Culture | Vanity Fair

Mark Bowden

December 2009

Detective Michele Deery works in a cubicle in the basement of the Delaware County courthouse, in Media, Pennsylvania. The only window is high on the wall, over a tall filing cabinet, and opens into a well, below ground level. The space feels like a cave, which has always struck Deery as about right, because her job is to talk dirty online to strange men.

Deery seems altogether too wholesome for the work. She has athletic good looks, with tawny skin, big brown eyes, and long straight brown hair that falls over her shoulders. Her parents sent her to Catholic schools, and her mother, a retired district judge, now jokes that she wants her money back. Her daughter’s beat is in the vilest corners of cyberspace, in chat rooms indicating “fetish” or various subgenres of flagrant peccancy.

One of the many false identities Deery has assumed online is something truly rare, even in this polluted pond — that of a middle-aged mother of two pre-pubescent girls who is offering them up for sex. Baiting her hook with this forbidden fruit, she would cast the line and wait to see who bit.

It usually didn’t take long. Men began vying for her attention the minute she logged on, night or day. Deery would begin a dialogue, dangling the illicit possibility, gauging how serious her mark was.

There were “players,” those who were just horny and despicable, and there were doers, or at least potential doers, the true bad guys. The goal was to identify the latter, hook them, and then reel them in, turn them into “travelers.” Once a traveler took that all-important step out of fantasy and into the real world, his behavior went from the merely immoral to the overtly criminal.

When they delivered themselves for the promised rendezvous, instead of meeting a mother and her young daughters they would find a team of well-armed, cheerfully disgusted Delaware County police officers. As a fantasy, her come-on seemed overbaked — not one daughter, but two! It is doubtful that such a woman exists anywhere, and yet men fell for it. Her unit had a near-100-percent conviction rate. The bulletin board over her desk displays mug shots of her catches, very ordinary-looking men, facing the camera wide-eyed with shock, staring at the fresh ruin of their lives.

Which leads to the case presented here. One of the stunned faces in that array belongs to a man I will call “J,” who would spend a year in prison after taking Deery’s bait. For this account, both Deery and J were willing to speak openly and at length; transcripts of online chats and police interrogations have also been made available. The story reflects what they said about themselves and their actions, and presents two very different points of view.

Shortly before six o’clock on the evening of Monday, September 19, 2005, Deery went to work in her cave, logging on to Yahoo and expertly navigating its public chat rooms. In one of the many rooms labeled “fetish,” she logged on with the suggestive screen name “heatherscutiepies.” At this time of day the weirdos were coming home from work, bellying up to their home computers.

She received three quick instant messages from someone using the name “parafling”:


—may I ask what your into or looking for

—NOTHIG is taboo to me

Parafling had the detective’s interest. She typed an answer:

—well why don’t u tell me wht ur into

A Murky Realm

Entrapment has long been a factor in the enforcement of vice laws, which seek to punish behavior that is furtive and widespread. Such ordinances answer society’s quest for moral clarity, positing a direct parallel between right versus wrong and legal versus criminal. Police patrolling the precincts of sin do not often find the streets empty. How are they to tell the difference between the casual sinner and the criminal?

American courts have long recognized the right of police to invent ruses. Sting operations flourish in a climate of fear. Courts and lawmakers become less and less scrupulous about basic fairness. The more frightening and reprehensible the threat, the more license and latitude are given to the police.

For a variety of reasons, few of them valid, the child-molester has become the pre-eminent domestic villain of our time. Deery’s work is part of a national effort. In 1998, in response to growing fears of sexual predation online, Congress provided funds for the Department of Justice to create the Internet Crimes Against Children (icac) task force, which among other things provides federal grants to local police departments for programs to find and apprehend online predators.

In practice that means looking for people who potentially fit the mold — people who seem as if they might be poised to commit a crime even if they have not yet done so. This leads unavoidably into the gray area of thoughts, intentions, and predispositions — and into the equally murky realm of enticement and entrapment. It is a way of conducting police business that, without extreme care, can itself become a form of abuse — in which the pursuer and the pursued grow entangled in a transaction that takes on a gruesome life of its own.

This is the terrain explored by Philip K. Dick in his classic short story “The Minority Report,” and in the Steven Spielberg movie based on it, in which an official government department of “Precrime” identifies, charges, and jails people on the basis of anticipated actions.

As Jad, one of the policemen in the movie version, says, “We’re more like clergy than cops.”

Polite Nibble

Bingo! A woman! The line popped up in a window at the top of J’s screen as soon as he logged in to the chat room.

He had peeked into a number of active chats to see how many women were there, and logged on to the ones with a promising ratio. His screen name, parafling, was a nod to paraflying, the tiny parachute/tricycle flying machines he had once or twice enjoyed. It was the only really different, exciting thing about him. He imagined it was like a colorful lure on the surface of a pond.

He was excited to see on-screen that this woman, calling herself heatherscutiepies, lived in his state, Pennsylvania, and was 39 years old. He had immediately tapped her with three messages, and she had responded:

—well why don’t u tell me wht ur into

The sun blazed in from the window to his back porch. J had about an hour before his wife would be home from work. She knew nothing of his cybersex life, or if she did, she ignored it.

