Robert Lee knows some people call him a vigilante for his online efforts to catch child predators.
"I'm a concerned citizen," said Lee, a 39-year-old Pontiac resident. "A vigilante is doing police work without a badge."
Lee calls himself Boopac Shakur online. Using his smartphone, social media apps and his phone's camera, he posts a decoy profile of a girl to lure alleged paedophiles. The profile says she wants to have fun and make money, he said.
He records and sometimes broadcasts live on the Internet the chats. When acting as the decoy, he discloses being a 15-year-old girl. His videos are posted on Facebook and Rumble, often with names of those who take the bait.
"There's a lot of kids out here, and a lot of pedophiles," said Lee. "They could be people sitting next to you. I want to uncover as many as I can."
His own family includes three school-age children, two girls and a boy. Lee was inspired to start the decoy account after watching videos by a group called Dads Against Predators and a man who goes by the name Skeeter Jean online and calls himself a professional Chris Hansen impersonator. Hanson, a television reporter who started his career in Detroit, became famous for his To Catch a Predator segments for Dateline NBC.
As of Wednesday, Lee said he has confronted 82 men who've shown up in various places in Pontiac, allegedly to meet Lee's decoy girl. The kind of people who message teens online are all ages and races, he said.
"I don't care who it is. This is wrong," he said. "I'm just putting the fishing pole in the water and seeing who's biting."
But efforts like Lee's, while appreciated by police, are fraught with potential legal and ethical issues.
Sheriff Mike Bouchard said people like Lee are well-intentioned. But sheriff's officials don't advise or coach Lee, other individuals or groups pursuing citizen-led investigations.
Sheriff's officials confirmed four arrests based on Lee's Boopac Shakur's videos. One was a sheriff's deputy working in the county jail, Waterford Township resident Jared Frederick Salisbury. He has been charged with one count of accosting a child for immoral purposes, a four-year felony, and fired from his job.
The best practice, Bouchard said, is for a private citizen to alert police if an online conversation rises to what appears to be a criminal level.
"We'd like it if they include us sooner rather than later," he said. When that happens, sheriff's detectives will assume the role of the decoy.
"We can ensure those evidentiary standards are met and finish the case," Bouchard said.
"We all need to be vigilant about online predators and our kids. I appreciate that there are people in the community dedicating their efforts to that," said David Williams, chief assistant attorney in the county prosecutor's office, speaking generally about online activists. He also said once someone identifies a potential predator, they need to turn that over to law enforcement, so officials can build a case that can be prosecuted.
"When the public tries to catch someone themselves, they can alert the predator too soon, they can spoil the prosecution, and most importantly it can be dangerous," Williams said.
Professor Diane Hartmus teaches criminal law and the courts to criminal justice students at Oakland University. She's also taught at the John Jay College of Criminal Law in New York City.
Like Bouchard and Williams, she said law enforcement officers are trained in what's called chain of evidence, which has a particular set of rules.
Prosecutors must convince jurors of the case that evidence hasn't been tampered with.
"A lay person doing this is quite a huge issue," she said. "They're not going to understand the evidentiary steps to make sure the prosecuting attorney has clean, clear evidence to get a conviction."
The moment an adult continues an online conversation after learning the other party is an underage child, she said, police should be alerted.
"There is a considerable amount of information that many people think would be great evidence in a criminal case," she said, but "in fact it cannot be used by the prosecutor's office and lay people just don't understand that."
According to the sheriff, there is no law against what Lee and others are doing as long as they don't break laws in the course of documenting online conversations or confronting an individual. Those confrontations are potentially dangerous, Bouchard said.
"We've had cases like this where we've set up a meeting and the person thought they were gonna meet a child," Bouchard said. "We've had fully identified police cars in place to box them in and we've had them ram our cars. It's not an action that goes without peril."
Lee said he's encountered a few risks. In one case a man tried to hit him. Another used pepper spray and a third man was in his car when Lee approached. That man hit the gas and pulled into a street only to be pulled over by police for suspected reckless driving. In that incident, Lee said he showed the officer the online chat but it was dismissed.
Lee said he often calls the police during or after confrontations and is happy to turn over the online chats and any videos as potential evidence.
"My phone is disgusting," he said.
Last week, Lee aired a phone conversation live on the Boopac Shakur Facebook page with a man who accused him of harassment.
"What do I get when you're wrong?" he asked Lee.
