“Predators live among us” is something Predator Hunters USA wants parents to start recognizing. Predator Hunters USA is a newly assembled sexual predator hunting group which recently busted a predator in Pine City and provided evidence which lead to his arrest. “Keeping kids safe” is the motivation behind the groups’ efforts, says Josh, the manager of the group (the group members would like to remain unnamed for their family’s security) which is based out of Forest Lake. The groups’ live videos on Facebook and Youtube have gone viral as they set out to expose adults who seek out underage children for sexual encounters.
Meet the group
The team, Josh, Paige, Justin, and Laura, didn’t know each other before they united. They were strangers with a common cause: expose sexual predators who target children. “We all saw what was going on and reached out to Josh,” says Justin.
The crew assembled in August, each filling roles that suited them best. Josh, who has schooling in criminal justice, is the leader setting up the stings, and addressing the predator once the operation has begun. Paige is the lead decoy, posing as an underage girl. Justin takes video and assists Josh with the stings. Laura works in administration helping run the page, moderate comments, answer questions from the public, manage decoys, and backs up all data to turn over to law enforcement.
A typical sting
The count is up to 31 predators exposed since they began just two months ago. Paige, the head decoy, explains her role.
“As head decoy, I pose as an underage child, from 13 to 15 years old, on the internet, and I allow men to talk to me and give them information as far as age and things relating to my age. I ask a lot of dumb questions like a kid would and act innocent.” Paige says the decoys have accounts on social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram, along with accounts on dating apps.
The predator (so far they have been men reaching out to young girls or boys) always reaches out first, which is the groups’ rule. For the decoys, talking to the men is a full-time job. “I think the public doesn’t know what goes into it and how much we talk to these predators,” says Paige. The decoys can talk to them for days or sometimes longer. Often they have phone conversations which are recorded.
“I also help train new decoys and teach them how to save things, download evidence and identify what’s important to have when evidence is presented to law enforcement,” adds Paige.
“We give them as many outs as possible to walk away from the situation,” says Paige. “We want to expose the people who are the true predators, the ones that will not stop. The exposure really damages their life which is why we give them so many chances.”
“Then when they [the predators] want to come and get me, the team goes out,” says Paige.
The meeting time is set. “If the guy matches the photo they send our decoy, we talk to them,” says Josh. “If they play dumb, we will have the decoy call his phone.”
Justin goes out with Josh on the busts using video as an extra measure of security. “I video everything. There are cases where people have said we have pulled a weapon. None of us have ever done that.” Laura is online monitoring all comments and the Facebook site, along with making sure team members have important information during the stings.
The men’s reactions vary once they know they are busted. Some men make excuses, even when they’re caught red-handed, and others are in shock. One man drove four hours to meet the decoy, and once he realized he was live on Facebook, he said he was there to meet his cousin. Another man soiled himself.
A typical predator
“It's an addiction,” says Paige. “As someone that started this a month ago, I am so shocked as to how busy I am as a 14-year-old child. It’s gross as to how common it is.”
“Sometimes they are busted and back online with one of the decoys within an hour,” adds Justin. “People don't understand that if that was a real 14-year-old girl and she got into a car and went with him, it would change her life forever. If she still had a life.”
The predators are neighbors, teachers and family members, according to Paige. And many of the predators will tell the decoys that it’s their fault if they get caught. “They are very manipulative. One predator said, ‘If I go to jail, you will too.’ They tell this to the children so they won’t tell anyone and go to the cops.”
Predators look for vulnerable children, according to Justin. “Often it’s the kid that is wanting to run away from home. They say they would take the kid permanently.”
“Many of the people I talk to are very unstable and do this all day,” says Paige. “Some men have children of their own. I remember messaging Josh, just crying. They will be very descriptive of what clothes they want you to wear as to look like a relative. One man wanted a decoy to role play daddy daughter and wear clothes like their daughter. And they tell you about the relationships they have had with other underage girls.”
