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Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Armed With Cell Phones, Not Badges, Amateur Predator Catcher Groups Are Sprouting Up Across Northeast Ohio

Posted By on Wed, Aug 12, 2020 at 6:00 AM

click to enlarge THE DAP CREW AT THE MUNDY'S HOUSE IN FREMONT, OH/ PHOTO BY MARK OPREA
  • The DAP crew at the Mundy's house in Fremont, OH/ Photo by Mark Oprea

Today is catch day at the Mundy household.

Joshua Mundy, his wife Miranda and his childhood friend Jay Carnicom are hunched over their smartphones around a kitchen table in Fremont, their pitbull Hopper balled up and antsy beside them. The Mundy’s three kids are at school for the day. A sheet pizza is on its way. Miranda’s phone dings with regularity, breaking up the silence of a seemingly routine Friday afternoon in February.



“Got one,” Miranda says when another text arrives.

She’s talking to Jake. He’s a married man with step-children who lives in a nearby well-to-do suburb. He says he’s in his mid-20s. And he thinks, at this moment, that he’s got a pretty good shot of getting fellatio from a middle-schooler.

“He said he wants to pick me up!” Miranda exclaims at the head of the table.

Joshua hunches over her. “Just say, ‘Come meet me.’ Say, ‘No big deal.’”

“He said he can’t do that.”

“He’s gonna come. He’s invested by now.”

Miranda’s fingers move rapidly as she types. She stands up. “Okay! Okay! He said he’s on his way!”

This is a weekly scene for Dads Against Predators, a trio of twentysomething do-it-yourself predator catchers based in Sandusky County. Refusing to rely on the efforts of local law enforcement—namely, the Fremont Police—DAP define themselves as a citizen-run, anti-predator Guardian Angels outfit unique to the social media age. Instead of SWAT-led sting operations a lá Dateline, DAP battles probable sex offenses through means closer in theory to mob rule: Entice would-be pedophiles on Grindr or Whisper into a public meetup, confront them with camera phones rolling, and then shame them with a YouTube post.

In Northeast Ohio and across the country, self-styled predator catcher groups have drawn big audiences on YouTube (DAP’s videos have collected more than 800,000 views), the support of the public, and the frustration of the authorities.

“In my town, kids are getting sexually molested all the time,” Joshua Mundy, DAP’s tall and burly de-facto leader, told me in February. “Most precincts don’t have the budget for the task force. I just wanted a better preventative force. So I made one myself.”

Though Mundy posted his first sting in January—a catch that led to the arrest of a 39-year-old for a visa violation—the roots of DAP stem back to an attempted kidnapping at Hayes Elementary School in 2018, where one of Mundy’s daughters attends. For years, Joshua said, he had been passively witnessing a string of similar incidents, mostly involving older men, and wondered if Fremont police were responding sufficiently, if at all. Then, a man was caught outside Hayes in an apparent attempted kidnapping. (Fremont Police told me the kidnapping was a “misunderstanding.”) Regardless, Joshua snapped. He called up his longtime friend Jay and pitched him on a video series similar to Predator Poachers or POPSquad, two widely popular predator-hunting YouTube channels with a track record of hundreds of catches. Also a parent of three, Jay saw eye-to-eye immediately.

“We were at first like, ‘Dang, POPSquad has like 160 videos so far, I wonder how many guys we could catch around here?’” Carnicom, an Army vet born and raised in Fremont, says. “We made an account saying we were 14. Thirty seconds later, we had three guys saying they wanted to meet up right away. It was just wild.”

Their first sting, in January, was fraught with unknowns: Who should hold the camera? Who should be interrogating? They followed protocol subconsciously emulated from other channels: Master tween-like language on Whisper, schedule meets at Walmarts or Family Dollars, film the suspect, keep an eye on their hands, shout out their license plate before they peel off.

At nine in the morning on January 25, the two drove to a nearby Walmart on Route 53 to meet their man, Rafael, in the video game section, a plan the two finalized not even an hour before. “Oh my god that’s him, bro,” Jay can be heard whispering in the video, as the two approach watchfully. Joshua’s hands shake, his deep voice quivers as he says to a deer-in-headlights Rafael, “So, why are you here to meet a 14-year-old boy?” And minutes later, shouting in the Walmart parking lot, “Stay the fuck out of my town, you fucking pervert!”

