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To Catch a Predator

To Catch a Predator is a reality television show that features a series of hidden camera investigations by the television newsmagazine Dateline NBC devoted to the subject of identifying and detaining those who contact people below the age of consent (or individuals whom they believe to be such) over the Internet for sexual liaisons. The investigations, many of which have been reported by Dateline correspondent Chris Hansen and producer Lynn Keller, are conducted as an undercover sting operation with the help of online watchdog group Perverted-Justice. Since the third installment, law enforcement and other officials have also been involved in the operation, leading to the arrests of most individuals caught in the sting. In an interview with NPR's Neal Conan on Talk of the Nation, Chris Hansen emphasizes that the subjects of his program should be labeled as sexual predators: "We don't label these guys as pedophiles. Pedophiles have a very specific definition, people who are interested in prepubescent sex. What we're talking about here are potential predators".

Several other NBC affiliates, such as WTMJ in Milwaukee (which was the first news media to conduct a sting operation in cooperation with Perverted-Justice) and Kansas City's KSHB have also done local versions of "To Catch a Predator", as well as Scranton/Wilkes-Barre NBC affiliate WBRE. A spin-off called "To Catch a Con Man" was developed in early 2007 using similar methods in order to catch con men performing advance fee fraud scams. Further spin-offs have included "To Catch an ID Thief", "To Catch a Car Thief", and "To Catch an i-Jacker" (featuring iPod thieves). "To Catch a Car Thief" and "To Catch a Baby Broker" are the only spinoffs that do not include Chris Hansen, but Victoria Corderi instead.

To Catch a Predator is also aired in the UK by the satellite channel FX.

Method

The method used to catch would-be sex offenders is derived from that normally used by Perverted-Justice. Perverted-Justice volunteers build profiles of clearly underage individuals on social networking websites, and enter chatrooms as decoys. They wait for an adult to message or email the decoy and begin a dialogue. If the conversation turns sexual in nature, the decoy will not discourage this. This also can help the Perverted-Justice team in collecting incriminating evidence against the alleged offender. Such evidence could include engaging in sexual conversations, sending the decoy pornography or child pornography, and committing other acts.

The visitors are led to believe that the supposed minor is home alone, and, upon coming inside the house, are soon confronted by Hansen.

Hansen attempts to interview each one at length about their intentions. Some exit the home immediately upon seeing Hansen, because they recognize that he is clearly not a teenager, or they have seen him in previous Dateline investigations. Hansen, without initially identifying himself, interviews the predators about their intentions, and also reads aloud some of the graphic portions of the chat. Those who have not seen Hansen's Dateline investigations before often assume that he is either the child's father or a member of a law enforcement agency. After a few minutes of questioning, Hansen identifies himself as a Dateline NBC correspondent and informs the visitor that the entire interview has been recorded on hidden camera as part of the Dateline NBC story. Then, Dateline crew members with large cameras and microphones reveal themselves, and the predator is offered a chance to make a final statement before being asked to leave.

The first two investigations did not include law enforcement officers on site, and individuals caught in the sting were allowed to leave voluntarily, though Dateline would provide all video and transcripts to law enforcement and suspects would eventually be arrested. Arrests are sometimes made in a dramatic fashion by multiple officers who, with guns drawn, ambush the suspect and command him to lie face-down on the ground before being handcuffed. Tasers are sometimes shown being used to subdue fleeing or unresponsive individuals.

During interviews, suspects often claim to not have any idea how old the supposed minor is, even when confronted by Hansen with chat logs showing the decoy clearly identifying him or herself as a minor. In many jurisdictions, online solicitation with the belief that the other person is a minor is a crime, regardless of whether or not the other person actually is a minor.

Criticism

The series has been accused of making news rather than reporting news, blurring the line between being a news organization vs. an agency of law enforcement, and having its host impersonating a police officer.