When new decoys are brought on, they are told it will affect them. “We had one decoy that only did it for one day and said they couldn’t take it anymore. It takes a toll emotionally and physically talking to these men. Some of the things they say are brutal and disturbing,” says Josh.
As a result of the busts the group has made, predators have lost their jobs and got kicked out of houses where unrelated children were present, along with having their college status questioned.
“I want the kids to know this is not normal and that you are the victim,” adds Paige. “It’s not your fault and don’t believe their manipulations.”
Partnering with law enforcement
It took hours on the phone with law enforcement and on the computer doing research about what can and can’t be legally done to do this line of work, according to Josh. All communication gets backed up for possible evidence to hand over to police. Josh says law enforcement has been “pretty supportive” overall, with the exception of one department outside of Pine County.
“One of the guys we exposed was under investigation in another county, and they thought we blew their investigation. But we felt we added to it. Often there may be a victim of someone who is exposed or the guy may have raped or abused someone, and we have heard that they come forward,” says Josh.
When asked about how a group like this affects law enforcement, Pine County Sheriff Jeff Nelson does not endorse or condemn such actions. “I have mixed feelings about these types of cases. It is hard to say it is a bad thing to expose criminal activity and potentially make those involved in it less bold about how they operate,” says Nelson.
While Nelson feels there is benefit in this type of work, he worries about the risks. “At the same time, I think it may encourage more risks to everyone involved. Will the suspect bring more force and hurt the ‘decoy’ or the camera person in an attempt to get away? I understand they assume the risk and are okay with it, but it worries me. If the suspect is meeting with a real victim will the outcome change because they are afraid of being caught and might be prepared for a different ending? If the contact does not meet judicial standards, it can waste a lot of time,” says Nelson. “I do continue to ask people to report criminal activity to law enforcement and allow us to do our jobs.”
Pine County Attorney Reese Frederickson concurs with Nelson’s statements and adds, “On one hand, it’s good that people who prey on children are exposed. On the other hand, I am concerned for the safety of people involved and that the significant attention will lead to people taking greater risks in exposing predators. That being said, I will charge a predator in these situations where: 1) the legal thresholds have been met; 2) the investigation is done in a professional and safe manner; and 3) local law enforcement can corroborate the details. I’d encourage anyone engaged in exposing predators to speak with a prosecutor beforehand and learn the minimum evidentiary and legal requirements for prosecution. I’d be happy to chat with anyone about those requirements.”
Advice to parents
“I don't think people know about the cyber stuff going on. There is too much access for kids these days,” says Josh. “So many online, interactive video games are a way for predators to access kids, along with apps that show the location of a child when given access.”
The group gives the following advice to parents:
Put security settings on your kids’ phones and have access to the phones. Use your email address to know when your child downloads an app. “Before they download anything, they have to ask permission because it could be as simple as a motorcycling game that has a chat room,” advises Josh. The phone service provider can help with this.
Watch your children’s online activity and be present when they’re using it.
Have conversations with your children about sex trafficking and sexual predators.
If you think your child is being targeted by an online predator, call the police.
Place the computer in a visible area, make sure devices that can go online are only used in visible areas and limit this use for children.
Tell your child:
Use a gender-neutral screen name and avoid using suggestive screen names or photos.
Never give out personal information.
If someone is flattering you online, you should be wary.
Don't talk to anyone who wants to get too personal or starts using sexually suggestive language.
Never respond to messages from strangers.
Keep in mind that people are not always who they say they are.
Never arrange to meet with someone you’ve met online.
Tell a parent or someone trusted if anyone makes you feel uncomfortable online.
As for future plans for the group, they will continue exposing predators and would like to help create more awareness by speaking at the schools and to parents’ and other public groups. The group also said their goal is not to ruin families by exposing predators, and a card is given to the predators with links to mental health, suicide, sex anonymous groups, and drug and alcohol addiction resources.
To meet and talk to the group in person, they will be hosting a meet and greet event on November 29 at the Skyzone in Blaine from 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.