Shortly after the video hit YouTube, DAP quickly blew up in Fremont, a farming town of roughly 31,000. Joshua appeared in a local news broadcast reaffirming DAP’s mission, as he was flooded with back-pats by parents and concerned residents, soon to be followed with death threats from those who felt differently about the enterprise. But on Facebook, where DAP posts its videos to a public group, residents generally expressed collective praise, along with shock. “They’re an inspiration,” one comment read. “I never would’ve guessed Sandusky County had a big problem with predators.” “I am a mother of 6 girls,” added another. “I wish law enforcement would step up and do something as well.”

The reaction was a welcomed wave of affirmation for Mundy and Carnicom, a pair of self-proclaimed do-nothings from broken homes who saw predator catching as a redemption turn. “I thought I was going to be a bum,” Mundy says. “I was out smoking weed, drinking every night, not taking life seriously. And then I had a family, and things changed.” Joshua had been attending Terra State Community College with aspirations to be an educator and working part-time as a security guard, but DAP provided him the potential status of folk hero. It was a golden opportunity, Joshua says, “to change the legacy of my last name.”

Their only problem, besides the fact that DAP produces little revenue, was that law enforcement wanted them to stop what they were doing. On January 23, Chief Dean Bliss of the Fremont Police Department officially denounced the YouTube-style outing of predators. The Fremont News Messenger hastily dubbed the crew “unlawful vigilantes” — “Painting us as more Punisher than Spiderman,” Mundy jokes. Citing Ohio’s Importuning Statute, Bliss made very clear that, according to state law, the only persons that could legally arrest and prosecute creeps pursuing underaged sex are members of the force—not a duo of iPhone-wielding “vigilantes.” “Believe me, I want these people prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Bliss said, flanked by the Sheriff and County Prosecutor. “However, I want the investigations to be done correctly.”

DAP set up a meeting with Bliss, Captain Ty Conger and Detective Jason Kiddey to ease tensions between the two sparring parties. The authorities gave them honest warnings and obvious reasons to quit: they could get hurt on a catch, or encourage violating pedophiles to skip town. And then, Bliss reminded them, this was just the law—nothing personal. “But that’s why I want to do this,” Joshua said to the officers. “I want those laws to get changed.”

***

The first thing the novice learns about predator hunters is that the vast majority of them utterly despise the term vigilante. Most told me they just prefer “informed citizen” or simply “predator catcher,” if any descriptor is needed. “I literally just yell in someone’s face and make them feel shitty,” Alex Rosen, the 20-year-old founder of Predator Poachers in Houston, Texas, told me over the phone in February. “I mean, we’re not breaking the law to enforce the law.”

Then, there’s the medium. What all DIY predator hunters can agree on is that views are king and currency of their art, and that the groups earning them have increased exponentially in the past few years (NBC found more than 30 exist across 23 U.S. states, as of 2019). While all worship Chris Hansen of To Catch A Predator fame as their turtlenecked lodestar, each group reps an individual style and tone when it comes to roping in perverted men. Anxiety War, run by computer programmer Zach Sweers out of Michigan, is laced with pro-style jump cuts and Gen Z-styled comedic zingers. Cassady Campbell, an actor in Dallas, often approaches his subjects in character as a hot-headed, cowboy hat-wearing patriot, or, when teamed up with Alex Rosen, as a duo of “wangster” security guards. There’s also the Langley Creep Catchers, the Predator Snatchers, the Predator Patrol and the Oklahoma Predator Prevention. Some post self-shot comedy sketches or gaming vlogs to boost subscribers; others sell branded T-shirts or stickers on their merchandise page. Some videos are amateurish and highly unedited, with long interludes and cameramen heard giggling in the background, as if this is amateur Jackass, not an earnest digital prevention of child rape.

“The big part of making these videos is making them entertaining,” Rosen, a recent college dropout and part-time delivery driver, told me. “Like, ‘What’s Alex gonna say next?’ It sucks that they have to be entertainment—but we have to get views.”

Other than POPSquad in New Jersey, run by 32-year-old Shane Erdmann, Rosen’s Predator Poachers may be one of the most successful and more controversial options in the sphere. After Rosen’s younger brother was sexually extorted by a man on Instagram, Alex started the Predator Poachers in early 2019 (it now has over 160,000 subscribers) to expose Houston-area creeps. Since last March, he has accumulated over 120 catches, from youth ministers to out-of-state high school teachers to 76-year-old stay-at-home retirees and married sex-offender duos. “Scumbags,” he explains. “All of them.”

