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Reflections on 'To Catch a Predator'

After 10 investigations, Dateline's Chris Hansen talks about what goes on behind-the-scenes, the feedback, the criticism— and why it's important.

We’ve been doing these investigations for almost three years and I’ve interviewed more than 200 potential sex predators from all walks of life and all ages.

In the beginning, I had no idea what to expect. I remember the first day of the first investigation. I had heard about Perverted Justice.  I’d heard about their work in the chat rooms posing as a 12, 13 or 14-year-old kids.  But I honestly wondered if anybody would show up. 

Frag, Perverted-Justice: The producer and Chris kept asking, “Is anybody really gonna show?”  We knew it was gonna happen.  But it was that, “Are you sure this isn’t a waste of time?”  and you know, of course people showed up.

When this first guy was walking up the driveway and it became clear that he was actually going to come in the house, my heart is almost beating out of my chest. And I’m short of breath.

With each guy who came in, you know I got a little better at asking the right questions. 

I wondered, quite honestly, whether or not everybody would just see me and run. Not because they knew I was Chris Hansen with Dateline NBC, but you know whether it was a father who came home unexpectedly or was it the police?

But it turned out most of the guys stayed and chatted.

During that first day of that first investigation we had something like eight guys come in.  And it was almost as if they were coming on the hour every hour.  And it was difficult to keep up because I didn’t have it down to a system then.

So I’d be looking at one transcript thinking, "This was the guy who was coming in".  And I’d go to confront him in the kitchen, and I’d say;

Hansen: You came here for Rachel?Steve: No.Hansen: Jocelyn?Steve: No.Hansen: Laurie?Steve: No.

It turned out it was the wrong transcript.  I had to go back to the dining room and get the transcript.

Hansen:  It was for Beth.Steve: Yes.

And say, “Oh, you were here for the 14-year old girl.”  He goes, “Oh, yeah, yeah, that was me.” And continue on from there.

Del: I was the first decoy we ever used in ‘To Catch A Predator.’ When I had joined Perverted-Justice I had come onboard as a contributor in February of 2004.  And about a week later I got a phone call from Frag saying, “Hey, could you come up to New York this weekend?” And I showed up at the house and the producer took one look at me and asked, “So you’ll also be the physical decoy for this operation?” And I said, “Yeah, sure.”  So suddenly I was playing male and female and ages 10 to 15 and every ethnicity in-between.

Eddie was a classic. When Eddie shows up, he has this long, tense drawn out conversation between Del, posing as the teenage girl, whose standing next to me. 

Del: And I’m looking at Chris like “What do I do?”  And Chris you know tells me spin it out a little bit.  You know those little hand motions. 

And so finally he comes in and then I approach him. He tells me he’s a television producer.  And, at that moment—it was kind of a breakthrough for me because you know you’re always walking a fine line.  You want to be serious.  It’s a very serious topic.  But you can also be clever about the way you ask the questions.

Hansen (footage): Where are you a television producer?Ed: I work independently right now.Chris: Yeah, you know it’s ironic because I work in television too, with Dateline NBC. 

And right there, there was a flicker in his eye when he recognized either my face or my voice, and he realized what he was in for. 

Eddie: I haven’t done anything wrong at all. If you go into the transcripts.Hansen: I’ve read all the transcripts.Eddie: Everything that was said..Chris: (reads transcript) "Picture this: Picture this you lying back I straddle your chest." It sounds like you’re looking to have a sexual experience with this girl Rachel who you were talking to on the Internet. I don’t know what other conclusion you can draw.Eddie: You can search me for a condom I don’t have one on me. I wouldn’t have sex without one. Besides she’s supposedly a virgin so she’s never had sex anyway so you wouldn’t want to be the first (laughs)Chris: It kind of sounds like you might have been excited about the the fact that she was a virgin in here.Eddie: No, I don’t think so. you don’t see that in there.  And in fact all you see is just little test scenarios.

He then tells me then he thinks it’s great what we’re doing. 

Eddie: I’m very interested in your story I think it’s a great thing that you’re doing. I think uh its something that you should certainly do more and more of and bag people left and right.

The very first investigation I thought was pretty slick.  I mean we had 5, 6, cameras.  And they set up a mini control room in  like a little back room in the house.  And they’re all huddled in there with the monitors. 

