Nation/World

How vigilante ‘predator catchers’ are infiltrating the criminal justice system

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DANVILLE, Ind. - The jury was waiting. They’d cringed when they learned what kind of case they’d hear in this Indiana courthouse. Child solicitation.

But don’t worry, the county prosecutors assured them. There would be no graphic pictures. There would be no testimony from an abused child.

Because in this case, there was no child.

The man charged with the crime - a 37-year-old veteran named Joshua Clark - didn’t know the 14-year-old girl he thought he was texting with was actually an adult, prosecutors said.

Law enforcement had been using this tactic for years, investing millions to train detectives on how to go online, pretend to be teenagers and wait for predators to emerge. Clark knew they conducted sting operations like these; after serving in the Army and working in a prison, he’d been hired as a police officer himself. That was, until he was arrested and fired.

Now on this July morning, the jury was going to meet the person responsible for catching this cop.

The prosecutor stood up. “The state calls Eric Schmutte,” she said.

The courtroom doors opened. But no detective walked in.

Instead, there was a man in a polo shirt. His dreadlocks were tucked into a ponytail. After raising his right hand and swearing to tell the truth, Schmutte, a 35-year-old welder, began to explain why he was there.

He wasn’t just a welder. He was the founder of an organization called Predator Catchers Indianapolis.

“Our mission,” he said, “is to expose men and women that are online, preying on kids.”

“And when you say ‘expose,’ " the prosecutor said, “what’s your plan to expose them?”

“Put their faces out online,” Schmutte explained. “Post videos so that community knows . . . these men and women are out here, and they’re okay with the idea of meeting up with your children for sexual activity.”

For two years, Schmutte had been taking it upon himself to do what the police do. Go on dating and social media apps. Pretend to be 14 or 12 or 8. Agree to meet up with an adult to do something sexual.

When the alleged predators show up, Schmutte and a team of impassioned volunteers are waiting, ready to scold, shame and shout, live-streaming every moment of the confrontation on the internet.

When Schmutte first started out, no police officers or prosecutors wanted to talk to him. They dismissed him as a dangerous vigilante. Law enforcement agencies had long decried imitators of the NBC series “To Catch a Predator,” which was canceled in 2008 after one of its targets killed himself. There were too many potential perils, officials warned, when average citizens tried to play the hero.

These days, things are different.

“Almost every detective wants to work with us,” Schmutte said.

In Indiana and across the country, the criminal justice system is reckoning with an unprecedented boom in vigilante activity. In the past three years, at least 160 groups have been “catching predators” in the United States, according to a Washington Post analysis of their social media posts. This year alone, a YouTube channel tracking catchers has counted more than 920 stings by amateurs.

Some are fueled by right-wing rhetoric about “groomers” and the need to “save the children.” Some are parents fearful for their own kids, or, like Schmutte, say they are called by God to do this work. Some make thousands of dollars from clicks and donations.

They argue they are raising awareness about online safety, empowering survivors to speak up and making potential child abusers think twice before lurking online.

Meanwhile, the very dangers that police and prosecutors always feared have come to fruition. One predator catcher was recently shot during a confrontation. Another forced a man to jump in a freezing river. Catchers and their fans have aimed to destroy reputations, only to realize they had the wrong guy. In the D.C. suburbs, where one group was specifically targeting Democratic officials, a woman who was told she was going to help stop child abuse said she ended up being used as bait and repeatedly groped.

And yet, police and prosecutors have increasingly been willing to file charges against the vigilantes’ chosen targets. Catchers brag about the number of “preds” they’ve sent to jail. In Atlantic City this summer, police arrested 17 men in two weeks - all stemming from stings by what they called “concerned citizens.” Though officers cannot provide formal training to vigilantes, many privately advise them on how to improve their tactics to get convictions.

“It’s a whole lot of behind-the-scenes condoning. There’s no doubt about it,” said Indiana State Police Capt. Bryan Harper, commander of the state’s Internet Crimes Against Children task force.

Experienced catchers like Schmutte now direct their targets to meet in the jurisdictions most friendly to their cause. That’s how, in May 2021, Joshua Clark ended up in the western Indianapolis suburbs, where he was told “14-year-old Mackenzie” would be waiting. The stakeout unfolded in the parking lot of an Olive Garden.

By the time Schmutte was done live-streaming, he had a direct message from a local detective who followed his group on Facebook. He handed over his chat history with Clark, and before long, he was announcing on social media that “Josh the Cop” had been arrested.

