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On the hunt for Internet sex predators

It's an undercover investigation that people are still talking about. It prompted concern among parents nationwide when we first broadcast it last month -- our investigation into online sex predators, adults, trolling chatrooms to target children. We went undercover to expose them, because so many children are at risk.   Chris Hansen has the latest on what's happened to these men caught by our cameras. We want to warn you, some of what you'll watch is explicit.

The problem seems to be getting worse — and the profile of the suspected predators more frightening. Just this past summer, an editor for “Weekly Reader,” a newspaper for school children was arrested for using the Internet to solicit sex with a 14-year-old boy. He pleaded not guilty.

And this past spring, a New York City cop, a youth officer, was also caught attempting to meet a child online for sex. He pleaded guilty last fall “to attempted use of a child in a sexual performance” and agreed to serve six months in prison.

Law enforcement officials estimate that 50,000 predators are online at any given moment. And the number of reports of children being solicited for sex is growing says Michele Collins of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

"One in five kids has been sexually solicited," she says. "In many cases the incidents were actually aggressive where the person on the other end of the computer is actually calling the child, sending things to their homes, or actually trying to meet them in person."

Her organization launched an ad campaign aimed at educating teens about this crime. "The message that really got home to the teenage girl was that if you’re in an online relationship, there’s a good chance you might be getting played," she adds.

Collins says young teens are often an easy target. "Teenagers have vulnerabilities, it just ups the ante when you bring it on to the World Wide Web and that many more people have access to knowing what’s going on in a child’s mind," she says.

Katie Tarbox is a perfect example... she recounts her story in the book “A Girl’s Life Online.”  Tarbox began an Internet relationship with a 23-year-old, an older man who convinced her he shared many of her interests.

"In my mind, I was  thinking, 'Oh my gosh, like this is my soul mate out there,'" she thought. "In actuality he was just learning my interests, probably researching them at the same time, to come back to say that he enjoyed those things too."

After months of chatting online, Katie finally agreed to a meeting at a hotel where she was competing in a swim meet.  The man turned out to be 41 years old and although they had never talked about sex, there was little doubt that’s what he had in mind.

"He leaned over, he kissed me. He groped me. He touched other parts of my body. I mean I was essentially molested," says Tarbox.

Since then, Katie, now 23, has become an advocate for Internet victims. She warns children to steer clear of Internet predators and says she has heard thousands of tragic stories from victims who did not.

"You could never put us in a room, I’m not even sure you could put us in a whole stadium," she says of the victims out there. "I think it’s very very widespread."

And even tough laws don’t seem to deter many of these predators.

Lt. Jake Jacoby of the Fairfax County Police Department says it’s a crime in Virginia for an adult to use the Internet to entice a child into having sex.  So merely by using the Internet to set up a sexual liaison with somebody who’s underage, that’s a felony.

Because so many children are at risk, and to demonstrate the disturbing reality of what goes on in some chat rooms, we enlisted the help of volunteers from a vigilante organization called Perverted-Justice. Volunteers of this controversial group are experts at pretending to be children online in order to catch and expose potential predators. And in most states soliciting a minor for sex is still a crime even if it turns out the minor is an adult posing as a child.

While some in law enforcement strongly oppose any civilian group conducting sting operations, Perverted-Justice volunteers say they are often able to provide authorities — from local police to the FBI — evidence to build cases and get convictions.

Del, Perverted-Justice volunteer: At his point in taping we have 30 convictions.Hansen: 30 convictions.Del: I believe now 22 since the first of this year. So, we’re averaging well over two a month.

So how do Perverted-Justice operatives find potential sexual predators?  First they go into chat rooms, usually through AOL or Yahoo and set up a profile of a 12, 13 or 14-year-old...a profile that often includes a photo of a child obviously underage.

Then the decoys wait to be contacted by an adult. In order to avoid the appearance of entrapment, they never make the first contact.  But once an online chat begins the undercover operatives make it know they are open to the possibility of sex.  A few decoys even seem eager.

Hansen: How quickly do these conversations turn sexual?Jacoby: Sometimes very quickly. As soon as the conversation is “Hi my name is, I’m 14 years or 13 years old and the gentlemen will then say “Look at this” and send you a picture or say something else. And that would be a crime right there.

While just setting up a liaison online for sex with a minor is illegal, a face-to-face meeting obviouslyposes a much greater danger. We wanted to know if most predators were all talk or would they really attempt to meet a child in person.

"Dateline" set up in an upscale home in a suburb of Washington, D.C., and were ready and waiting for the knock on the door.