Frag: Very first thing was quite an experience.  It was a lot different than they are anymore.  Dell and I were stuck in the corner of a stairwell-Del: Of the house we went from Frag and I being perched on a single desk in a hallway at the top of the staircase— to having an entire room set aside where we’ve got out Web cams up, and we’ve got our phones verifiers in position.  And we’ve got all these new technologies that we’re using.   And Frag’s gone from having a hallway window to look out of, to having something like 7 monitors pyramided around him. Frag: It was quite exhilarating that it worked out and that they showed up.  And that, you know, we got to expose it on national TV.

Every time I think that I’ve seen it all, something else happens.

When a guy walks into this house naked, I mean, nobody ever taught me in journalism school that you had to put a towel or a blanket nearby to hand to a naked man so he could cover up, so you could interview him. 

But when that same guy, John Kennelly, surfaces in a chat room the very next day, and agrees to meet another young boy at a fast food restaurant, and we confront him again, it was hard for me to assemble to words to approach him.

The other naked guy
Another surprise was in Ft. Myers. It’s late at night on a Saturday.  And we’re expecting this guy to show up.  He has had a conversation with the decoy posing as a 13 year old girl. He wants her to do this bizarre sex act involving a cat, her cat, and cool whip.  I’ll just leave it at that.  She says she’ll consider it if he’ll strip naked when he walks in the house.

But you never really think somebody’s gonna do this.  But, sure enough, there he is— Marvin Lakhan. And this guy moving so quickly, naked, coming through our living room, that the decoy barely makes it into the room and closes the door where I’m standing, where we have monitors, security and cameramen.

And I start going through the chat log with him. And he thinks it’s funny.  And I think it’s somewhat nervous laughter. 

Would you ever think that would have happened before seeing one of these investigations?  I wouldn’t.

Frag: In the very first operation we did with Dateline in Long Island, the most memorable person that I was chatting with happened to be a person who turned out to be a New York City firefighter, Ryan Hogan.  The interesting thing about Hogan was that for a while he was—he was just about off the hook.  He drove by the house and he got scared to come in because there was a Nassau County Sheriff’s car parked next door at this real estate office. And at the time we weren’t working with law enforcement.  That just happened to be that there was a marked unit next door unrelated.  And he actually then started talking to me, going, “Oh, I knew it was a setup.  I knew it was a sting.” But later that day he got back home and I was able to maintain my persona. 

He gets back on the computer, turns on his Web cam, and masturbates in front of someone posing as a young teenage girl.  That’s what got him into trouble.

Since he never came into the house, I tracked him down outside the fire house where he worked.

Frag: He was charged and convicted in federal court because of him getting back on, getting comfortable, and exposing himself to who he believed was a child.

The doctor
In a nice Petaluma neighborhood, this 48-year-old doctor, name Maurice Wollen, had been chatting online with the decoy posing as a 13 year old girl.  And it was pretty graphic.  I mean there was no mistaking what he had in mind.

So he comes in, and he’s clearly nervous. But there’s a bit of a conversation between the actress portraying the young teen and the doctor.  And my gut was I thought that this was gonna be one of those situations where the chat would continue between the actress and the doctor, and I would come out.  And he would probably be one of those guys to stay and talk to me.

But as he’s standing at the bar, you can tell he’s nervous.  He goes to pour himself a drink and it comes out a big clump, and it spills all over the place.  And now he’s all flustered.

So he’s looking for something to wipe up the mess.  So, by this point, the actress is around the corner standing next to me, next to the sound man, next to the cameraman. Dr. Wollen comes around the corner and sees the sound man, and there’s eye contact there.  And he freaks a bit.  And I start to come out, I said, “You know, excuse me, I just would like to talk to you for a minute.” And he says something to the effect—“No, I’ve gotta go.”  And he hot foots it through the garage.  And of course he’s met by Petaluma Police.  And he knows that he’s in trouble.

With police, he talks, says he doesn’t want to talk.  Talks some more. He gets on the phone, calls his wife.

The man who brought his son
The probably the most unsettling thing that I’ve seen, and we’ve seen a lot of unsettling things in these investigations.  But when we were wrapping up our investigation.  It was towards the end of the investigation, Fort Myers, Florida.  A man showed up for a sexual encounter with at 14-year-old boy and we’re watching on the monitors.

And he gets out and he goes to the passenger’s side rear door.

And leads him by the hand, as if you were taking him to the zoo. And walks in to meet this teenage boy with his son.  The house was silent.

