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Facebook-famous vigilantes are outing pedophiles across Minnesota

Emily Utne / Getty Images

Emily Utne / Getty Images

I. Snow angels

Days of unabated storms have transformed country roads into long white drifts. The wind sears, headlights blind. Southern Minnesota is buried under a foot of snow. Northern Minnesota is tundra.

It’s the kind of night traversed only by desperate people, which is why Joshua Harwell has been stood up three times this evening.

Harwell is 29, stocky and deadpan, with a stubbled chin and a baseball cap pulled low over anxious brows. He’s sitting in an enormous SUV strapped with children’s booster seats in an abandoned corner of the St. John’s Hospital parking lot in Maplewood. As he scrolls furiously through half a dozen messaging screens, his face looks wan in the flicker of his phone.

Below the hilltop and across the street is a Freedom Valu gas station, where a 38-year-old man plans to meet a 15-year-old boy at 9 p.m. Harwell skims their chat logs. The man asks the boy what his favorite subject is in school, and describes a shower fantasy in intimate detail.

The boy is a fiction, a lure one of Harwell’s volunteer “decoys” cast into the virtual purgatory of teenage dating apps. The decoy didn’t have to say much in response, aside from some naive-sounding affirmations and a smattering of emojis. In the course of their monthlong back and forth, the decoy allegedly worked his presumed age into the conversation at least three times. Even so, the man proposed they meet.

Getty Images

Getty Images

As the minutes slip away, it becomes increasingly unlikely he’ll show.

“Predator time,” Harwell explains derisively.

Soon, a message beams over his two-way radio. Harwell’s security guards have gone ahead to the next appointment, a 10 o’clock meetup at a Shell station just five minutes down the street. They can see their target, a slovenly 50-year-old with a receding hairline and wire frame glasses, sitting in his car wearing a Twins windbreaker and pajama bottoms. His name is Mike—or so he told the decoy—and he brought his dog along to pick up what he thinks is a 14-year-old girl named Peyton.

Harwell fires up the engine and charges down the street, switching on Facebook Live.

Unaware of his impending confrontation, Mike texts the decoy that he’s a few minutes away. The decoy responds she’s inside, grabbing a hot cocoa. He climbs out of his car with the dog to take a lap around the station. Harwell approaches on foot.

“Hey Mike,” Harwell calls. “I’m gonna let you know I’m not law enforcement. I’m recording for your safety as well as mine.”

Two beefy security guys, Harwell’s longtime partner Justin Linder and volunteer Jeff Johnson—the mayor-elect of Isanti—stand abreast. Mike’s face turns red as he glances sideways at the glowering men.

“Don’t worry about them,” Harwell instructs. “Who are you here to meet tonight?”

Mike admits there’s “probably a lot” wrong with meeting a young girl at 10 p.m. so they can go back to his house in Brooklyn Park. He was lonely and bored, he says. All he wanted to do was watch a Harry Potter movie.

“So what were your intentions?”

“Well, nothing sexual, I can tell ya that. Look, I’m divorced eight years. I’ve had sex with maybe six women in my life.”

“So that’s her fault?” Harwell’s voice rises.

“I’m dumb. I’m dumb,” Mike mutters, looking mournfully at his dog. “Oh no, you got a dumb daddy.”

Harwell tells Mike he’s going to turn everything, chat logs included, over to police. He hands him a card with information for sex therapy.

“Call ’em. You need to get some help. You need to quit talking to our children.... Find someone your own age. Get off the apps that are geared for teenagers, and leave our kids alone. Kick rocks. I’m done talking to you.”

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Mike stows his dog and drives away.

Thousands of spectators in Minnesota and around the country follow Harwell’s livestream, offering reactions and congratulations in real time. As Harwell recaps the sting, fans demand he make good on an earlier promise to end the night on a snow dive.

With a cigarette dangling from his mouth, Harwell dutifully shuffles out to a waist-deep snow bank, throws up his hood, flips on his back, and performs a series of backstrokes.

“Kick rocks, predators!”

II. Predator Hunters USA

Josh Harwell is not a cop, though he’s always wanted to be one. He once enrolled in the University of Phoenix’s online criminal justice program, but didn’t finish.

Instead, he moonlights as a self-styled “predator hunter.”