A burly, round-faced man of 42, with a thickly muscled neck and shoulders, thinning hair, and a goatee, he was seated before the computer in their living room in a small, two-story town house in suburban Philadelphia. J had just finished a long day repairing copy machines, driving from one job to the next. This was his time, a quiet interlude before his wife came in the door from her job at the local hospital. He would have to deal with her until about eight p.m., which is when she usually retired upstairs.

J didn’t sleep much. The steroids he was injecting to help him bulk up made his heart race and filled him with explosive energy and lust. He felt like a walking hard-on. The Internet was his only outlet, and it had become a compulsion.

He would open up three or four windows into sexually oriented chat rooms, looking for a woman to talk dirty to him. If he got lucky in one of these early-evening sessions, he would arrange to continue with her later that night after his wife went upstairs. Then they would play, cooking up together an erotic stew. He would enjoy an extended period of arousal and then masturbate. This was his routine. This was his sex life.

In the years he had been dipping into these chat rooms, he had learned a few things about the women who entered them. They were skittish. J was convinced that everyone, down deep, had twisted sexual desires, and he had reasons in his own life for believing this — his first sexual relationship, as a teenager, which had lasted five years, was with a slightly older girl who liked sadomasochistic play.

In this sense, women were no different from men, except they were more reluctant to show themselves. The ones who entered the fetish rooms had desires that were very specific. Men were eager and up for whatever — that certainly defined J — but women were looking to scratch a particular itch.

He knew that if he answered the query from heatherscutiepies wrongly, she would simply stop responding. Her question was a polite nibble. The response was critical. He had chatted about this online with other men, comparing notes on opening moves, and the safest approach seemed to be simply to announce that you were into “everything,” right off the bat.

He typed:

—I am into bondage s/m breeding incest young rape spanking you name it

Nine seconds later came her response.


Hooked! Then she asked another question:

—where in pa?

—west of philly , you

—oh no kiddin im in philly burbs.. just moved outside city not 2 long ago.

This carried a jolt of erotic possibility. J often had no idea where the person he chatted with was. Proximity spiced the game with a chance at something real. His chats had led only once before to a real encounter, three years earlier. Acting out the online scenario for real had felt awkward. He did as she asked, and they had sex, but he left knowing he would never do it again. Reality was stark and messy — it had texture and odor and harsh lighting. Acting out the roles felt phony and wrong. It lacked the purity of the idea. The episode had taught him to stay on his side of the line.

That was before he had started injecting steroids, however. Now the sheer weight of lust was straining him to his limits. One of his co-workers, a former Marine, had counseled him that women were drawn to thickly muscled men, so he had thrown himself headlong into bodybuilding — pumping iron, ingesting growth supplements, and ignoring even the modest dosage restraints urged by experienced gym rats. The results were striking and obvious: his neck, shoulders, and arms were bursting out of his shirts. But this had no effect whatever on women. It only redoubled his desire. The news that this woman was nearby — a real woman! — came with the exquisite thrill, all but forgotten, of potential.

Heatherscutiepies wrote him another message. Both used the slapdash vernacular of Internet chat, with its shorthand spelling, frequent abbreviation, and minimal punctuation, which often led to confusion. She explained why she had left Philadelphia for the suburbs.

—wage tax was kickin my ass

Then she added, sardonically, the online acronym for amusement:

—lol [laugh out loud]

—damn so very close.

She asked:

—ever try any of ur taboo’s or just fantasy?

—yes I have had sex with cousin and about 10 years ago i did breed a married woman because hubby did not want too, so I did,lol nd never heard from hr after that


None of this was true. He had learned from earlier chats that if he said he had never tried a thing the woman would stop responding. It was best to claim to have done everything. Besides, making these things up came easily to him.

In the years he had been chatting sexually online, J had learned to ease fluidly into a realm of complete make-believe. Already he had covered two of the categories of taboo he had listed at the outset, incest and “breeding” — having sex with a woman to get her pregnant. Neither had seemed to click. All he knew was her screen name, that she lived nearby, and that she was 39.

If he was going to line up some serious sex talk with her later, he would need to quickly find what enticed her. Even in this shameless arena there was courtship. So he asked for some sexual direction, and then followed immediately with two more ordinary conversational queries, showing a willingness to talk about anything she wished.

—what are you into,,,,,,,,,,,,are you married,,,,kids???

She responded:

—no kiddin

This was meant as a humorous lament, but J took it as a question. He thought she was asking if he really wanted to know.

—yep no kiddng.

—im divorced 2 girls

—WOW age??

—im 39

—no sorry girls,lol

—8 11

J wrote three lines in rapid succession:

—I saw your age

—yummmmmmmmmm—tell me what do you look like??

He followed this immediately with a request for a picture, and she responded:

—if I get 2 know u a little bettr ill send

—are you looking for a man to be daddy and take you and the girls???

—no just 4 sum fun

—ok can you just describe yourself then to me,and I respect that too

—dont want any permanent feature here


J was zeroing in. She had two little girls and her screen name was heatherscutiepies. The cutiepies were apparently her girls. If this was her turn-on, he was neither shocked nor repulsed. Years of immersion in chat rooms had inured him to strangeness. Words were J’s game. Perverse ideas. He had never been aroused by images. He was not a porn addict. What gripped him was a woman limning her darkest dreams — for him.

