Back in 2004, NBC’s "To Catch a Predator" captivated millions of viewers as it followed a vigilante group called Perverted Justice, which has a goal to thwart pedophiles searching the internet for minors. Adult volunteers go online to pose as minors in order to, well, catch predators. Three years later, amid its growing popularity, it came to an end. But nearly two decades later, it's inspired a genre of influencers who have tried to fill the void.
- The Washington Post: How vigilante ‘predator catchers’ are infiltrating the criminal justice system
- Inside Edition: ‘Video Vigilante’ Tries to Catch Alleged Child Predator
- ABC's 20/20: Brian Ross investigates NBC's Dateline "To Catch A Predator" series.
This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.
Content Warning: Today's episode discusses some difficult topics, including the abuse of children. Please take care while listening.
Ben Brock Johnson: Mm. This snack is delicious.
Quincy Walters: Hi there.
Quincy: Do you know who I am? I see you’re enjoying this snack. But do you want to tell me why you’re here, podcastlover88? If that is your real name.
Ben: I’m just here to eat this snack.
Quincy: Oh really? Because according to these emails, you sent with our decoy, you came here with the intention of making a podcast, is that right?
Ben: Um no. That’s not true. What are all these microphones doing here? I’m just here to enjoy this snack time.
Quincy: Why don’t you take a seat? Two days ago, you sent an explicit message saying "Can't wait to record this episode with you." Why would you write that? And I ’m seeing you brought some recording equipment with you. Is that a microphone you’ve got there? And headphones? If you’re here just to eat a snack, why do you have this podcast paraphernalia?
Ben: Okay look, man. I have a problem and I know I need to address it. So am I under arrest?
Quincy: I’m not going to arrest you. But you will get tackled by the podcast police as soon as you leave out this door. So unless you have anything else to say, you’re free to go.
Ben: Thank you.
Quincy: If you had a pulse and a television back in 2004, you’re probably familiar with NBC’s "To Catch a Predator." Ben, did you watch TCAP (that’s the internet lingo for it) back in the day?
Ben: I was more of a "Cheaters" guy, but yeah, I saw that show on television.
Quincy: Okay. It has kind of a similar aesthetic. It captivated millions of people on NBC – it followed a vigilante group called Perverted Justice, a group that has a goal to thwart pedophiles searching the internet for minors. Adult volunteers go online to pose as minors. And it was pretty much a family tradition in my household.
Quincy: Yeah, we'd gather around the TV and we'd be horrified by the messages. The dudes, they were mostly dude who would send things to who they thought was a kid. I was nine or ten at the time.
Ben: You watched this with your family?
Ben: When you were nine or ten. Yeah, that is the weirdest family tradition. I have ever heard.
Quincy: No, no, no,no, no, it's not. Okay, so the viewing would always be accompanied with, uh, you know, [imitating parental voice] 'Be careful. Don't talk to people you meet on the Internet, Quincy.'
Ben: Is this your parents trying to scare you off the Internet? Is that what's happening?
Quincy: Exactly, exactly. And then the tension would be, you know, sort of alleviated when Chris Hansen popped out to confront the dudes who showed up.
Chris Hansen: This does not make sense.
Predator 1: Yes sir, why do you think I’m just as stunned as you are?
Hansen: You’re stunned because you got caught. That’s why you’re stunned.
Predator 2: What? No way.
Predator 3: No, I just stopped by.
Hansen: What do you think oughta happen to you? You walked into a house in suburban Washington naked with a 12 pack of beer, hoping to meet a 13 year old boy. Yes or no?
Predator 4: I just came to get something to eat.
Quincy: The bumbling excuses of the suspects would be entertaining and then it had the satisfying ending of the unsuspecting guys getting tackled by the cops.
Ben: Yeah, I have to say, even back when I first saw this show, I had really mixed feelings about it.
Quincy: Of course, it's kind of one of those things in retrospect that is like, Mmm, yikes. But the show went off the air and the void has been filled by Chris Hansen wannabes. But is it a void that should have just been left alone? I’m Quincy Walters.
Ben: And I’m Ben Brock Johnson and you’re listening to Endless Thread.
Quincy: And we’re coming to you from WBUR – Boston’s NPR station.
Quincy: The other day, when I told my mom about this episode, she longingly sighed and said 'I miss that show.' And she told me that she saw someone on Facebook who had a "To Catch a Predator" t-shirt.
Ben: Oh my god, the fandom of this very problematic show is just out of control Quincy. All right, we're going to have to, let's have a conversation. We're going to have to sit down with your mom. So I guess the internet connection is that NBC would use the internet to lure the predators Quincy, but that's like two decades ago, man. What's the internet connection now?