The rest of the two dozen members of the Predator Hunters USA team include security guards, researchers, and law enforcement liaisons. Decoys, adult men and women who look ambiguously young, lurk passively on teen apps like MeetMe, Skout, and Kik, awaiting unsolicited sexts and dick pics. They’re trained to repeatedly declare their presumed age in a variety of creative ways (“I can’t wait until I get my driver’s permit next month”) and offer predators multiple chances to withdraw contact (“If you don’t want to talk to me that’s fine”).

They’re all volunteers, people with day jobs and families. Some bring the unmatched ardor of having been victims of exploitation as children.

For Decoy Darcy (who asked not to be named because she populates fake profiles with real selfies), working for Predator Hunters has become a self-restoring mission.

As a kid, she used to sneak onto the family computer at night and hang out in chatrooms, where she met a flirtatious man in his 40s. He sent her pictures and persuaded her to respond in kind. When her parents found out, they blocked her from the internet.

Nevertheless, that early exposure numbed her to age-blind sexual relationships, Darcy says. At 14 she started texting an 18-year-old man who eventually coaxed her into bed.

Her parents came to the rescue, pressing charges. According to court records, the man was convicted of criminal sexual assault, sentenced to 45 days in jail, and forced to register as a sex offender. He quickly moved elsewhere. Darcy had to grow up in a town rife with rumors of what she’d been through, and where her rapist’s family and friends still lived.

Her parents couldn’t understand why she’d let herself be taken advantage of.

“I went all throughout high school thinking that everything that happened to me, I deserved,” she recalls.

“I used to think sleeping with men who just wanted you was what I had to do. I could never say no, ever. That’s just not a normal thing.”

Three months ago, she stumbled upon the Facebook video of Harwell browbeating a man who’d been trying to meet a young girl in a Forest Lake nature preserve. Darcy says she’d never seen anyone stand up for a kid that way before. She was mesmerized.

Before long, she enlisted as a decoy. She tells men she’s 14. Some suggest they go shopping or have a friendly sleepover, insisting she safeguard their important secret. Others are unapologetically lewd. She says she’s been offered meth and child porn.

From the instant she wakes up in the morning to the moment she plugs in at night, and all throughout her shift at the Bethel-area gas station where she works, Darcy texts adults seeking relationships with children.

They don’t have to get sexual. As long as an adult tries to meet up, Harwell will expose them. “Those guys are just as icky as the sexual talking ones,” she says.

Each confrontation in which a potential predator laments falling victim to a scam triggers the same self-blame she felt as a kid. In another way, the work replenishes her.

“It wasn’t until I actually started doing the decoying and training other people that my dad reached out to me and said he just never knew how to handle it when I was a kid.”

III. The rise of pedophile bashing

Predator Hunters USA is just three months old. Its Facebook video library is a chronicle of Josh Harwell’s stakeouts across Minnesota and the hordes of spectators who tune in during each episode—many with their own kids alongside—to keep him company during the uneventful hours he spends driving, smoking, and texting in anticipation of watching an alleged pedophile sweat and stutter on camera. Some of the most popular videos have scratched 100,000 views.

It’s the team’s relationship with their fans, borne out in Q&As in bars and restaurants, that has skyrocketed their popularity. At a recent meet-and-greet at the SkyZone indoor trampoline park in Blaine, Harwell and the mother of his children, Brittney Anderson, sparred with padded quarterstaffs in a pit of foam as a trickle of supporters sifted through merchandise spreads of $42 yoga pants and $7 bumper stickers stamped with Josh Harwell’s catchphrases: “Kick rocks!” and “Decoy call his phone!”

The group’s model is nothing new. More than a decade ago, the quasi-news program To Catch a Predator aired four seasons of internet creeps getting cornered in sting houses peppered with hidden cameras and microphones. Dateline NBC’s Chris Hansen, with his studio-coiffed curls and pressed suit, made the men squirm before police hauled them off to jail. The confrontations oozed the kind of nervous energy that made for heart-pounding schadenfreude TV.

To Catch a Predator was canceled in 2008 after a Texas district attorney caught in one sting fatally shot himself as SWAT closed in on his house. The suspect’s sister sued NBC. Hansen never quite reprised his fame, but the anti-pedophile activist group that assisted as his decoys, Perverted-Justice, continued.

A plague of cavalier copycats exploded in the United Kingdom, inundating police with amateurishly packaged complaints. They contributed to countless arrests, yet occasionally entrapped, misidentified, or attacked innocents. They so irked the powers that be that police began to hunt certain hunters accused of jeopardizing due process.