Then, something unusual happened. Unlike the rest of Schmutte’s targets, Clark refused to take a plea deal. He wanted a jury to decide his fate.

As prosecutors across the country have argued over whether to take cases from groups like Schmutte’s, this was the very situation many sought to avoid: an entire trial based mainly on the testimony and tactics of a self-appointed predator catcher. Live-streamed vigilante justice officially infiltrating the American justice system.

If this jury rejected the catchers’ tactics, and let the defendant go free, would that embolden child predators everywhere?

If this jury endorsed the actions of the predator catchers, and found the defendant guilty, would that encourage even more vigilante groups to form?

In a tiny courtroom in Hendricks County, it would depend on a man with 5 million YouTube views, 200,000 Facebook followers and now, 12 jurors watching him testify.

Schmutte sat directly across from Clark, who was rocking side to side in a baby blue button-up shirt. Clark’s only supporter in the courtroom was his mother. He was represented by a free public defender.

“I want you to visualize a real predator and real prey,” Clark’s attorney told the jurors in her opening statement. “A lion and a zebra.”

Listen closely to what happened between Schmutte and Clark, she said. Read the text messages. Watch the Olive Garden showdown. And then decide for yourselves: “Who is chasing who?”

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‘I’m only 14′

By the time Schmutte saw Clark’s picture appear on a dating app, he’d been perfecting his teenager impression for a year. He called adults “grown ups.” He punctuated references to school with a vomit emoji. He promised his mom didn’t look through his texts.

In his 20s, Schmutte had watched every episode of “To Catch a Predator,” hosted by Chris Hansen, multiple times. Then, in the early days of the pandemic, he discovered hundreds of YouTube videos from the United States, Britain and Canada, in which ordinary people were the ones exposing bad guys. They had T-shirts emblazoned with sheriff badges that said “Ped Patrol,” and slogans like “Gotta catch ‘em all.”

Schmutte had already been reading false conspiracy theories online about secretive “elites” who exploit children and drink their blood. He wasn’t entirely sure he believed them. But he was an avid Bible reader, and he liked the passages about hidden evils being brought to light. So he downloaded Grindr, used a photo of a European pop star for his profile picture, and got to work.

“Yes I like older guys,” Schmutte typed to his very first target. “I’m only 14 though.”

“It’s ok,” the man replied. “When do you want to meet?”

Within two weeks, Schmutte and a group of friends were outside a Walmart, cameras rolling.

“I want you to apologize to every single person that has ever been molested in their life,” Schmutte instructed the man. “‘Cause you know what would happen if you had sex with a 14-year-old boy? It could f--- up their mind forever, bro.”

He shared his videos on Facebook and YouTube, and watched the comments appear.

“You are a true hero to all victims thank you️”

“Our own Chris Hansen”

“Thank God there are people out there like you.”

Just like that, it felt as if the entire course of Schmutte’s life had changed. After high school, he’d been arrested for drunken driving and marijuana possession, spending years on probation. He dropped out of community college three times. He got a job making engine parts after his parents paid for welding school. What he really wanted to be was a professional musician, to shred on his guitar in front of an adoring crowd night after night. But all three of his bands had broken up.

Now, he’d become one of the few Black predator catchers on YouTube. As his online following grew, his parents told him they were proud of him. And the thrill of a live-streamed catch, he said, was even better than being onstage.

He made profiles on Tinder, Skout, MeetMe, Instagram, Snapchat, Kik and every other app where he knew adults tried to lure vulnerable and unsupervised children. He created chatrooms labeled “for teens,” and watched them fill up with men whose profile pictures were of their genitals.

Strangers who followed his posts begged him to let them help. One volunteer even created a spinoff group, Predator Catchers Muncie. Another, Schmutte’s high school friend Shanda Nolley, became his girlfriend and his business partner. Nolley, a mother of a teenage boy herself, soon spent so much time predator-catching that she was fired from her job as a property manager, she said.

“The world is so evil. Once you see it, it’s hard to stop,” Nolley said. “If we stop, who is going to be out here patrolling these guys?”

Donations and $5.99 per month YouTube memberships - which these days, netted some $2,000 a month - funded their road trips to faraway stings. A Facebook executive in Ohio. A high school teacher in Michigan. A 38-year-old in Florida, who sued Schmutte for “severe mental distress and humiliation,” demanding $75,000 in damages.

