o one is home at this house on the
Jersey Shore - no one, that is, except a very cute and horny
fourteen-year-old. Her parents went to Atlantic City for the
weekend, she is telling guys online, and she wants to get
Dozens of men are now making their way to the house,
hoping to get lucky with an underage kid. One hopped on a
motorcycle for the six-hour drive from Pennsylvania; another
grabbed a train from New York in a SpongeBob SquarePants
jacket, armed with a bottle of K-Y Jelly.
One by one, they
pull up to this white-shingled, weather-beaten house at the
edge of the Atlantic Ocean, with no cars in the driveway and
the window shades drawn. A mailman stuffs some bills into the
shark-shaped mailbox next door, pulling open its door of tiny
This, as the men will soon discover, isn't just a house:
It's the set of the Dateline NBC show To Catch a
Predator, the ratings phenomenon that zooms into
America's living rooms to humiliate sexual perverts.
program's gotcha! moments are like those on any
reality show; who can forget the time they made a bespectacled
twenty-year-old come over naked for sex play with some Cool
Whip? Except Dateline sends people to jail and claims
a high-minded purpose: warning the American public about what
it calls a
"growing national epidemic."
To transform a house into a giant flytrap for sexual
predators, it takes more than forty people, many of whom are
hanging out in the living room on this Friday afternoon.
There's the face of the operation: host Chris Hansen, a blond Dateline
correspondent, discussing helicopter trips to more glamorous
assignments with his producer. There's the eyes of the
operation: Mitchell Wagenberg, a spy for hire wearing a long,
skinny braid down to his butt, presiding over seventeen
cameras hidden in dried-flower wreaths and the toaster. And
there's the body of the operation: Casey, a sexpot college
student and aspiring dancer in tight jeans who is playing
jailbait decoy today because her landlord dad owns this house.
(Added bonus: Local prosecutors wrote her college a note so
she could get out of a chemistry test.)
Casey gabs to potential predators on the phone.
on over, we're not going to get caught," she says.
"If we got caught, I would get into trouble, and
everybody would call me a slut, and I don't want that, either.
I'll pay for your gas. It's no big deal, trust me. My
dad gave me plenty of money for the weekend."
guy fails to take the bait, her voice rises in pitch.
"OK, fine, whatever, lame. L-A-M-E. You're being a baby.
I told you I've done it a million times!"
None of these people, however, are the brains of the operation.
Those, appropriately enough, are located upstairs, in the house's
third-floor attic. For the Dateline sting, the space has been
converted into the warren of Perverted Justice, a secretive citizenry
of seventy-five predator-fighting zealots determined to save children
from the long-term scars of sex abuse.
The group is an assortment of
Genesis-loving fatsos from Texas, introverted copywriters from
Wisconsin, and New York nightclub doorgirls, with a dedicated core of
West Coast anarchist tech geeks and gamers in their twenties and
For those downstairs, To Catch a Predator is just a
TV show; for those upstairs, hunting predators is both the coolest
online game they've ever known and a life calling. Many members of
Perverted Justice use pseudonyms, keeping their real names secret even
from one another.
One of the few who know their true identities is
their elusive leader, Xavier Von Erck, a twenty-eight-year-old
libertarian and atheist who kills on Civilization IV.
It's getting late, and the four top-ranking
members of Perverted Justice here in the flesh -- Del Harvey, Frag,
Pibb and Don Pedro -- are arranged around computers and video monitors
balanced on the attic's chairs and beds, eagerly awaiting their
"Friday night, baby -- hookup central!" says
At twenty-five, she's a computer geek's fantasy female:
androgynous, beautiful, pierced, with comprehensive musical knowledge
and a house overrun by pet Maine coons and an iguana. One of her
favorite shirts features two cars crashing into each other under the
"Get it?" she asks excitedly. "It's a
car crash, and Control-Z is the command for undo!"
Del pecks madly at her keyboard, coordinating the thirty-five
volunteers who are working on this sting remotely.
They chat with men
on Yahoo!, AOL and MySpace about topics such as
| "have u ever
given a bj b4?" and |
| "do you have thick or thin pussy
In the past few days, PJ members posing as young girls and
boys have chatted with nearly 300 men. About thirty will actually show
up at the house this weekend. A few guys are scheduled to appear soon
| a salesman, |
| a printing-press operator and |
| a college student who has
revealed that his uncle is a captain at a nearby police department.|
Suddenly Frag leans toward his IM screen, which is scrolling
rapidly with news from far-flung PJ members.