This was the essence of his personal fetish, a woman baring all, not the private parts of her body but the private parts of her mind, her unique sexuality, her heart’s most peculiar desire. It drove him wild. He was after heatherscutiepies’ singular taboo.

The key to her erotic zone, the thing J sought to provide in return, was complete acceptance. His chatting partner had to feel free to go anywhere with him. That was now his goal. To get her there without turning her off or scaring her away, he would become whatever heatherscutiepies wished. The idea was to turn her on. Then he could work gently toward some of the things that pleased him.

He typed two messages:

—would you like to be like side lovers doing you and the girls??

—maybe breeding you and the oldest or anything like that?

That clicked. He received four responses from heatherscutiepies in quick succession:


—no breedin as of now

—good god

—im strapped for money as it is

A Package Deal?

Down in her cave, Deery decided that she had a live one. When they were finished chatting, she would type a request on the courthouse’s internal network for a warrant to obtain his I.P. (Internet Protocol) address. Then she could get private information from his Internet provider.

He had mentioned “young” right off the bat. That was important. The rules against entrapment forbade her from suggesting the criminal act, but he had brought it up himself. Then he had asked about the “girls,” her imaginary children. When she gave him their ages, he had replied, “yummmmmmmmmm.”

Except, on closer examination, the import of that expression of appetite was less clear. Sometimes as two people typed out a conversation, with the slight delay that entailed, dialogue overlapped. When she told him she had two girls, he had initially asked, “WOW age??” She had immediately responded, “im 39,” thinking he was asking about her. That line was typed at 5:57:07 p.m. Eight seconds later he corrected her, “no sorry girls,lol” and then typed two more messages in the next 11 seconds, “I saw your age,” and “yummmmmmmmmm.”

Between those responses, at 5:57:20, she had typed, “8 11.” His comment “I saw your age” came one second after she had given the ages of her girls, so they had been typing those lines at virtually the same time, and parafling’s “yummmmmmmmmm” had come just five seconds later.

Was he reacting to her, or to the ages of her girls? On the screen, and eventually on the printout, the sequence made it look as if he was reacting to the ages of the girls, when in fact it was hard to tell.

It became more clear 13 seconds later, when he asked what she looked like and for her picture. His focus seemed to be primarily on her. But then, when he asked if she wanted him to “take” her, he had included the girls. Was he asking if she wanted him to have sex with her and the girls, or was he asking if she was looking for a sugar daddy, someone to take care of her and the girls? The abbreviated, highly colloquial syntax left plenty of room for interpretation.

The detective played it safe and assumed he had meant the latter. But then right away he had mentioned, on his own, “doing you and the girls.” That was evidence. Parafling was soliciting sex with two minors.

J next sent her a description of himself, including the size of his penis—“7.” (Why did they all exaggerate?, Deery wondered. It was so lame.) He pushed for more information — asking for her “measurements.”

Deery typed that she did not know them.

To J, that seemed odd, but then, in this Internet space, who wasn’t? She kept deflecting his interest in her. Was she just being coy, or was she really more into the idea of his having sex with her girls? He wrote:

—LOL so tell me if and when we meet when and how you would like this

Again she did not spell out exactly what she craved, so J continued to make conversation. He asked her about her two jobs — she had told him she cut hair at home and worked as a bartender at night — and then tried to reassure her that he was honest, candid, and serious. He explained his screen name, and then urged her to make clear if she was serious about wanting to meet with him in the real world:

—if you want cyber then say so, want real say so

He began to entertain for the first time in years the possibility of meeting a real woman and having real sex.

—I am looking for exaclty what you are offering, no strings noperment be there when ever you want I will please you and the girs

She wrote:

—u ever playd w yung?

This heather wanted him to talk about having sex with little girls. It could not be clearer that it was a package deal. She came with her cutiepies or not at all.

“Prostitution” of the Law

The first entrapment defense upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court was in 1932, during Prohibition, when the defendant, a paper-mill worker named Randall Sorrells, was convicted of selling whiskey during a social encounter at his home in Clyde, North Carolina.

Sorrells had received several longtime friends who brought along a visitor from nearby Charlotte. The men were World War I veterans, and the newcomer, who was actually a Prohibition agent, had served in France in the same infantry division. Convivial conversation ensued, and at one point the agent asked his host if he could get him some whiskey. Sorrells told him that he “did not fool with whisky.”

The agent was persistent. Again he was rebuffed. After more talk, the agent appealed to Sorrells’s old comradeship and again pleaded for help. Sorrells relented. He left the house and returned with a jug. When he handed it over and took the agent’s five dollars, he was arrested.

Convicted at trial, Sorrells appealed, finally winning his case in the country’s highest court. Writing for the other justices, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes called the methods used in his case a “prostitution of the criminal law.” He noted that the crime for which Sorrells was prosecuted by the government was “the product of the creative activity of its own officials.”

Since that ruling, the issue of entrapment has come before the Supreme Court several times, and arguments have traditionally turned on what has become known as the “subjective” and the “objective” tests.

  • The subjective test for entrapment considered primarily the defendant’s state of mind: was the subject inclined to commit the crime anyway?
  • The objective test centered more on the action of the investigators: were their methods sufficient to induce an otherwise law-abiding citizen to commit a crime?

