stone. Rick Ross, who had been gathering articles on the group, posted both.

Raisley was disgraced once more.

The alleged onslaught

So, authorities say, he launched the attack, flooding the websites with hits, slowing them to a crawl. Raisley, who by 2007 had moved with his wife and son to western Pennsylvania, asked the sites to take down the articles. Radar eventually did. Ross said he would have been willing to remove Raisley's name. But the attacks continued 24 hours a day for nearly a year. Eventually, Ross called the FBI.

Raisley was arrested in June 2009. He made bail, and prosecutors offered him a plea bargain that would have included far less prison time than the 10 years he faces if convicted. But Raisley, whose bail terms bar him from traveling outside Pennsylvania and New Jersey, refused the deal, according to a court filing. In June, his wife moved to Illinois, according to public records. "They're not on good terms," said Edward Raisley, a brother.

The fortunes of Von Erck and Perverted Justice, meanwhile, have slipped. Dateline hasn't produced "To Catch a Predator" since 2007, and an NBC spokeswoman said there are no plans for future episodes. Perverted Justice's income, consequently, dropped to $2,100 last year, according to a document filed with the IRS. Von Erck wouldn't say how he is earning a living.

He, too, has moved to Pennsylvania and lives less than 35 miles from his former online foe. For a man who says he has helped send 513 people to prison, Von Erck said he is not eager to see Raisley behind bars.

"I don't see how prison does much for a guy like Bruce Raisley, nor that it's really warranted," Von Erck wrote. "Personally, I think the guy needs serious state-mandated mental health (treatment) in a psychiatric hospital."

Editor's Note: The location of the federal court where Bruce Raisley is scheduled to appear was incorrectly stated in the headline and the photo caption in an earlier version of this report. Raisley is scheduled to appear in Camden concerning a trap Von Erck set to humiliate Raisley.

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