"We got one --
Ikeman!" he exclaims. "Ikeman coming from the south, in a
blue Chevy Impala. He's bringing wine coolers!"
Everyone turns their attention to the camera following the Impala
as it disgorges Ikeman, a.k.a. John Donnelly, a handsome
twenty-one-year-old who is wearing a striped sweatshirt and a look
that's equal parts sexual anticipation and terror. Casey runs outside
to meet him, taking a seat in a chair on the beach. He approaches
"Where are the wine coolers?" she asks.
"I was going to get them after I met you because I was so
paranoid," Donnelly says, looking around. "Man, I was just
worried about this shit because I never met anyone under
He scrutinizes a couple passing by.
there are no cops around, so it's cool."
"Yeah," says Casey, smiling. "You can see there's no
He rubs his head.
"I'm just worried that it's some crazy
scheme," he says. "It's just like what you see on the news
"I don't watch the news!" she says, snickering.
"Well, I don't watch the news either," he says. "But
you know on Comedy Central's Daily Show, they make fun of the
news, but it really is the news, right? And I heard there's cops who
pretend they're girls and shit like that."
He laughs as his body
finally relaxes, like a cat finding a patch of sun.
everything's cool," he says.
Just then, Chris Hansen streaks toward him, a camera crew not far
The degree to which things are about to get
uncool for Donnelly is amazing to contemplate. Twenty-eight men are
caught in the bust, and the local prosecutor's office brings charges
against all of them. If they're convicted, their sentences for
attempted sexual assault will range from five to ten years in prison.
In direct response to the high-profile success of To Catch a
Predator, laws against online predators have become increasingly
| Internet solicitation of a minor is now a crime in a majority
of states, regardless of whether an actual minor is involved. |
| By 2009,
at least 600,000 of the country's convicted sex offenders -- including
those who, like Donnelly, never met an actual minor -- will be
required by a new federal law, the Adam Walsh Act, to be listed on a
national registry of sex offenders. |
There, on easy-to-navigate maps
for the entire country, their photos and home addresses will appear
next to categories such as aliases, sentence and "computer
used." Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch even thanked Perverted Justice
for "directly impacting" the law's passage.
|Twenty-four states now forbid sex offenders from living near a host
of public places -- including schools, parks, day-care centers and bus
stops -- effectively shutting them out of many cities. |
| Florida and
Oklahoma require some sex offenders to submit to GPS monitoring for
the rest of their lives. |
|Ohio lawmakers even tried to pass a bill in
2005 to force sex offenders to sport pink license plates on their
cars, but pressure from Mary Kay cosmetics, whose logo is pink,
stymied the plan. This year, legislators are trying again with
This is much to the glee of Perverted Justice, which views child
sex abuse as a vastly underrated evil, one deserving of harsher
"I'm just a guy working within the Constitution to
make the world a better place, using my freedom of speech to chat with
individuals on the other end of the screen name," says Frag.
"How much more gratifying does it get than finding guys who are
about to molest children and putting them in jail? Not many Americans
In reality, though, the stings conducted by Perverted Justice are
essentially designed to circumvent the Constitution. Police
departments are largely overtaxed in the area of Internet crimes, and
since Dateline reportedly pays Perverted Justice $100,000 per
sting, the group is able to provide its services to the cops for free.
In many ways, it is a subcontracted police force, with Del and Frag
even deputized by local cops for one Dateline sting. But
because its members are private citizens, their actions are impervious
to charges of entrapment.
Casey's come-on at the New Jersey house is
not unusual: Perverted Justice tries to talk predators who have
decided against a date into changing their mind, making calls in
calming, baby-girl voices to men who are having second thoughts.
While some police departments enjoy the publicity that Perverted
Justice brings, many in the criminal-justice field aren't so sanguine
about the group's tactics.
"We can't let anyone who wants simply
become law enforcement," says Mike Iacopino, co-chair of a task
force on sex offenders assembled by the National Association of
Criminal Defense Lawyers. "This is no different than letting a
guy with a six-shooter walk around protecting your hometown."
Indeed, many child-protection agencies express a disapproval of Dateline.
"We've seen numerous cases that would constitute entrapment, and
then Chris Hansen shoves a camera in these guys' faces and they end up
convicted on the basis of the camera confession,"
says Brad Russ,
director of training for Internet Crimes Against Children, a federally
funded task force that declined to partner with Dateline.
