Internet Watchdogs

Law enforcers go online with citizen sleuths to bring Internet predators to justice


In 2002, a 25-year-old restaurant worker used the Internet to lure 13-year-old Christina Long to her death. Saul Dos Reis had sex with the Danbury, Connecticut, teen, then strangled her, dumping her body in a remote ravine.

Four years later, police arrested Lt. Stephen Robert Deck, 51, of Carlsbad, California, when he turned up at a Laguna Beach park where authorities say the California Highway Patrol officer expected to meet a 13-year-old girl for sex. Another teenager later came forward stating Deck met her online and molested her from January through December of 2003.

When police apprehended William Corbett of Tuscon, Arizona, in 2006, for using the Internet to solicit a minor for sexual exploitation, they got a whole lot more than they bargained for. Authorities began receiving calls — many calls — from other victims when the news media publicized his arrest. Corbett has since been sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Stories like these resonate across the nation. Whether it's an isolated rural area or a congested metropolis, Internet predators lurk everywhere. To the law enforcers who claim this type of thing doesn't happen in their town, Darke County, Ohio, Det. Mike Burns warns it can and does. Darke County's NBC Dateline "To Catch a Predator" sting netted 18 arrests in three days. "We didn't bring these people here — they were already here," he says. "By means of the Internet, they were in our backyard."

Time and money — there never seems to be enough of it. Where do time-crunched and cash-poor agencies unearth the resources to wage Internet investigations too?

The answer is many can't, says Burns. He explored launching an Internet investigations team in 2005 but quickly discovered his then 16-man-strong department could not afford it. Flagler Beach Police Chief Roger Free drew the same conclusion after an officer in this Florida agency posted an Internet profile and received 50 hits within 2 hours. Offenders sought the person's age, sex, location and expressed interest in meeting. "After seeing the number of hits, I couldn't imagine what it would be like trying to run a full-scale operation," he says.

"It isn't that computers are so costly," Burns adds. "It's the man hours these operations require."

The Flagler Beach Police Department and Darke County Sheriff's Office joined a growing number of departments that have decided to plunge into uncharted territory. These agencies tapped into the resources of Perverted Justice, an Internet-based organization whose volunteers pose as young kids, then trawl the Internet for predators. The group lists the arrests of Deck and Corbett among the success stories of such partnerships.

Proactive investigations
Perverted Justice, founded by Xavier Von Erck in 2002, is best known for its role in NBC Dateline's "To Catch a Predator" programs where Internet predators are exposed for their dirty deeds. Behind the scenes, the group aids law enforcement daily in proactive online investigations, where by posing as minors, it gives police an opportunity to capture pedophiles before a youth can be victimized. Burns says it's difficult to turn the other way when you consider the advantages this partnership can bring. Consider that Perverted Justice:

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