Among the more prominent critics of the series has been Brian Montopoli of the CBS News Public Eye blog and formerly of the Columbia Journalism Review. Montopoli argues that although Dateline NBC leaves legal punishment up to police and prosecutors, broadcasting the suspects on national television, in the context of exposing criminal behavior, is already a form of punishment which the media has no right to inflict. Montopoli also suggests that NBC News is more concerned about ratings than actually bringing online predators to justice:

In May 2007, a former executive producer for Dateline named Marsha Bartel filed a lawsuit against NBC and made assertions about To Catch a Predator that contradicted what the show purports to be about. She commented on the relationship the show has with the different police organizations and the group Perverted-Justice. The lawsuit was dismissed by the New York Supreme Court in October 2007, citing that NBC has the right to legally dismiss employees without notification. NBC commented on the dismissal: "We believed from the beginning that this case was without merit and we are pleased with the judge's decision.

Entrapment claims

Montopoli also suggests that To Catch a Predator may not be as immune from the defense of entrapment as the show claims. Although Perverted-Justice volunteers wait for the suspect to initiate contact, former Dateline anchor Stone Phillips concedes that "... in many cases, the decoy is the first to bring up the subject of sex." (Phillips defends this, saying that "... once the hook is baited, the fish jump and run with it like you wouldn't believe.") Montopoli contends that this alone may render Predator-related cases vulnerable to the defense of entrapment. This situation, however, may fail the "reasonable person" test of entrapment, as there is no persuasion or coercion involved, but simply an opportunity is offered. The March 2007 issue of Law Enforcement magazine, a publication of Officer.com, addressed the entrapment issue from a law enforcement perspective. "Though defendants raised the entrapment issue in Riverside, a judge's ruling later threw it out. The judge ruled it differs from a police officer presenting a handful of drugs to a subject and asking if he wants to buy some. In this scenario, the person's being invited to make a snap decision. In contrast, driving to a meeting location afforded these Internet offenders plenty of time to change their minds." The article continued:

Charges dropped

In June 2007, Perverted-Justice was criticized following a sting operation in Collin County, Texas, that resulted in the charges against 23 suspected online sex predators being dropped. Collin County Assistant District Attorney Greg Davis said the cases were dropped after Perverted-Justice failed to provide enough usable evidence.

Conflict of interest

Beginning with the fourth investigation, Dateline began paying Perverted-Justice a consultant's fee to do its regular work; the fee was reported to have been over $100,000 for that operation. It was suggested that this payment created a potential conflict of interest for Perverted-Justice, an organization run largely on the efforts of volunteers, and furthermore, that for Dateline to pay this fee would be tantamount to paying news sources, widely frowned upon in the journalism industry. In their FAQ, Perverted-Justice defends this consulting fee, citing, among other things, the costs of keeping its website running and the fact that "... everyone except [themselves] and the predators are being compensated for this massive amount of effort."

This claim was also addressed by the March 2007 issue of Law Enforcement Technology magazine. A judge also dismissed motions to throw out indictments against seven of the 18 men arrested in the Ohio sex sting. To date, 16 pled guilty and two were convicted at trial. Defense attorneys contended the sting violated state law because of Dateline's involvement with Perverted-Justice and petitioned to have related videos, statements and photos suppressed. A judge ruled against the potential conflict of interest, noting department officials that had partnered with Perverted-Justice were unaware NBC had paid the organization for consultation services.

The department kept itself separate from Dateline staff during the sting as well, to avoid legal hassles later on, says Burns. Officials were positioned in a location near but not inside the house where offenders arrived for meetings. Communications and video equipment permitted authorities to keep tabs on what transpired, and all chats were transmitted directly to officials as they took place. "We didn't want to blur the line of ethics between law enforcement and the media," Burns explains. "We didn't even speak to Dateline officials during the operations."

The potential for conflict of interest was one of several concerns that lead to the non-prosecution of 23 cases in Collin County, Texas. District Attorney John Roach questioned circumstances of the May 2007 sting, Investigative journalist Byron Harris explains, "John Roach knew the money issue would come up in court as part of the required disclosure of benefits received by possible witnesses.

Investigation by 20/20

On September 7, 2007, the ABC newsmagazine 20/20 aired an investigative report into the To Catch a Predator series by ABC News investigative reporter Brian Ross. The report critiqued certain aspects of the specials, and also investigated the controversy over the suicide of prosecutor Louis Conradt, Jr.