If a defendant had a history to suggest he was predisposed to committing a crime, it was very hard to show that police efforts alone were responsible. Both rules left much room for interpretation, and neither was likely to help someone accused of a particularly repellent crime.

The most recent Supreme Court ruling on entrapment, in 1992, went a way toward knocking down the subjective test. In 1987, a Nebraska man named Keith Jacobson ordered a magazine called Boys Who Love Boys, which was described as a publication containing pictures of “11- and 14-year-old boys engaged in sexual activity.” The magazine didn’t exist: it was the invention of the U.S. Postal Service. Federal agents arrested Jacobson after he went to the post office to pick up his order.

His conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court. In the majority opinion, Justice Byron White wrote:

  • “In their zeal to enforce the law ... Government agents may not originate a criminal design, implant in an innocent person’s mind the disposition to commit a criminal act, and then induce commission of the crime so that the Government may prosecute.”

The justices did not address either the subjective or objective tests directly, but they made it clear that predisposition alone did not mean guilt, particularly if the crime was suggested by police to begin with.

Imaginary Numbers

During the past 15 years, as the Internet has made inroads into every facet of modern life, the fear of online child predation has grown far out of proportion to the actual problem. The belief that sexual deviants by the tens of thousands are prowling the Internet in search of children to entice and corrupt, and that their ranks are increasing rapidly, has won broad popular acceptance.

The most widely cited statistic is “one in five,” as in the number of children who have supposedly been approached by a sexual predator on the Internet. The origin of this figure is the Department of Justice’s National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, which first reported it in 2001. Five years later the center amended the result to one in seven, but by either measure the figure suggests nothing less than an epidemic.

Until you look closer.

The actual question posed in the department’s “Youth Internet Safety” survey asked teenagers under 17 if they had received an

  • “unwanted sexual solicitation,”
    which was defined as follows:
  • “a request to engage in sexual activities or sexual talk or give personal sexual information that was unwanted or, whether wanted or not, made by an adult.”

Since “adult” in this case was defined as anyone 17 or older, the definition included many would-be high-school Romeos, predators of a highly conventional and not particularly dangerous sort, and also took in a strain of intimate gossip familiar to all teenage girls.

As the study’s authors themselves noted, half the solicitations came from other teenagers. Not a single solicitation led to actual sexual contact. Violent sexual predators hunting children are out there, as they have always been, yet they remain blessedly rare, and most young people flee such strangeness instinctively. Only 3 percent of the contacts reported in the survey resembled the one most feared by parents, the adult stranger attempting to seduce a child.

Benjamin Radford, the managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, has noted instance after instance of the “one in five” figure and other kinds of misinformation on network broadcasts.

On April 18, 2005, CBS reporter Jim Acosta declared on the evening news, “When a child is missing, chances are good it was a convicted sex offender.” Radford responds,

  • “Acosta is incorrect: if a child goes missing, a convicted sex offender is actually among the least likely explanations, far behind runaways, family abductions, and the child being lost or injured.”

Yet NBC reporter Chris Hansen has warned Americans that “the scope of the problem is immense” and “growing.”

For several years Hansen hosted a popular series called “To Catch a Predator” on Dateline NBC. The show turned the moment of an alleged predator’s confrontation and arrest into lurid home entertainment.

In the opening episodes he reported that there were “50,000” sexual predators preying on children through the Internet at any given moment. There was no good basis for the “50,000” figure, and Hansen eventually stopped citing it.

His source turned out to be an F.B.I. agent named Ken Lanning, who told NPR’s Brooke Gladstone that he didn’t really know where the number came from but that it was familiar to him from another context.

  • “In the early 1980s,” he explained, chuckling, “this was the number that was most often used to estimate how many children were kidnapped or abducted by strangers every year. But the research that was done in the early 1990s found that somewhere in the neighborhood of two to three hundred children every year were abducted in this manner.”

Lanning called 50,000 “a Goldilocks number.”

  • “It wasn’t a real small number — it wasn’t like 100, 200 — and it wasn’t a ridiculously large number, like 10 million.... [It was] not too hot, not too cold.”

Like other popular delusions, fear of the Internet child-molester contains a trace of logic. It is reasonable to ask if the explosion of Internet pornography, including child pornography, might lead more troubled souls down a path to criminal depravity. But the Internet has been with us since the mid-1990s. If it were going to cause a sudden increase in molestation, wouldn’t we have seen it by now?

In fact, the trend lines go the opposite way. For instance, sexual assaults on teens fell dramatically — by 52 percent — between 1993 and 2005, according to the Justice Department’s National Crime Victimization Survey.

Despite numbers like these, people are ready to believe there is an epidemic because they are repulsed by child pornography and assume that anyone who would look at it or think about it is not just perverted but dangerous. Those who take pictures of children engaged in sex acts and distribute them are criminals, and their actions have real victims. They are the most appropriate targets for law enforcement. There is no evidence that their sordid practices have bred an army of Internet predators.

Graphic Scenarios

Heather had asked J a question:

—u ever playd w yung?

J was ready to play that game with her, to engage her fantasy in order to set her up for what he wanted: a chance to meet and have sex with her alone. To make that happen, he would become the perfect answer to her dark wish. So he lied to her.

