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Inside Dateline: Lake Huron mystery

May 12, 2006 |

Lake Huron mystery

Dateline NBC's Chris Hansen

One of the great things about reporting for Dateline is that you have the opportunity to spend an entire hour on one subject. And when that subject is an unsolved mystery, there’s a good chance someone will see that story, come forward and provide new information that could help find the truth. This is precisely what happed after on two young lawyers who went on a Northern Michigan boat trip that ended in tragedy.

Lana Stempien and Chuck Rutherford were young, successful and at least on the surface seemed to be in love. Lana, a striking blond who owned her own powerboat was experienced on the water. She and Chuck shared a lot of time on the vessel “Sea’s Life” and so it was no surprise that the couple decided to take the boat from the Detroit area to Mackinac Island, a popular vacation spot.

But something happened along the way that would leave Lana dead, Chuck missing and the “Sea’s Life” bobbing in the choppy waters of Lake Huron with it’s engine running and radio still playing. As a boater and someone who grew up in Michigan, I was instantly interested in the story.

Since we first broadcast our story last January new witnesses have come forward and new leads are being followed. The story prompted two sisters to contact us. They now say they saw Lana’s boat around the time the she and Chuck first went missing. This is critical because it will now allow authorities to have a better idea where to search for clues.

You’ll hear from the sisters now for the first time as they, and other witnesses, help us to find out what really did happen to Lana and Chuck.

The family of Lana Stempien is still convinced that someone may have seen something else that could solve the mystery of her death and help find her boyfriend Chuck Rutherford.  Phone number: (906) 643-7582 or (800)793-1883

Start here, and scroll below for the updates. The postings are meant to coincide with what's on TV.

May 10, 2006 |

There are always surprises in 'Predator' investigations (Chris Hansen, Dateline Correspondent)

It is without a doubt the most elaborate undercover house we’re ever had. 13 hidden cameras record every move our visitors make, from the moment they drive down the street, until they come face to face with me and then, later are arrested by Ft. Myers police after leaving the house. It’s a good thing too we had all those cameras and angles, because based on the characters who showed up, you wouldn’t want to miss a second of what happened.

9:03 p.m.
The first man you'll meet tonight comes to our house to be with a 15-year-old girl named Jolanda he thought he had met online. Jolanda was really a decoy from the online watchdog group Perverted Justice. 49-year-old Michael Wilusz makes himself right at home. There are freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies on the counter where the decoy asks Wilusz to wait. He picks one up and starts eating it. I am consistently surprised by how some of these men react when instead of meeting a teen they meet me.  Take Wilusz for instance. In his online chat,  he talks about how young girls like Jolanda don't come along often and how they'd have to keep their relationship a secret because of their age difference. When I confront him though he makes it sound like he was just there for the cookies, tosses one of them onto the table and says he's leaving for the beach. As you are about to see however, Wilusz won't be getting much sun on this day.

9:10 p.m.
It is not easy for a lot of these men to travel from where they live to our undercover house. Here in Florida we see guys who go to great lengths to meet a teenage girl or boy. David Schumacher dupes his sister into driving him to our house after he has a sexually charged conversation with someone who told him she was a 14-year-old girl. The whole time you are watching me talk to Schumacher, his sister is waiting in the driveway with two kids in the car. It turns out Schumacher apparently doesn't drive himself much any more. He's already been convicted of leading police on a chase while driving a stolen car. He's also been convicted twice of battery, most recently in January. While I am talking to him though, I know none of this. He does mention later that he's familiar with law enforcement. He turns out to be one of the chattiest guys we've ever met.

In fact, as you're about to see, he never stops talking. And wait until you see how he reacts when I tell him I'm with Dateline. It's a television first for us.

9:26 pm.
This is the fifth state in which we've conducted a computer predator investigation. I started to wonder if at some point what we found would all start to look the same or sound the same. Not even close. In Florida there are a lot of firsts. An eerie scene plays out at about four o'clock on a Saturday morning. 44-year-old Thomas Moffit has driven across the state to meet a girl named Toni who told Moffit she was 15.  Moffit isn't rushing into anything. He waits in his car, which he has pulled around to the back of his house. He finally gets out and walks to the back door. His face is intense. He's now talking to an actress we hired to portray the 15-year-old girl who's home alone and waiting for his visit. Moffit seems suspicious. He says he's just being cautious. It's as tense in the driveway as it is behind the scenes in the house. You see, earlier Moffit was chatting online and received a phone call from a Perverted Justice decoy acting as a 15 year old. Now he senses that maybe that person and our actress are two different people, which is actually the case. Moffit wants to see some identification. Our actress has to improvise. She offers to go get her library card, but when she can't come up with one, the man refuses to come in the house. Instead he tries to convince the girl to get in his car and drive to Walgreens to get ice for his Dr. Pepper. When she says no, Moffit starts to leave and is arrested by police.

9:39 p.m.
Tonight as you watch, you'll likely notice that the police arrests or take-downs if you will, seem to be more forceful than in our previous two investigations where police were set up nearby.

I asked Ft. Myers Police Chief Hilton Daniels about this. Daniels told me that the more physical methods were necessary for a couple of reasons. One is that in Florida it is easier than in some other states to legally purchase and carry a concealed weapon. Daniels didn't want his officers taking any chances.

It's interesting that this crossed my mind even before we set up in Ft. Myers. I had worked as a reporter in Tampa many years ago and remembered that buying and possessing a handgun was simpler here. The chief also said he was concerned about some of these men getting away and perhaps entering a nearby house.