In the report, two former police detectives with the Murphy, Texas Police Department, Sam Love and Walter Weiss, claimed that the decision to arrest Conradt at his home was made by Chris Hansen, a charge NBC has denied. Both Love and Weiss claimed that the NBC News crew had every intention to confront Conradt, and the attorney for Conradt's family charged that Dateline chose to stop at nothing to get Conradt. Love and Weiss claimed that Conradt's death was shrugged off by many in Murphy's police force, and the two of them left the department in disgust.

Neither NBC News nor Perverted Justice cooperated with Ross' report. NBC News accused ABC News of using the 20/20 report as a hit-piece on the rival newsmagazine Dateline NBC. "I chalk this up to the usual network silly competitiveness, in a territory of a much more serious handling," NBC News president Steve Capus told USA Today. "The competitive wars [for ratings] right now are at a very high level...That's fueling this." The allegations were denied by Ross, who is a former reporter of NBC News.

Investigations

Outside New York City (Bethpage, Long Island)

The first in the series aired in November 2004 as a Dateline NBC segment called Dangerous Web. The operation was set up in a home in Long Island, NY, to which 18 men came over two-and-a-half days after making an appointment for sex with a minor. One of the men in the investigation was a New York City firefighter, who was later fired by the FDNY.

Suburban Washington, D.C. (Herndon VA, Fairfax County)

The sequel to the first story was an hour-long special airing in November 2005. The operation was located in Fairfax County, Virginia, in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and saw 19 men arrive over three days. Among the men caught were a Rabbi using the screen name Redbd (David Kaye) and a high school teacher; (Steven Bennof) using the screen name Crazy4theNATS, both of whom lost their jobs after taping and have since been convicted and sentenced to jail. Another man (John Kennelly) going by the screen name SpecialGuy29 was interviewed by Hansen after showing up at the house naked, then encountered again the very next day at a local McDonald's, having been summoned again by the same people, in the same chatroom. He was sentenced to jail time, but the judge suspended his sentence. In 2007, Kennelly was arrested again on indecent exposure charges after being caught exposing himself in a park to a pair of teenage girls.

Riverside County (Mira Loma), California

The third installment of the series was a two hour special aired in February 2006. The operation was located in Riverside, California, and was the first done in cooperation with local law enforcement officials. During this sting, 50 men were arrested over three days and charged with felonies -- so many that three arrived almost simultaneously, and law enforcement, at one point, ran out of personnel. One other person arrested was charged with a misdemeanor. The men arrested included a criminal investigator working for the Department of Homeland Security who was later fired and, for the first time, two men who claimed to have seen previous Dateline investigations of online sexual predators.

Charles Harding, 65, one of the featured predators, died of a heart attack in police custody. Unable to post bail, he had stopped taking his prescription heart medication.

In August 2006, a Superior Court Judge dismissed charges against William Lawrence Havey, who was arrested during the Dateline Riverside operation. This segment resulted in 48 guilty pleas and convictions.

Greenville, Ohio

The fourth investigation aired in two one-hour-long parts during April and May 2006 as the first half of a month-long series of To Catch a Predator specials. The operation was based in Greenville, Ohio and resulted in the arrests of 18 men in three days. The small-town location of the undercover house meant that potential predators from the larger surrounding cities of Indianapolis, Columbus, and Cincinnati had to drive upwards of an hour and a half to reach the operation. Among the men caught were one who had been slated to start a prison sentence for a different charge of solicitation in four days and a 6th grade Catholic school teacher. Three Perverted-Justice members were temporarily deputized for the length of the operation. It was also the first Dateline investigation in which Perverted-Justice was paid a consulting fee. All arrests resulted in convictions.