He told her he had once licked the vagina of a nine-year-old girl. She responded:


After reassuring her on that count, J immediately came back with the scenario he preferred.

—I am looking to have you first then you and the girls or any way you feel comfortable. We would go as far as you want on any level

—so ur not new 2 this

—been 10 years or more but i will get back in the groove, lol


She asked about his marriage, and J told her, “she is into nothing at all I mean nothing. she knows nothing about me like this.”

He wrote:

—so all we do willbe between you and I baby

—cool w me

—OH I will get out I drive all day long I could meet you during the day too even if girls were not there

—they get hm by 3 school is rite dwn the street

J saw the pattern. Every time he mentioned having sex with her alone, she would bring back the girls—“they get hm by 3.” He could work with that:

—then at evening or weekend can please you and girls, shades drawn ... could do you in AM then back for them, lol I can be flexaable darling

—ur pretty creative

If he could get her alone, they could play and he would be long gone by the time she came home with the girls. That could work. Real sex! He was tremendously excited by the idea.

—I have thought about this for so long baby

—yea its been a while for them

“Them.” O.K., he thought, I get it.

At this point J plunged in, inventing a sexual encounter with her and the girls, giving heather exactly what he thought she was after. The details are graphic and sickening, and cannot be printed. This kind of sex talk was not completely new to him. He had engaged other women online within the last few weeks with highly descriptive talk about sex with their children.

So he asked specific questions about how physically able the girls were to have sex, and then slid back onto his own erotic turf, asking her if she liked to be tied up or to have clamps applied to her nipples. She wrote three successive lines:

—not so much no

—depends i guess

—how did u get into yung? u grow up in it too?

Back to the girls. Clearly this was a fixation with her. This was the itch she wanted scratched, no doubt about it. J ran with it. In his fantasies, there were no boundaries he was unwilling to cross. He would play her game because the prospect of meeting her in real life and having real sex had suddenly become the compelling drive of his life. He conjured an especially lurid scenario that involved his deflowering a child. She responded:


—I know you cannot but I love the idea of breeding a mom, and in time doing my own daugter with you

—u seem like a for real dude

J set about trying again to arrange a rendezvous with her alone, suggesting mornings, when the girls were in school. She balked. She reminded him they did not get off school until three o’clock, writing:

—IM SO not a am person lol. im a night owl

J pushed:

—maybe you will want your lover to yourself some times, lol

She brushed aside the idea:


When he persisted with the idea of a morning romp, just the two of them, she grew adamant:

—im NOT A MORNING PERSON DEAR not my thing

And J backed off:

—ok as you wish

She asked him again to describe what he wanted, and he unfolded a scene where he would watch the three of them, mother and children, playing sexually with one another.

—so ur more into watchin?

Uh-oh. He could lose her with this.

—NO want to see that and as you all are doing things i wil be doing things too but love to see that


He heard his wife opening the front door, and quickly shut down the computer. He didn’t have time to sign off. Four times later that night he wrote lines to heather, whenever he would see her name on the list of active participants on his screen. He apologized for signing off without saying good-bye, explained, and reiterated his interest. At 10:36 that night he wrote a “HI baby,” but there was no response. He tried once more at 1:01 a.m. with a hopeful, “HI baby hope we can talk agin::”

No answer.

His Eyes, Her Eyes

The Justice Department program that supports Michele Deery’s work consists today of 59 investigative units throughout the country. Last year alone they arrested more than 3,100 people like those on Deery’s bulletin board. The Web site for Deery’s unit carries a curiously worded warning that is actually a tacit admission that there is no evidence for its claim. It says that the problem of online child predation “is growing so exponentially as to be impossible to track.”

In a 2006 speech at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, then attorney general Alberto Gonzales managed to strike both of this hysteria’s most notorious false notes, citing the “one-in-five” ratio and the “Goldilocks number” 50,000. He concluded,

  • “It is simply astonishing how many predators there are, and how aggressive they act.”

Yet the more numerous aggressors may be the police.

Three researchers at the University of New Hampshire reported earlier this year that during the period between 2000 and 2006, when Internet use by juveniles grew between 73 and 93 percent, the number of people arrested for soliciting sex online from them grew only 21 percent, from 508 to 615. The number of people arrested for soliciting sex from undercover police like Deery, however, rose 381 percent during the same period.

In other words, alleged child-molesters like J are many, many times more likely to be locked up for approaching detectives than children. And despite this full-court press on Internet child predation, those arrested for it represent only 1 percent of all arrests for sex crimes against children and adolescents.

Some of those 3,100 people are genuine predators. But others are just troubled men with poor judgment and oversexed imaginations. A lawyer defending an accused predator is understandably hesitant to try an entrapment defense. Judges and juries have little sympathy for anyone who would entertain sex with a child, even as a fantasy, and detectives such as Deery are well schooled in the rules.

After only his first conversation, J’s legal case for entrapment was weak. In his opening line he listed “young” among his other sexual interests without any prompting. All Deery had asked was “why don’t u tell me wht ur into?” And if you read this initial conversation looking for evidence of predisposition, it was there aplenty. It would take a careful parsing of the dialogue, and a subtle understanding of the context, to conclude anything other than J’s guilt.

In real life, however, the detective and the copy-machine repairman were coming from entirely different places.

