Child Predator Catchers Spark Controversy
Most days, the Portland Michigan Community (PMC) page on Facebook is a relatively quiet corner of the internet dedicated to people looking for a lost dog or a recommendation for a trustworthy plumber. However, New Year's Eve, marked the beginning of a controversy on the page when changed when members of an organization called 517 Child Predator Exposure (517CPE) visited Portland.
On December 31st, a member of the group was set to meet up with a potential child predator at Burger King on Grand River Ave in Portland. The man, subsequently identified as Aris Mudget, 23, though he was meeting a 14-year-old girl. In reality, he was meeting an adult man, a member of the 517CPE team, who streamed the confrontation live on Facebook.
Controversy erupted shortly after 517CPE’s confrontation with Mudget when concerned community members shared the footage on the Portland Michigan Community page. The page, administered by a handful of local residents as a service to the community set the policy that such posts would be deleted and the posters blocked from the group. According to a post by 517CPE on their Facebook page (which has been subsequently disabled), “[for] some reason Portland [Michigan] Community Page doesn’t support our efforts to protect the children in their city. Anytime someone shared our video in there of Aris it gets deleted. What’s up with those who run that page? Do they not care about the children in their community?” This was a common refrain of criticism from expressed online of this policy.
Administrators of the PMC page said in an interview with the Beacon, that they are concerned about the impact that this sort of sting operation can have on our community, as well as it’s potential to jeopardize successful prosecutions of child predators. Dr. Jason Williamson, one of the group admins said, “we will do nothing to hamper any ongoing investigations. Having those posts on the page does that. 517[CPE] posted recently about how they messed up and posted things too soon. That is an excellent example of why the posts should not be allowed. It can hamper ongoing investigations.” Williamson is referring to a recent post by 517CPE in which they admitted to, “jumping the gun a bit too fast” when confronting a suspect named Patrick prior to receiving any incriminating photos from him. In light of the widespread criticism of the Portland Michigan Community page’s policy on this issue, the Beacon reached out to local law enforcement officials to learn if the community page admins’ concerns are warranted.
According to Chief Star Thomas of the Portland Police Department, “...there is always a chance that evidence, etc could be compromised any time an alleged suspect knows in advance that they may be possibly investigated for suspected illegal activity or that a person is harmed, harassed, or incorrectly accused of a crime before being charged,”
Ionia County Sheriff Charles Noll is also concerned that such watchdog groups may cross the line from concerned citizens into vigilantes or inspire others to take the law into their own hands. “These investigations have the potential to be tainted in the early stages due to the nature of how they are obtained, issues with entrapment and coercion, evidence handling, relying on completely untrained investigators, and due process constitutional protections that are afforded to all United States citizens are of grave concern. When the suspect-person(s) are plastered all over the internet and “exposed”, you’re essentially trying to convict them in the court of public opinion- not a court of law. This creates hurdles when trying to find a fair and impartial jury,” says Noll.
For their part, the members of 517CPE are concerned about this possibility as well. Each of their live streamed videos contains a warning against people taking justice into their own hands. “Please do not contact this predators family or friends or his job,” said a post accompanying the video of Aris Mudget, “if we [find] out you harass them, you will be ban[ned] from, our page we do not condone harassing anyone. We just need to get his face out there so everyone can see and protect their children from him.”
Kyle Butler, the Ionia County Prosecutor echoed the concerns of Sheriff Noll and Chief Thomas about the groups effect on prosecutions, and said in an interview with the Beacon, that, “another issue worth noting is that police are trained in dealing with confrontation, they have radios to call for back-up, they have bullet-proof vests, a least one firearm, usually a non-lethal compliance tool (pepper spray or taser), and they are in uniform.”
Butler continued noting that, “this last confrontation in Portland occurred during daylight hours at a fast-food restaurant frequented by many people—including children. Should this situation have escalated, a witness would have no idea who they are supposed to help (police have uniforms to let people know), the suspect could have pulled a weapon to use, innocent bystanders could get caught in any crossfire or melee that ensues, it’s simply a very risky situation that is being unnecessarily created.” That’s a concern shared by Sheriff Noll who said that in his experience, “desperate persons do desperate things.”
So what can parents do to protect their kids? Sheriff Noll says the best thing you can do is to, “have open and frank discussions with children about the dangers of online communication and the dangers of ever meeting with someone they meet online. More importantly, parents must educate themselves and take time to review the material that their children may be communicating about online. Many of the children involved in these cases are communicating in secret with their parents being oblivious to the conversations their children are having…” County prosecutor Kyle Butler further urges parents to talk to their children about child predators and the dangers of meeting people online from an early age. “Have open and frank discussions about the reality of the world we live in today,” advises Butler, “the profile they see on the internet is not necessarily a true depiction of that person that is trying to contact them.” And advises Chief Thomas, “if you see something, say something.”
Representatives from 517CPE declined to comment for this story. Ionia County Sheriff Charles Noll says that Aris Mudget has been arrested on felony parole violation charges and is currently housed at the Ionia County jail.
CORRECTION 1/13/19: An earlier of the story has been updated to better reflect the context of the quotations from local law enforcement officials and to correct a few typos. Thank you to our readers for kindly pointing them out.