Fort Myers, Florida

As with the Ohio investigation, the fifth investigation was aired in two one-hour-long parts in May 2006, forming the second half of the month-long series of To Catch a Predator specials. The operation was based in Fort Myers, Florida and saw 24 men arrested in three days. Among the more notable moments in the investigation was the arrest of a man who had brought along his five-year-old son to the house, creating a challenge for arresting officers as well as Hansen who did not want to traumatize the boy. Hansen told him immediately that he was on Dateline without attempting to interview him, and police had the difficult task of arresting the father and removing the child without exposing him to the arrest. One man, Brian Gosselin, upon seeing Hansen, said that he knew that he was walking into a setup because of the way that the decoy was talking online, but came anyway. When Hansen asked Gosselin what his last name was, he replied "I don't have a last name," then walked out of the house and was arrested. Another man had asked a decoy posing as a 14-year-old if she was willing to have oral sex with a cat. She replied that she would do so on the condition that he would strip naked after entering the house. He did so and was immediately confronted by Hansen. He was the second featured predator to strip naked in the house to date. Another man arrived at almost 4am, but refused to enter the house, trying to talk the girl into getting in his car with him. After pleading with her for over 30 minutes, he gave up and walked to his car where he was arrested. Another man confessed that he was "guilty of whatever's there" (the transcript) and said that he should receive the death penalty. Another duped his sister into driving him to the sting house and waiting for him in the car while he intended to have sex with a 14-year-old girl. This segment resulted in 21 convictions. A notable conviction was Lyle Morris, who attempted to "sodomize" a two-year-old girl.

Fortson, Georgia

In August 2006, Perverted-Justice that the sheriff's department in Harris County, Georgia had arrested 20 men over four-and-a-half days in another sting operation. The investigation aired on Dateline NBC in two parts on September 13 and September 22, and showed a growing awareness of the television series among potential predators; Dateline itself was referenced by name several times. Notable arrests included a military staff sergeant who on his knees pleaded with Hansen "not to ruin my life", a devout Christian man whose MySpace page claimed "Jesus Rocks" and that God was his hero, and one man who had said that he had seen the show "about three times on TV already", and in another case a man who confessed that "he has interest in younger girls, It has just been a fantasy of mine" and also that the "cleanest best pleasure" would be to have sex with a 13-year-old girl. Several months later, that man was rearrested when he exposed himself to a young girl at a public pool.

Shortly after the first half of this investigation aired, the Georgia Governor's office announced a new Child Safety Initiative which would triple the number of special agents in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation dedicated to catching Internet predators and double the number of forensic computer specialists dedicated to helping prosecute computer crimes.

Many featured predators in this segment received some of the stiffest punishments of any jurisdiction. George Cleary received the shortest sentence of the 21 men arrested in the sting. He received two years and is scheduled to be released on July 25, 2008, and will be the first of the group to complete his sentence. Matthew Cogburn, Jacob Cason, Denis Coulson, and Marshall Girtman pled guilty and received four year prison sentences and are all scheduled for release in February 2011. Christopher Cannon, John Adam Daniels, David Hillbish, James Klein, Brian Lindsey, Joseph Myrick, Rolando Restocruz, and Peter Sciacca all pled guilty and received five year sentences and scheduled for release in early 2012. William Rowell pled guilty and received six years. Todd West pled guilty and received 10 years. Reymendo Anguiano and Robert Gerald White were convicted in a jury trial and were each sentenced to seven years. Marvin Harrison Smith was convicted in a jury trial as well as received the longest sentence to date, 13 years, and will remain in custody until late 2020. Cody Green and Abilash Bhaskaran are the only predators whose cases are still pending. Green was rearrested in indecent exposure in the summer of 2007 and is presently in custody, and Bhaskaran has jumped bail and fled after a failed attempt to recover his passport from authorities that he was required to surrender when he was arraigned. He is the only featured predator in this operation not currently in custody.

Petaluma, California

From August 25 to August 27, Perverted-Justice and Dateline worked with law enforcement in Petaluma, California to arrest 29 men in three days. One suspect was later released due to lack of evidence. The resulting investigation aired on Dateline NBC on September 29 and October 6. The confrontations took place in the backyard, the first time they were taped outdoors. All of the previous interviews took place in a kitchen or living room.

Petaluma was the hometown of kidnap and murder victim Polly Klaas, and was also a former home of John Mark Karr, who made a false confession to the murder of JonBenét Ramsey. The last segment of the Petaluma investigation focused in part on the Mark Foley scandal, which broke just days before the investigation went to air. Several political cartoons published in the wake of the scandal explicitly referenced To Catch a Predator by name.