As concerned as they were for their own safety and the safety of those nearby, I also saw the police show restraint. When a deaf man showed up for instance, officers knew he would not hear them as they shouted orders. They altered their techniques. And when a man shocked us all by bringing his 5-year-old son along as he came to meet someone who said he was a 14-year-old boy, officers tried not to traumatize the boy. The man was in fact arrested, but his son was swept up by a female officer and taken away so he wouldn't further witness what was happening to his dad. The boy's mother was called at work and she came to the police station and picked him up.

9:50 p.m.
It's been another startling investigation into online predators. Exhausting and fascinating at the same time. Next week, we'll have more from Ft. Myers, Fla. Trust me, you haven't seen it all.

May 10, 2006 |

Unforgettable scenes in Ft. Myers, Florida: One potential predator who demands an ID card from our decoy, and the other who brought his young son (Chris Hansen, Dateline correspondent)

Ft. Myers, Fla. is the fifth location in our "To Catch A Predator" series. In spite of all of the startling men and situations we've encountered in our past investigations, this was like being in a cyber Twilight Zone.

We were set up in a beautiful brick home on one of the city's finest streets. Decoys from the online watchdog group Perverted-Justice posed as young teens in local chat rooms for several days. The Ft. Myers Police Department set up its operation in a nearby guesthouse. On Friday morning, we already had a long list of potential predators scheduled to visit.  But even we were not prepared for some of the men who showed up over the next three days.

There were some very intense scenes: A 44-year old man named Charles Moffit showed up at almost 4 a.m.. By day he's a maintenance engineer at a swanky Boca Raton resort. He's married with 3 children. He's driven more than two hours to meet a girl who told him she was 15. Online he asked the decoy if she "Would you ever fool around with an old guy like me?" Then he says: "How bout after I come in, I strip?"

But later, Moffit is cautious. At first, he doesn't even get out of his car. When he finally walked up to the back door, he talked with the actress we hired to pose as the 15-year-old girl. The actress is not the same Perverted-Justice decoy Moffit had talked to on the phone earlier -- and he picks up on this. He tells our actress to get some proof that she is who she said she was. She offers to get a library card, but when she doesn't provide one, he starts to leave. A 30-minute encounter ends with Moffit being arrested by the Ft. Myers police.

But probably the most stunning sequence of events occurs when 40-year-old Clifford Wallach comes calling on a boy who said online he was 14 and was willing to participate in oral sex. We saw Wallach's car coming down our street through one of our hidden cameras mounted high up in a palm tree. It's a typical SUV, but Wallach is getting something out of the back seat. That something ends up being his 5-year-old son.

There was a collective gasp inside the house. Many of the people who work with me on these stories have been around the world. They've seen it all and done it all. No one was prepared for this. We immediately decide not to traumatize the boy by trying to do a lengthy interview with his father. Perverted-Justice called the nearby team of Ft. Myers police officers to tell them Wallach had brought his child along. They had already seen father and son approaching. When Wallach walked into the house, I told him who I am and what Dateline was doing.

As he and his son leave, a female officer scooped up the boy and took him to a police car. Wallach was arrested. The boy's mother was called at work and she quickly came to get her son at the police station. Some of the folks working in our house were in tears. We may never know exactly what Wallach's plan was— but no one who sees this video will ever forget it.

"To Catch a Predator" in Ft. Myers, Florida airs tonight on Dateline,  9 p.m.

Start here, and scroll below. The postings are meant to coincide with what's on TV.

May 3, 2006 |

Meet more of these men from Ohio (Chris Hansen, Dateline correspondent)

One of the most interesting things to watch in these investigations is the difference between what one of the potential predators says to me during my interview with him and what he says when the police interrogate him. Take Jay Reffner for instance. He’s a computer specialist at a university who shows up at our rural Ohio house after making a date to meet a 15-year-old girl who said she was a virgin. But instead of  meeting her,  I walk into the room. He’s sweaty, nervous and says he’s no pedophile. Later, when I ask him if he brought anything, he admits he has condoms with him. Moments after Reffner walks out of our undercover house he’s arrested. And it’s not until then that we find out some very interesting things about his background. He tells detectives his father is actually a police officer and his mother is a prosecutor in a nearby community. Reffner’s mother will actually represent him when he appears in court.

9:11 p.m.
Behind the scenes of our investigation in Greenville, Ohio it is the very definition of hurry up and wait. On Saturday, the second day in our undercover house, a nine hour period goes by with not one man showing up. We start to wonder if word has gotten out around town. It seems it has and about a dozen local men who had made dates to meet a teen are no shows. As it gets later in the evening, the men who had been chatting with Perverted-Justice decoys from farther away start to arrive and there is a steady flow of visitors again. Too steady. Once again we have men arriving at the same time. In one case one guy leaves the front door and is arrested just as another man is walking in the back door.

9:25 p.m.
There is one man who never actually made it to our house, but gets arrested anyway. This made for a pretty wild scene.  52-year-old Glenn Mitchell lives in Indiana and he was chatting on line with a decoy who said he was a teenage boy. There is an explicit conversation about sex and Mitchell says he’s going to drive to our location in rural Ohio. He gets close, but it’s late and dark. Del the Perverted Justice decoy talks to him several times on his cell phone and learns he’s having some trouble finding the place. As it ends up, Mitchell gets turned around and starts driving down the wrong side of a road. He gets stopped by police. Perverted Justice calls the sheriff’s deputies set up near our house and lets them know what’s going on. They call the officer who made the traffic stop and ask him to let Mitchell go. Perverted Justice thinks he still might come. It’s too late though. Mitchell is spooked and starts to head back to Ohio. It is not too late for police to have Mitchell arrested though. He’s picked up in Indiana on unrelated charges. Darke County, Ohio detectives get a warrant and search his home. They say they find material that indicates Mitchell might have been involved with minors in the past.