Vigilantes troll for pedophiles

Wired News/March 18, 2004
By Julia Scheeres

The sensational reports have irked some communities, which have accused the group and the TV stations of endangering local children by bringing sexual predators into their neighborhoods.

Law enforcement officials and seasoned activists who work as decoys in Internet pedophilia investigations have also denounced the group's methods.

"The biggest difference between them and us is that we are governed by entrapment laws," said Sgt. Nick Battaglia, who heads the police department's child exploitation unit in San Jose, California. "Their hearts are in the right place, but the law needs to be enforced by someone who is qualified to enforce them. They need to be very careful or they could get in trouble themselves."

Battaglia said vigilantes like the Perverted Justice volunteers run the risk of being sued for defamation or invasion of privacy.

"If they're insinuating that someone is committing a criminal offense and putting their photograph and personal information online, they could be held liable in a civil suit," he said.

Battaglia's undercover operatives arrested 27 men in 2003 who arranged to meet police decoys posing as children, a misdemeanor that carries a three-year prison sentence in California and requires those convicted to register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives.

Although the men listed on the Perverted Justice website are mercilessly hectored by the group's supporters, few have been charged with a crime. Nevertheless, the site says this public humiliation is enough to keep many perverts offline.

On a national scale, the problem is far larger than law enforcement agencies can handle -- each month, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children receives more than 300 reports of sexual enticement of children over the Internet.

Increasingly, local police are relying on citizens to help them patrol the seedy underbelly of the Internet.

But police volunteers undergo extensive background checks and training on how to chat in a way that will build a criminal case against would-be pedophiles. Volunteers for Perverted Justice undergo no such training.

"These investigator wannabes think it's so easy to go into a chat room and just start talking, and for them it is, because they have no goals in mind other than humiliating someone and getting media attention," said Julie Posey, a Colorado activist who has worked with police in chat-room stings for eight years and helped convict more than 70 men.

But von Erck,'s founder, denied Posey's accusations, pointing to a recent Michigan case in which a man duped by Perverted Justice faces 20 years in prison for attempting to bed a 14-year-old girl. He said there have been similar cases where the information collected by his volunteers has been the sole evidence in a court case, but that the group doesn't publicize these victories.

"As we grow and a legal precedent is continued to be set in our favor, you will see countless prosecutions," said von Erck. "That is where we will end up ultimately. All I have to say is, 'Just keep watching.'"

Last November, a 29-year-old Portland, Oregon, man was cruising the city's Yahoo chat room when he struck up a conversation with a 14-year-old girl using the handle "misspunkgirlie13." The conversation quickly turned to sex.

"i'm 29.. your 14 and adorable," he wrote the girl, who flirted back. He e-mailed her a picture of his penis and a couple of pornographic video clips, then arranged to meet her at her apartment when her mother was out of town.

A few days later, he drove an hour to the girl's home and knocked on the door. When it opened, he found himself face-to-face with two large men -- one wielding a baseball bat and the other, a video camera. They followed him back to his minivan, berating him for soliciting sex with a minor and filming his hasty retreat.

Within hours, the man's libidinous chat transcript, picture, cell-phone number and e-mail address were posted to, a website run by vigilantes across the United States who troll regional chat rooms hunting for would-be pedophiles.

Perverted Justice has made more than 600 such busts since it was formed in July 2002. The group's volunteers pose as kids in chat rooms, and when an adult engages them in sexual banter, they publish the person's personal data on the site so the group's supporters can harass the adult by phone and e-mail.

The group says it's protecting children from sexual predators, but critics say its aggressive tactics seldom lead to convictions.

Among the men -- and two women -- busted by the group are a wrestling promoter, a high-school teacher and a registered sex offender.

In several cases, the activists have gotten men fired after finding out where they work and sending the damning chat logs and pictures to their bosses.

The group is the brainchild of a 24-year-old Portland computer technician who goes by the moniker "Xavier von Erck." (Von Erck and the site's volunteers don't disclose their real names, fearing retribution by the people they've "outed.")

Von Erck said he was inspired to action after learning how many of his female friends were molested as kids and how many would-be pedophiles lurked in regional chat rooms.

"Myself and another local man named Frank set out to clean up our Portland chat room," said von Erck. "Well, it worked a little too well, and a few too many people wanted to help out. So after we exhausted the Portland rooms, we moved on. And kept going into what you see today."

While some Perverted Justice contributors simply out their marks during illicit chats and tell them their data will be posted to the site, a volunteer named "Frank Fencepost" has men show up at his apartment bearing food, and answers the door with a baseball bat and a camera. (Fencepost did not respond to interview requests for this article.)

The men snared by the group are given a chance to explain their actions in "right of reply" letters, which are posted on the site. Most contend they have learned their lesson and beg the site to take down their phone numbers so people will stop harassing them.

"People pm me all the time and tell me that they are going to find me and hurt me, threaten to kill me, and etc.... i cry at night sometimes cause i fear for my life, since people seem to see what i look like, im very scared," wrote a 20-year-old who asked that his picture be taken off the site.

"I want to write and apologize for what I have done. I am someone with a problem and (am) finding help for it. I have told my family about this and now I living with a friend of mine. I have been kicked out of my house indifenitely," wrote a married Arizona man.

