To Catch A Non-Predator: Are Online Stings Locking Up The Innocent?S

According to a long, disturbing article in Vanity Fair, online predators who seek out sex with kids are much less numerous than we think — and police efforts to catch them may be imprisoning innocent men.

Mark Bowden tells the story of J, a 42-year-old man who spent a year in jail for using a chat room to set up an assignation with a mother and her underage daughters — except that the "mother" was Detective Michele Deery, the daughters didn't exist, and J swears he was never interested in children in the first place. A lot of things about J make him seem untrustworthy — he was using steroids at the time, which gave him a runaway sex drive. He spent hours in cybersex chat rooms, playing out involved sexual fantasies with strangers while his wife slept. And he was willing to describe graphic sexual scenarios with children. But there's also a lot of evidence to suggest J was entrapped.

J says he had learned from experience that in order to interest women in chat rooms, you had to be willing to entertain their particular fantasies. Deery, masquerading as a user named "heatherscutiepies," seemed to want to talk about someone having sex with her daughters — so he indulged her. When the time came to set up a real-life meeting, he kept trying to make a date with just "Heather," but she kept bringing the girls back into it. She said things like,

-ur flip floppin its confusing me ... i mean it just seems like ur more into me then all of us..thats all

And:

-u say ur not really just into me, but it is still odd to me that you just wanna meet ME..

And:

-here is a tidbit of info ... i can do all that w out you here ... so clearly you are more into me then all of us whch is fine but u should be upfront about that from the get go

As Bowden mentions, these statements could be seen as Deery offering J an out, giving him a chance to say that he was really only interested in adult women so that she could leave them alone. And it was certainly stupid and reprehensible for J to respond as he did — repeatedly reassuring "Heather" that he was interested in her daughters after all. Even worse, he agreed to have sex with all of them — first with Heather alone, and then with the girls when they came home from school. J swears his plan was to flee after sleeping with Heather, but this claim didn't get him out of jail time, the dissolution of his marriage, or a lifetime on a sex offender registry.

It's hard to tell if J is telling the truth. He claims that everything he said about the girls was just an attempt to give Heather what she wanted so that she would sleep with him, but most right-thinking people would probably balk at offering to commit statutory rape just to get laid. On the other hand, unlike most child molesters, J didn't have any child porn on computer, and there's no evidence he ever hurt an actual child. J may be a bad guy, or least a sick one, but he also may have been a waste of a detective's time.

Bowden writes persuasively that the hysteria over online child predators is misguided. Some of it, he says, is based on faulty statistics — like the idea that one in five kids has been sexually solicited over the Internet. Bowden writes,

[H]alf the solicitations came from other teenagers. Not a single solicitation led to actual sexual contact. Violent sexual predators hunting children are out there, as they have always been, yet they remain blessedly rare, and most young people flee such strangeness instinctively. Only 3 percent of the contacts reported in the survey resembled the one most feared by parents, the adult stranger attempting to seduce a child.

And, somewhat disturbingly, Bowden reveals that people like J are "many times more likely to be locked up for approaching detectives than children." Would J have gone on to molest children if Deery hadn't "caught" him? It's possible, but it doesn't seem all that likely, and children face much more pressing dangers than J (Bowden also notes that missing children are more likely to have gotten lost or been kidnapped by a family member than abducted by a sex offender). The image of the online predator is a convenient one — a wholly evil person whose capture and punishment makes children safer. But protecting children is more complicated than that, the dangers they face more various and amorphous than a bad man lurking in a chat room. Unfortunately, nobody wants to stand up for men like J, and so the practice of creating false scenarios to catch sex offenders will probably continue — even if it means making sex offenders of some men who wouldn't be otherwise. But law enforcement energy might be better spent elsewhere, and perhaps we as a society should redirect our attention to problems that actually harm actual children — not men who solicit made-up girls.

Image via Vanity Fair.

A Crime Of Shadows [Vanity Fair]