There were guys in tears. I don’t want to confront this guy in front of his 5-year-old kid.  I don’t want to traumatize him further.

He walks out of the scene, police arresting him. And sweeping this 5-year-old boy off his feet.  It was tough to watch.  It was very tough to watch.

Frequent viewer question 1: Are these investigations dangerous?

Viewers are always asking do I ever feel like I’m in danger... We’ve had guys who talk in their chats about how they never go anywhere without a gun. That makes me nervous.  

The police arrested a guy before he came into the house.  And in fact, we found out later that the guy had a shotgun in his car.  And we find out that he was a Marine sniper.

I think the most well-known, the most remembered person to surface in one of these investigations is Rabbi David Kay.

The rabbi has sent a couple pictures of himself naked, one of him engaging in oral sex with another man.  He sort of comes at me because he wants the picture.  He’s not even thinking that we could have a million copies of it already.

It’s at that point that Ron Knight our security man, steps in, and he leaves.  That was tense, but at the moment, I really didn’t think I was facing any great danger.

In Flagler Beach Florida, part of me thinks we dodged a bullet. This is one of those nights where everybody was pretty tired. So about 9:30 at night, we broke down.  And, of course about five minutes after we got back to the hotel, cell phones are going off.

So we scramble back into position.  And somewhere in this time period, we get an indication that he might be a police officer.

This means he might be carrying a weapon.  Which means it’s a better idea to have the police make a traffic stop.  And we can get the crews there very quickly afterwards.

So the police stop him.  And he identifies himself as a law enforcement officer.  They search him.  They find a .38 caliber pistol in his pocket.  In this car they find an assault riffle, a shotgun another handgun.  Hundreds of rounds of ammunition.  Bullet proof vests.  A still camera and a video camera among—assorted other items. I realized, at that moment, that I could have been standing there in this house, confronting a man who had a loaded gun in his pocket. I wonder what this guy would have done had there really been a young teenage girl home alone. What was he gonna do with the video camera, the still camera?

Who knows what would have happened to a young girl.  I wonder what would have happened had there been a confrontation. How does he react?  That’s why we try to take all the precautions we can. 

Now, he’s out on bail and has pleaded not guilty. His attorney says he always carries those weapons because he’s a police officer.

Frequent viewer question #2: Is it entrapment?
We’ve gotten hundreds of emails from viewers asking, "Is this entrapment?"

Ken Lynch: Okay. Entrapment is basically a defense when a normally law-abiding person is induced to commit a crime that they wouldn’t otherwise do because of police behavior.  In our situation, first of all, there was no police conduct.  So, there is no entrapment.Mike Burns, Darke County Sheriff's department: How can it be entrapment when you set up a profile, you present it with illicit things about it, strictly innocent, and they contact you?  And they are the ones that begin talking about wanting to have sexual encounters with you.  They initiate it.  Because they get caught once they’ve initiated it is not an entrapment issue.

Frequent viewer question #3: Why don’t you ever catch women?

Del, Perverted-Justice: One of the questions that we get asked more than any other question is, “Why don’t you guys bust women?”  And it’s not for lack of (laughter) trying.  It’s not like we’re out there with just girls. We’ve got boys, we’ve got everything ,  but women just generally aren’t Internet predators.  In terms of just a woman of her own accord hitting on one of our kids, we just haven’t had it happen.The closest we’ve ever come to catching a woman was in Georgia. She told a Perverted-Justice decoy she was going to come with her boyfriend for group sex - the woman chatted on the phone with the decoy named Erin.Del: And we’re like, “oh there is a woman.” And she has this conversation.  And she was gonna come with Marvin. And Marvin ended up showing up for the girl. But, the woman Phyllis, didn’t come.  And the police, I believe, are actually still trying to figure out whether or not they’re going to arrest her or not. 

The man has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

Frequent viewer question #4: Why keep doing these investigations?

I think we’re covering a continuing story. And this problem isn’t going away.  You know, we’ve done 10 investigations so far.  And I’ll bet you that we could walk into virtually any town in America and do it again.

When we catch somebody who has committed a sexual assault in the past, especially when you talk about the sexual assault of a child, to me, I think that’s satisfying to expose somebody like that.

