Last month, the Web site 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 Mr. Young had asked the girl, identified only as Billie, what she was wearing. When she answered “sweats,” Mr. 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 Mr. 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 yesterday 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 Manhattan.
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 programs 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 country, a kind of Neighborhood Watch of the Net. 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 D. Greenspun, a lawyer who defended a rabbi from Rockville, Md., 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,” Mr. Greenspun said.
Perverted Justice’s founder, Xavier Von Erck, 27, a former tech-support worker, has a dedication to the cause bordering on obsession, his mother and associates said. Mr. Von Erck lives in an apartment in Portland, Ore., but rarely gives out his address, and he would not allow a reporter to visit because he feared 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.
“Every waking minute he’s on that computer,” said his mother, Mary Erck-Heard, 46, who raised her son after they fled his father, whom she described as alcoholic. Mr. Von Erck legally changed his name from Phillip John Eide, taking his maternal grandfather’s family name, Erck, and adding the Von.
In many ways, Mr. Von Erck, who said he and his mother moved 13 times when he was in high school because they were often short of money, continues to live that messy life of deprivation. His meals often consist of ramen noodles, he said; his bed is perpetually unmade. For years, he has been trying unsuccessfully to find his father, who, he says, still owes his mother child support.
“I have a low opinion of men in general,” he said. “The most heinous crimes in our society are committed by males.”
Perverted Justice has 41,000 registered users of its online forums dedicated to the cause of stopping predators, 65 volunteers trained as chat room decoys and three salaried leaders: Mr. 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 Mr. Von Erck earlier this year in New York to discuss their collaboration.
Mr. 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, Calif.; two in Flagler Beach, Fla.; and two others in Murphy, Tex. The Texas sting drew a burst of publicity in early November, months before the episodes were scheduled to be shown, when a prosecutor implicated as a would-be predator, Louis W. Conradt Jr., shot himself to death as the police approached his home.
Supporters of the NBC broadcasts say they have helped increase awareness of online predators, allowing parents to educate children and spurring law enforcement to action. One in seven youths ages 10 to 17 who have gone online at least once a month for six months have received unwanted sexual solicitations, according to a 2005 study by the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.
Last month, the “Dateline” correspondent Chris Hansen, who is featured on the Perverted Justice specials, addressed about 500 students at a school in Rye Brook, N.Y., about the dangers of Internet predators. One of the first questions was why the stings filmed by “Dateline” were not entrapment.
The answer, legal experts say, is that it is hard for a defendant to prove entrapment, in this context or in any other. Some states allow prosecutions as long as there was a “predisposition” to the conduct. Others require police misconduct for a defendant to claim entrapment.
One concern about Perverted Justice’s nonprofessional force of vigilantes, raised by Lt. 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 predators initiate the sexual chat and therefore not gathering chat-log evidence that will stand up in court.
Mr. Von Erck responded that so far prosecutors had not dropped charges against any man arrested in an investigation begun by Perverted Justice.
Of the 113 convictions Mr. Von Erck’s group claims, some have been for misdemeanors resulting in no jail time, and others have brought stiff sentences, like the one of the Maryland rabbi, David A. Kaye, who on Dec. 1 was sentenced to six and a half years in prison on federal charges of enticement and traveling to meet a minor for illicit sexual contact.
Mr. Von Erck’s most vociferous critic is Scott Morrow, a retired Canadian Air Force serviceman who runs a Web site, Corrupted-Justice.com, chronicling what he says are excesses by Perverted Justice.
“These are anonymous, unaccountable Net junkies doing this work,” Mr. Morrow said in an interview.
He said that Perverted Justice listed personal information for many men it accused of being sexual predators and had sometimes mistaken their identities and humiliated innocent people.
Mr. Von Erck said the criticisms were out-of-date; in its first years the group did post the phone numbers, employers and photographs of men it accused of being predators, and anyone could humiliate the individuals by, say, e-mailing transcripts of a man’s lewd online chats to his friends and colleagues.
But since early this year, Perverted Justice has made a policy of not immediately posting the information it gathers in most cases; instead it contacts law enforcement and encourages pursuit of an arrest.
“We are now a conviction machine,” Mr. Von Erck said.
Mr. Von Erck, who said he was not molested as a child, prefers not to analyze his own motivation for dedicating himself so fully to the effort. Asked to explain why he did it, he did so with spare emotion.
“It gets tiring,” he said, “but when you find somebody that’s already been successful doing something harmful to a child and then you get him arrested, you can’t beat that.”