Underscoring the movement is the premise that the police don’t effectively address child exploitation. These hunters intuitively suspect—buoyed by reels of news reports documenting judges handing down light sentences for serious crimes—that offenders are forever dodging full prosecution.

In the United States, the godfather of the vigilante movement is Shane Coyle, who starred on MTV’s From G’s to Gents a decade ago. Gifted with an uncanny ability to twist his voice into the sing-song peals of a cartoonishly obnoxious teenage girl, Coyle prank calls alleged predators before he dresses them down on his popular livestream channel.

He’s also a former drug addict who once served four years in prison for possession. During those rock-bottom years, Coyle still felt “chomos” ranked lower, even though they frequently served less time. He’s been storming around Tampa ever since his release a year and a half ago, performing some 80 stings.

None has led to prosecution, partly because a felon’s testimony is unlikely to survive cross examination in any courtroom unscathed. Instead, Coyle says his fans embrace the unregulated service he provides by deputizing the desires of ordinary people—parents especially—to see pedophiles named and shamed.

Then came 28-year-old trucker Jesse Weeks of Idaho’s Hunted and Confronted. Since July, his stings have led to a number of arrests across the country.

There’s also Truckers Against Predators, which started about the same time. And Worldwide Predator Hunters from Edgerton, Wisconsin, whom the Wisconsin Attorney General’s Office recently condemned for actions that “run the major risk of ruining evidence for a criminal prosecution.”

“Wisconsin’s been difficult,” admits Worldwide’s Valery Jessie. “They can’t tell us to stop what we’re doing because everything we’re doing is legal, but they did tell us that for safety reasons we shouldn’t be doing it.”

Contrarily, Minnesota law enforcement has been more open-minded.

As Wisconsin hunters began crossing the border, the group would call local police ahead of each exposure. Both times Minnesota cops responded, charges were filed.

On October 23, Glencoe police surrounded 27-year-old David Venske of Winsted at a Cenex gas station after receiving sexual chat logs and a dick pic Venske allegedly sent to a fake 15-year-old girl.

Two weeks later, Maple Grove officers arrested 37-year-old Riley Hoefs of Rochester after he led cops on a short car chase through a parking lot and crashed into a concrete barrier on Weaver Lake Road. Hoefs is accused of sending a decoy child pornography.

But just because vigilantes ask for backup doesn’t mean it’s a given, says Maple Grove Capt. Adam Lindquist.

He likens their uneasy relationship to the civil arena of repossessions. A repo company might want a cop to stand by while it tows a car from somebody who defaulted on a loan, but cops can’t be certain if a clerical error, an autopay bug, or a myriad of misunderstandings might reveal an innocent explanation.

“We have to follow something called the rules of criminal procedure,” Lindquist says. “We’re not just going to jump on the bust and say, ‘We’re here.’”

Still, there’s value in making the internet all that more uninhabitable for aspiring child abusers, he says.

“For predators out there, it certainly should alarm them that the potential of being caught one way or the other is much higher.”

Harwell began volunteering for Wisconsin’s Worldwide Predator Hunters, and in October exposed a man in Stacy. But somehow, the group misidentified the predator and falsely accused an innocent man. His family allegedly received death threats. Harwell and Worldwide’s founders accuse each other of failing to fact-check.

Afterward, Harwell struck out on his own to create the Minnesota-centric Predator Hunters USA, which is based in Forest Lake. Unlike other groups, Predator Hunters does not alert police prior to exposures.

V. Cops and hunters

In mid-October, Pine County Attorney Reese Frederickson learned about the newly formed Predator Hunters USA. A co-worker showed him the page, thinking the prosecutor would appreciate the entertainment value of watching Joshua Harwell chain-smoke and smash Monster energy drinks.

As the prosecutor watched a sting unfold one day, he suddenly recognized Pine City’s Main Street storefronts flashing by in the background. Suspecting plenty of his constituents were likewise glued to Facebook, Frederickson decided to give the sheriff a head’s-up.

Harwell’s target that day was 53-year-old Randy McCray of Isanti. The two collided in a picnic pavilion at Robinson Park, where McCray was expecting a 10th-grader named Briana.

“I’m glad you put me in this predicament. I’m learning,” McCray told Harwell.

Two days later, McCray called the sheriff’s office to report having been “scammed.” According to the subsequent criminal complaint, McCray admitted everything—sexting a presumed 15-year-old girl, sending her a photo of his penis, and driving half an hour to meet her during school hours.

