By Allen Salkin
Published: December 13, 2006
Last Month the website Perverted- Justice.com posted news of the conviction of Sean Young, a Wisconsin man sentenced to 10 years in state prison for soliciting sex online from a 14-year-old girl.
According to a transcript of an online chat posted on the site, at one point Young had asked the girl, identified only as “Billie,” what she was wearing. When she answered “sweats,” Young typed back that if she were his daughter, “i’d make u wear sexy clthes.”
“Billie” turned out to be an adult volunteer for Perverted Justice, an anti-pedophile group, and when Young drove to a house where he expected to meet the teenager for sex, he was arrested by sheriff’s deputies.
The conviction was logged as the 104th that Perverted Justice says it has been responsible for since 2003, a tally that as of Dec. 12 had reached 113. What started as one man’s quest to rid his regional Yahoo chat room of lewd adults has grown into a nationwide force of cyberspace vigilantes, financed by a network television program hungry for ratings.
“It’s a kind of blog that has turned into a crime-fighting resource,” said Robert McCrie, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
Perverted Justice is best known for putting its online volunteers at the disposal of the television newsmagazine “Dateline NBC,” which has broadcast 11 highly rated shows in which would-be pedophiles are lured to “sting houses,” only to be surprised by a camera crew and, usually, the police.
Despite that publicity, the inner workings of Perverted Justice and its reclusive founder remain largely a mystery, even as the group has emerged as one of the most effective unofficial law enforcement groups in the United States, a kind of Neighborhood Watch of the Internet. But the group is also criticized by some legal and law enforcement experts, who accuse it of entrapment, making mistakes that ruin innocent lives and, paradoxically, disseminating its own brand of child pornography.
Peter Greenspun, an attorney who defended a rabbi from Rockville, Maryland, caught in a “Dateline” sting arranged by Perverted Justice, said that by posting online transcripts of conversations between would-be child molesters and volunteers posing as 12- and 13- year-olds, Perverted Justice was encouraging, rather than deterring, pedophiles.
“They are putting out for unfiltered, unrestricted public consumption the most graphic sexual material that they themselves say is of a perverted nature,” Greenspun said.
Perverted Justice’s founder, Xavier Von Erck, 27, a former tech-support worker, has a dedication to the cause bordering on obsession, according to his mother and associates. He lives in an apartment in Portland, Oregon, but rarely gives out his address, and he would not allow a reporter to visit because he fears retribution from men exposed by his group. In a telephone interview, he said he worked for his group seven days a week, mostly from a laptop in his bedroom.
Perverted Justice has 41,000 registered users of its online forums dedicated to the cause of stopping sexual abusers, 65 volunteers trained as chat room decoys and three salaried leaders: Von Erck, a woman who is a liaison with law enforcement and a business manager.
Typically, a Perverted Justice volunteer creates a false online profile, posing as, say, a 13-year-old girl on MySpace. The volunteer will wait to receive e-mail messages or will enter a chat room. If an adult contacts the volunteer, the decoy responds and sees if the conversation becomes sexual.
The group’s collaboration with “Dateline” since 2004 has been lucrative. A person familiar with Perverted Justice’s finances who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said NBC was paying the group roughly $70,000 for each hour of television produced.
“They do a lot a work for us, and they deserve to be reimbursed for that work,” said David Corvo, the executive producer of “Dateline,” who met with Von Erck earlier this year in New York to discuss their collaboration.
Von Erck said the NBC money had been used in part to buy computer servers that would not be overwhelmed every time the group was mentioned on television.
Ratings for the “Dateline” broadcasts, a series called “To Catch a Predator” that has become a network franchise, have averaged 9.1 million viewers, compared with 7 million viewers for other “Dateline” episodes, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Six new episodes are planned for the first half of 2007. Two were shot at a house in Long Beach, California; two in Flagler Beach, Florida; and two others in Murphy, Texas. The Texas sting drew a burst of publicity in early November, months before the episodes are scheduled to air, when a prosecutor implicated as a would-be sexual abuser, Louis Conradt Jr., shot and killed himself as the police approached his home.
One concern about Perverted Justice’s nonprofessional force of vigilantes, raised by Lieutenant Joseph Donohue, head of the New York State Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, is that decoys impersonating teenagers may be too aggressive, not understanding the need to let the other party initiate the sexual chat, and therefore not gathering chat-log evidence that will stand up in court.
Von Erck responded that so far prosecutors had not dropped charges against any man arrested in an investigation begun by Perverted Justice.
Happy Blitt contributed research