Like several of his imitators, Alex has worked to find the appropriate balance along the spectrum of public servant and Gen Z entertainer. In several of his videos, Alex—a 6-foot-4 former football star—seems to instigate fights, or use excessive profanity and derogatory terms. (Excessively enough to earn him two strikes from YouTube; three, and his channel will be expelled). He’s also received cease and desist letters for “online impersonation”—four times by the same predator’s lawyer—and had his life threatened on several occasions. It’s why, like most catchers learn, Rosen forces partners to sign a liability waiver (“They could get shot”) and keeps a Houston-based lawyer on retainer. But he doesn’t stress too much: Seven Poacher affiliates—down from fourteen before Covid— are continuing to build and amplify his virtual footprint with hundreds of thousands of devoted viewers. “People just like seeing scumbags exposed,” he says. “It’s just human nature.”

It was Predator Poachers’ videos that encouraged Bee, of Keen N Zerk, to start his own effort based in his hometown of Akron. After one of Bee’s best friends admitted that a 35-year-old molested him when he was 15, Bee decided to pivot a YouTube channel he ran with a high school friend named Austin from comedy to predator catching. “We were thinking, ‘This is what we could do to make up for my friend.’ I mean, we had to do something.”

Around mid-December, about two weeks before Christmas, Bee and Austin began the usual process, starting with a Grindr account with Bee’s picture (“I’m 19, but I look 15,” he says). In minutes, a 49-year-old man named “Adam” hit up Bee looking to meet Bee and “his brother.” “You gonna suck my dick tonight,” “Adam” messaged. “I’ll do whatever you wanna do hahaha,” responded Bee. “What about a threesome,” “Adam” said. “I’m sure he’ll be down,” Bee said.

They would meet in the bicycle section of the Walmart, as Bee suggested, where they had hid a camera on a nearby shelf. In the video it captured, a white-haired, bespectacled “Adam”—really an Akron-area teacher—strides up to Bee, hands pocketed. “Are you the guy? Adam?” Bee says, visibly anxious. “Do you wanna head outside?” Adam whispers. “So, what do you wanna do?” Bee, says, rubbing his chin.

Twenty seconds later, Bee’s crew rushes “Adam,” sticking their phones in his face. “What are you doing here, bro?” Bee shouts in a deeper voice. “You know I’m fifteen, right?” Adam scowls, aware he’s been busted. He throws up the hood on his windbreaker to hide his face and walks coolly to the exit. As he does, Bee screams to shoppers in the aisle, “Watch out, everyone! He’s here to meet a 15-year-old boy!”

Months later, on March 4, the local school district where “Adam” worked announced that they were putting him on administrative leave and removing him from his classroom after officials saw the video posted on Bee’s YouTube channel. The Stow police responded by saying they would investigate the incident as a criminal act.

For Bee, the path from initial contact to investigation was anything but light YouTube entertainment. Up until March, he endured months of repeated verbal harassment from “Adam,” who threatened Bee with legal repercussions and physical violence if he didn’t delete the sting. (Lawsuits are rare, but two groups nationwide have faced defamation and privacy suits for their actions.)
“He was gonna ‘visit’ mine and Austin’s homes,” Bee told me. “Whatever that meant.” For months before he posted the video, Bee endured a tortuous cycle of indecision, fueled by “Adam’s” threats. Near the end of February, Bee gave up. The public had to see “Adam’s” freakish texts, he decided. In a later reposting of the video, Bee included an emotional prelude, summarizing months of stress on him and his family. Rewatching it now, viewers could be left with both anger and confusion: Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh declined to charge “Adam” with any wrongdoing, citing limitations of Ohio’s Importuning Statute.

“It still boils my blood,” Bee says. “It’s clear as day! You can see the tension right there on camera. And in the end, very few people know the feeling of what it’s like to stand right next to a predator. If only they knew.”

***

“He said he’s going to be in a black Nissan SUV.”

“Tell him to come inside.”

“I just did.”

