Vigilantes shed light on need of response to child predators | #childpredator | #kidsaftey | #childsaftey

VALPARAISO — When an area vigilante group posted an amateur sting video just more than three years ago of what it it claimed was a man attempting to meet up in Portage with a 14-year-old boy for sex, it was a hit with the public, but not so much with the police.

“People who do that are taking a huge risk,” Portage Police Lt. Rob Maynard said at the time. “This could have went poorly for that young man out there.”

Portage police had said they planned to investigate the claims against the alleged predator, but also warned there could be legal consequences for those posting the video.

An investigator asked “Gilmer if he has ever been ‘hands-on’ with a child,” a court document says. “Gilmer stated he has not and said he would take a polygraph.”

These types of vigilante videos are now more popular than ever on social media and at least locally, seem to be taken more seriously by law enforcement and prosecutors.

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Two Valparaiso-area men were arrested this month alone on child predator charges as a result of sting operations set up by area vigilantes. And one group, calling itself NWI predator catchers, posted an additional video just this past week portraying what is says is a 45-year-old Crown Point man “coming to meet with what he believes is a 13 Y/O child for a movie night while mom is at work.”

“Our general procedure and protocol is to review every case presented to us to determine whether a crime has been committed and then, secondly, whether we can prevail at a trial,” Porter County Prosecutor Gary Germann said when questioned about the recent decisions to charge the two Porter County men nabbed by online vigilantes.

“Specific to these kinds of cases, since the investigations are not conducted by trained police officers, we are even more careful and I generally frown on the cases,” he said. “At the same time, if everything has been done fairly, then we will take a deeper look into the facts of the case.”

Germann, who has long advocated for greater awareness of online threats against children, said he would prefer to see a local and professional unit formed to target these types of offenses.

Officials prefer professional response to child threats

While the Valparaiso Police Department responded to the two recent vigilante stings and made arrests, they voiced caution in a statement sought by The Times.

“The Valparaiso Police Department understands the desire of any individual to protect children from predators; however, groups that engage in civilian vigilante activity put themselves and the general public at risk. When law enforcement operations of this nature occur, considerations are taken to protect all parties involved, including the public. Operational planning, prepared by trained professionals, is in place to include contingency plans. Moreover, any properly prepared operation also includes coordination with the county prosecutor and those who will handle the criminal prosecutions.”

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The NWI predator catchers group did not respond this past week to a request for comment for this story. Such groups rely heavily on anonymity, with members often wearing masks and/or keeping their faces off camera while keeping the attention on the reactions of the alleged predators during the surprise confrontations.

NWI predator catchers was behind the Sept. 8 arrest of Zachary Crohan, 25, of Valparaiso, a self-proclaimed military veteran, who is accused of showing up late at night along the 1300 block of Lincolnway in Valparaiso to meet what he thought was a 13-year-old girl for sex.

A video posted by the group confronts a man they claim is Crohan, who with cell phone in hand, initially says he was just out “walking around, playing Pokemon GO.”

“Not meeting a 13-year old?” the group representative asked.

“Nope. Nope,” Crohan immediately responds.

After being told the group has several photos of Crohan from interactions on the Grindr hook-up app, Crohan changes his story and says as a former soldier, he too was out hunting down child predators.

A group representative, who called Valparaiso police to the scene, said he and his girlfriend had set up a decoy account on Grindr portraying themselves as a 13-year-old named Victoria, according to a charging document. He said Crohan contacted their decoy post and when asked what was going on, responded, “hopefully find some fun.”

Recent surge seen in vigilante efforts

Another Valparaiso-area man, James Wyatt, 50, was arrested Sept. 13 after allegedly falling for a similar vigilante sting that he thought was an underage girl looking for sex, Valparaiso police said.

Portage restaurant worker accused of having sex with underage co-worker, charges say

He reportedly knew what he was doing was wrong and told her, “In the Greek culture this is perfectly normal.”

Valparaiso police said they were called out Dec. 19 to the 400 block of Sturdy Road where a member of an online vigilante group was live streaming the encounter on social media.

A representative of the group said they had been communicating with Wyatt for about three weeks before the confrontation.

Valparaiso police said it has responded three times over the past year to these types of cases.

“There has been a recent surge in the referrals lately for some reason, but we do decline prosecution at times,” Germann said. “In fact we declined a prosecution of one of these types of cases last night (Sept. 18).”

When trained police officers conduct these types of operations, precautions and safeguards are in put in place “to make sure we have not entrapped or enticed someone into committing a crime they would not have done but for police conduct,” he said.

Germann said he would prefer to see the creation of a local, professional unit to target online crimes involving children, which he said have been on the increase.

“This unit would be responsible for investigating those possessing, disseminating and producing child pornography,” he said. “In addition the unit would make itself available for those who think it’s OK to solicit a 13-year-old girl or boy for sex.”

“Unfortunately it just take a lot of money to start a unit like this and then to maintain the unit to keep up with the rapidly changing technology,” Germann said. “I am committed to doing everything I can to see if we can get this going.”

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