"The whole thing is a perversion of the way the criminal-justice
system is supposed to operate."
There is something undeniably disturbing about watching a delicate
law-enforcement operation being orchestrated by a group of citizens hell-bent
on revenge -- and anonymous ones at that.
(During a Dateline
sting in Texas, one alleged predator committed suicide while cameras
waited down the street from his house.)
In addition to the
seventy-five "high-security-clearance" members who form the
core of Perverted Justice, another 45,000 people have signed up for
the group's online forums, where anyone can puff up their chest and
play deputy dog.
Despite warnings by the group, these nameless
volunteers have made harassing phone calls to predators and mailed
flyers to local businesses outing sex offenders. In addition, they
post their own "investigations" under a section called
"Human Shields." Perverted Justice also posts the
pornographic material that predators have sent to decoys -- Webcam
photos of their penises, videos of themselves masturbating --
alongside their first names and hometowns, thus disseminating the very
perversions it fights.
Even more disturbing, anti-predator stings involving decoys may
actually outnumber crimes involving real victims.
On an early episode
of To Catch a Predator, Dateline estimated that
there are 50,000 predators online at any moment -- a number the show
pretty much made up out of thin air, though that didn't stop Attorney
General Alberto Gonzales from citing it as fact in a speech last year.
But a study conducted by the University of New Hampshire estimated
that there were fewer than 2,900 arrests for online sexual offenses
against minors in a single year. What's more, only 1,152 involved
victims who were approached by strangers on the Internet -- and more
than half this number were actually cops posing as kids.
Perverted justice started out as a hobby.
You could call it Stupid Pedophile Tricks -- Internet geeks have long
pretended to be young girls and boys in chat rooms and then turned the
tables on unsuspecting guys
("u be the nurse"; "I jam
the thermometer down the head 'til you feel it touch your pelvic
In 2002, Von Erck, at the time a tech for a TurboTax-like
computer program, and Frank Fencepost, a thirty-something tattoo artist
and motorcyclist, began playing tricks in chat rooms in Portland,
Oregon. Fencepost took things to another level, telling guys to come
over with Taco Bell and pizza, then meeting them at the door with a
raised baseball bat.
"Innocence is a very precious commodity, and it's in our
interest to preserve a kid's as long as possible," says
Fencepost. "There's nothing finer than the feeling when some
bastard who thought he was about to 'score big' with a ten-year-old
gets the surprise of his life: my face on his monitor, my voice on his
phone and, in a figurative sense at least, my shit in his mouth."
Fencepost and Von Erck posted the logs of these chats, attracting a
dozen others who wanted to get in on the fun.
This new group
increasingly took its tricks offline, bullying alleged predators with
sinister phone calls. One PJ member who calls himself Antiperv said he
posed as the principal of a local elementary school.
a 'Get to Know You Better Day,' and I'd like to have you come down and
piss on all the kids," Antiperv told his victim. "Talk to us
about the best liquids to drink to get a good yellow piss, and, if
time permits, allow the children to piss on you."
They also made
inflammatory calls to the families, neighbors and employers of
"It's important to be very explicit in your
calls," says a former member. "Once a predator is
incarcerated, you can call the prison and say, 'This particular
prisoner wanted to make a thirteen-year-old girl eat dog food while he
fucked her in the ass.' One can assume that would stick in a guard's
But in 2004, Von Erck and Fencepost had a falling-out over tactics.
"Xavier became much more oriented toward getting pedophiles
arrested rather than just making them complete social pariahs in their
neighborhood," says Fencepost.
A Detroit broadcast on Von Erck
caught the attention of Hansen, a smart reporter known for using
hidden cameras, who took the idea to Dateline in 2004.
told, Perverted Justice has helped arrest about 250 men with the show,
nabbed 200 more in other stings and scared straight hundreds of
In a move that whitewashed the group's prior bullying and
abusive tactics, Von Erck has wiped all traces of early chats,
including Fencepost's, from the Perverted Justice Web site. Earlier
this year, he deleted entries from his personal blog as well, upset
that journalists had located them and quoted some of his writing:
"I wish I could fucking kill 9/11 conspiracy theorists. Yes,
kill. I'd like to kill them. . . . I want you to die. I wish you would
die. Why don't you die? Just die."