"You get an apology," Lee said. The conversation continued for more than 15 minutes, with the man saying someone is impersonating him using old photos and Lee telling him to report the impersonation to police. Lee even offered to meet the man at a police station and suggested the man report Lee to police for harassment. The goal, he said, is for police to check the man's phone and see whether or not the man had been talking to Lee's decoy account.
"There are people on my Instagram account who say they'll be following me home, that they know what I look like and where I live and will kill me if I don't take the video down in six hours. It never happens," he said.
"We're happy to do an investigation," Bouchard said, adding that the sheriff's computer crimes unit was founded to investigate online predators but most are now busy with digital evidence gathering for many kinds of cases. "Any crime you name now has a digital aspect. I could use five more people to do that kind of work."
Bouchard said parents concerned about who their children are interacting with online are typically the ones who alert police to inappropriate chats. At that point, he said, police temporarily take over the child's social media channels as part of the investigation.
Lee's videos are not considered entrapment because that's a legal term applied to government-agency investigations. But there's still a line prosecutors won't cross in some cases. Lee said he has never been called to testify in court on these cases. Bouchard said Lee would be listed as a witness in any reports he makes to police, but testimony is considered by prosecutors on a case-by-case basis.
While the impulse to protect children by catching potential predators is understandable, Bouchard said, this type of work should be left to police for several reasons.
"We want to make sure if a crime is committed that we get a successful prosecution," he said. People like Lee could face legal consequences in civil courts under libel and slander laws.
Hartmus, the OU professor, said confrontations could veer into libel or slander territory if the activist paraphrases an online conversation, but it's rare and difficult in the US to successfully sue someone for slander.
If he's recording conversations and playing them verbatim then he's not in danger of slander or libel, she said.
But she emphasises with her students that anything put online is not private, regardless of how an app or online platform is marketed.
"It's out there for the world to see, regardless," she said. "You have put it out into the public discourse."
She also said people engaging in vigilante-style online efforts create personal safety risks for themselves, those they are confronting, as well as innocent bystanders, especially if weapons get involved.
A better way to pursue justice as a concerned citizen, Hartmus said, is to work with law enforcement. While programs exist for volunteers to help police with events, for example, she said it would be more helpful if law enforcement could train people to work as observers or spotters for this type of predatory crime.
It's possible Lee and others may be hurting and not helping put predators behind bars. They don't always follow the rules of the US Constitution and Bill of Rights, which protect the rights of people accused of crimes by guaranteeing trials, which includes knowing the evidence against them and having the right to confront witnesses, Hartmus said.
Lee, the Dads Against Predators group and Skeeter Jean get accolades from followers, who call them heroes. Hartmus said without the involvement of law enforcement, she doubts those they confront who don't get arrested will change their behaviour.
Lately some of these recorded confrontations have only briefly seen the light of day. Social media platforms are deleting some of the shared videos. Lee no longer posts them on YouTube, and many he's shared recently on Facebook have been taken down. On Thursday, Skeeter Jean asked YouTube via Twitter why his videos were being deleted. The company responded in part by saying the videos violate community guidelines "specifically in our harassment policies. Content that depicts a staged meet-up that is used to accuse an identifiable individual of egregious misconduct."
While social media platforms are policing more of his posts and reducing the visibility of Lee's efforts, other traditional media have reported on what he is doing. Is he worried that this publicity will diminish his ability to catch the people he calls predators?
He wants people to know, he said. The more the better.
"I just want them to stop doing what they're doing," he said.
Sheriff's officials confirmed that at least four arrests have been made based on Lee's online activism:
1. Randall Ray Fain, 51, charged with accosting a child for immoral purposes, served 126 days in Oakland County jail before entering a plea agreement that includes five years of probation. He now lives in Texas, where he is listed on the sex offender registry, currently for the rest of his life.
2. Jacob Kile Gooden, 36, was charged in September with accosting a child for immoral purposes and possession of less than 25 grams of cocaine. His probable cause hearing is on Feb 16 in Pontiac's 50th District Court,
3. Nathanuel Chestnut, 41, arrested Jan 5, 2023, has been arraigned on four charges, including child-abusive commercial activity; accosting a child for immoral purposes; and two counts of using a computer to commit a crime. He's due back in 50th District Court on Jan 17 for a probable cause conference and on Jan 24 for a preliminary exam.
4. Jared Salisbury, 33, charged with accosting a child for immoral purposes is due back in court for a probable cause hearing on Feb 7. – The Oakland Press, Sterling Heights, Mich./Tribune News Service