Predator' sex sting raises questions of fairness, success
RIVERSIDE COUNTY: A joint effort caught on tape that resulted in 51 arrests faces scrutiny.
10:00 PM PDT on Thursday, September 27, 2007
By SANDRA STOKLEY
When "Dateline NBC" aired its first "To Catch a Predator" segment in 2004, it made for sensational television.
Program host Chris Hansen on camera confronted grown men who had been lured to a house by the prospect of sex with children.
The first two segments in New York and the northern Virginia/Washington, D.C., area nabbed a firefighter, a rabbi and a teacher.
For the third installment, Perverted-Justice.com, the Internet watchdog group that collaborated with "Dateline" on the "Predator" stings, asked that law enforcement be added to the mix and suggested the Riverside County Sheriff's Department, which had worked with the group previously.
The addition of law enforcement added a powerful element to an already dramatic scenario: Men who arrived for what they believed was a rendezvous with a minor were arrested by deputies and charged with crimes including attempted child molestation.
Over three days in January 2006, 51 men, ranging in age from 66 to 19 and from throughout Southern California, were arrested at a Mira Loma home. They included a high school teacher and a Department of Homeland Security agent.
But cases that initially seemed like slam-dunk convictions -- the men were seen on camera crying, pleading or even confessing -- have yielded uneven results both in Riverside County and other Predator sting locations.
And the show, which has broadcast 11 Predator segments, has come under fire in the form of a multimillion-dollar lawsuit filed by the sister of a Texas assistant district attorney who shot himself as police officers stormed his home during the now-notorious sting in Murphy, Texas, in November 2006.
Law-enforcement experts say the partnership among Dateline, police agencies and Perverted-Justice.com, a civilian group whose volunteers pose as young boys and girls in online chat rooms and wait to be contacted by adult men, raises serious questions about investigative techniques, evidence gathering and police autonomy.
"It's an unholy alliance," said Tom Nolan, a Boston University associate professor and former Boston police officer who uses the Predator segments as the basis of discussions in his criminal justice classes.
"I have an issue with private citizens engaging in these kinds of investigatory practices," Nolan said, referring to Perverted Justice.
Attorney Michael Molfetta, whose client Christopher Urban was convicted in August, said he had no problem with law enforcement casting a wide net to reel in people who use the Internet to prey on children.
"I'm a father. I like law enforcement being aggressive," Molfetta said. "But there are right and smart ways of doing things that were violated when you brought in Perverted Justice and Dateline."
Riverside County sheriff's Chief Deputy Randy Throne said he could not respond to criticisms of the department's participation in the January 2006 operation because the issue might be raised in cases headed to trial.
But in the days following the sting, then-Sheriff Bob Doyle said the department agreed to participate because the national exposure would send a "strong message to these dirtbags to stop preying on kids."
Linda Dunn, a chief deputy district attorney in Riverside County, said the outcomes so far -- 19 men have entered guilty pleas and a 20th has been convicted -- prove the strength of the Riverside cases.
"We have more cases set for trial and we certainly intend to move forward on them and we expect convictions," Dunn said.
Case Ends in Deadlock
In the first Riverside Predator case to go to trial in mid-August, a Riverside County Superior Court judge threw out the case against U.S. Marine William Lawrence Havey after a jury deadlocked 10-2 in favor of acquittal.
Judge Dallas Holmes was harsh in assessing the merits of the case against Havey, saying, "I don't like the smell of this case."
He was equally blunt in sizing up the Perverted Justice witnesses who testified, calling them "odd," "weird" and "repulsive."
Havey, a 24-year-old Iraq war veteran, had been charged with a single count of attempted lewd and lascivious act with a child under the age of 14. He declined to comment through his attorney Court Will.
Will said his client never believed the "girl" he was chatting with online -- in actuality a Perverted Justice volunteer -- was 13 years old because he was in a chat room for people 18 years old and older.
When Havey arrived at the Mira Loma house, he was arrested before he even made it inside.
Will said that based on his investigation, the attitude at the scene seemed to be that anyone who showed up at the decoy house was already guilty.