In recent months, the group has worked with television stations in eight cities across the nation to bust men on camera. In these media busts, Perverted Justice directs groups of men to a rented home in a residential area for what they believe will be a tryst with an adolescent girl; instead the men are greeted by a camera crew and a reporter sticking a microphone in their faces. In February, 16 men showed up for such a sting in Missouri and 20 showed up in Detroit.

"Bill Smith," a 42-year-old high-school math teacher from Michigan, fired up his computer one night last fall and logged into Yahoo's Detroit chat room for a little sexual repartee before bed. The experience would bring him to the verge of suicide and change his life forever.

Smith, who is married with three young children and wished to remain anonymous for this article, said he was having marital problems at the time and that online flirting was his way to "blow off steam" without having an affair. In the chat room, Smith sent instant messages to several participants with female screen names, including "keely_kandy69u":

pbass1957b: hi kandy, care to chat?

keely_kandy69u: asl? (age, sex, location)

pbass1957b: m/42/grosse pointe ... you?

keely_kandy69u: 13 f Ferndale

pbass1957b: do you have a (web) cam?

Although "Keely" had identified herself as a 13-year-old girl, Smith continued his erotic banter. He encouraged her to send him pictures of herself, and asked whether she'd had sex before and if she liked her "nipples sucked on and licked."

"I could show you how to do your math and afterward show you how to enjoy the pleasures of good sex," Smith wrote. He told her his first name, his occupation and his cell phone number. She called it to confirm the number was real, hung up and then continued the virtual conversation:

keely_kandy69u: check out this site in tha meantime


keely_kandy69u: Make sure you pay very close attention to it.

keely_kandy69u: You might wanna bookmark that site. Your name, telephone number, photo, and a transcript of this chatlog will appear on the front page within 24 hours.

keely_kandy69u: You are a sick, sick man...

keely_kandy69u: And your life just took a serious turn for the worse.

Smith quickly disconnected his Internet connection, but Keely's threat came true. And in a matter of days, Smith lost his job, received anonymous death threats and had reporters camped out in front of his house.

As it turned out, Keely was not an adolescent girl, but a 29-year-old male volunteer with Perverted Justice, a vigilante group that trolls regional chat rooms for would-be pedophiles.

The group's volunteers pose as kids, and when an adult hits on them, they publish the person's picture, phone numbers and e-mail address on the site so the group's supporters can hound the person by phone and e-mail. Perverted Justice has made more than 600 such busts since it was formed in July 2002, and many of its marks have lost their jobs and been scorned in their communities as a result of the exposure.

Critics charge that the activists' controversial crusade rarely results in convictions, but the group insists that the public humiliation suffered by the men -- and two women -- they've busted is itself enough to make pedophiles think twice about victimizing children online.

In Smith's case, Perverted Justice was able to pinpoint his identity after locating his picture on a high-school website; in it, he wore the same shirt he sported in the photo he sent Keely. They e-mailed the chat transcript to his colleagues, to parents of students at his school, to the local police and press.

Smith, who's been a high-school teacher for 17 years, insists that he thought Keely was an adult role-playing at being a little girl.

"This is a way people live out their fantasies," he said. "I never thought it was a 13-year-old girl. No one ever is who they say they are in these chats."

He asked Perverted Justice to take his file off the site, but the group refused. His boss told him not to bother coming into school on Monday. And then the media circled in on his house. He grew so despondent, he said, that he found himself in his basement holding an old shotgun he'd received from his father, but it had a trigger lock and he couldn't locate the key. He called a suicide hot line, which alerted the Grosse Pointe, Michigan, police. The police confiscated his gun and brought him to a local emergency room to talk to a psychiatrist.

The Perverted Justice volunteer who busted Smith has no sympathy for the teacher's plight.

"(He) hung himself. All we did was make an example out of him," said "Beef the Troll," who like other Perverted Justice volunteers won't identify himself for fear of retaliation for his activities. "To this day, he is not allowed anywhere near a classroom. And I count that as a personal victory."

One of Smith's former students who heard of the bust said she wasn't surprised.

"He would make inappropriate comments frequently," said Laura Pankow, 20, who said Smith was her algebra teacher when she was 14 and 15. "If a boy was late for class, it was always, 'Did you have a date with Rosie Palma and her five friends?'"

The Macomb County Sheriff Department did not charge Smith with a crime because no actual meeting occurred between the teacher and a minor -- and the chat transcript alone was insufficient evidence.

"We don't know for sure that this teacher is the one who wrote these Internet messages," Sheriff Mark Hackel told The Detroit News. "That's like buying a bag of cocaine and then telling the police (who the seller is)."

Although police routinely pose as minors in chat rooms to snare pedophiles, they follow strict guidelines to ensure their chat logs are admissible in court.

Smith, whose teacher's union refused to support him, is now on paid administrative leave. He hired a lawyer to press invasion of privacy and harassment charges against the group, but the lawyer has been unable to ascertain the volunteers' true identities.

Meanwhile, he's had to deal with the scorn of his colleagues and neighbors.

"I have a long road to go with my wife, and my kids will eventually find out as well," Smith said. "I'll have to build a new life, find a new career. My life is ruined in many ways."

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