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Vigilante 'investigation' creates issues for prosecuting cases
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Vigilante 'investigation' creates issues for prosecuting cases

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Sidney authorities are investigating a child enticement case spurred by a vigilante effort to expose alleged child predators on social media.

However, the involvement of four men, who said they were from Texas and posted a video on YouTube under the “Predator Poachers” YouTube channel, may have complicated any attempts to bring the case in front of a court.

According to a probable cause affidavit, Sidney Police began an investigation of a 45-year-old Sidney man after being called to a Sidney apartment building Wednesday, Dec. 2. The apartment manager had contacted police, reporting men in a black SUV who appeared to be watching a Sidney apartment building. Sidney Police attempted to make contact with the men.

The men were part of the group of four men who say in a YouTube video they had drove from Houston, Texas, to confront a man they allege had sought to have a sexual relationship with an 8-year-old girl. At first, according to the video, the men sought to confront him at a Sidney business, but when realizing he wouldn’t be alone, they decide to confront him at his mother’s home.

One of the men tells the man’s mother they are friends and she let the group into her home. Then in a confrontation with the man, they urge him to make admissions, with the leader of the group making such statements as “This could go one of two ways, we could either get the police right now or have a talk with the family” while producing paper copies of illicit photos and social media messages he claims are from the Sidney man. At one point, when talking to the man's mother, the leader of the group claims the man has been sending illicit messages to his younger sister. The man also promises, “If he is being honest with us, he won’t go to jail.”

At different points, the mother reacts with incredulity, confronting her son, while also making different admissions about him being odd or other peculiarities. She even encourages the men to contact police. The men even force the man to wear an embarrassing T-shirt, saying he needs to wear the shirt or they are contacting police.

Eventually, the woman grows angry, says she is going to contact police and orders them from her home. At different times, the men say they will contact police, but talk more about exposing the man by going to the family’s landlord and to his employer. The men say they are also going to contact police, but instead, walk around the apartment complex, calling the landlord and also making contact with residents in the apartment complex. The landlord repeatedly tells them to contact police and even tells them she will contact law enforcement.

The 8-year-old girl, according to videos, is actually an 18-year-old woman posing as an 8-year-old girl. Subsequent videos show the text messages and alleged phone calls reported to have occurred.

At some point before the confrontation, police made contact with the men, who initially lied to police and said they were waiting for their uncle. Later, police made contact with the men a second time. According to the arrest affidavit, police directed to come to the department to file a report and provide evidence of their allegations.  The leader of the Predator Poacher group that visited Sidney is shown on video, narrating as he writes a statement, but the contact with police is not shown.

Police initially arrested the Sidney man on a charge of child enticement, however, Cheyenne County Attorney Paul Schaub said prosecution of charges against him were declined at this time due to the nature of the investigation.

Schaub explained in a press release and to the Star-Herald that crimes involving child enticement require the victim be underage, 16 years or younger when an electronic device is used. There is an exception when a law enforcement officer portrays an underage participant. However, there is no exception in state statute when a non-law enforcement officer portrays an underage participant.

“I haven’t gone through the entire legislative history on the child enticement statute, but I imagine there is a reason that they are including non-law enforcement officers in that exception,” he said. “I would think that is because law enforcement officers are in a better position to identify what is or isn’t entrapment.”

Schaub said entrapment is an affirmative defense in a court case, “which means that the state would have to prove that there was no entrapment. If there were even slight evidence that happened...”

While he did not comment on if some of the acts committed in the videos could be deemed legally as entrapment, he did say that the actions in the confrontation involving the Predator Poacher leader and the Sidney man “was not at all done professionally as I would expect a law enforcement officer would do.” Police became involved after the confrontation, he said, and “there is not a lot that police can do to sanitize a bad, bad investigation from a legal perspective.”

In a police investigation, steps such as securing evidence and other things are also important. Police did conduct an interview with the accused man and Schaub said that he “wouldn’t foreclose on the possibility of some charges in the future.”

He said the investigation is ongoing, including a forensic investigation of cell phone and other electronics. Charges could be filed at a later date, depending on the evidence gathered and the investigation.

There have been instances where television shows and other media have been produced that involve targeting child predators or other criminals. However, Schaub said, in those instances producers and others work with law enforcement to conduct investigations, not conducting them on their own. It is a key difference in bringing a case to prosecution.

The Star-Herald emailed the Predator Poachers organization, using an address listed on the website used by its YouTube channel, but had not received a response to ask questions about the investigation as of press time. A number of Predator Poachers groups have become common on social media, but the intent of most of the organizations and groups seem to be to publicly expose or embarrass alleged predators, rather than providing information to law enforcement.

In a case when parents or others believe child enticement has occurred, Schaub said, the best step is to contact law enforcement.

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