"No further inquiry was needed," Will said. "I don't think that's fair. I don't think it's justice."
In Texas, Collin County District Attorney John Roach has declined to file charges against any of the men arrested in the Murphy sting, citing concerns about venue, the lack of arrest warrants and questions about the accuracy of evidence, including the Internet chat logs.
"We're not confident that the transcripts of the Internet chats between the defendant and the Perverted Justice decoy are accurate or complete," Roach said in a telephone interview.
Roach said the location of the Perverted Justice volunteers and the men who made contact with them also is in question. In order to file charges, at least one party had to be in Collin County when the online solicitation, the crime being alleged, occurred, Roach said.
"The civilians were running this operation in Texas and that is fundamentally wrong," Roach said. "They don't have the same interest that law enforcement has."
Similar questions about the Perverted Justice's methods and chat log accuracy are being raised in a preliminary hearing under way in Riverside County Superior Court in Indio involving a Perverted Justice sting for the Fox television show "Cops."
Former Palm Springs news anchor Jim Philbrick, 44, is accused of attempting to commit lewd acts with a child under 14, based on his online conversations with a Perverted Justice volunteer in a gay chat room.
In an e-mail response to questions, Perverted Justice said chats are recorded in three file formats, one of them encrypted so that they cannot be tampered with.
Attorney Michael Garner, who is representing a man arrested in a July 2006 sting in Harris County, Ga., challenged video of Hansen interviewing Reymundo Anguiano, arguing that Hansen was acting as an agent of law enforcement and should have advised Anguiano of his rights before the interview.
"The judge ruled against us. He said my client was not in custody," Garner said in a telephone interview. "We'll appeal it."
Defense attorneys in the Riverside cases headed to trial have raised other concerns.
At a Sept. 21 pretrial hearing in Riverside County Superior Court, attorney Ronald Richards sought to have the attempted child molestation charge against his client Spencer Cho dismissed because he was arrested while sitting in his car and had not made a move to enter the decoy house.
"The sting was never set up to get people in their cars," Richards said.
Judge Jean P. Leonard denied Richards' motion to dismiss, saying there was probable cause for his arrest.
Dunn, the chief deputy district attorney, said her office was "somewhat taken aback" at Holmes' comments in the Havey case.
"We thought the case was strong; that's why we went to trial on it," she said.
She noted that a second Predator trial, also in August and also using testimony from Perverted Justice witnesses, resulted in the conviction of Rancho Cucamonga resident Christopher Urban. He faces a maximum of four years in state prison when he is sentenced in October.
In that case, jurors voted to convict Urban of one count of attempted lewd and lascivious act with a child under the age of 14 and deadlocked on a second count.
Dunn said she thought the outcome of the Havey trial had more to do with jurors' unwillingness to convict a Marine than with negative perceptions of the Perverted Justice witnesses.
Nolan, the Boston University professor, said serious issues are raised when police agencies partner with nonprofessionals on operations, not the least of which is that law enforcement has specific guidelines, rules and policies they must abide by in investigations.
"Perverted Justice, even though they are in fact acting as agents of law enforcement, are not abiding by the policies," Nolan said. "This is vigilantism. It's sensational vigilantism."
Reach Sandra Stokley at 951-368-9647 or sstokley@PE.com
Of the 51 men arrested during the three-day "Dateline NBC: To Catch a Predator" sting in January 2006 in Riverside County, 19 men have pleaded guilty and have received sentences of varying lengths.
Robert Lyons, 50: Pleaded guilty to three felonies, including attempted sodomy with a child under 14 years old, received five years in state prison.
Miguel Sosa, 36: Pleaded guilty to an attempted lewd act with a child under 14 years old; received 180 days in county jail.
Mitchell Rhodes Heylek, 25: Pleaded guilty to an attempted lewd act with a child under 14 years old, received 240 days in county jail, to be served on weekends.
William Havey, 24: Case dismissed after a jury deadlocked 10-2 for acquittal on a single count of an attempted lewd act with a child under 14 years old.
Christopher Urban, 28: Convicted of a single count of an attempted lewd act with a child under 14 years old; awaiting sentencing.