The investigation saw several computer engineers arrested, one of whom declared to the police that he was a well-respected man in society with a Ph.D. in computer engineering. Among the more notable arrests was that of a medical doctor who was the vice-president of a major cancer research corporation and an active-duty Marine Corps sniper who, in his chat, said: "I carry a gun everywhere I go". Police intervened immediately before any confrontation with Hansen and found a shotgun in the sniper's truck.

This segment resulted in 26 convictions.

Long Beach, California

In September 2006, Perverted-Justice and Dateline once again worked with law enforcement in California, this time in Long Beach, to arrest 38 men over three days. The Long Beach investigation featured a man who had previously been encountered in the Riverside operation nearly a year earlier, a post-production video editor for Nickelodeon, a software engineer who worked for the United States Department of Defense, and a man soliciting a decoy posing as an 11-year-old (Dateline's youngest fictitious age for a decoy to date). This installment also featured a man who met his decoy at a public park after refusing to meet her at the house. This man had brought the decoy an MP3 player to give her after they had sex. Some predators were ushered out through the back door when it appeared that another predator was on his way to the house, in order to avoid tipping off the next visitor. During some of the encounters in Long Beach, there appeared to be security breaches involving the decoy playing the part of the young teen: one predator was allowed to shake her hand and lean in to kiss her before Hansen walked in, and another was allowed to hug the decoy before being confronted by Hansen. Typically, the decoy is instructed not to have any physical contact with predators, and Hansen usually walks right in when they make a sudden move or request any physical contact such as a hug or a kiss. During this investigation, the presence of the Dateline sting operation in town was leak#verb online through a Craigslist internet posting. Nonetheless, 32 convictions resulted from this segment, which aired on January 30 and February 6, 2007.

Murphy, Texas

In November 2006, Perverted-Justice announced that another To Catch a Predator sting had been conducted with law enforcement in Murphy, Texas. There were 25 men who arrived at the filming location over four days, with law enforcement investigating additional suspects. Most notably, these additional suspects, who conducted chats but did not arrive at the undercover house, included Kaufman County assistant district attorney Louis W. Conradt Jr., who shot and killed himself on November 5, 2006 at his home when police attempted to serve him with a search warrant. An NBC camera crew was waiting outside the house to film the scene when the fatal shot was fired. His estate, managed by his sister Patricia Conradt, filed suit against Dateline for US$105 million The case was eventually settled out of court.

This sting was also notable because it prompted protests from local residents, who were opposed to law enforcement officials purposefully attracting sexual predators to their neighborhood. Others countered that these predators were already in the area (or close by) and that this sting revealed them to be sex offenders. This investigation aired on February 13 and February 20, 2007. Prior to the settlement of Patricia Conradt's lawsuit against NBC Universal Inc, acts from the aired 20 February 2007 episode of To Catch A Predator were intended to be introduced in civil court.

On June 1, 2007, all 23 cases brought up against those arrested on this installment of the show were declined to be prosecuted by the Collin County prosecutor's office due to insufficient evidence. The cases were not expected to be considered again. This marks the first segment in which local law enforcement has declined an invitation to prosecute suspects involved in the show.

On September 5, 2007, Dateline aired the results of the forensic report on Conradt's computer. According to the report, Conradt's "CDs, laptop computers and cell phone all contained pornographic material -- some included child pornography."

Flagler Beach, Florida

In December 2006, Perverted-Justice worked with the police department in Flagler Beach, Florida to arrest 21 men over four days, and the sting was filmed again by Dateline. Aware that potential predators might be reluctant to show up at a house primarily due to repeated Dateline investigations, the crew set up a second location at the beach directly across the street from the house. This second location was also rigged with cameras and microphones and had police hiding in a bunker below the deck. Some of the men arrested included a retired truck driver who claimed that he lied during his chat log about wanting to have sex with the underage girl because he is no longer able to achieve an erection, a Taekwondo instructor who masturbated on webcam for the decoy with whom he chatted, and a sheriff's deputy from Alabama who was arrested in a vehicle containing an arsenal of weapons. In one case, two potential predators arrived within five minutes of each other, resulting in Hansen conducting the first dual interview of predators who had each made separate appointments for sex. This investigation aired on February 27 and March 6, 2007, and resulted in 21 guilty pleas.