The men come knocking at our door
A lovely home in Virginia just outside of Washington D.C. has become the secret meeting place for potential Internet sex predators. It’s rigged with nine hidden cameras, three with views outside, one pointed at the garage and five inside the house. 

Several volunteers from Perverted-Justice, the group dedicated to catching Internet predators, are in chat rooms posing as 12, 13 and 14-year-olds ready to make a date for sex with men they meet online.

A 39-year old Frag (his screenname), who has been a Perverted-Justice volunteer for more than two years, is posing as a 13-year-old girl in a Yahoo chat room set up for Virginia residents. It’s a chat room not intended for romantic or sexual conversations.

As “Dateline” cameras roll, the undercover operatives enter chat rooms. They are quickly inundated with adults wanting to talk.

There’s a 46-year-old who calls himself “the-sphinx59.” He thinks he’s talking to a 12-year-old girl named Sarah.  It takes him only four minutes of chatting online to ask her, “Are you a virgin?” 

She says she is and then he asks if she’s ever performed oral sex. In this case as in many other men’s chats, things get much more graphic and disgusting.

Del, Perverted-Justice volunteer: As those boundaries are crossed in a lot of ways, the chat tends to get a lot more explicit very quickly.

One man, screenname “va_male692005,” who’s 28 years old, thinks he’s talking to Erin, a 14-year-old. He asks her bra size, if she shaves anything other than her legs, and says “There’s just something about a teen body.”

In most cases, the men ask for pictures of the young teens and then send pictures of themselves. Sometimes after the chat turns sexual, the man turns on his Web cam and exposes himself. Several men go as far as sending pornographic pictures hoping to teach the inexperienced child about different sex acts.

Here in Virginia, as in many other states, it’s generally a crime to send children obscene material, even if it turns out the recipient is an adult posing as a child.

After chatting about having sex online, the decoy suggests a phone call.

23-year-old Del puts on her best “young girl” voice. She needs to verify that the man on the phone is the same man in the chat room.   

Del: The worst thing about doing verification calls is that you have to smile while you’re doing them so it sounds like it in your voice even though you don’t mean it.

She can also play the part of a young boy.

Once a predator has made it clear he wants sex with a minor, and makes a date for the liaison, the crime has already been committed. He doesn’t even have to show up.

But will he?

One man who came to the house, saw me and not a teen, realizes he’s made a big mistake, and runs for the door. Another guy also doesn’t stay long. He makes a beeline out to the garage, barely touches the stairs and with his arms flailing runs down the driveway and down the street. Clearly this man knows he’s done something wrong. So does yet another man. He also makes a run for it— but he didn’t come in a car, so he keeps running and running  presumably back to a bus station trying desperately to hide his face.

It may look funny, but what these men had in mind, based on their Internet chat, was anything but. They’ve come to this house after a sexual conversation online.

Remember “the_sphinx59”? He thinks the girl in the house is a 12-year-old virgin home alone and willing to perform oral sex, but like many other men you’ll meet, he’s in for a big surprise when I walk out. Some think I’m the child’s father, others apparently believe I am with law enforcement. One thing’s certain— none of them know our hidden cameras are recording their every move and they’ll be appearing on “Dateline.”

“The_Sphix59” is really Aladdin. He lied online about his age saying he was 35— he’s really 46, and instead of admitting he came here to meet a 12-year-old girl, he says he was there to look at real estate.

Aladdin goes on to say that his friend found our house for sale on the Internet and he just came to check it out for him. Later, he decides to come clean.

He tries to convince me that the girl, Sarah, is 18 years old even though his own words from his Web chat tell a different story.

Then Aladdin apparently begins to feel faint and lies down on the kitchen floor.

Our background research reveals that Aladdin is a waiter at a Holiday Inn. He says he’s an immigrant from Egypt who became a U.S. citizen two years ago.

You’ll here more apologies from Aladdin a little bit later. First, there are more men headed to our house. 

Meet “vamale692005,” who online said “There’s just something about a teen body.”  He’s 28 years old and thinks he’s talking to a 14-year-old. He’s actually chatting with this 23-year-old from Perverted-Justice.

"He was by far the worst guy I’ve ever talked to," says the Perverted-Justice volunteer.

What separated him from the run-of-the-mill computer predator? Bestiality. He chatted online for more than a week with our decoy— and slowly introduced more and more depraved sexual requests. He says he wants to use a dog.

A Perverted-Justice volunteer says that men like these test the waters, and when he they don't get negative reactions to their sexual suggestions, they feel comfortable to go further.

