Lower Burrell child predator sting by citizens raises safety, legal issues | #childpredator | #onlinepredator | #sextrafficing

The premise is quite simple.

An adult creates an online account, posing as a child on dating and social media apps. They make their “age” known throughout online conversations that often turn sexual, then meet their target at an agreed-upon location.

When the meeting occurs, the person operating the account confronts the would-be child predator, often livestreaming or posting video of the interaction on Facebook or other social media platforms, garnering thousands of views, comments and shares.

When it comes to charges being filed in such cases, that’s when things can get complicated.

“While intentions may be laudable, we discourage this type of conduct,” said Brett Hambright, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office. “Under certain Pennsylvania laws, individuals can only be charged with these crimes when they have contacted a minor or a law enforcement officer posing as one.”

The issue came up this week when felony charges of child pornography, unlawful contact with minors and corruption of minors were filed against David Holmes, 54, of
Lower Burrell. Police said he was confronted in February by a civilian group dedicated to catching child predators.

A criminal complaint filed in the case said Holmes thought he was speaking with a 13-year-old girl during online conversations and they arranged to meet in a Lower Burrell parking lot for sex.

The man who coordinated the sting and apparently posed as the underage girl, Shafiq Blake, didn’t return requests for comment for this story. A Facebook page
connected to him, Predator Catchers PA, features videos of his group and similar ones confronting suspects in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Texas.

Other civilian predator-exposing groups have led to a teacher in Schuylkill County’s Blue Mountain School District being placed on leave and the Bradford County coroner resigning. Many others resigned or were fired from their jobs or wound up facing criminal prosecution.

Hambright said people conducting these sting operations could put their safety, as well as the general public’s safety, at risk if a confrontation goes wrong. He said information obtained during a civilian investigation is not the same as evidence compiled by law enforcement.

Because the stings are not carried out by law enforcement, some district attorneys in Pennsylvania decline to prosecute on the basis of amateur undercover stings alone. Often, the information recorded by the civilian is not admissible in court. Some police departments are able to take the information and conduct their own investigation and file charges.

Such was the case in Lower Burrell.

“It is the office of the district attorney’s duty to prosecute and hold people accountable for committing criminal offenses. However, the district attorney discourages vigilante groups from confronting alleged perpetrators because it poses a danger to themselves, the accused and responding police officers,” said Melanie Jones, spokeswoman for the Westmoreland County District Attorney’s Office.

“In this instance, the independent investigation performed by a legitimate and sworn law enforcement official will allow this case to proceed,” Jones said.

Lower Burrell police, who filed the complaint against Holmes, didn’t respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Legalizing civilian predator hunters

Last July, a Clearfield County judge dismissed charges of unlawful contact with a minor against a man because the case hinged on evidence gathered by a civilian predator hunting group.

The judge ruled that state law requires would-be child predators to be in contact with a real minor or a law enforcement officer posing as a child for the suspect to have violated the law.

In effect, the ruling made evidence collected by civilian child imposters inadmissible in court.

Now, one state lawmaker wants to change that.

State Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Hollidaysburg, proposed a bill in September that would authorize someone to assume the identity of a minor for the purpose of catching predators who solicit sex from minors over the internet.

He gave an example in which a parent viewed their child’s phone and saw troubling messages. The parent didn’t say anything to the child and continued the interaction with the person, setting up a meeting because they were disturbed by the engagement with their child.

Because the adult who set up the meeting wasn’t a minor or a member of law enforcement, the district attorney could not prosecute the case, Gregory said.

“Knowing what happens to those children, the ripple effects of that trauma and where it leads, and our courts could not prosecute because they did not have a case where it was minor,” Gregory said. “That’s what led me to want to make this change legislatively.”

He said the majority of law enforcement agencies statewide don’t have the resources or the staff to be able to conduct such stings.

“We need to do something and recognize, either we need to do a better job of funding our counties for these stings, or we need to help the groups or the parents who are filling that vacuum on their own because they’re angry and they’re frustrated that a case like this … can’t be prosecuted on a loophole or a technicality,” Gregory said.

Gregory said House Bill 1660 has bipartisan support and is in the House Judiciary Committee.

Gregory proposed another bill that would give civilians the ability to record conversations without having to alert the other person that they are recording them if it is for the purpose of catching a child predator.

“That would also be a tool that would help these groups, and law enforcement, be able to use that as evidence in these stings, as well,” Gregory said.

The civilian child-predator-catching groups in his area are thorough in their research and work with law enforcement on prosecution, he said. He believes it’s unfair to call these groups “vigilante groups.”

“Let’s focus on what they’re trying to do, to fill a vacuum that we are unable to take care of ourselves as taxpayers in Pennsylvania, to fund what it takes for a district attorney’s office to have what they need, resources-wise, personnel-wise, training-wise, to protect our kids,” Gregory said.

Hambright declined to comment on House Bill 1660. Kelly Callihan, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association (PDAA), said her organization has not taken an official position on the bill.

She said, as a general matter, the district attorneys association believes undercover operations designed to catch child sexual predators should be led by law enforcement.

“PDAA appreciates that individuals seeking to catch child predators may have good intentions. However, there are safety concerns about individuals confronting potential suspects and accusing them of crimes. There are also potential legal and ethical problems with these types of vigilante cases that could jeopardize a court case,” she said.

Kellen Stepler is a TribLive reporter covering the Allegheny Valley and Burrell school districts and surrounding areas. He joined the Trib in April 2023. He can be reached at [email protected].

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