At Is­sue

The vig­i­lante groups who wage war against sus­pected sex­ual preda­tors of­ten miss their mark—and one B.C. man is out to ex­pose the col­lat­eral dam­age they cause.

Vancouver Magazine - - News - BY Jack­son Weaver

When vig­i­lante jus­tice goes awry, who’s there to watch the self-ap­pointed watch­men?

SEAN SMITH is no longer sur­prised by the emails. Over the past year they’ve in­creased in fre­quency, and th­ese days the ed­u­ca­tional con­sul­tant from Camp­bell River is up to about four a month. Each mes­sage is aplea for help from some­one about to be pub­licly ac­cused of ahorri c crime—not by po­lice, but by vig­i­lante groups bent on rid­ding the in­ter­net of would-be sex­ual preda­tors. It might seem an ad­mirable goal, save for the fact that not ev­ery­one the groups tar­get with their high-pro le “sting” op­er­a­tions—pos­ing as un­der­age teens on dat­ing sites, ar­rang­ing pub­lic meet­ings, then post­ing videos of the con­fronta­tion on their web­sites—has crim­i­nal in­ten­tions. Though pop­u­lar with sup­port­ers

on­line, th­ese pub­lic hu­mil­i­a­tion cam­paigns rarely lead to ar­rest and con­vic­tion. More of­ten than not, they sim­ply re­sult in ru­ined lives, tar­nished rep­u­ta­tions and, in ex­treme cases, thwarted in­ves­ti­ga­tions by ac­tual law en­force­ment. For Smith, that puts th­ese vig­i­lante groups squarely in the wrong.

“You know, I just re­ceived an email,” he says, in­ter­rupt­ing him­self as we speak. “‘Hello sir. I’m a re­cent vic­tim of en­trap­ment by SCC; please ad­vise me on what I should do to stop them from pub­li­ciz­ing the video. What lawyer would you sug­gest Iuse?’”

While so-called “creep catcher” groups have sprung up across the Lower Main­land and Canada in re­cent years, the Sur­rey Creep Catch­ers, or SCC, have achieved a par­tic­u­lar level of in­famy. Pres­i­dent Ryan Laforge is fac­ing at least two defama­tion suits (one from Smith after Laforge ac­cused him of pe­dophilia for crit­i­ciz­ing the group), as well as a hand­ful of as­sault charges stem­ming from the SCC’s en­trap­ment schemes. Mean­while, an in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the Of­fice of the In­for­ma­tion and Pri­vacy Com­mis­sioner( O I PC) found the SCC vi­o­lated the pri­vacy of two men it tar­geted who ar­ranged to meet what they thought was an un­der­age girl. In July, the OIP C or­dered the group to re­move videos and chat logs per­tain­ing to the men from its web­site, but Laforge, who did not re­spond to an in­ter­view re­quest, has pub­licly said he has no in­ten­tion of com­ply­ing. It’s this dis­re­gard for the rule of law, as well as the per­ver­sion of a cen­tral tenet of our jus­tice sys­tem—in­no­cent un­til proven guilty—that re­ally gets Smith.

That, and how the tac­tics em­ployed by th­ese catch­ers—“false ac­cu­sa­tions, in­cite­ment of a mob, us­ing so­cial me­dia for sham­ing” (Smith rat­tles th­ese off like bul­let points from ales­son plan)—are the an­tithe­sis of what he teaches chil­dren in school work­shops on safe and re­spon­si­ble use of so­cial me­dia. It’s his job to ex­plain how dam­age done on­line can have dev­as­tat­ing im­pli­ca­tions in the real world—and the hu­man toll ex­acted by the catcher groups pro­vides plenty of proof: a21-year-old men­tally dis­abled Burn­aby man was fired from his job ear­lier this year after hop­ing to meet a girl­friend on a dat­ing app, an Ed­mon­ton woman—her­self a vic­tim of child abuse—com­mit­ted sui­cide over fallout from a creep catcher con­fronta­tion in late 2016, and a man un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion by ac­tual po­lice fled to Win­nipeg after be­ing “busted” by an Al­berta creep catcher group. There he was charged with mo­lest­ing two chil­dren, but po­lice said he could have been ar­rested sooner had the creep catch­ers not got­ten to him first. The cal­lous dis­re­gard for the im­pact of their ac­tions has Smith con­vinced th­ese vig­i­lante groups have con­fused jus­tice for some­thing more akin to re­al­ity TV.

“It’s got ab­so­lutely noth­ing to do with the greater good of stop­ping child pre­da­tion. It has ev­ery­thing to do with ‘How fa­mous can I get for do­ing this thing?’” he says. “That should be enough to tell the pub­lic they don’t want th­ese peo­ple out there pro­tect­ing them from the bad guys.”

And yet, the groups have ar­dent sup­port­ers who view the catch­ers as heroes, do­ing vi­tal work they per­ceive po­lice ei­ther can’t or won’t do.

But Mike Mac­Far­lane, a re­tired Van­cou­ver po­lice of­fi­cer who spent his ca­reer pos­ing as a lit­tle girl in adult chat rooms, says creep catch­ers don’t help. Sim­ply find­ing some­one you think is a “creep” isn’t enough, he says, not­ing vig­i­lantes have nowhere near the train­ing nec­es­sary to col­lect ev­i­dence that can stand up in court. Mac­Far­lane’s ca­reer saw him at­tend myr­iad con­fer­ences, lec­tures and sem­i­nars in or­der to prop­erly in­ves­ti­gate sus­pected preda­tors, and a sin­gle wrong step—ap­pear­ing to ini­ti­ate sex­ual talk, re­veal­ing his “age” in the wrong way or at the wrong time—could nul­lify months of work. “All of your chat logs you have to present to court,” he ex­plains. “And they go through those with a fine-toothed comb.”

On top of that, Toronto sex spe­cial­ist Dr. James Can­tor ar­gues creep catcher groups only re­in­force a hys­te­ria sur­round­ing pe­dophilia that does more to in­crease vic­tim­iza­tion than mit­i­gate it. Ther­a­pists are re­quired to re­port a client to po­lice only if a child is in dan­ger, Can­tor ex­plains, but they of­ten re­port any­one who ad­mits to har­bour­ing th­ese at­trac­tions. As a re­sult, many pe­dophiles don’t feel they can seek help from men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als with­out risk­ing le­gal reper­cus­sions, and the men­tal­ity of de­mo­niza­tion, evinced in the ex­treme by creep catch­ers, drives those in­di­vid­u­als deeper un­der­ground un­til they do of­fend. “It’s like we’re dar­ing them to do it,” he says.

So how do you stop vig­i­lante groups that seem im­mune to le­gal in­junc­tions or pub­lic crit­i­cism? Smith has made it a per­sonal mis­sion to fight back with facts. His web­site, Truth About Creep Catch­ers, is a de­tailed repos­i­tory of po­lice stats on successful ar­rests of sus­pected preda­tors, as well as the fail­ings of vig­i­lante catches to stand up in court. It’s also a place for Smith to en­gage with creep catcher sup­port­ers and, most im­por­tantly, to show that he, for one, won’t be shamed into si­lence.

“I’m not go­ing any­where,” he says. “I’m go­ing to be their worst god­damn night­mare.”

Th­ese vig­i­lante groups have con­fused jus­tice for re­al­ity TV.

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