But the ICAC’s biggest concern, according to Donohue, lies in the fact that along with the Perverted Justice members who were posing as underage decoys in chat rooms, actual members of law enforcement could have also been playing the part in the same chats, yet with the direct intent of charging and convicting the men who approached them for sex. For the earlier Dateline investigations, when those men were merely exposed but not arrested, Donohue says that could have “blown” the chance for police to get involved if those individuals simply disposed of their computers afterwards.
“Anyone attempting to label us as unqualified when we have 105 convictions with zero acquittals along with hundreds upon hundred (sic) of other arrests awaiting trail... when we have redefined what it means to have a successful internet predator sting... well, that person would be truly ignorant,” says Von Erck.
Whether aware of the policies of Perverted Justice or not, the wariness of their conduct remains.
“There are a lot of different hurdles that come about when you deal with a non-law enforcement agency doing these things,” says Donohue.
Perverted Justice’s efforts with the Dateline stings have increased direct involvement of police with each new sting, as recently illustrated in an investigation in Murphy, Texas. In Texas, soliciting a minor over the Internet is a felony — an in-person meeting isn’t necessary to make an arrest. Despite that, a “bust house” was setup in the town outside of Dallas and “To Catch a Predator” business proceeded as usual.
But in the case 56-year-old Louise William Conradt, Jr., an assistant district attorney in Texas, police resorted to a tactic unprecedented by the Dateline cameras. They obtained an arrest warrant and staked out his residence. Conradt, who was unaware that a sting operation was even being conducted, did not answer the door for police. After a tactical police team forced its way in, Conradt was seen in the hallway holding a gun to his head. Moments later, he pulled the trigger. He died later that day in a local hospital.
Producer Keller says the incident will not affect the future of Dateline’s investigations.
Concerning the sting, Murphy Mayor Bret Bishop told the Dallas Morning News, “I think it’s a noble cause, but our police department is hired to serve and protect our citizens, and not to expose them to outside threats.”
The Dateline special itself, while pulling in millions of viewers with each new investigation, has been as readily applauded as it has been chastised.
Author and political satirist Barry Crimmins was one of the first to stand up against online sexual predators after discovering an epidemic of child pornography in America Online chat rooms. Crimmins, an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse, took it upon himself to pose as a young child in the chats to see the problem through the eyes of the victim. He later testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee in July 1995 to bring attention to his findings.
“It was a very serious problem as it remains,” says Crimmins. “I think there’s plenty of pedophiles out there.”
Regarding the Dateline investigations, he says “they only last as long as the ratings do,” suggesting viewers actually do take the time to educate themselves about children’s rights and safety as opposed to just witnessing “some guy coming in with his pants down” on camera.