FRANKLIN COUNTY, Pa. -- Local vigilante groups trying to expose child predators are popping up all over the country, including our area. Police worry these groups could be a ticking time bomb.
Over the past couple of months, you might have seen stories FOX43 has done regarding alleged child sex predator exposed by civilians or “vigilantes.”
We wanted to find out: How often is it happening? Is it a real problem? Should parents be worried? And what do police think about all of this?
If you remember the hit show from the early 2000’s, To Catch A Predator, get ready for a blast from the past, sort of.
In case your memory needs a little refreshing, the series featured hidden cameras and investigators posing as underage children, trying to lure child sex predators, then confront them with police.
No, Chris Hansen isn't back. These groups do the same thing, only a little more aggressive, and blurry. There are no fancy cameras and no police. And it's not done inside a private home either. Just a few guys with Facebook Live, and some with a bullet-proof vest.
“We’re bridging that gap between police and citizens,” Chris Middlekauff, a vigilante, said.
But police had the same questions we had.
“Who are these people? What’s your motivation? Why are you doing this? Is it legal?” Chambersburg Police Chief, Ron Camacho asked.
The brains behind this operation is Brandi Lehrian.
“I want to catch these child predators that are online going after all of these small children,” Lehrian said.
Lehrian created the Facebook group, South Central PA Child Predator Exposure back in June after watching other groups on Facebook carry out these types of operations.
The idea is the same. Child sex predators are lured by people pretending to be juveniles and are later exposed on a live video via Facebook. The page has more than 3,500 likes.
“If we don’t do it, who else is going to do it? The police don’t have enough resources on hand to do this as much as we have been doing,” Lehrian said.
In addition to starting the page, Lehrian is also one of the decoys.
She pretends to be a 14 or 15-year-old girl on apps like Kik, Whisper, Meet Me, and Scout. She says she was given permission to use a picture of a younger looking girl, who she said, is actually 25-years-old.
“We don’t message them. We post ads on teen chat rooms. And we kind of just sit there and wait for them to come to us. And, ya know, we ask them first, ‘how old are you? where are you from?’ and then I’ll say, ‘I’m 15,’ right away we have to tell them we’re 15 or 14-years-old,” Lehrian said. “We don’t initiate for them to come meet. We don’t initiate the explicit chat that they talk about."
She uses a second phone to talk to these men.
“They'll say something sexual and I’ll say, ‘oh that’s cool,’ or ‘Oh I’ve never done that before,’ ya know type of thing, acting. I have to put myself down and act like a child,” Lehrian said.
After a meet up is planned, Lehrian contacts what she calls a “hunter.” That's where Chris Middlekauff comes in.
“And when they go meet, they meet me, instead of a 14 year old little girl,” Middlekauff said.
Since the page was founded, Lehrian and Middlekauff have only gone on a handful of exposures or "stings.” FOX 43 chose not to accompany them on any of their busts, but you can see one they posted on their page. After, Lehrian turns all of the information and evidence they've gathered over to police.
“The disgusting, vile things that these guys say, and the pictures that they send…there’s no way I want a 13 or 14-year-old child seeing that,” Middlekauff said. “No way.”
It all sounds righteous? Right? Let's go back to Chambersburg Police, who have been called twice to one of their exposures.
“Nothing that they’ve done so far that we’ve had contact with them is anything that we can prosecute,” Sgt. Jon Greenawalt, detective with Chamberburg Police, said. “By the criminal statues in Pennsylvania concerning unlawful contact with a minor, you have to be a minor, or a law enforcement officer acting as a minor.”
Obviously no one in this group is either of those things. But the Chief said there's an even bigger problem.
“It’s just not safe,” Chief Camacho said. “And that’s our main thing. And then you’re also taking up valuable time from us, because you’re trying to manufacture a crime that doesn’t exist. And then we have to come up and take our time to investigate this and see if this really occurred and it’s just not an efficient way of doing business.”
But both Lehrian and Middlekauff claim they've got some law enforcement on their side.
“They do tell us, ‘we don’t encourage what you’re doing’,” Middlekauff said. “Some of them are like, ‘I love what you’re doing. I wish we could help more. I wish there was something we can do but our hands are tied because of the laws'."
“A lot of them do, are glad that we do what we do, but they kind of have their hands tied,” Lehrian said. “The Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office have actually taken us with them for things of people that I have actually brought in. So they’re with us. We got the State Police in Chambersburg that’s with us.”
FOX43 asked State Police about it. They sent us the following statement:
“The State Police does not support this vigilante group and they have been told to cease what they are doing.
The State Police wants to remind vigilante groups like this one to not get involved and leave police work to the trained professionals.
The State Police has special task forces designated to investigate all types of crimes including sex crimes involving minors. the troopers assigned to those task forces have received extensive training and conduct their investigations in a controlled environment."
We also checked in with other law enforcement agencies, including the Attorney General’s Office, detectives with the Cumberland County District Attorney's Office, and we even talked to the District Attorney himself. None of them would tell us they support this type of operation. And of course, Chambersburg Police are out for the count.
“Often times in these child predators investigations they’re armed. Guns could be involved,” Sgt. Greenawalt said. “Weapons could be involved. you never know what the specific intent is for someone who would meet at 15-year-old online and lure them to a location.”
And they’re not the only ones in our area. You may recall the stories FOX 43 has done on Mr. 17540, or Justin Perry. He does this same kind of thing in the Lancaster area.
He told us his lawyer wouldn't allow him to talk to us for this story, but according to his Facebook page he's at it again.
Police have asked both groups to stop, more than once, but they can't force them since they're not doing anything illegal - yet.
“At some point these individuals could push a confrontation to a point where they become criminally culpable,” Sgt. Greenawalt said. “For something that they’ve done or some aggressive act they’ve taken against the guy that shows up with them.”
“You want to help the police? Call with information. See something say something,” Chief Camacho said. “You want to help? Please. We need that. But what they’re doing is manufacturing, or trying to manufacture a crime. It’s just not smart. They’re not trained. Leave that to us. We’re the professionals, this is what we do.”
But Middlekauff said he’s not worried.
“No. Not at all,” Middlekauff said. “The one officer that asked me said, ‘Ya know this is very dangerous. You could get shot, you could get killed,’ okay. If I do, I died doing something I believe in. Maybe my death would make you say, ‘wait a minute we have to do something and help these guys get arrests. Help them do it.”
After our story was complete, Lehrian reached out to FOX 43 to tell us she and Middlekauff and no longer working together.
Chambersburg Police have made it clear, they appreciate their desire to want to stop child predators, they just wish they would go about it in a different way. Police suggest anyone worried about child predators online support organizations that bring awareness to child exploitation issues, and as always, report any suspicious activity.