For a while clicking on his
blog brought up a message addressed to
"lazy idiots who aren't
The subject line read,
"You'll have to do some
For a group devoted to exposing those who
hide behind online anonymity, the masterminds behind To Catch a
Predator are only sporadically accountable themselves.
Justice didn't respond to my e-mails for nearly two weeks, claiming
that my account had blocked its return messages because the
"perverted" in their URL was registering as pornographic.
NBC, for its part, refused to provide any phone numbers for New Jersey
predators, citing a "standards and practices" provision that
bars it from sharing unpublished news-gathering. And a particularly
disaffected former member of Perverted Justice left me a vaguely
threatening voice message:
"The reason I'm calling is one of the
things that makes PJ cultlike is I spent some time wondering if you
are who you said you were or a PJer trying to see what they could find
out about me. I spent a half-hour poking around, I found out you and
your husband are thirty-three years old, and he's been arrested in
California for something minor, and you and I went to the same school.
. . .
Also, you post too much information about yourself on the Web. I
wouldn't add to it. I just wanted to let you know I had that
The predators themselves were incommunicado as well. I searched for
more than a hundred men busted by Perverted Justice and found only
eleven with listed numbers, all of whom were terrified -- worried
being evicted from their homes,
losing their jobs,
targets of random violence.
(One study shows that as many as one in
two sex offenders experience some form of harassment by strangers.)
sat behind a noisy waterfall in a vegan restaurant with one Dateline
predator and in a banquette with high seat backs in a Mexican cafe
with another, and they were still worried about who was watching them.
"Maybe I'm paranoid, but I've got good reason to be
paranoid," wailed one. A divorced father of two started to weep:
"I love Dunkin' Donuts, but I won't go in anymore. I'm so scared
of the first encounter with someone I know who has seen me on
Although To Catch a Predator fosters the belief that child
molesters are largely violent and untreatable, sex offenders actually
have the lowest re-arrest rates of all convicts. According to the
federal Bureau of Justice Statistics,
only five percent of convicted
sex offenders re-offend in three years, and
studies show that fewer
than one in four commit another sex crime in fifteen years.
rape women are more likely to return to their old ways than pedophiles
who molest girls.
What's more, Perverted Justice's tactics may actually make the
threat of child sex abuse worse instead of better. While the group has
caught dangerous predators who eluded other law-enforcement methods,
ninety percent of the men busted on To Catch a Predator have
no rap sheet, and few have any sort of sex offense on their record.
whipping up public frenzy about online strangers, Perverted Justice
diverts attention from the real source of child sex abuse: relatives
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics,
ninety-three percent of perpetrators of child sexual abuse are known
to the child.
"The focus on 'stranger danger' makes most people
less suspicious of those they know," says Jill Levenson, a
leading sex-crimes researcher at Lynn University in Florida. "And
that could make it easier for known abusers to fly below the
What Perverted Justice leaves in its wake are a lot of disturbed
men with deep psychosexual problems, whose national humiliation robs
them of any real chance of re-entering society.
Wesley Brannen, a
twenty-five-year-old carpenter from San Bernardino, California, who
was busted by the group, was released in January after eighteen months
in prison. At six-one and 265 pounds, he looks like a white-boy
gangster: shaved head, Vandyke beard, red plaid shirt. His parole
officer is making him wear a GPS bracelet, but Brannen looks on the
"The good thing is that not only child molesters
wear these things, but gang members too," he says. "So I
figure people will think I'm in a gang."
At first, Brannen speaks softly, talking about how he has slept
with only four women in his life. He says he even wrote Perverted
Justice an apologetic letter. But soon he's bursting with a toxic mix
of anger and bravado.
"These thirteen-year-old girls don't look
like thirteen-year-olds no more!" he says. "Man, when I'm
off parole, maybe I'll get a woman from Peru -- one who doesn't speak
English, so she won't ask about my past."
As he talks, Brannen drives aimlessly around San Bernardino in his
Lexus. His dad and mom both live too close to schools, so Brannen is
staying at a halfway house in the hills. Though he's clean now, he
used to be a meth addict who made his living scamming credit cards. He
hit on Perverted Justice's thirteen-year-old decoy, he says, only
because he had just returned home from a weekend smoking meth with
some girls at a roadside motel and was still hot and bothered when he
got on Yahoo! chat.
"I was thinking to myself, 'This ain't
right,' but I was so spun everything was off-kilter," he says.