As J tells it, theirs was a no-holds-barred erotic negotiation, something that had started as a game but that rapidly evolved into the possibility of a real-world assignation. J had read heather quickly and correctly: she was primarily interested in arranging for him to have sex with her girls. He wanted the sex with her, not with the daughters, but picked up quickly that the former could not be had without promises of the latter. So he was prepared to pledge the one thing in order to get the other.

As Deery saw it, there were people who preyed sexually on children, and people who did not. It was her job to help protect children from the former. To find those people, she had to visit some very ugly virtual places, adopt some awful personas, and engage in highly distasteful conversations.

The bad guys revealed themselves to her in her disguise. All she did was create an opportunity. She had not suggested having sex with her “daughters” — J had. His graphic scenarios were disgusting and damning, and sounded like the comments of someone intimately familiar with child rape. They had spilled out after only general prompting, such as “is there something u want to try that u haven’t?”

From her perspective, this parafling asshole could be a dangerous predator. His insistence on meeting her alone before being introduced to the girls was, she believed, a ploy. Sexual predators had become more and more wary. They had seen the TV shows and knew all about police methods. He wanted to see her alone to make sure she wasn’t a cop before proceeding further.

The challenge would now be to get him to act on his stated desires — to lure him into the open.


J’s plaintive “HI baby hope we can talk agin::,” entered just after one in the morning, hung there on the screen until he gave up and finally went to bed. He found her reassuring answer in the morning.

—no biggie.. just lemme know when ur around

J pounced on the response immediately, in a froth of desire.

—I want you so fucking badly PLEASE hold

His wife was on her way out the door. J left the screen for a few minutes and then came raging back with a graphic description of the various sexual acts he would like to perform with heather alone. Her response was skeptical:


J regrouped:

—you dont want that darling BUT you know what I really want?????


—to please you and please your daughters

He offered to come by and see her that day, and launched again into a litany of sexual acts he was eager to perform with her. He suggested that when they had finished she might show him pictures of her daughters. This prompted a complaint:

—ur flip floppin its confusing me ... i mean it just seems like ur more into me then all of us..thats all

There it was, the deal again. J backtracked fast.

—NO NO,,,,,,, want to please you first and get the ball rolling that is all it will be hard to be with you and them all, for the first time that is all i am saying would like to have you first then i will have the girls over and over YUMMMMMMMMMMMMM

And so the negotiation proceeded for the next month. She would back off whenever he talked about having sex with her alone, so he would indulge her, conjure up more graphic scenes of sex with her and the girls, but always he would return to his preferred plan for their real-world rendezvous. And consistently she would steer him right back to the daughters.

—what should i tell the girls is what i really wanna know?

When he persisted in asking her to describe herself, she complained:

—your annoying me now

Comfort Level

After weeks of this, down in her basement cubicle at the courthouse, Deery was at an impasse. It wouldn’t do to arrange a meeting with parafling without her “girls.” There was no crime in arranging a kinky sex session with an adult woman. The meeting had to be on his terms, and if what he wanted was just to have sex with her, all he had to do was admit it and she would drop her investigation. She kept offering him the door out.

—ok i understand i think .. whatever u want .. its up to you

—well I would LIKE to meet you make love to you, then return to take your girls, with you there. like the senerio we spoke about,,,,, that is what I would like,,,,, just need you to be ok with that

—ill think about it .. that just seems kinda weird to me ill let u know ... just seems odd to me that you woudl want to come here to do me .. then come back to do them .. seems shady

She had put her finger precisely on J’s game. He intended to show up, have sex with Heather, and then split, but if she thought that, his opportunity would disappear. He poured cold water all over that suggestion:

—shady?? really,,, WOW well it is NOT NOT at all,,, just a comfort level thing NOTHING shady at all ,,,,,,,,,

Heather drifted away. The next day she gave him a series of one-word responses. Then she was gone for days. On Wednesday of the following week they again began trying to work out a rendezvous, and again got hung up over his desire to meet with her alone. She complained:

—u say ur not really just into me, but it is still odd to me that you just wanna meet ME..

—ok allow me to explain, ok,,,, as i told you before it was only a comfort level,,,,, all 3 hot woman all new, might me overwhelming and way HOT, lol so I only SUGGESTED< to meet you first for a comfort level thing,,,,,,,,,,,

Whenever he went back to talking about sex with her daughters, heather would warm to the dialogue. After outlining one such imaginary encounter, he asked her:

—and you will like that too???, me playing with you and them???

Heather wrote:

—when they r happy i am too that’s why i said it seemed lk u were into me n not them.. if that’s the case thats cool.. just say that no biggie

—NO into ALL want ALL


—but if I can meet and play sometimes when the goirls are NOT home, we can still play right, I want all when ever I can, you, you and the girl, just the girls, what ever

—ok thats fair

They made plans to meet the next day, and then J launched into another explicit fantasy of how sex between her and the girls together would go. Heather encouraged him to continue, interjecting:

—I like how creative u r


—tell me

and, referring to an explicitly described sex act with her 11-year-old,

—she will like that


—then what

Except that, revealingly, she noticed that the fantasy he was spinning did not include him. He was the watcher, as she played sexually with the girls. She complained:

—here is a tidbit of info ... i can do all that w out you here ... so clearly you are more into me then all of us whch is fine but u should be upfront about that from the get go

J tried to recover, but she retreated, complaining:

—just sounds kinda off to me i gotta go .. tt u later

She was gone.

