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THE NATION | COLUMN ONE

Stalking the Web Predator

A Colorado homemaker has won praise--and arrests--for her efforts against kiddie porn. But critics of such online crusaders call it a form of vigilantism.

January 17, 2002|JACK LEONARD and MONTE MORIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

GOLDEN, Colo. — By day, Julie Posey is a 37-year-old homemaker, tidying the family's trailer at the foot of the Rocky Mountains and home-schooling her daughter. But at night, Posey logs on to the Internet as Kendra--a gum-snapping 14-year-old looking for trouble.

This evening, she finds it in the form of an ad soliciting young girls for sex. Sipping a cherry Coke in the blue glare of her computer screen, Posey e-mails the man who posted the ad and awaits a reply. It doesn't take long.

"Do you like older men?" the stranger asks. "An older man is more experienced, and let's face it, we've got the bucks."

The exchange marks the start of another night's work for Posey, a self-styled online crusader who scrolls through chat rooms and news groups in search of sexual predators.

Masquerading as Kendra, Posey spent two weeks exchanging graphic e-mails with the stranger. Eventually, they arranged a rendezvous at a local fast-food joint. When a 36-year-old computer consultant arrived looking for Kendra, an undercover detective greeted him with handcuffs.

His arrest on suspicion of attempted sexual assault on a child was one of nearly two dozen busts Posey has helped arrange over five years.

As well as posing as an underage girl, Posey collects e-mail tips on child pornography that she passes on to local police. Most recently, she sent Irvine detectives a tip that led federal prosecutors to charge an Orange County judge with felony possession of child pornography.

As the reach of the Internet grows, Posey counts herself among a handful of private citizens who have assumed the role of online crime fighters, hoping to smoke out sexual predators and traders in kiddie porn. They say they fill the gap that many local police departments leave because of meager resources.

Some, like Posey, work solo. Others belong to larger volunteer bands with bellicose names such as Predator-Hunter, Soc-Um and Cyberarmy Pedophilia Fighters. Another group, Cyberangels, an offshoot of the vigilante Guardian Angels in New York, claims 10,000 members who send tips to police.

Critics, however, describe their work as cyber-vigilantism that threatens Internet privacy. The medium's promise of anonymity encourages users to confess their secret fantasies. And privacy rights advocates worry that crusaders entice people into fantasy play only to report them to police.

Law enforcement, for the most part, views the Internet activists as attention-seeking busybodies. The FBI has ordered a handful of "vigilantes" to stop. And police have arrested others for downloading illegal pornography, which is against the law whatever the motive.

"We really want the public's help, but not to do this," FBI Special Agent Peter A. Gulotta said. "After all, we certainly don't expect people to go out on the street and do drug buys for us."

Posey appears to be the exception--winning praise from once-suspicious cops who view her as cyperspace's answer to Nancy Drew.

One initial doubter was Herb Crosby, a Riley County, Kan., police lieutenant. When Posey called him about a sting she had set up a few years ago, he telephoned other investigators she had worked with and ran a background check on her.

"The other agencies that had dealt with her spoke highly of her," Crosby said.

At seminars taught by Posey, police officers line up to learn about computers and chat rooms.

"She's like a bulldog," said Mike Harris, a child abuse investigator with the district attorney's office in Jefferson County, Colo.

Harris' office has presented an award to Posey. The glass prize now sits on a shelf in her office, a tiny room in her home in Lafayette, Colo., west of Denver.

It's there that Posey spends about 40 hours a week trolling the Net. When the chat rooms are silent, she turns to her Web site, www.pedowatch.org, a one-woman watchdog operation that has passed hundreds of tips to police. She finances her detective work through banner ads on the site, which have brought in as much as $1,000 a month.

On a typical day, Posey gets up and logs on, opening a deluge of e-mails. Most are pleas from worried parents, asking what they should do about their children chatting with strangers on the Internet. Posey replies to each one, suggesting ways to monitor what kids are up to online.

As she types, her daughter, Kristyn, 12, sits behind her, thumbing through a textbook. Every half-hour or so, Posey interrupts her computer work to check on Kristyn's progress or answer a chemistry question.

Posey makes lunch, cleans up and returns to her computer. She deletes the daily bag of critical e-mails and rare anonymous threats. "May the next plane land on you," said a recent one. She takes none of them seriously; no one she has busted ever tried to contact her afterward.

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