They call themselves the Creep Catchers Unit.
For the last year, this small group of 20-somethings has run citizen stings in the region, particularly North County, posing as young teens on dating sites, and agreeing to meet with the people they suspect are trying to lure them for sex.
“CC_Unit” records the meetup — more of a confrontation — then posts the video online, along with the chat logs, some of which look pretty damning. In one, a man asks the teen if he should bring a condom.
The online postings are a public shaming, a digital scarlet letter.
The chat logs, cringe-inducing. The confrontations, uncomfortable. The consequences, quite serious.
After a recorded encounter with CC_Unit last spring, a Camp Pendleton Marine in his 30s found himself court-martialed, sentenced to six months in the brig and drummed out of the service with a dishonorable discharge.
In another instance earlier this year, military-focused online news outlet Task & Purpose reported that the local creep-catchers group posted a video of a Navy sailor who was questioned later by military criminal investigators. That sailor later took his own life.
These sorts of citizen sting operations can result in public shaming but usually don’t lead to prosecution. Some hail them as effective, exposing predators who target vulnerable young people. Others worry the operatives are untrained and the situations are dangerous. And what about due process for the accused?
Several groups online — in North America and abroad — use similar tactics, and many call themselves some variation of “creep catchers” or “pedophile hunters.”
“It’s a bit of a wild west,” said Joe Purshouse, a lecturer at University of East Angolia’s School of Law in the United Kingdom. “It has become de-professionalized. ... Anyone can do it.”
Purshouse, who studies the phenomenon, pointed to dangers. Some targets do kill themselves. Others have attacked the vigilante with the camera.
But there are those who believe it’s worth the risk.
He goes by ‘Ghost’
The founder of the local Creep Catchers Unit goes by the moniker “Ghost.” The San Diego Union-Tribune communicated with him through the group’s Facebook page.
Ghost agreed to talk about the group but declined to provide his name, citing a need for anonymity as an aspect of the group’s work, which he said is “very fair.”
“Public shaming is great deterrent for predators,” Ghost said. “Predators love hiding in the shadows and lurking/preying [on] victims. I shine the light on darkness and expose them.”
And, he said, there is “never vigilante violence.”
He said he started the group in August 2018. More than a year in, it has three to five members, all in their early 20s.
Several videos the group has posted on its website indicate the encounters in coastal North County, although the people depicted and confronted in those videos came from as far as Chula Vista, according to the website.
The local group has posted more than 50 videos online. The Union-Tribune has viewed several of them.
Many of the recordings — highly produced, with music — show a disclaimer that reads: “We apologize to the family and friends of the Pedophile for bringing shame and embarrassment.”
Sometimes, the target verbally denies exchanging inappropriate or sexually suggestive messages with someone he had believed was underage. At that point in the video, text from the chat logs reappear on screen to remind the viewer what had been said.
How it works
Ghost told the Union-Tribune that he makes decoy profiles on dating apps, posing as a teen boy or girl. Then the hits start coming.
“I never contact anyone first,” Ghost said. “The creep always messaged me first. I let them know my age. They acknowledge the age and then talk sexual.”
The age he gives them in the chat logs varies. In several of the posted videos, he tells the target he is 13 or 14. And sometimes he tells them that the decoy character is in middle school.
The target — ages appear to vary from 20s to 60s — might ask the decoy what time they get out of school. The target might send the decoy a selfie, sometimes shirtless. Some targets don’t say anything explicitly suggestive. Sometimes, as seen in the videos, they say they just want to hang out with the teen.
Ultimately, they arrange to meet, usually in coastal North County — usually in a crowded spot, like a mall or a grocery store. At least one man shown in one of the videos asks in a chat log if he should bring condoms.
The men — the targets in the videos are all men — are surprised when an adult with a cellphone camera walks up. In each video, their faces fall when he calls them by name, then calls them out for trying to meet a kid.
If the target walks, runs or drives away, Ghost often chases them, taunting, asking why they showed up to meet with a child. He yells that he has called police.
Ghost said that all of the “catches” are recorded, but not all have been edited and posted online yet. Sometimes after the video is posted, CC_Unit followers alert potentially interested parties, including the target’s employers.
Last month, the Cal State San Marcos student newspaper reported that one of the CC_Unit encounters led to an investigation of a man who worked with students on campus.
University authorities confirmed to the Union-Tribune that someone sent an email just before midnight Oct. 16, directing officials to the video. The next morning, law enforcement was notified, as was the man’s employer. A university spokeswoman said the person is no longer working on campus, but that “we do have to allow for due process.”
A Marine Corps spokesman at Camp Pendleton confirmed the investigations of three locally based military men seen in the CC_Unit videos, including the now-deceased sailor.
“All allegations of misconduct are taken seriously and thoroughly investigated,"2nd Lt. Brian Tuthill said in an email, “and we hold our Marines accountable if they violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice.”
Of the other two men, one was tried in military court and convicted. No charges were filed against the other.
Sting goes awry?
Ghost said his group was not involved in a citizen sting in North County last month that landed in the headlines.
In that instance, according to the county Sheriff’s Department, a group of teens hoped to expose an Oceanside man they had connected with online, and suspected he was seeking to have sex with a minor.
Arrangements were made to meet the man in Vista on a Sunday afternoon in early October.
There, one of the teens — a 17-year-old girl — agreed to get into his car. He drove off with her but without her consent, according to the Sheriff’s Department. She was able to send her friends a message asking for help. They called law enforcement.
Deputies stopped the car and arrested the man on suspicion of kidnapping. As of last week, no charges had been filed in Superior Court. Authorities remain mum, citing the ongoing investigation.
The day after the Vista incident, the Sheriff’s Department issued a statement that it “strongly discourages the public from setting up meetings or contacting anyone for the purpose of catching an individual who is committing a crime.”
The situations, the department warned, “can be extremely dangerous.”
Last week, Sheriff’s Lt. Justin White reiterated the danger, and said that people who conduct such operations need to be properly trained with resources at the ready to ensure everyone is safe.
“We as law enforcement have specialized units that deal with these type of situations,” White said. “This is something that even a law enforcement officer coming out of the academy is not trained to do.”
Regionally, in San Diego, Riverside and Imperial counties, cases of child sexual exploitation online are handled by the San Diego Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
San Diego Police Sgt. Dale Flamand, who supervises the task force, said members sometimes do similar undercover work. He declined to talk in detail — “The bad guys are always trying to do counter-intelligence on us,” he said — but said each team member goes through at least 80 hours of specialized training. That training includes how to gather evidence that is likely to be admissible in court.
He also said that, with more kids on cellphones, their case load has tripled.
Often, in cases of child molestation, the perpetrator is familiar with the victim, someone inside a trusted circle. But that’s not the case online. There, more likely than not, Flamand said, the luring comes from a stranger.
But how does a stranger entice a kid for sex? While their parents may not get it, teenagers who grew up on social media have no problem seeing connections with people they have never met before as true relationships.
“It’s jaw-dropping, but to a younger person, they don’t see it as a stranger,” San Diego Police spokesman Lt. Shawn Takeuchi said.
Ghost said the online chats are not a trick to entice someone to commit a crime.
“I always let the creep know how old the decoy is,” Ghost said. “It’s not entrapment when the creep knows and acknowledges the age.
“There will always be critics,” he said, “and critics are not important to me.”