Arranging a Rendezvous

Through October, heather would disappear for days at a time, then emerge just for a perfunctory exchange, and disappear again. For J, the breakthrough came on Monday afternoon, October 24, when for the first time she agreed to his scenario of meeting her alone for sex first. His proposal had not changed:

—I was just thinking maybe you and I could meet earlier,,,,, play, I will wait in your bed as you leave and get the girl and then send in the oldest, when i will be in bed naked you close the door wait outside with youngest

—thats cool

After more detailing of the various sexual acts planned with both her and the girls, again rendered in explicit detail, J reiterated:

— ... so we will play fast then if i get there at 2 since you need to pich the gorls up at 3 wow ok, fast one I see that is cool

—why do u keep askin me that? to come here then leave then come back? seems odd

—NO I am just trying to make it easy on ALL nothing sneaking at all


—I am coolith whatever you ewant

—well what do you want? im open after 2 .. i told u that a million times

—ok cool

—seems like ur really not into the girls, if not just say that .. its all good either way

Again J assured her that he was interested in her and her girls, but once more he made it clear that he was coming to meet her alone first. They would have sex and then she would leave to get the girls. After weeks of wrangling, she finally agreed to what he wanted.

They arranged to rendezvous on the afternoon of Friday, October 28, in the parking lot of a Wendy’s on MacDade Boulevard just outside Media. She asked J to bring condoms, and he promised to do so.

On the morning of their meeting, J wrote heather:

—I had a fucked up dream last night, lol

—do tell?

—that you set me up like you were the cops, I walked in and you arrested me for this and I needed to kill myself, because I will never go to jaillol

—good god! are u serious

—I know fraked me out freaked me out

Before they signed off that morning, J made sure one more time that the plan was the way he wanted it. He would meet her, they would have sex, and then she would leave to pick up her girls and come back with them.

“Get Out of the Car!”

It was a short drive along Interstate 476, the Blue Route, to MacDade Boulevard. Before heading for their rendezvous J showered and changed into casual slacks, dress shoes, and a clean gray pullover shirt. He was excited. He had purchased the condoms she requested at a Rite Aid, a three-pack, the smallest item on the rack.

He had the condoms in a bag with the sex toys he hoped to use in the short time they had before she would leave for her daughters. In the bag was a set of handcuffs, the play kind with no locks on them, some dildos, and some rope, in case she wanted to be tied up. He wanted to be right on time, because there would be only an hour for them to get to her house and have sex before she had to leave to get her daughters — and then he would flee.

He turned into the restaurant parking lot and started backing into a space. A car startled him, pulling up fast, right behind him, cutting him off. It made him angry, but then he saw another had pulled in front of him. They had nearly hit his car! Then men rushed toward him with handguns drawn. They were shouting, “Get out of the car! Get out of the car!”

His first thought: holdup! He was being robbed, hijacked. But then one of the men told him he was under arrest. These were cops. He stepped out and was immediately pushed against the side of his car and frisked, handcuffed, and placed in the back of a sport-utility vehicle.

J moved like someone in shock. Lieutenant David Peifer, Deery’s boss and head of the icac unit, got behind the wheel. He was about J’s age, a sturdy man with a crew cut and a handgun on his belt. J flung questions at him. Why was he being arrested? Because he had come there to meet with a woman? The lieutenant told him, in so many words, that he was under arrest for “soliciting” sex with children.

  • “I would never have touched those kids!,” J protested. “I wasn’t interested in them!”
  • “That’s what they all say,” Peifer replied.

J kept trying to explain himself, and the lieutenant instructed him, patiently, that he had to wait until they got back to his office, where they could talk at length. First he had to be fully advised of his rights.

His rights!

J was angry, bewildered, and frightened. He knew that the scenario he had described to heather online was criminal, and he had seen busts like this on TV, but somehow his knowledge that the fantasies he described were untrue, that he never intended for them to actually happen, had convinced him he was safe. How could meeting an adult woman alone make him vulnerable to arrest?

He met Deery for the first time at the police station. He was sitting on a bench in Peifer’s office, feeling vulnerable and foolish, his thick arms resting in his lap, handcuffed to a chair.

When the detective entered and sat down, J didn’t know who she was until the lieutenant introduced her as heather. She seemed timid. Peifer did most of the talking. J was frightened but also angry. He tried to stay calm as he explained to them both that he had no intention, despite whatever he had written, of sticking around for sex with the girls. Deery said,

  • “You brought three condoms, one for me and one for each of the girls.”
  • “They come in packs of three,” he told her. “You can’t buy just one.”

Still, that looked bad.

Peifer and Deery gave J a transcript of the chats he had had with heatherscutiepies, and started reading to him some of the more explicit things he had said about having sex with children. J was frantic to explain himself.

  • “The conversations were based on just to keep the woman interested and to just be erotic and aroused, and that was it,” he said.

They were not buying it. Peifer read him line after embarrassing, incriminating line.

