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Web Sex Predator Watchdogs: Good Guys or Grandstanders?

Some law enforcement agencies work with the volunteers; others are leery of complications.

October 07, 2006|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

Michael Seibert had been through this before.

The 26-year-old was arrested in January for allegedly trying to rendezvous with a teenager for sex in Riverside County -- a girl he met online.

This September, it happened again.

Just like last time, the girl online said she was 13, and agreed to meet him, police said.

"r u a cop," the Anaheim man allegedly typed to "Kiera" on the night of Sept. 3. "I do not want to get cought."

Just like last time, the "girl" was actually an adult volunteer with, a website of self-styled watchdogs who masquerade as bait on the Internet to expose what they say are would-be child molesters.

Seibert, a grocery store worker, was arrested Sept. 9 in Long Beach on suspicion of an attempted lewd act with a child under 14 -- the same charge he faces in Riverside County. He has pleaded not guilty in both cases.

Once an obscure Internet way station for so-called vigilantes, the Portland, Ore.-based Perverted Justice has become a powerful machine for targeting adults whom website volunteers call potential pedophiles, and exposing them to shame and arrest. But its taste for media attention and role of ad hoc police force has brought criticism.

Website volunteers have teamed up with police nationwide to set up clandestine Internet chat-room stings, which are often orchestrated for television cameras, including one in Riverside County for NBC's "Dateline" in January.

Yet many prosecutors and law enforcement officials refuse to associate with Perverted Justice, concerned about the civilian group's lack of professional training and knack for attracting the spotlight.

"Do you really want citizen groups running around imposing their own form of justice?" asked Brad Russ at the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, a federally funded national network with more than 1,200 affiliated law enforcement agencies fighting predators online.

The founder of Perverted Justice, Xavier Von Erck, boasts of the website's aggressive tactics and results: volunteers have helped nab scores of Internet prowlers in California alone, with major busts in Riverside County, Long Beach, Petaluma and Laguna Beach.

"There's no feeling like it when you find a guy who's molested a kid in North Dakota and then he gets arrested for it," Von Erck said. "You can't really compare it to anything else."

That feeling of empowerment frightens attorney Steve Harmon, who is representing Seibert and four other defendants arrested in the Perverted Justice sting in Riverside.

"When Perverted Justice is out there trolling or fishing for people who may not have had the intention to get into this trouble but are led into it, then I think that's very disturbing," said Harmon, who said Seibert has "very severe mental issues," resulting from a brain injury sustained when he was baby.

"Dateline" used Perverted Justice volunteers in stings -- such as the Long Beach operation in September that netted 38 arrests -- that lured men to houses, where they allegedly expected to meet a teen. Instead, they were greeted by "Dateline" cameras and local police.

"Dateline" correspondent Chris Hansen, host of the popular series, said that since the episodes aired in 2004, he has seen a "shift in attitude" of local authorities toward the organization.

"They've gone from being considered a vigilante group to being a watchdog group," said Hansen, who added that Perverted Justice volunteers are paid consultants to the show, similar to military analysts often used by TV networks.

Internet crimes against children have emerged in recent years as a growing threat. FBI cases opened against online child pornographers and those using the Internet have increased 2000% in the last decade, according to agency statistics. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's cyber tip line fields as many as 140 leads a week concerning enticement of children online.

"We know we've got a growing problem, [with] more than enough cases being generated than law enforcement" can handle, said John Shehan, the tip line program manager.

Von Erck, who manages the Perverted Justice site full time, said he started searching for potential molesters about five years ago, after watching men talk up teenagers online in regional forums. The website now claims to have helped convict 87 attempted sex offenders.

Von Erck himself is somewhat of a mystery. A 27-year-old college dropout from Portland, Ore., he said he has changed his name because he associated it with his estranged father. He would not reveal what his name was changed from, or confirm published news reports that he was born Philip John Eide.

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