It’s 1:45 p.m., and DAP and I are careening to the back of a Family Dollar on State St. in Fremont in order to finally confront Jake. By now, Jake has called decoy Miranda 14 times pining for midday phone sex and begging Miranda to “skip school.” We separate into teams of two, pretending to peruse the aisles. Jay and I take our positions near the dairy coolers, hiding as if we’re plainclothes SWAT in grey hoodies.

“It’s always nerve wracking,” Jay says. “Like someone’s waiting outside, and you’re about to fight them.”

Before the Family Dollar, we talk about the souring mental effects of constant predator chasing, about the endless chain of farmers, teachers, Marines, basketball coaches and driving instructors who think that soliciting a 13-year-old for sex is, well, permissible. (Forty men contacted DAP’s decoy with lewd messages in about a 20-hour period).

“There are times when I have to put my phone down,” Jay told me. “Then I think, ‘What if they’re trying to meet up with my daughter? My nephew?’ That’s how I look at it. ‘Dude, I got to do this.’”

At the Family Dollar, we convene in front of the coolers, slouched over Miranda’s phone on speaker mode. Jake’s calling. Joshua is red-faced as he makes silent directions. “Hiiii,” Miranda coos, in her girly decoy tone. “Come outside,” Jake orders. “There could be someone else [with you].” “Whatttt?” Miranda says. “You’re really going to leave me stranded?” Jake then says, pissed off, “I told you that I wasn’t going in.”

Jake hangs up, so Joshua leads a spontaneous rush to the Family Dollar entrance. “Fuckin’ A,” he grunts, as he readies his phone’s video camera, bolting to the parking lot. Joshua is panting, filming every car in sight. We all convene. It’s more than obvious by now that Jake isn’t here.

“I can’t believe it,” Joshua says. “He punked out.”

***

In terms of the criminally-prosecuted predator, the kind you see darting out of kitchen stings led by Chris Hansen, most if not all are caught in Ohio with the assistance of operations bankrolled by the U.S. Department of Justice. Rather than a team of three, their squads—from 24-hour-operating decoys to SWAT members and vest-wearing sergeants—run way past 100 in numbers. While DAP’s operations are virtually costless, save for the time it takes to set up a sting, a state-led task force’s individual takedown cost can run way into the thousands of dollars.

After considering the legal effect of a professional operation, it’s no wonder residual tension exists between both the law and the vigilante. “Our position is that we’re 100 percent against what DAP is doing,” Carl Sullivan, the director of the Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, says. “Sure, they expose the problem. But it’s us who are going out and actually doing the arrest.”

If you’ve read about predator takedowns in the news, it’s likely the Task Force is behind them. In December, they orchestrated the sting that busted Robert McWilliams, the Strongsville priest who was sexually extorting teenage boys for sex and graphic selfies. Last spring, Sullivan helped craft a Triple Play All-Star weekend, in which a coalition of 150 took down 28 predators in Newburgh Heights in just four days—all under the same Importuning Statute. Sullivan helped convict 130 sex offenders last year, with offenders coming from nearly every Ohio county, all of whom will serve, on average, two to four years behind bars. “And they’ll be registered as tier offenders,” Sullivan adds, “for life.”

Thus, the legal statute puts an operation like DAP into a never-ending dilemma: Is the public shaming equal to due process of law? All of the predator catchers I spoke with laughed at the premise that they should just back down—there was little or no due process where they’re from, they argued. “And when’s the last time you’ve actually looked at the sex offender database?” Rosen retorts. “Yeah, probably never.”

Sullivan begs to disagree. The physical risks to both catcher and catchee are not worth the digital exposure. Neither is spoon-feeding predators your entire gameplan. “To me it’s just a lot of boasting and bragging,” Sullivan says about the channels. “It’s about YouTube fame and notoriety. If it were me, and I was a parent, I personally would want this left up to the police.”

Sitting around the Mundy’s kitchen table, I bring up this notion of law versus vigilantism, and the conversation quickly turns to superheroes and morality. Joshua says he sees himself in the famous Spiderman quote—“With great power comes great responsibility”—along with the David Hume is-ought principle, that what one should do in their life, one ought to do no matter the repercussion. (Like being banned for life from Walmart, as he is, “everywhere from Iraq to Italy.”) As usual, our conversation turns quickly back to the police. Chief Bliss told Joshua in February he “had a plan” developing with Sheriff Chris Hilton, that he was aware of “the problem apps,” yet didn’t go into any specific details. “We can promise,” he told Joshua, “that something is going to happen.”

