Online Vigilantes

A mother's efforts to nab would-be pedophiles by posing as a child illuminates the pitfalls of policing the Net

February 07, 2002|By Jack Leonard and Monte Morin | Jack Leonard and Monte Morin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

By day, Julie Posey is a 37-year-old homemaker, tidying the family's trailer at the foot of the Rocky Mountains and home-schooling her daughter. But at night, Posey logs on to the Internet as Kendra - a gum-snapping 14-year-old looking for trouble.

This evening, she finds it in the form of an ad soliciting young girls for sex. Sipping a cherry cola in the blue glare of her computer screen, Posey e-mails the man who posted the ad and awaits a reply. It doesn't take long.

"Do you like older men?" the stranger asks. "An older man is more experienced, and let's face it, we've got the bucks."

The exchange marks the start of another night's work for Posey, a self-styled online crusader who scrolls through chatrooms and newsgroups in search of sexual predators.

Masquerading as Kendra, Posey of Lafayette, Colo., spent two weeks exchanging graphic e-mails with the stranger. Eventually, they arranged a rendezvous at a local fast-food joint. When a 36-year-old computer consultant arrived looking for Kendra, an undercover detective greeted him with handcuffs.

His arrest on suspicion of attempted sexual assault on a child was one of nearly two dozen busts Posey has helped arrange over five years.

As well as posing as an underage girl, Posey collects e-mail tips on child pornography that she passes on to police. Most recently, she sent Irvine, Calif., detectives a tip that led federal prosecutors to charge an Orange County judge with felony possession of child pornography.

As the reach of the Internet grows, Posey counts herself among a handful of private citizens who have assumed the role of online crime fighters, hoping to smoke out sexual predators and traders in child porn. They say they fill the gap that many local police departments leave because of meager resources.

Some, such as Posey, work on their own. Others belong to larger, volunteer bands with bellicose names such as Predator-Hunter, Soc-Um and Cyberarmy Pedophilia Fighters. Another group, Cyberangels, an offshoot of the vigilante Guardian Angels in New York, claims 10,000 members who send tips to police.

Critics, however, describe their work as cyber-vigilantism that threatens Internet privacy. The medium's promise of anonymity encourages users to confess their secret fantasies. And privacy-rights advocates worry that crusaders entice people into fantasy play only to report them to police.

Law enforcement, for the most part, views the Internet activists as attention-seeking busybodies. The FBI has ordered a handful of "vigilantes" to stop. And police have arrested others for downloading illegal pornography, which is against the law whatever the motive.

"We really want the public's help, but not to do this," FBI Special Agent Peter A. Gulotta said. "After all, we certainly don't expect people to go out on the street and do drug buys for us."

Posey appears to be the exception - winning praise from once-suspicious cops who view her as cyperspace's answer to Nancy Drew.

"She's like a bulldog," said Mike Harris, a child abuse investigator with the district attorney's office in Jefferson County, Colo.

Harris' office has presented an award to Posey. The glass prize sits on a shelf in her office, a tiny room in her home.

It's there that Posey spends about 40 hours a week trolling the Net. When the chatrooms are silent, she turns to her Web site, www.pedowatch.org, a one-woman watchdog operation that has passed hundreds of tips to police. She finances her detective work through banner ads on the site, which have brought in as much as $1,000 a month.

Posey hardly had the background for Internet sleuthing. She knew little about the law before she started, and had no experience with investigations. Her last job before motherhood was cooking meals at a Methodist church.

Then an ordeal that Posey had long tried to forget resurfaced.

In 1981, when Posey was 16, she was raped by a man driving a truck who noticed her at a Denver bus stop. Posey identified a local airman as her attacker, and he was charged with sexual assault. As part of a deal with prosecutors, the man pleaded no contest to third-degree assault and served 90 days in jail, according to the Jefferson County district attorney's office.

Five years ago, a local prosecutor contacted Posey. Her attacker was again accused of raping a teen-age girl. The prosecutor asked if Posey would testify at the trial. She agreed, and watched with satisfaction as a judge sentenced the rapist to 16 years in prison.

The courtroom experience inspired a fascination with the justice system. Posey volunteered to work at the Jefferson County district attorney's office, and there she met Harris, the child abuse investigator.

Harris told her he was planning a sting operation against online sexual predators. He asked if she knew anything about the Internet. Posey had learned about computers from watching her husband at work, and she agreed to help.

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