In the one case in Ohio, Kevin Westerbeck, there was a frustrated detective chasing this case for a couple of years. He sexually assaulted a young female relative, who had sought his company in the middle of the night because she was afraid as a thunderstorm was coming.  And it wasn’t until Westerbeck surfaces in our investigation that he ultimately pleads guilty in this earlier case.

Thomas Bodner - some 20 years ago, it turns out, he sexually assaulted three children in one family. And here he is, in our hidden camera house, and he makes a run for it and the police arrest him.

And we tracked one of the victims down, who lived in Alaska.  And she tells a heartbreaking story about what happened to her and her two brothers. It turns out that after serving prison time in that case, he was caught again, Santa Barbara, California, charged with the sexual assault  goes back to prison.  And then here he is, out again, here to meet someone who he thought was a young teenage boy.

He’s pleaded not guilty is in jail waiting for his day in court

Rod Pacheco, Riverside County District Attorney: The Bodner case involves the possible sentence of 25 years to life, because it’s a three-strikes case.  We intend to seek that sentence.  What that means is, he will take his last breath in prison. 

Where are they now?
I’m always asked are these men getting convicted and sent to prison? Of the more than 200 men charged in our investigations, not one man has been let off. In every case the man has either pleaded guilty, been convicted at trial or the case is pending.

Rabbi David Kay was indicted, facing federal charges. He requests a bench trial in federal court, in other words, no jury.  He just goes before a federal judge.  The case is heard.  He’s convicted, sentenced to six and a half years in federal prison, partly because, the judge said,  the rabbi lied when he testified in his own defense that he really didn’t think there was a 13-year-old boy home alone.

Burns:  In Greenville, Ohio, 18 of the men were arrested.  Out of those 18, 17 have already been—to court and found guilty.  But, two of ‘em went to trial.With Rob Klein, when we were at trial with him, his main issue was “Hey, I drove there.  I even stopped down at the church and tried to debate whether I should come to the house or not.”  The jury felt if you were really thinking of abandoning it from the church, you would have gone home. 16 men out of the 18 have been sentenced.The 17th one is still to be sentenced sometime in April.  Sentencing on these 16 men have ranged anywhere from 30 days in the local jail to 11 months in prison.In Ken Westerbeck’s case, he was given 11 months. In another county right next to us, he had received a 10-year sentence for actually rape. When the judge sentenced him in ours, he took his sentence and ran it concurrent. I was mad. Why did our sentence run concurrent?  You know, why didn’t it run consecutive?  Why should this guy be turned back out?  Why is just 11 years enough? Why shouldn’t it be 12?  Pacheco: In Riverside County 51 men were arrested.  They were all charged.  They are all being prosecuted with the exception of 17 who have pled guilty. We didn’t offer any plea bargains to any of these individuals; no deals whatsoever.                         

The two longest sentences:  One was given to Daniel Allen.  The other one was given to Hoi Chen.  They were both three years in state prison.  They got the longest sentences because the judges in their case, realized the incredible harm that could have occurred.  And so, they got the sentences that they deserved.   And quite frankly, all of ‘em deserved those sentences.

Pacheco: The Walter Babst case involves a teacher from Corona who pled straight up at trial. He decided to plead; throw himself on the mercy on the court.  He’s pending sentencing.  That’s coming up in April.There’s the Homeland Security agent.  I think that case will go to trial.  And there are  well. What they’re going to argue?  I have no idea.  I would imagine that they’re gonna talk about entrapment.  But once people see those communications—those written communications, between the defendant and what appeared to them to be an underage child and then they see the interviews—done by Dateline, I can’t imagine anybody being successful at trial. Lynch: In Long Beach, California 35 men were arrested. 18 so far have pled guilty and the remaining 17 are still fighting it out in court.

Our standard offer on the case was essentially 18 months in state prison.  None of the defendants have accepted our offer of state prison.  They have fallen on the mercy of the court.  And in those cases that have put out, basically the judges have given a probationary sentence.

A lot of these guys are getting straight probation  and no time. But they are having to register sex offenders, which is a good thing.

Lynch: I can’t demand a judge to give a guy state prison.  I can only ask for it.  That’s their role to determine what the sentence should be.Mike Jolley, Harris County Sheriff: 20 people actually showed up in Harris County to meet with a person they thought would be 15 or younger. Out of those 20, at this point, to date, we’ve had 14 go to court, and plead guilty in our supreme court of Georgia to criminal acts. The sentences range  anywhere from ten years with 2 years to serve, with the remaining eight years being on probation, all the way up to six years to serve, with 25 years being put on probation.  Mr. Restocruz, he was the military member.  He actually got 5 years the balance of 25 years on probation. I would like to think Georgia has been tougher in sentencing than most States, because we’re looking out for our kids.  We’re very conservative in the South.  We put a big value on family.  And for that reason, we’re looking out for our children.