Quincy: Yeah, so the interesting thing about it now is that most of the tools that NBC had back then, a platform, an audience, an internet savviness, defined pervs, willing to meet a minor, people have access to those. And now there's basically a genre of influencers that does these kinds of things. They're on YouTube, TikTok, Twitter.
Ben: Like exposing predators.
Quincy: Exactly. Any ding dong with a phone can do this. Doing it effectively, that’s a different story.
Ben: Quincy, you said that these folks have most of the tools. What tools are they missing?
Quincy: Let me just back up to say that "To Catch a Predator" had essentially all the tools at its disposal, and it still came under scrutiny for its morally and legally questionable practices of manufacturing a minor to lure people to say and promise lewd, illegal things. And many people equated it to entrapment.
But I think NBC had like the legacy and the lawyers that helped them navigate the criticism to an extent, but these influencers who do this, they don't have those lawyers and they don't have that legacy, whereas, you know, NBC partnered with local police departments. These influencers don't have that kind of access. In this recent Inside Edition story about quote unquote video vigilantes, as they call them, they talk to a guy who goes by either Skeeter Gene or Skeet Hansen, who usually tells whoever they lure that they have the police on standby. I have
Skeeter Hansen: I have here a man who was here have sex with a 13 year old girl, caught in a sting operation.
911 operator: So you guys are going on the internet and trying to lure people into the hotel?
Inside Edition Reporter: You have the police on standby, you said.
Skeeter: Yeah and that basically just means we have 911 on standby. It’s just another way of –
Reporter: You don’t have the police on standby.
Skeeter: Essentially no.
Ben: I mean, anyone who's like, handle is, has the word skeet in it, I feel is very, already very problematic.
Quincy: Oh, definitely. And he's, we're going to, we're going to talk a little bit more about Skeet in a second, but you know, here's, here's him introducing himself to some perps.
Skeet Hansen: I’m Skeet Hansen with the Predatorial Investigation Unit and I hope you’re ready for spooky season because this is some very spooky shit that we’re talking about here.
Quincy: And Skeeter is like the embodiment of that weird space the internet tends to foster of, is this dude real or fake? He is the blurred line between fact and farce. Like, he talks like Chris Hansen, he wears a blazer, but there's often some level of hijinks that makes you wonder if it's a really distasteful prank video. It's sort of 50 50, you know?
Skeet Hansen: It’s sort of 50/50, we’re trying to make entertaining content but ultimately we want these individuals to seek justice as well. If possible.
Ben: What? This is ridiculous. That's like such a ridiculous combination. 'We're trying to catch predators like child predators, but like, we want this to be entertaining.' I mean, I guess that's the premise, of "To Catch a Predator" as well, but like, woof, this just, this is just like so problematic on so many levels, Quincy.
Quincy: Right. And, and it's going to get even a little more strange.
Quincy: And so, you know, that's him talking on that Inside Edition story and he's the whole reason I started looking into this, because I found out about him last October because of video he posted in time for Halloween, and it's called 49 Year Old Man Comes to Meet Underage Boy but Meets Michael Myers Instead. And the thumbnail has Michael Myers standing in the shadows while the 49-year-old man sits on a motel bed across from Skeet.
Skeet Hansen: Now I just have a couple of questions here for you. Now you know, first of all, the boy did tell you that he was 14.
Ben: Oh my god.
Skeet Hansen: And here you say that you would like to maybe give him a BJ. But you said that would be up to him.
Ben: What are they doing?
Skeet: So you wanted to give a 14-year-old boy a --
Ben: Why is there a Mike Myers person standing in this room?
Quincy: And as you can see from the whole video, or I guess half the video, the Michael Myers guy is just like standing in the corner.
Ben: There's just some guy dressed as Mike Myers standing in the corner and this is the weirdest video of all time.
Quincy: I know.
Skeet: So you were planning to do this sexual act on this 14-year-old boy multiple times. If you want to. If you wanted to, but you were still willing to.
Quincy: So this is the kind of hijinks that, you know, Skeet Hansen does.
Ben: Okay. Who are the other people out here doing this kind of thing? Is he the only one? Or the biggest one?
Quincy: No, he's not the only one, Ben. It's an ecosystem. It's an ecosystem. According to an article from about a year ago in the Washington Post entitled Vigilante Predator Catchers Infiltrate Criminal Justice System, it said there's 160 of these types of people or groups.
Ben: Oh boy, just like vigilante, like people who have no actual authority. They're just like out there trying to catch predators.
Quincy: Right, and it's interesting how you, you sort of framed it as having no authority because that, that kind of, we're going to touch on that in a few minutes.
