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A Victory for Shadowy Crusader : As Persistent as a Nazi Hunter and as Duplicitous as a Con Man, Mike Echols 'Stings' Pedophile Group and Stirs a Tempest in San Francisco


SAN FRANCISCO — To the small group of men who convened monthly at the Potrero Hill Public Library, James Hankins seemed like their kind of guy.

He'd seen their phone number in a gay newspaper and said he was thrilled to discover an organization of men who so proudly shared his taboo longings. Come to our next meeting, Hankins was told. It would be held at the usual place.

And so, as unknowing parents picked out storybooks with their children downstairs, the hefty, talkative Texan joined the circle of avowed pedophiles meeting upstairs at the library.

They didn't know that Hankins was a spy--that he was, in fact, an iconoclastic crusader, book author and fugitive from justice named Mike Echols. He had a tape recorder in his pocket and an agenda all his own.

So began a journalistic sting that in recent weeks has pushed the live-and-let-live sensibilities of San Francisco to their limits. When KRON-TV, with no small help from Echols, aired a series of exposes on an organization called the North American Man-Boy Love Assn., much of the city was shocked to learn that such a group existed, let alone met in a neighborhood library.

Outraged parents demanded to know how city officials could allow the group to meet in a place that is a haven for children. Meanwhile, much of the large, mostly liberal gay community rushed to ostracize the shadowy group that has long been a small but very controversial presence in the city's gay pride parade. As public relations problems go, nothing quite compares with NAMBLA, an organization whose very existence reinforces the stereotype that homosexuals recruit children into their way of life.

People who have long hoped the pedophile group would just go away seem to have gotten their wish--at least temporarily. A spokesman at NAMBLA's New York headquarters says the cause will survive what he portrays as just the latest dose of society's persecution. But in San Francisco, the furor led to the arrest of one man and seems to have driven other members into hiding.

And all of it started with Echols, a 47-year-old former social worker-turned-journalist who approaches his task with the relentlessness of a Nazi hunter and the duplicity of a con man. His undercover exploits not only inspired KRON's series but also brought NAMBLA unwanted television coverage on CNN and Geraldo Rivera's investigative tabloid show, "Now It Can Be Told."

"I infiltrated NAMBLA because I think it's ridiculous that a group as dangerous as this is could operate like a local Kiwanis Club," Echols declares. "It's an organization of pedophiles who network with each other to learn how to seduce kids. . . .

"I'm thankful to have exposed NAMBLA to the American public for what they really are--i.e., an egregious group of child molesters, nothing more and nothing less."

NAMBLA prefers another image for itself.

"We see ourselves as a civil rights group, actually," says Renato Corraza, a spokesman for the group in New York. "We see our platform as the liberation of young people."

Founded in 1978 after a police raid on an alleged group of pedophiles in Boston, NAMBLA champions the view that laws and mores forbidding consensual sex between adults and children are symptoms of an oppressive society afflicted with sexual hang-ups.

The group claims more than 1,000 members, and Corraza says subscribers to its monthly bulletin include about 100 men imprisoned on sex offenses. Corraza emphasizes that NAMBLA has survived a variety of criminal investigations.

Police officials say NAMBLA, as a group, is difficult to pursue in a criminal investigation because of the line that separates free speech from conspiracy. San Francisco Police Inspector Tom Eisenmann, who has tracked NAMBLA for several years, says group members clearly share information about ways to seduce boys and avoid law enforcement--but it is rare to link specific discussions with specific victims.

In infiltrating NAMBLA, Echols engaged in the sort of intelligence gathering that police may be hard-pressed to justify under court rulings that discourage spying on private groups.

That doesn't mean police haven't cracked down on NAMBLA members. Four men connected with NAMBLA in Los Angeles, for example, were arrested in 1989 in connection with a child pornography operation, Los Angeles police officials say. Eisenmann says at least a dozen Bay Area members have been arrested in recent years, including four involved in the operation of a Thailand orphanage.

In the mysterious Mike Echols, NAMBLA has a nemesis who is a rather shadowy figure in his own right. As KRON reporter Greg Lyon puts it, it wasn't as if Mother Teresa walked in with the story.

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