INDIANAPOLIS — A growing number of county prosecutors say they’re concerned about civilian groups taking the law into their own hands in an effort to expose alleged child predators.
“It’s very dangerous,” said Madison County Prosecutor Rodney Cummings. “They have engaged in very risky behavior here several times. Someone is likely to be hurt if they continue.”
Similar statements have come out in recent weeks from prosecutors in Elkhart, Howard and Orange counties.
Law enforcement officials call them vigilantes. But Austin Spain said he’s just trying to protect children in his community from a problem he believes the justice system can’t keep up with.
“I've got different social media platforms where I have what I call 'decoy accounts' and it’s basically me posing as a 14-, 15-year-old girl,” said Spain. “The number of people willing to send pics or explicit messages or do anything at all and once they found out they're talking to a 14-year-old girl, they keep talking, they keep doing it. It was sickening.”
In the last few years, dozens of similar groups have appeared on Facebook across the country including Predator Catchers Indianapolis, which now has more than 89,000 followers on Facebook.
“We confront (alleged would-be offenders) and we expose them to let the community...all the communities know that these men are out there preying on children,” said founder Eric Schuette.
The group recently confronted a local teacher on Facebook Live who organizers say they’d caught in their trap. They said the man thought he was meeting a teen for a sexual act.
Police arrested the teacher and prosecutors charged him with child solicitation.
“For every minute that we're talking with a predator, that's a minute they're not talking to an actual minor. (Instead) they're meeting us,” said Schutte.
The suspect pleaded not guilty and will go on trial later this summer.
Prosecutors warn confrontations could backfire
Critics argue this kind of thing isn’t without major risks.
“When citizens take matters into their own hands, it can usually be harmful to a successful prosecution, leading to someone who may well have been guilty walking free,” said Howard County Prosecutor Mark McCann. “Vigilantes also open themselves up to potential lawsuits for libel and slander should the person they are going after decide to bring a lawsuit.”
Just ask Joey Dewitt.
"I wasn’t even the right guy," he said.
A predator catchers group was trying to find a man they’d been chatting with online who went by “Joey" from either Anderson or Muncie.
“So as they’re talking with this guy and calling him out saying what all he did, everybody watching that live feed was searching for Joey from Muncie or Joey from Anderson to find him on Facebook and I’m the one they found,” said Dewitt.
Within minutes, his Facebook page blew up with more than 300 vulgar accusations.
“There were people calling my HR department saying they had a child molester there,” Dewitt recalled.
They also messaged Dewitt’s friends of Facebook and even his wife.
The online mob eventually realized they had the wrong man.
Predator Catchers Indianapolis administrators scolded their followers and banned some from their page.
But Joey Dewitt said the damage was already done.
“I didn’t know if any of these people knew where I lived. They knew where I worked cause they blasted my work name on that live feed so even now I still don’t know if everybody got the memo that I’m not that guy” he said. “Are they meaning to do good? I think they are but there's just so many things that could go wrong with how and what they're doing.”
And law enforcement officials say that's the problem.
Good intentions don't always help in court
"I mean, we're talking safety, we're talking people's livelihoods," said Indiana State Police Capt. Ron Galaviz.
"While these groups may have the best intentions in mind... Law enforcement officials are the only ones qualified to conduct these kinds of investigations,” said Elkhart County Prosecutor Vickey Becker. “Having gone through extensive training, these officials know the right techniques in collecting and preserving the evidence that is necessary to prosecute these kinds of cases and ensuring that an investigation is done objectively, and professionally, respecting the constitutional rights of suspects."
Cummings said he’s told local groups his office will not file charges in any of the cases. Instead, he’s encouraging them to bring information to law enforcement officials and not to confront the alleged would-be offenders.
After the incident with Dewitt, Predator Catchers Indianapolis posted rules for people to follow on their page. Among them, followers may not contact alleged offenders or anyone related to them. Followers must also refrain from posting full names of anyone online.
Asked whether he think he’s playing with fire, Spain said he doesn’t disagree.
“Eventually I may get hurt. (But) if I don't do it, somebody's for sure gonna get hurt right now,” he said.