Quincy: Next, we're going to talk about the people trying to meet up with kids. That's in a minute.
Quincy: Before the break, we talked about the people who spring the trap, and now we're gonna talk about the ones who get caught. The other YouTube channel I came across was Protect the Innocent, and whereas Skeet is a goofy, carbon copy of Chris Hansen, Protect the Innocent — they dress in all black, they wear black masks that cover the lower half of their face, and they usually film their confrontations at Wal-Mart.
Jabril: Give me a second.
Protect The Innocent: Okay, see, we can call the cops here. If you want to stay in here for more, then we're going to give you two minutes. Alright? Because you could delete everything on your phone. We know what you've been doing, Jabril.
Protect The Innocent: Do not sit here and play around.
Protect The Innocent: We'll give you two minutes, alright?
Jabril: Okay, yes, okay.
Protect The Innocent: And if you want to delete evidence, that's another--
Jabril: No, I'm not, I'm not, I'm not, I'm not--
Protect The Innocent: You have two minutes.
Ben: So what are they doing to these people that they're accosting at Walmart?
Quincy: So, it basically comes to, you know, humiliation. Law enforcement has kind of stayed away from these cases because the legality is so murky to navigate. And, you know, what ends up happening is that the person just gets embarrassed by whoever is around, and then these guys usually tell the target to call someone, anyone, usually their mom.
Protect The Innocent: So, you're going to talk to your family?
Jonathan: Yes, I'm going to talk to my mom. My family, my boyfriend, my whole--
Protect The Innocent: If you're gonna do it anyways, you could let them know. I mean, we're not forcing you to do nothing, but, I mean, it looks better for the people watching than if you're all in person. Yeah, you need to call, you know, or we can call the police.
Quincy: In one video on Twitter from a different video vigilante, this guy says his name is Austin and then the video vigilante tells him to call someone to tell him, you know, what he's up to. And so he calls his brother.
Person who answers call: I'm Austin.
Boopac Shakur: You Austin? Okay. Your brother Alex was trying to be you. He's out in Pontiac, Michigan trying to have sex with a 15-year-old girl right now. Yes, he's out here being caught. I don't know if you heard of me, but I'm Boopac Shakur, and I catch these motherf*****s, and my man's caught.
Ben: Oh, gosh. I think I know part of the answer, but what does the OG Predator catcher, Chris Hansen, think about all this?
Quincy: Yeah, so, you know, like you said, these folks don't have any authority, and in that Inside Edition piece, he underscores that. And he, you know, lambasts these imitators and no punches pulled.
Chris Hansen: It's amateurish at best, and in the worst case scenario, it's very dangerous what he's doing here. He's pretending to be law enforcement, calling himself the Predatory Investigative Unit. That's clearly an inference or an attempt to make the target believe he's got some authority, which he doesn't have.
Quincy: And so this is the proverbial record scratch moment in this entire thing, because Chris Hansen said it's dangerous what these folks are doing. A few moments ago I said TCAP came to an end. So even with the lawyers, and the legacy, and the connection with law enforcement, NBC wasn't able to stay in this game long, because TCAP sunsetted in 2007, and that's because a suspect who also happened to be an assistant district attorney in Texas, committed suicide as police and an NBC camera crew were at his door to serve a warrant after he missed a pre trial hearing for exchanging pictures with a Perverted Justice volunteer posing as a 13-year-old.
Detective: The sting operation left a trail of destruction in the community of Murphy. It shattered lives. It shattered careers.
Quincy: And the proverbial nail in the coffin might have been a 2020 segment, former ABC investigative reporter Brian Ross said it's a classic case of what can go tragically wrong when the news media and law enforcement get too close.
Brian Ross: One man is dead, NBC is being sued for millions, and charges have been dropped against every single person arrested in the Murphy sting. And many think that this is what brought the show to an end.
Quincy: And Chris Hansen is actually still doing the same kind of thing. He's on a streaming channel now called True Blue and in this show he embeds with police departments across the country as they try to tackle people who prey on children online.
Chris Hansen: A cop, a prominent physician and a 70 year old who wanted to play daddy and have sex to a 13 year old girl. Just a sample of the brand new Predator Investigations out now on WatchTrueBlue.com. I've never seen anything like it.
Quincy: There are a few, you know, Reddit threads on this, Ben, but the overall sort of consensus is that these folks are just grabbing attention under the guise of protecting children.
Ben: So, Quincy, a couple of thoughts.
Quincy: What are your thoughts, Ben?
Ben: So, I've done a little bit of reporting on, you know, how people have used, for instance, virtual reality technology to try to treat people who have a propensity for pedophilia, for instance.
