Online vigilantes hunt down pedophiles

US Today/March 16, 2004
By Marisa Schultz

Five minutes into his Internet chat with a 14-year-old girl, Ray Dooley's conversation turned from snowboarding to sex. Dooley, 23, drove 50 miles the next day, apparently expecting to see "Rachel." Instead, the Port Huron, Mich., man met a camera crew.

He was caught not by police, but by representatives of the civilian-led vigilante Web site Perverted Justice, who posed in the chat room as Rachel and then posted Dooley's picture, phone number and chat details online.

Dooley is one of more than 675 men nationwide whom the Web site has embarrassed as "would-be pedophiles" in its increasingly controversial effort to keep the Internet safe for kids.

While some praise the effort, many law enforcement officials say the site leads to few arrests and may even impede growing efforts to police the Web.

"It helps to educate parents and make them aware how big of a problem this is," said Wayne County (Mich.) Deputy Bill Liczbinski, who is one of four investigators in the county's Internet Crime Unit.

"But from a law enforcement standpoint, those people should be in jail. It's one thing to put their picture up on the Web site and embarrass them, it's another to make them pay for the crime they committed," Liczbinski said.

There's ample evidence of the public safety problem posed by Internet predators.

One in five youths ages 10-17 received a sexual solicitation over the Internet within the past year, according to a survey by the Crimes Against Children Research Center, based at the University of New Hampshire. One in four kids had an unwanted exposure to pictures of naked people or sex within the last year, the survey found.

The seriousness of Internet crimes was underscored last month when a 13-year-old Pontiac, Mich., girl was taken to West Virginia by a man she met online. Sexual assault charges have been filed against Michael Wiedenbein, 48, of Columbus, Ohio.

"Sometimes you have to take the law in your own hands," said Tina Pietrykowski, a parent in suburban Detroit. "I would hate to have what happened to the girl in Pontiac happen again."

But since the site began in July 2002 in Portland, Ore., just a dozen of the more than 675 men caught by the site have been arrested.

Dooley, who served almost four years in the U.S. Navy before being dishonorably discharged for a drunken driving conviction, is among the few who were charged after a run-in with Perverted Justice.

Perverted Justice officials, who decline to be interviewed using their names, say the group is not opposed to getting pedophiles arrested, but that they only work with police seeking an arrest if the police contact them.

Police officials say they can't rely on the Perverted Justice chats alone to arrest someone.

"What people don't realize, if a person pulls over drunken drivers and then turns them over to the police (for an arrest), we didn't witness that," Macomb County (Mich.) Sheriff Mark Hackel said. "Same with the chats. We are going to say, 'That's nice. But how do we know who that is with certainty?'"

To fight Internet crimes, Hackel uses volunteers who are trained at catching predators in online chat rooms. These trained civilians are different than Perverted Justice volunteers because their work ultimately will lead to arrests, Hackel said.

"It's really easy to just log on as someone different," said Tim Lorenzen, law enforcement coordinator for i-SAFE, a nonprofit Internet safety organization. "This site may have the best intentions, but they are going to possibly screw up an investigation. They are trying to expose pedophiles, but they are allowing them to get away without prosecution."

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