CLEARFIELD COUNTY, Pa. — One of the biggest threats to your child’s safety may be the devices at their fingertips. The FBI says more than 500,000 child predators are active online every day, and they are trying to connect with kids that are 15, 14, and even as young as 8 or 9.
As police departments struggle with manpower shortages and increasing public safety demands, everyday citizens are stepping up with a mission to get would-be predators off the streets. It is heart-wrenching, and risky work.
Online conversations like these play out every day. An adult man or woman, connecting online with a girl who tells them she is 15. But when the adult arranges to meet, instead of a 15-year-old girl, it’s bearded and tattooed Brian Knepp.
Knepp, 49, is the founder and the driving force behind the 814Pred Hunters.
Since September of last year, Knepp and a team of family and friends have worked online- drawing out men and women who may intend to prey on kids.
“We have decoy accounts, what we call decoy accounts, different social media, Facebook, what have you. They’re pretty much that. They’re there for an adult to contact them, said Knepp.”
The decoy is a woman in her forties who poses as a 15-year-old girl online.
There is no shortage of people on the other end eager to start a conversation.
“On an average, one of my decoys has well over 150 to 200 guys waiting in line to talk,” said Knepp.
After a back and forth, Knepp says the men often suggest a meet-up in person.
“We’ll pick a public place, a Sheetz, a Walmart, somewhere like that to get them away from where they are,” said Knepp.
And when they show up and see Knepp?
I’d say 95, 98% of the time, they’re so shell-shocked that they either cry or throw up. We’ve had them do just about everything,” Knepp said.
During the confrontation, Brian will say a code word and the team who has been watching from a distance will call police.
Police in Butler County say earlier this year the 814Pred Hunters tipped them off to an Adams Township man who they say had been chatting with and sending sexually explicit photos to the 814 decoy.
Just one of the group’s 82 exposures---since last September.
In some cases, the police have arrested and filed charges against the alleged predators. However, some district attorneys in Pennsylvania have been hesitant to file.
In Clearfield County, a judge threw out one case saying a person only violates the Unlawful Contact with Minors law if they are actually communicating with minors.
“It’s actually not a gray area at all. It’s pretty black and white,” said Chalon Young, Esq.
Young has more than 20 years of experience as a criminal defense attorney and teaches criminal defense at PITT Law.
“If you’re going to have been exposed to criminal charges and they’re going to be exposed to having your liberties taken away, it has to be done the right way. it has to follow the letter of the law,” said Young.
Young says if someone other than law enforcement is recording interactions and gathering evidence, that information can’t be authenticated and is not admissible in court.
That is where Jim Gregory comes in. The state representative has introduced two bills that would allow citizen predator groups to continue their work.
For Gregory, it’s personal. At age 10, he was groomed and raped by two young teens. He spent years keeping the abuse a secret.
“Luckily, I’ve come out on the other side, but too many don’t.”
One bill Rep. Gregory introduced would amend Pennsylvania’s wiretap law to allow the team to record phone conversations. The other would allow any individual to pose as a minor for the purpose of exposing alleged predators.
“We have the vacuum, and if law enforcement can’t do it and our prosecutors can’t do it, and our judges are throwing cases out, we’ve gotta have the conversation to say, well, what are we gonna do? Because the status quo ain’t working,” said Rep. Gregory.
For now, the 814Pred Hunters say they’ll continue their mission. They believe they’re one more layer between kids and strangers who are all too eager to steal their innocence.
“It can happen in an hour, you know, that that guy can meet that child and be there to pick that child up and that child never comes back home.”
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