Ben: And I think that the thing that is coming up for me in all of this is like, I guess I'm just not convinced that this type of content actually discourages people. Of course, we need social norms and those social norms need to be sort of like underscored, especially when it comes to like the safety of children, right? Like we, we need to like, make sure people understand that something is not okay when it's not okay, fundamentally.
Ben: But at the same time, like, I just wonder about the, the positive impact of this or the assumed positive impact of this, because I don't know very much about this, but it's, as I would sort of simply characterize it a psychological illness.
Quincy: Right, right right.
Ben: And like, I just don't know if like humiliating someone is actually how you reduce the abuse of children in the world. Fundamentally that seems off to me.
Quincy. Right. But it seems there's a consensus online that because these folks are sort of easy targets and nobody is really going to go hard in defending them, they make them, you know, perfect fodder, I guess, in a way for this kind of thing.
Ben: Yeah, absolutely.
Quincy: In terms of how are these things helping? I think they're not. I mean, I guess it's a small sample size, but Skeet's stings have yielded only three arrests.
Ben: And many more stings than just three, right? Like we would call that a bad record for Skeet, right?
Quincy: Well, he says he earned six figures a year doing this, which I mean, we can't verify that. But now though, it seems that the people who are doing this might be taking more active roles in championing legislation that addresses punishments for child predators. Um, a few moments ago I mentioned Protect the Innocent.
Ben: Oh yeah. The people in the masks who are right in Walmart.
Quincy: Yeah, exactly. So two months ago, the lady from Protect The Innocent posted a video of her in a black background with the face mask on the lower half of her face. And the title of the video is Florida Passes Bill Allowing Death Penalty for Child Predators.
And in it, she says, they need to be executed, period. She said, 'I know there are people who think the death penalty is cruel and unusual, but it's cruel and unusual to rape a child that's taking their soul. That's murder.'
Ben: Yeah. I don't-- this is the thing that's always problematic with these kinds of conversations, right? Like, I just don't think making this punishable by the death penalty is going to reduce the amount of predatory behavior in the world. I think we all have the same goal, but some of us don't, are confused, and don't actually like-- aren't paying attention to the facts about how, about how this stuff is actually reduced.
Quincy: Some people have pointed out that, you know, this kind of punishment may endanger children because if a child predator knows that they are going to get the... The death penalty. What's keeping them preserving the life of, you know, the child. That's something that a lot of people point out. But a thing that seems to be happening is that the number of videos from Protect The Innocent has sort of like declined recently.
Protect The Innocent: I am taking as long as I need to create these videos. Um, it's definitely not easy now with all the restrictions on YouTube. Um, it's a lot that I have to, a lot of hoops that I have to jump through to get these videos out. We're taking our time and we are focusing on a format that is going to keep us on YouTube, keep us protecting children, and that's what we're focused on. But I'm happy to tell you guys that new videos are coming soon. More child predators exposed. More justice served and I love you guys. And no matter what happens, I'm always going to be protecting the innocent, regardless. And make sure you guys follow our Rumble, Protect the Innocent 101. That's where we're gonna be if anything ever happened to the YouTube channel.
Ben: Well, I'm definitely not following the Rumble, but I guess I just come away from this feeling like these content creators are ultimately doing it for themselves. And not necessarily doing it actually for the children or they're doing it because for some reason it serves this kind of self righteousness that they connect with, but I'm not sure that they're doing it for the kids. And I say that as a parent of two small children.
Quincy: I think a lot of people feel that way. It has like a, there's a lot of entertainment to it, um, especially in the way it's presented. But, fun fact, Ben, as we wrap this up, the other social media, the Protect the Innocent Person runs.
Quincy: An OnlyFans
Ben: Hmm. Wow.
Quincy: There is an academic paper called To Catch a Predator, an Ethical Analysis of Sting Journalism from 2009, and while it does concede that TCAP was successful in raising awareness about predators online, It concludes that there was more harm done than good. It hurt the credibility of the profession by perpetuating the stereotype of sensationalistic journalism. And then it humiliated the suspects, albeit I'm not too sure there's gonna be a ton of sympathy there, but it did threaten their civil liberties and it did invade the privacy of their families. And finally, this isn't in the paper, but a lot of people feel that TCAP could have possibly showed predators how to avoid detection.
Ben: Well, Quincy, thank you for bringing this eye opening story about the pretty mixed and potentially problematic legacy of To Catch a Predator on internet platforms beyond NBC. Thank you, Quincy.
Quincy: No doubt. And I mean, if it gives you any solace, my mom has not followed Chris Hansen over to True Blue.