After a while, Brannen reveals that he was molested by an older man
when he was seven.
"For so long I carried that around," he
says, "like it was my fault that he did that to me."
down, he wanted revenge and became obsessed with searching for
registered sex offenders online.
"If a guy did something serious,
like molest a young kid, I'd try to get the homeboys to go over there
and clean out the guy's house," Brannen says, stroking his beard.
"Now I'm in the same situation myself, and I'm worried about who
is going to come get me."
In recent weeks, it has started to seem like
Perverted Justice may have overstayed its welcome on the national
stage. For the first time, its tactics are starting to backfire.
district attorney in Texas recently refused to prosecute twenty-four
men busted by Dateline, citing insufficient evidence, and the
city manager who put together the sting was forced to resign in
NBC also got rid of the show's producer, who retaliated with
a suit alleging that she became a target when she expressed
reservations about the ethics of the show. NBC denies that claim, but
a source within the network says that the days of To Catch a
Predator, unpopular with advertisers, are numbered: NBC plans to
phase out the show after four more stings.
None of this bothers Xavier Von Erck, whose obsession launched the
"Hey, the TV show could go away tomorrow, and it
doesn't matter to me," he says. "Perverted Justice will
still do what we do, roll how we roll."
Von Erck, whose nickname is X, is sitting in a bookstore cafe in
Portland, dressed all in black. He looks a little like Philip Seymour
Hoffman, five-eleven and round all over. He wears tinted eyeglasses
and walks with a limp because he spends so much time at the computer
that his eyes are now light-sensitive and his leg muscles have seized
up. In a way, he's an odd doppelganger for Brannen, another guy who
seems childlike but wants to be a gangster.
Though he wasn't molested himself, Von Erck felt robbed of his
childhood by his father and legally changed his name from Phillip Eide
to eradicate the last vestiges of his paternal namesake.
was an alcoholic scumbag commercial fisherman who hit my mom," he
says. "She left him when I was one, and he went on to impregnate
ten more women up and down the West Coast. His name is garbage."
As a teenager, the only thing that brought Von Erck back to a state of
innocence and wonder was the computer - until he decided that the
online world was teeming with sex offenders.
"I was so into the
computer," he says. "I went into chat rooms thinking it was
going to be utopia, and it was dystopia."
It's easy to see how Perverted Justice resembles a game to Von Erck.
Intentionally enigmatic himself, he demands utter transparency from
predators and Perverted Justice members, like a junior-high-school kid
playing D&D who always wants to be the dungeon master so he can
control every aspect of the game.
He guards his power closely,
requiring members to give him their entire Internet history
screen names, all pages joined)
and going to war with
"stupid" people who dare to criticize Perverted Justice.
exacted a particularly sadistic form of revenge against Bruce Raisley,
a software developer from Arkansas who launched an aggressive anti-PJ
Posing as a woman named Holly, Von Erck began an online
flirtation with Raisley, who was smitten enough to leave his wife and
rent a new apartment. On the day Raisley went to pick up Holly at the
airport, Von Erck sent a friend to snap his photo and posted it with a
"Tonight, Bruce Raisley stood around at an airport,
flowers in hand, waiting for a woman that turned out to be a man. . .
. He has no one. He has no more secrets. . . . Perverted-Justice.com
will only tolerate so much in the way of threats and attacks upon
Here, after all, is the point of Perverted Justice: to destroy and
vanquish, to re-establish utopia, both online and off.
without To Catch a Predator, the man known as X is onto the
next stage of the game, taking on even bigger prey than horny guys who
stalk young girls.
Von Erck's new obsession is what he calls
"corporate sex offenders" - online sites that don't do
enough, in his view, to rein in the pedophiles who use their services.
MySpace is exempt from the campaign - since March, at the request of
PJ, it has removed more than 3,000 predators from its site and
forwarded their addresses and online profiles to the police. But Von
Erck is mobilizing his thousands of followers to write letters to
companies advertising on LiveJournal and YouTube, demanding they
withdraw their support.
"Corporations have a choice about having the pedophile
community use their service and upload videos on their sites," he
says. "People want to know if you're responsible on this
Von Erck looks out into the distance, imagining a world in which
every predator has been ferreted out and cyberspace is his again.
"When it comes to the Internet, pedophiles got there first,"
he says. "It's a check game, where they make one move and we try
to check it. But slowly but surely, we're catching up."