When we began our investigations into online sexual predators, you know, we knew it was an important story. We knew it would be eye opening.  We knew people would say, “Oh, my gosh.  This is really going on.”  But, I had no idea that this thing would resonate with people the way it has.

Once I appeared on Oprah, that changed everything.  We’re talking about a woman here, who herself was victimized by sexual abuse.  And, so when she gets onboard, it makes a real difference. When she weighs in on something, you know, she’s got a loyal, educated viewing audience that pays attention. And, it makes a difference.

I was invited to testify in front of a Congressional Subcommittee in Washington. I think they found it eye opening, and I think it had impact.  And, I believe ultimately it will strengthen laws governing this sort of activity on the internet. 

Being on Oprah and testifying in front of Congress brought a lot of awareness to the issue and so has all the spoofs that have been done.

We also got a call from the Conan O’Brien folks proposing to be a part of a skit for the opening of the Emmy Awards.

I think it was funny in a way where, you know, we didn’t show any disrespect for law enforcement or for people who have been victimized by this crime.

There have been spoofs on "Saturday Night Live," and "Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip." I got a call from the folks at 30 Rock asking me to do a cameo appearance as myself. Essentially the main character’s—boyfriend goes into the kitchen to get something to eat and Tina Faye is flipping through the channels, and “To Catch a Predator” comes on. And, there’s the boyfriend walking into the house with balloons.

It’s amazing to me when you go to YouTube or some of these other sites, you know, where people post these videos that they make, how many parodies are out there.  They take a lot of time to create, and some of them are pretty darn clever.

There are people who have taken issue with what we do. They say perhaps we shouldn’t expose the problem as much as we have, or in the manner we have.  But the vast majority of people stop me to talk about the story and thank me.

I decided to write a book because I felt there were aspects of this crime that could be better explored in a book form. 

After I met Darlene Calvin on the Oprah Winfrey show, I knew that she had to be in the book. What happens to the wives and the children of these predators once they’re caught?

It turns out that her ex-husband was secretly a member of NAMBLA, the North American Man/Boy Love association. 

Darlene Calvin: When I see Chris doing one of his catch predator shows, my first thought is, “Wow, somebody is  going to have to tell his wife.”  I know what that feels like.  And, that—and, it hurts—and, it stinks.   Nobody really thinks about the predator’s wife or the predator’s children, the predator’s best friend, the predator’s next door neighbor. And, these are all people, who have been betrayed.  And, these are all individuals, who have to go through their own shock and grief, and anger, and regrouping, and moving on.

As we’ve seen in our investigations, there is a wide range of opinion when it comes to sentencing and treatment for potential predators, sex offenders.  I met a man named Bob Shilling who has one of the most unique points of view when it comes to this issue.

Bob Shilling: I spent four years of my life being sexually abused. And it was one of the most painful times of my life.

He later became a police officer in Seattle. And he was approached by the chief to work in the division investigating sex crimes against children.  And at first, he didn’t want to face what had happened to him as a kid.

Shilling, former victim, and now Seattle police officer: And unfortunately my mother walked in one time when it was happening and she turned around and walked out. That was the low point in my life. Because, I thought, “My God if my own mother doesn’t even know how to protect me, how am I going to protect myself?” So, I can assure you that I have no love for sex offenders. But through my years of being a law enforcement officer, I know what works. Treatment works. Making sure that these offenders have jobs, making sure that they have places to live.

But of course not everyone agrees with him.

Rod Pacheco, Riverside California district attorney: Counseling doesn’t help at all.  And this is an irresistible impulse that these individuals cannot control, and have no desire to control.  Counseling is therapy, giving them a hug, isn’t gonna help these guys.Shilling: I am a absolute firm believer in strict punishment, getting them treatment and then letting them get on with their life when they come out. Knowing who the are, watching them, making sure that they are held accountable, but let them get on with their life.

I have looked into the eyes of more than 200 of these. And I have read every word of every chat log these guys have generated.  And it has given me a unique perspective on this problem, and I thought it was important to share that experience with people.