Steering wheel in one hand, camcorder in the other, Bates slowly drove a white Ford Explorer with tinted windows past a procession of sad-eyed prostitutes. But his camera was not trained on them; it was targeting their customers.
Bates, the self-styled Video Vigilante of Oklahoma City, sneaks up and surprises men consorting with prostitutes and then posts cleaned-up versions of the footage on the Internet -- to disgrace them.
"If you get caught by the cops, you pay a fine. If you get caught by me, you get a life sentence," Bates bragged as he trailed a middle-aged man who had invited a young prostitute into his red Ford pickup. "There's no reprieve, no probation. People will be hitting that video on Google searches as long as you live."
Bates, 38, is among a burgeoning breed of activists who are using inexpensive video technology to capture immoral and socially unacceptable public behavior. Often they focus on criminal acts committed under the nose of law enforcement. Sometimes they point the camera at the authorities themselves.
In New York City, a frustrated motorist who calls himself Jimmy Justice tapes traffic officers as they break the laws they're supposed to enforce. In Oceanside, Calif., a former Marine known as Gangbuster posts videos of purported gang members. In Chicago, an art studio owner dubbed the Lake Street Lookout chronicles street violence outside nightclubs, and was taping last August when a man was shot in the back five times and killed.
Because of Bates' sexual subject matter and penchant for shameless self-promotion, he may be the most notorious of the video activists. Tens of thousands of people watch his clips on the Internet every year, eager to be amused by the sight of a man being shamed -- and when they do, Bates profits.
What started out as the modern equivalent of a tarring and feathering in a town square has become a paycheck for Bates, a former marketing manager for a hospital. Bates still has a regular job cobbling together lists of people jailed the night before that he sells to ambulance-chasing attorneys every morning. But he's hoping to leave that behind for a full-time career as a public humiliation professional.
He licenses his footage to talk shows for $250 a clip, gets paid an undisclosed amount to appear as an exclusive guest on Maury Povich's tabloid TV show and recently agreed to upload his videos to YouTube for a cut of the ad revenue they generate. If he gets as many hits in 2008 as he got in 2007, Bates said, he'll earn $70,000 this year from his Web traffic alone.
"I'm a 10 o'clock news station's dream," he said. "Before me, there were many anti-prostitution activists in Oklahoma City. No one can remember their names. But everyone knows the Video Vigilante."
A pudgy-faced man who bears a slight resemblance to the actor Gary Busey, Bates began his camcorder crusade a decade ago because he felt powerless. Prostitutes along South Robinson Avenue, a dilapidated byway leading into downtown, made no secret of what they were doing. Men in trucks and luxury sedans picked them up and parked on the surrounding streets, in full view of children and families.
Bates lived nearby. One day, he discovered a prostitute and her client in a car in his driveway. His girlfriend was propositioned walking to the store. So were neighborhood children at the bus stop. It infuriated him.
He tried testifying against the men, but most cases fizzled. When a prosecutor told him, somewhat jokingly, that the only way to get a conviction was to catch the men on videotape, Bates thought it was a brilliant idea.
Since becoming the Video Vigilante, a name he adopted after it was used in a news report, Bates has captured hundreds of Oklahomans in compromising positions. They include three pastors, one of whom was recorded in a church van.
Police say Bates' recordings are considered legal because he videotapes acts on public streets, but some civil libertarians have called them unethical, claiming that Bates is serving as judge, jury and executioner. Though some men have hired lawyers, Bates claims they typically give up after he suggests that fighting him will only generate more publicity.
But his videos -- usually a blurred-out snippet of a man caught in the act with a prostitute -- often don't result in criminal charges because police consider them insufficient evidence.
"We don't condone this stuff," said Sgt. Paco Balderrama, an Oklahoma City police spokesman. He had reports showing that Bates had sought protection after threats from pimps and angry men he has videotaped.
"Obviously, having video images of a crime helps law enforcement officers," Balderrama said. "But has Mr. Bates' work resulted in a higher number of convictions? The answer is no."
None of that seems to bother Bates. His website, JohnTV, continuously shows footage of men, whether or not they've been convicted. Its home page features a photo of a startled man pulling up his pants, with the question "Would it be worth it?"