Ocean County, New Jersey

From March 28 to April 1, 2007, Perverted-Justice worked with the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office in Ocean County, New Jersey to arrest 28 men who showed up at Dateline's undercover house. The arrests spanned several Northeast states, including Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. The investigation was covered by Dateline NBC for a two-show edition of To Catch a Predator that aired on July 18 and July 25, 2007. As in the Flagler Beach investigation, a second meeting location was also set up at a nearby beach for those who were reluctant to show up at the sting house.

The female decoy playing the young teen was played by the 18-year-old daughter of the homeowner who rented out the beachfront house to Dateline. (It should be noted that this property is strictly used as a summer rental, and neither the decoy nor her father actually live in the home.) She was more interactive in speaking with the predators than in shows past, doing a pre-interview with featured predators before Hansen conducted the main interview. For the first time in the TCAP series, "Casey" gave an on-camera interview on what it is like to play a decoy.

Those arrested included a school bus driver, a court administrator, a senior web developer, a bodybuilder, a United States Air Force mechanic, a former firefighter, and a registered sex offender from Pennsylvania who once molested a young girl he had met online. As in previous episodes, most of the men denied an intent to have sex with the teen, yet brought gifts, condoms, and lubricants with them.

This installment of To Catch A Predator featured a man who became so ill while being interviewed by Chris Hansen that he passed out and crashed head-first into the bottom section of a counter. After being treated for his injuries, which were not serious, he was arrested. Another man seemed pleasantly surprised at meeting Hansen, shaking his hand before leaving, knowing that he would be arrested immediately afterward. In addition, a man caught in the sting mentioned on-air that he was a religious watcher of to catch a predator. He had heard Chris Hansen on the Opie and Anthony radio talk show. He went on to mention he was "really funny." Opie and Anthony commented about the incident on their show the next day.

Ernest C. Timmons, 33, one of the featured arrestees, died in police custody on September 6, 2007, of liver failure. He was an Air Force mechanic due to be deployed to Iraq the week after being caught in the sting; however, he was unable to post $50,000 bail, and remained incarcerated until being hospitalized on August 24. He died two weeks later. He had brought a camera to take pictures of the 13-year-old girl he expected to meet. Timmons was sweating profusely while being interviewed by Chris Hansen and cried when told he was going to appear on Dateline and again as he was arrested outside the house immediately afterward. He is the third featured suspect to die before his case could be adjudicated in the courts.

Bowling Green, Kentucky

On October 22, 2007, the Warren County District Attorney's Office announced that 29 men were arrested in an internet child sex sting conducted by local police in conjunction with Perverted Justice and Dateline NBC. Footage of this sting operation aired in an installment of the To Catch a Predator series on December 28, 2007. This is the twelfth investigation covered by Dateline and host Chris Hansen since the series began in 2004. Perverted Justice partnered with the Kentucky Bureau of Investigation as well as the Attorney General's office in three separate sting operations in three cities in Kentucky, but Dateline NBC was only involved in the Bowling Green portion of the operation. The female decoy used by Dateline in this operation was the same decoy they had used in the New Jersey operation though her hairstyle was different in order to avoid the possibility of being recognized by one of the predators who had watched the New Jersey investigation. Only seven men showed up to the house during Dateline's portion of the investigation, a sharp decline from previous Dateline investigations. One man arrested claimed to be a police officer in Indiana, although he was only a cadet and was fired before he graduated from the police academy. Kentucky police attempted to taser him when he ran, screaming, back into the house as police confronted him. Another arrestee was a man with cerebral palsy who walked with a cane. All men arrested face 5-10 years in prison if convicted.

Popular culture

"Public Service Homicide", an episode of the crime drama Law & Order, also broadcast by NBC, was inspired by the To Catch a Predator specials. In the episode, a pedophile who makes an unwitting appearance on a To Catch a Predator-like program called Hard Focus is later murdered by a former victim. The fake show is hosted by a reporter similar in appearance and mannerisms to Chris Hansen.

David Spade, once made a parody of this show, called "To Catch A Criminal" with kids 16 and under to have sex with a 67-year-old man.

South Park also has an episode (called "Le Petit Tourette") spoofing this T.V. series

See also

References

External links

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