“They told us, ‘Oh, we camp out at bars with binoculars.’ We do this. We do that,” Joshua says.

“And you’re telling me you don’t have the budget to do stings on an iPhone?” Jays adds.

“You would think they have—like training. 'We have quarterly training. What's going on? What's the new thing?’”

“But they’re still probably out there,” Jay says, “just writing tickets."

***

A little less than two days after Jake started texting and calling, Joshua, Jay and I drive to a McDonald’s close by the Mundy’s home to finally meet him. An hour before our arrival, Joshua, instead of Miranda, had answered Jake’s call and told him the situation. “Hi, Jake. This is Dads Against Predators, and we want to let you know we have alllll your texts and phone calls.” After shock and hesitation, Jake agreed to meet with us to supposedly clear the record. (What he doesn’t know is that all his chat logs will be posted on DAP’s Youtube channel despite any confession.)

Around four o’clock, a bespectacled white guy with a wrap-around hipster beard walks inside and sits timidly across from the three of us. He’s real, that guy who wanted to fuck a middle schooler.

“So, why are we here, Jake?” Joshua begins, his phone out and recording. Joshua’s legs shake; his forehead beads with sweat.

“We’re here,” Jake says, “because I’m an idiot.”

For twenty minutes, Jake tries to justify his messages on Whisper by detailing a quarter-life crisis: his wife, now ex-wife, is in the midst of leaving him; he’s spiraled into a state of drunken catatonia; he’s lonely, and it’s affecting his work. Joshua plays therapist, offering to assist Jake in “getting help,” which he admits he’s already looked into. But the absurdity underlining the rendezvous is always present. “Let’s not do the drinking, let’s not do the divorce,” Joshua quips. “I mean, you wanted to have phone sex an hour ago.”

Behind his frames, Jake’s eyes are finally watering. Maybe he’s come to terms with what he’s done, maybe he hasn’t? But nevertheless, he’s facing a very real and very public reckoning.

“I guess I just had nothing else going on,” he admits, coldly. “I was not thinking about nobody except myself.”

A few months after our confrontation with Jake, Joshua decides in the middle of June to host an anti-predator march through the center of Fremont, to publicly call out what he perceives to be the inaction of the Fremont Police. By now, their Facebook group has passed 8,000 members, the YouTube page 10,000. There’s now a DAP men’s softball team, sprint cars boasting DAP logos on the Fremont Speedway. Days after the rally announcement, Joshua’s contacted by Chief Bliss and Mayor Danny Sanchez, who ask DAP to call off the rally in light of new developments. A month later, on July 13, the Fremont Police announced news: Ten predators were convicted on fifth-degree felony charges after a massive county-wide sting. One of them, ironically enough, DAP filmed back in February.

“It’s still one of our proudest achievements,” Joshua says.

Back at the McDonald’s where we met Jake, Joshua cautiously escorts the 25-year-old out to his Nissan repeatedly explaining, “This is so you don’t do anything stupid.” Jay and I wait silently in Jay’s minivan, which is messy with child car seats and a scattering of toys. We all wonder for a moment what will happen to Jake, whether his life will be changed for the better, or if it could suddenly spiral into self-harm.

“I can allow myself to have sympathy, and I can not allow myself,” Joshua says. “I guess I do believe in second chances.”

And what if Jake ends up ending his life?

It’s a fair question, both men admit. And they’d have to face it soon enough.

A few weeks after Jake’s video was posted on DAP’s Youtube channel, Joshua called me panicking. The day before, he did a catch with a man who was a well-known driving instructor in the Fremont area. The catch was surprisingly quick: He was waiting in his car outside Jay’s old house—waiting for sex with a 14-year-old—when Joshua rushed him with his camera on. The man sped off. “He told me, ‘I’ll be dead in the morning,’” Joshua says. The next day, Joshua received a frantic call from the Fremont Police: The man had hung himself in his living room. For days, Joshua wavered between guilt and apathy, wondering how the man’s suicide factored into his moral compass. Seeing the public praise on Facebook solidified his initial reaction.

“I guess I just feel like a soldier,” Joshua says. “That he was a bad guy on the other team. I mean, think of how many lives he potentially ruined.”

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