It was enough to warrant charges of sexual solicitation of a minor. So far, it’s the only Predator Hunters USA exposure that has led to prosecution.

Anti-vigilante critics like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children believe that broadcasting stings could teach predators how to better conceal their identities, but the prosecutor doesn’t think that objection holds water. Especially when every Super Bowl kicks off with county attorneys holding press conferences about netting prospective johns in undercover stings.

“The cat’s out of the bag on how these things are done,” Frederickson says. “It’s been that way for years.”

The Forest Lake Police Department also crossed paths with Predator Hunters in its early days. Harwell once met with a detective to discuss “evidence”—video feeds of his confrontations, Chief Rick Peterson says.

The detective warned Harwell that amateur busts could undermine ongoing investigations. Should they expose a predator before extablishing necessary criminal elements, police wouldn’t be able to make an arrest, giving suspects the chance to wipe their hard drives and skip town. The chief says he hasn’t heard from the hunters since.

“I am concerned on how they coordinate their ‘sting operations’ for two reasons,” the chief wrote in a stern statement. “I am unsure if it would ever hold up in a court of law and, secondly, they could potentially become very dangerous for all those involved.”

Predator Hunters boasts that it has the support of all police departments. In reality, law enforcement’s reactions run the gamut from bemused to squeamish to tacitly indulgent.

The Anoka County Sheriff’s office is slowly digesting six cases presented by hunters.

Lt. Dan Douglas, a 17-year sex crimes detective, walks a fine line of neither denouncing nor encouraging them. While he’s somewhat tortured by the ethical entanglements that untrained investigations pose, the sheer number of adult men willing to engage in sex talk with minors can’t be overstated, he says.

“It’s frightening, continues to shock the conscience,” Douglas says. “I’m glad that it’s publicly streamed and that it’s there, it’s visible, and that they’re not hiding behind anything and dumping shoddy, poorly collected evidence at our desk weeks later.”

When Minnesota’s county attorneys assembled for their annual conference on December 6, many had received Predator Hunters cases. Questions abounded.

“When these cases would be presented by this citizen group, there were significant evidentiary issues that made it very difficult to prosecute these cases,” says Robert Small, director of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association and a former judge. For example, some of their screen shots are nonconsecutive and incomplete.

Hennepin County took the lead, proposing a guiding policy it adopted November 21. It states that prosecutors will not begin to entertain cases based on private stings unless they occur at a time and place of law enforcement’s choosing, with cops on hand.

VI. Your host, Hunter Josh

Josh Harwell comes down with pneumonia in early December. Wearing a nasal cannula and hospital gown, he signs on to Facebook Live from a hospital bed, singing, “Can’t stop us, won’t stop us.”

He’s getting antibiotics and fluids on drip. His fingers fly as he texts. Assuring fans he would never smoke inside a hospital, he promptly sneaks out, IV stand in tow, to have a cigarette and FaceTime guest star Jesse Weeks of Hunted and Confronted.

“We’re trying to do a bust, but it would have to be a bust at the hospital,” Harwell jokes.

The day after, he’s back in the driver’s seat, head bopping, finger wagging to Mariah Carey (“Why you so obsessed with me?”) while sporting an enormous green Grinch mask he once wore throughout the course of an exposure.

“What up, haterrrs! You still got me on your mind, don’t cha!”

The following week, Harwell films a Q&A using a noir filter complete with gangster shades and fedora. As “Mob Boss MN HunterJosh,” he calls his customary can of Monster a glass of whiskey as he reminds viewers that posting a suspect’s home or work address leads to banishment.

People seem to watch precisely because Harwell inhabits the gray area between cop and cam star, where he abides no government regulation or network rule. Episodes are live, unadulterated, and commercial-free. Fan service is an inextricable element of the show, unabashed dad humor the inevitable consequence.

He advances on his targets brimming with barely contained disgust, a conduit for thousands of brigading viewers.

Unlike law enforcement, Harwell declines to share chat logs with the public. He doesn’t provide evidence of how donations are spent. On Facebook he’s claimed he and his security attend busts armed, but they deny it in interviews. He demands control over news coverage. He insists his word is fact.

In his downtime, Harwell gives away hoodies and T-shirts, rails against “keyboard warriors,” and wishes faithful viewers happy birthday. Critics complain about negative feedback getting scrubbed from the page, leaving the curated illusion of near-universal admiration, but fans don’t seem to mind. Even if the stings don’t lead to criminal charges, the likes keep rolling in.