Was this all talk or would this man actually walk into our kitchen?

We saw him come through our door.

He’s more than just a lonely guy. We did a background check and it turns out his real name is Joe Wundaler, an army sergeant stationed at Fort Belvoir at the intelligence and security command.

True or not, remember this guy tried to entice a young teen into depraved sex acts and it only takes one visit to harm a child forever.

We set aside three days to see how many men would actually show up at our undercover house.  To keep track of our appointments, we set up a bulletin board. It didn’t take long to fill up our calendar.

Some came bearing gifts, like beer, condoms, and a pornographic tape. One man brought shoes and dinner— just what the decoy ordered. You may not think that’s significant, but Lt. Jake Jacoby who runs a child services unit in Virginia says during undercover stings, it can help get convictions.

Lt. Jacoby: At times when they show up, we like to have them either bring us something or do something so we can show that they’re doing specifically what we asked them to do.Hansen: Shows intent.Jacoby: It helps, yes.

The men who show up at this house looking for a liason with a child come from very different backgrounds. And as our investigation unfolds, you might be surprised at just how diverse our group gets. Some hold very prominent positions— more prominent than you’d ever imagine.

A diverse group of men
During our investigation, there is a parade of men walking up the driveway, through the garage, and into the house. We see 19 men in 3 days.

In almost every case, the man engaged in sexually explicit Internet conversations with a person posing as a young teen. And as you’ll hear later, most of them said they’d never done it before, and would never actually have sex with a minor.

And perhaps more shocking than the number of men is who they are. Our background checks uncover men leading double lives, men you would never suspect involved in this potentially illegal activity. 

A man letting himself into our house makes his living working with children— he’s a special education teacher. Del was posing as a boy the man’s expecting to meet.

The teacher, Steven Bennof, believes he has been chatting online about sex with a boy named Brandon who says he’s thirteen. And how old do you think the teacher is?  He’s 54 years old and married. When I confront him, at first he says he thought Brandon was an adult.

And the teacher knows this because Brandon told him online he was 13. 

While online, our 13-year-old decoy asked the teacher to bring condoms.  Did he?

And he wasn’t the only one not by a long shot. Surprisingly, there were many men with impressive resumes, men you would consider trustworthy.

A man with the screenname "Gbabbnsp" is an emergency room doctor. Dr. Jeffrey Beck, 50 years old, went to the house to meet a boy he thinks is 14 years old.

And then the emergency room doctor tries to follow him upstairs.

When I confront the doctor, he says he had no intention of having sex with the boy and that he only came because he felt badly for the teen who was left home alone.

During his online chat the doctor wasn’t as sexually explicit as many of the others who showed up. In fact, you’ll see he seemed to choose his words carefully. Below is part of the online chat.

But he does suggest getting physical. 

After talking about covering the teen with “hugs and kisses,” the 50-year-old says to the decoy who he thinks is 14, “I want to cuddle you and make you feel safe and loved and cared about.”

The doctor maintains he would never do anything illegal, but acknowledges a meeting like this could appear inappropriate.

What about another guy? A man in his position is just about the last person you’d expect to be showing up at our house.

It’s 4 a.m. in an AOL chat room. This 54-year old man screenname- “Redbd” messages a 13-year-old boy named Conrad saying, “I’m prowling for young men.”   What he goes on to say and the pictures he sends are so graphic we had to carefully edit them before putting them on television.

And as you’ll hear when we read from his chat log, it’s clear "Redbd" knows what he’s doing is wrong.

MadC Rad1992 - uhh yeaRedbd: That’s rapeMadC Rad1992- dood I tell you that beforeRedbd: Yes, I remember.MadC Rad1992- oh okRedbd: just you are sooo sooo youngRedbd: I've never been with a young man like youRedbd: but I would like to

While the two are chatting online, we conduct a background check and are absolutely shocked by what this man does for a living. And now he’s in our kitchen after making a date for sex with a boy he thinks is 13.

That’s right— a rabbi, the man who sent several pornographic pictures of himself is a man of God. He’s been a staff member of a Jewish organization that provides educational programs for Jewish high school students.

Hansen: Now presumably you counsel families and children in your position as a rabbi?Sure.Hansen: What are you doing as a man of God as a rabbi in this house trying to meet a 13-year-old boy?

Instead of answering, the rabbi asks to know who I am.  But before I tell him, I want to ask him about those pictures he sent.

Then we heard that familiar excuse...

Others were on the way, like "special guy29."

