Citizen vigilantes posing as underage girls began exchanging online messages with a 36-year-old Los Angeles man in July. They say he made graphic sexual advances toward someone he believed was a 14-year-old girl.
The vigilante group, which calls itself the Creep Catchers, confronted the man on July 14 at the Irvine Spectrum Center. They showed him photos they captured of him, shirtless, along with printouts of their online conversations.
He denied taking part in those chats. Then he got up and ran, throwing two cell phones to the ground with enough force to shatter them as he fled.
The man and one of the Creep Catchers dodged about two dozen cars as he was chased across 10 lanes of the 5 Freeway, south of Alton Parkway. The foot pursuit was live-streamed, and the rough, shaky footage was later uploaded to YouTube.
When his pursuer finally caught up to him in a nearby business lot, the man pleaded to be left alone. “I’m sorry,” he said, weeping.
He also brandished a knife, according to his accusers and police.
Nearby patrol units had been alerted to the chase across the freeway, including one parked in a marked SUV about a block away from the lot where the men wound up, Irvine Police Lt Bill Bingham said. They noticed the commotion, and the suspect was promptly taken into custody.
The person recording his arrest was heard cursing and taunting him as he was placed into handcuffs, despite officers asking him not to antagonise the suspect.
“I told you guys I won’t let this guy get away,” the man who filmed the encounter is heard saying during the arrest. “No matter how much he tried, I wasn’t going to let him get away. I’m a dog bro, I’m a dog. I’m a dog. If I want something, I’ma get it.”
The Creep Catchers are among various citizen vigilantes trolling the Internet for potential child predators and then posting what follows for the public to view at their leisure. The concept borrows heavily from NBC’s To Catch a Predator, hosted by Chris Hansen and airing between 2004 and 2007.
But unlike YouTubers who mostly work independently, that show’s executives collaborated with authorities in their investigations and were surrounded by law enforcement during encounters to ensure the safety of everyone involved in a sting.
The Creep Catchers, which also calls itself the CC Unit, have posted over 160 videos to YouTube since Jan 30, 2020. They say their page features confrontations with teachers, medical professionals, laborers, an ordained minister and other church employees. They have confronted suspected child predators throughout Southern California.
The subjects are overwhelmingly men, and range from young adults to grey-haired seniors. Some end up weeping by the end of their filmed encounters. Some deny or say they weren’t serious about planning to have sex when they were chatting with a decoy, and claim they were trying to be a mentor, pen pal or friend. Some threaten the people recording them.
And some wind up in handcuffs.
The YouTubers who documented the encounter in Irvine contacted police about 45 minutes before it happened, and shared logs of what appeared to be conversations between him and someone posing as an underage girl, Bingham said. He declined to go into detail about the content they received.
The founder of Creep Catchers, who calls himself “Ghost,” said they take on the risk associated with making their content to educate the public and protect children. He and his team work in groups and are constantly recording during their meetups with alleged predators, giving them some layers of security, he said during an interview with the Register.
“I was alone when I started doing this and wanted to find out how many creeps were in my area,” said the founder, who described himself as in his 20s. “I was shocked at how many were responding to me. Over time, as the name Creep Catchers started getting out there, I think they became more wary. But we also built a following, and people started joining the mission.”
He acknowledged that the Creep Catchers conduct their investigations without the aid of law enforcement. They do notify authorities after a meeting has been arranged with one of their subjects, usually the same day it happens. They wait until they are certain their subject will show up in person to guarantee they will be taken into custody when police are summoned, Ghost said.
Anaheim Police Sgt Bill Segletes has been investigating sex crimes for over six years, and he believes what private individuals and groups like Creep Catchers are doing is “unsafe, plain and simple.”
Suspected child predators are typically aware of the potential consequences if convicted of meeting a minor for sex, which can cause them to respond unpredictably when confronted during a sting operation, he said.
“We know that they have a likelihood to potentially react violently because they know what they are facing: life in prison, the stigma of being a sexual registrant,” said Segletes, clarifying that lengthy jail terms are applicable to offenders with past convictions.
Stegletes made it clear during his interview for this story that he was speaking for himself, and not on behalf of the Anaheim Police Department.
In 2021, Orange County prosecutors filed criminal charges against at least 10 people who had been exposed in amateur stings by YouTubers, Kimberly Edds, an Orange County District Attorney’s spokeswoman, said.
The Los Angeles man taken into custody in Irvine, Gerardo Juaregui, was charged with two felony counts alleging he tried to lure or meet a minor for sex, and a misdemeanour accusation of brandishing a knife, according to court records. He was in custody in lieu of US$200,000 (RM891,380) bail as of Aug 4.
Bingham noted that someone could have been hurt while running across the freeway during the amateur sting, or because Juaregui had a knife.
“We in law enforcement don’t recommend that private citizens make contact with people they think might be preying on children or confront them,” Bingham said. Instead, he advised those who suspect that a sex crime may have occurred to notify authorities as soon as possible so they can conduct a formal investigation.
Ghost claims that, off camera, police who respond to the meetings the Creep Catchers set up often support their efforts. When cameras aren’t rolling, members of law enforcement tell the YouTubers that their caseloads are so packed they don’t have the time to do these types of sting operations.
“Behind the scenes, they support me 100%,” the group’s founder said.
Court of public opinion
California law prohibits police from recording confidential telephone conversations without all parties’ consent unless investigators have a warrant. But the same privacy protection doesn’t apply to written communication like texts or direct messages via apps. That means the chat records handed over by people who conduct independent stings can be used as evidence in court.
Allegations and potential evidence submitted by private parties have to be closely vetted by police and prosecutors before criminal charges might be filed against anyone accused of wrongdoing, Segletes said.
“That’s one of the other issues with citizens doing such a sting,” Segletes said. “We (police) at least have certain restrictions and regulations. We can’t just, willy nilly, start parading people up and down in front of cameras.”
Regardless of what happens in court, he added, “They’ve already been tried and found guilty in the court of public opinion. How do you rectify that? I don’t know.” – The Orange County Register/Tribune News Service