  • “I, honest to God ... ” said J, exasperated. “I don’t want them [the girls]. I never been into it, ever with anybody, anywhere, at any time!”
  • “And that’s easy to say now that we’ve arrested you, and you’re sitting here talking to the police,” said Peifer.
  • “Even if I wasn’t arrested, I wouldn’t be interested in kids. It was just, I wanted ... the woman to be excited. I wanted me to be excited. And that was it. I know how it looks. I know what you’re reading, but—”
  • “When you bring kids into this whole thing, why would you even go there?” asked Peifer.
  • “I know,” J said, defeated, but still trying to make them see, running phrases together in his panic. “The idea was only to keep her interested. I, in my mind, my mind, was working differently, I guess, than most people’s because I just wanted to be with a real woman, not the kids, but I wanted, I didn’t want to lose my opportunity to, to, have some real passion, and I, I was wrong in stating that. I know you’re telling me it’s solicitation, in your definition, but I, I can tell you that when I was doing it, it’s not solicit — I wasn’t trying to solicit because I know in my heart and in my mind, I would not under any circumstances be with a child and nor have I ever, ever, ever in any way shape or form, been with a child. I never want to.”
  • “But you’d never know that by reading this chat,” said Peifer.
  • “I understand that,” said J.

It went on like this. He could see how they viewed what he had written, and it was obvious that it looked very bad. Criminal.

He still did not understand the seriousness of his predicament. When they were finished, J asked Peifer when he could go home. “No,” the lieutenant explained in that calm, patient way of his. “You’re being arrested and you are going to jail tonight.”

Flash Forward

J ended up serving a year in prison. His lawyer negotiated a plea that reduced what might have been a much longer stay, and that allowed him to serve his time in a relatively unthreatening county prison.

He was charged with 16 counts, starting with “criminal attempt — rape forcible compulsion” and ending with “criminal solicitation — corruption of minors.”

He was given one year of parole and sentenced to 10 years of probation, during which time he must attend counseling weekly for his alleged sexual desire for children.

His wife left him. He lost his job. His face, name, address, and criminal conviction for “Attempted Involuntary Sexual Deviate Intercourse” with a minor appear on the Pennsylvania Web site for “sexual offenders.”

He is deeply ashamed, and bitter. He wanted to fight the charge. Indeed, he is still furious with the lawyer who persuaded him to take a plea, but it would appear that the copy-machine repairman received wise counsel. Because he didn’t have a prayer of getting off. The array of charges against him could have sent him away to prison for up to eight years. At the trial, he would have been painted as an all-too-familiar monster.

This was the interpretation of Deery and the Delaware County district attorney, and they were not particularly interested in any other. They might have been able to find out for sure on the day they arrested him. Deery could have worn a wire, and if he had been as determined as she believed he was to have sex with her daughters, she could have presented him with that exact opportunity, telling him, for example, that her girls were home at that moment and she was going to take him directly there, bypassing the prospect of his having sex with her. It might have unequivocally sorted out his interests. But it was clear that, to her, such a consideration was moot.

  • “I had enough already to convict him,” she said. “There was no need for a wire.”

J was guilty of some things, serious things. He was guilty of saying he wanted to have sex with two imaginary children. He was guilty of being a troubled soul in a bad marriage, of abusing steroids, of a lifelong inability to establish a healthy intimacy with a woman, and of being morally adrift in a netherworld of illicit sexual desire. He was guilty of lacking moral boundaries and good sense.

There is a chance that without treatment of some kind J would have evolved into someone dangerous. I asked him,

  • “What if you found yourself, after all of that talk on the Internet, consumed with your steroidal lust, in a room with this woman and her children? Is it possible that you might have gone ahead with it?”

J bowed his head and thought about it for a long time.

  • “I don’t know,” he said. “I know I have no sexual interest in children at all. I pray that I would never have gone that far. I certainly had no intention of doing it. I intended to have sex with her and then leave. Period.”

There is no evidence that J has ever made a sexual overture to a child. Deery told me that she couldn’t remember ever arresting a child-molester who did not have child porn on his computer. It is all too easy to obtain. J had no images that were obviously child porn. His appalled parents paid for a battery of psychosexual testing, the kind where involuntary responses to images are measured. The tests showed exactly what J claimed, that he had no sexual interest in children.

J is off steroids. His body has slipped back into a normal shape, slightly pudgy. His manner is subdued, submissive, earnest, eagerly friendly, and polite. He helped several inmates earn high-school diplomas when he was in jail, and he is proud of that.

He no longer owns a computer. He lives alone in his suburban town house with his dogs. He has joined a church. He says the pastor there has embraced him, forgiven him, and provided him with support and direction.

After his arrest he went to every neighbor in his suburban cul-de-sac, knocking on doors to tell each of them his story. He did not want them to know only what they learned from the police. He says they believe him, and he feels accepted.

He recently found a new job, after telling his whole story to the man who hired him. He sees the years he spent obsessed with cybersex as an illness, or a lapse into sinfulness, that drew him deeper and deeper into depravity. He is embarrassed. He has been humiliated.

But he has stayed angry. The classes he attends as a condition of his probation demand that he admit a sexual desire for children. It is considered an essential step toward recovery. J told his instructor that he has no such desire. He never did. He was told that if he persists in this denial he will jeopardize his probation and could be sent back to jail.

So he pretends to be something he is not. He is good at it.

Mark Bowden is a Vanity Fair contributing editor.