Earlier online he told our decoy, who was posing as a 14-year old-boy, that he is an 11th grade English teacher. Then he told the boy that he hates condoms but he’s safe.

Our decoy asks “specialguy29” to bring beer and then throws in a request— a technique often used by law enforcement to illustrate intent. He types “side garage is open, strip to your underwear and come in, I'll be in mine.”

The man says “I don’t wear underwear,”  so the decoy says “then come in naked.”

We never thought he’d really do it. But we were wrong. After casing our house, walking up and down the street—here he comes with the beer and you can guess what he does in the garage. He takes his clothes off.

The man’s name is John Kennelly. He tells me he is 29 years old and a bus driver. Then, he changes it to a teacher.

After doing a deeper background check on him, we found out he’s neither a teacher nor a bus driver— his father says he’s unemployed. And he’s not 29, he’s actually 43.

He says he knows it’s illegal but it appears that’s not enough to deter him.

Whether he needs psychiatric help or the hand of the law— he still might pose a threat to a child. But our encounter with Kennelly is far from over.

Like the men you’ve met so far, you’re about to see otherswho are quick to come up with a story when confronted by an adult ...

But what will they say when they find out they’re going to be appear on national television?

A lot of similar excuses
As the men approached our undercover house, hidden cameras rolled and kept rolling as I startled them and started asking questions. Just about everyone of them gave me the same story...

And some came up with more creative excuses.

This guy named Yonis says it’s all a case of mistaken identity.

Just about every man who walked into our house said he really wasn’t planning on having sex with a minor. But we’ll never know what would have happened had we not been there.  Still, none of what we heard surprisesLt. Jacoby of the Fairfax county police department here in Virginia. He says he’s heard it all before.

Hansen: “I’ve never done this before.”Lt. Jacoby: We’ve heard that one. That’s usually or probably not true.Hansen: “I’m here to protect them.”Jacoby: That’s probably one of the biggest ones we also get.Hansen: “I didn’t think I was actually talking to a minor.”Jacoby: Again that’s something that we’ve heard quite often from people.Hansen: How often do you think we’re being lied to when we hear those excuses?Jacoby: Usually about 100 percent of the time.

A powerful addiction
So why would a man with so much to lose risk everything to meet a child for sex? Dr. David Marcus, a clinical psychologist who treats men with sexual compulsions, says it’s a powerful addiction.

Dr. David Marcus, clinical psychologist who treats men with sexual compulsions: They don’t know what’s driving ‘em.  All they know is they’re being driven and they can’t stop.  And to risk themselves so greatly clearly shows how powerful a ride that is.Most guys don’t go on the Internet and say, “You know, I’m gonna decide to ruin my life today.”  Most guys go on and say, “I need something to make myself feel better.”  They’re not conscious of what they’re doing.

And Dr. Marcus says there are different reasons men choose to meet children for sex.

Marcus: Some, and this may be a minority, have a primary attraction to that age group. Others are looking for a situation where they can feel powerful, where they can, again, explore parts of themselves and try to do things in a situation where there is a power differential.

Whatever power they thought they had, it’s lost as soon as they see me, and now they’re about to learn I’m not a parent or the police. 

Whatever power they thought they had, it’s lost as soon as they see me... And now they’re about to learn i’m not a parent or the police. 

All the men found out the meeting was all being taped for the record— and for broadcast on "Dateline." You might think being caught on tape would be enough to deter these men from ever entering a chat room again... Maybe not. 

You might think being caught on tape would be enough to deter these men from ever entering a chat room again, but wait until you see what “specialguy29” is up to next.

You might think that a 43-year old man, who walked into our house naked ready to meet a 14-year old boy for sex, would be so humiliated after being caught literally with his pants down that he’d never try again. Yet we find him right back on line... in a chat room the very next day.

Hansen: How can we be certain that this guy in this chat room is the same guy who walked into this house last night naked?Frag, Perverted-Justice volunteer: Same identical screenname he got busted on last night on “specialguy29.”Del, Perverted-Justice volunteer: He’s changed nothing.

He is spotted by a Perverted-Justice volunteer who is posing as a 13-year-old boy. 

Frag: He just checked the kids pic.

Even these Perverted-Justice veterans find what’s happening hard to believe.

Del: If he keeps talking then that’s just gonna be beyond comprehension.

Yet he does keep talking... and again the chat quickly turns sexual. And believe it or not, again, he agrees to yet another date for sex.  Our decoy asks if he wants to meet at McDonalds.

Hansen: What do you suppose the odds are that a guy like that would agree to another meeting?Frag: I would have said zero last night after watching what happened.

Well, “specialguy29” defies the odds and agrees to meet, but first he confirms the meeting is not about food.

Frag: He really wanted to make sure it was about sex.

Sure enough we see him at the pre-arranged McDonalds.

He later changes his story.

The man admits he knows what he’s doing is illegal.

As incredible as this looks, that a man would do this twice in two days, Lt. Jacoby isn’t all that surprised.

"If you look at the Internet and the amount of people who are soliciting these type of crimes, your chances of getting caught are probably fairly slim," says Lt. Jacoby.

Maybe that’s why so many of the men who visited our house walked in so confidently, almost like they owned the place. Remember Rabbi David Kaye?

Despite his actions, caught on hidden camera, and his graphic Internet exchange, Rabbi Kaye called us several times claiming he did nothing wrong. We gave him several opportunites to speak to us on-camera but he declined. 

He also had no comment about this picture “Dateline” found while investigating the rabbi’s background. It shows Kaye in a group photo including two other rabbis caught and convicted of soliciting a child for sex on the Internet.

Hansen: Do you ever think to yourself, “I can’t believe how many people are out there.”Jacoby: It’s overwhelming at times.

What happened after Dateline's first report? 
As they always do, Frag and Del, volunteers from Perverted-Justice turned over all of their online evidence, from the pornographic photos to the online chats, to law enforcement.

Just last week Lt. Jacoby’s detectives brought “Specialguy29,” the man who stood naked in our kitchen, in for questioning.  They also executed a search warrant for evidence in his car and home. They seized a computer and other property. Charges have not yet been filed.

Since some of the men were in the Army and Navy, Del contacted the military. "Dateline" was told that those men are under investigation.

The prosecutor in Fairfax county told “Dateline” he expectsto bring three or four cases—men caught in our investigation—to the grand jury on Monday but won’t confirm which ones.

Just days before our report aired last month, the rabbi resigned his staff position informing his employer he was going to be featured in this “Dateline” story.  Because the rabbi lives in Montgomery County Maryland, Fairfax shared information about him with the police in that county and he is currently under investigation.

The Army told “Dateline” that the military man who tried to entice a minor into depraved sexually acts is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation.

And the Navy says it is investigating a man, a chief petty officer with the screenname “photofrog1962.” He said a few times in his chat that he wasn’t coming for sex, but he also asked the decoy to shower with him, masturbate, and asked if she wanted to be his “first.” He also wanted her to model for him.

A naval spokesperson said “photofrog1962” may have had other online conversations with minors but it is not known if the chats were sexual.

As we reported earlier, the Fairfax County police notified the school where the special education teacher worked and he was fired.

As for the ER doctor, on the day our story aired his hospital privileges were suspended and he was also fired.

"Dateline" has learned that this man who had recently become a U.S. citizen went back to Egypt. 

Perverted-justice put all the men’s pictures and entire chat logs including their phone numbers on 

Frag, Perverted-Justice volunteer: We have over 20,000 members now in our forums, do their work, whatever they want to do. A lot of them will contact whoever is associated with that person.

Usually that means the man’s employer, relatives and neighbors. Members will direct them to the chat logs and other evidence on Perverted-Justice’s Web site hoping to keep men like these from harming children.

But in the end, most experts agree—it’s really up to parents to keep children safe from online predators.

What can parents do?
"If the technology is in your house, it’s a parents responsibility to protect their child," says Michelle Collins from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. She adds that the problem is so widespread your child could be a victim and you don’t even know it.

Michelle Collins, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children: If there are phone calls arriving at your house that you don’t know the person on the other end of the line. Is your child or teenager receiving gifts? Do they have a Web cam in their room that you didn’t buy?Hansen: These are all warning signs?Collins: These are all the things that happen quite frankly in the many cases that we view and that we work with law enforcement on.

Collins says it’s important for all of us parents to make certain computers are in open areas of our homes— not in kids bedrooms. We should know who their children are talking to online and Web cams.

Collins: A problem we’ve been seeing recently are Web cams. Many kids are finding themselves in problematic situations after having used a Web cam. A combination of too much privacy, too much technology at a sexually curious age can really spell disaster.

Child safety experts agree it’s important for parents to use parental controls available through Internet providers and check into blocking software that prevents a child from giving out personal information. 

And Collins has one other piece of advice:

Collins: The one single most important piece of advice to give to parents is to keep the communication lines open with your kids. If something happens online, it’s more important that an adult finds out about it than the child try to handle it on their own, because those cases don’t always end well.