They risked defamation lawsuits and criminal charges from prosecutors who didn’t like their tactics. Every time a target texted them images of child sexual abuse, they were technically committing a felony by being in possession of illegal material.

When an Indiana man from Clinton County sent them six “absolutely disgusting” videos, including one showing what appeared to be a 5-year-old, they turned the clips over to police - but only after they live-streamed their catch.

For bait, they used real women. They posted social media call-outs for “decoys,” volunteers whose photos they could digitally alter to make them look like minors. They used to pair those pictures with faceless nude photos they’d found online, but after consultations with detectives and attorneys, they said they’ve recently quit sending nudes altogether.

Instead, they had images like “Mackenzie,” a pale, petite girl with pom-poms and a short-skirted dance team uniform.

In real life, she was a 19-year-old named Kaylee Hull.

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“I sent pictures of you to Eric,” Hull’s mother, an avid Predator Catchers Indianapolis fan, informed her one day.

“I was like, ‘Who is Eric?’ " Hull remembered. But after talking to Schmutte on the phone, Hull was excited. With her still childish features and 105-pound body, she’d be perfect for the job, Schmutte said. She wanted to go into criminal justice one day. This, she thought, was her chance to get started.

Hull went into her room and started taking pictures of herself lying in her bed. She put on a paisley bikini and took some more.

But it wasn’t only pictures of “Mackenzie” that Schmutte and Nolley wanted. After targets had agreed to meet, they were far more likely to get out of their cars if they saw a real girl waiting for them.

“Eric would call me at 2 a.m. and say, ‘Are you good to go?’ " Hull remembered.

She traveled with Schmutte and Nolley to Kentucky, where they ran back-to-back catches. She heard about the messages targets sent after being caught, saying they were going to kill themselves if Schmutte didn’t take down their videos. She couldn’t stop thinking about the one guy who wouldn’t take his hands out of his pockets. She was sure he’d had a weapon.

After a few months, she told Schmutte she was done.

“Then he messaged me and was like, ‘Can you please do one last catch?’ " Hull recalled.

It was May of 2021, and Schmutte had been talking to Clark for six weeks. He’d found him on Skout, an app that lets users message anyone nearby. Prosecutors would never be able to prove what happened during the first messages exchanged between Clark and Mackenzie. Schmutte said his account was deleted - a common practice once an app detects an underage user - before he could take screenshots of the conversation.

But after more than 300 stings leading to nearly 50 arrests, he and Nolley had established basic rules that made it harder for law enforcement to ignore their cases. They maintained that they never started the conversation, never talked in a sexual way first, and never initiated a meetup.

On the day Schmutte testified against Clark, he told the jury he had followed all of those rules. After Clark gave Mackenzie his phone number, Schmutte took screenshots of all their interactions. They amounted to 168 pages of messages. For more than an hour on the stand, Schmutte read them to the jury.

Every time Clark stopped texting back, Schmutte restarted the chat. But as the weeks stretched on, the texts remained mundane, mostly selfies back and forth and conversations amounting to little more than Wyd. Not much. Fun, lol.

Schmutte asked Clark if he’d feel more “comfortable” on Kik, an app popular with teenagers. Eventually they moved to Snapchat, where Clark, not knowing Schmutte was recording everything, believed his messages would auto delete.

There, Clark called Mackenzie “sexy.” But Schmutte knew that wasn’t enough. To get a charge of child solicitation, Clark had to “command, authorize, urge, incite, request, or advise” her to perform a sexual act.

More than a dozen times during their conversations, Mackenzie messaged Clark a version of the same question: “What else u wana do with me??”

Five weeks after they started talking, Clark’s answers shifted. They were specific, sexual, and based on what Schmutte had learned, criminal.

Now, Mackenzie was eager to meet. She claimed she lived in Avon, two hours from Clark’s home in Portland, Ind. Schmutte and his team had recently targeted a radiologist there, and the police had been quick to make an arrest.

Mackenzie told Clark that when her mom left for work, she could have her neighbor who was “pretty kool” drive her to the Olive Garden.

Rather than have Schmutte recall what unfolded in the parking lot, the prosecutors called Hull, the decoy, to the stand.

“You said they dropped you off a distance away, and you walked to where Mr. Clark’s car was. Is that correct?” prosecutor Adrienne Champine asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” Hull said. “Whenever I go up to someone’s car, I always talk to them through their passenger side, not the driver’s side, because I don’t want to be kidnapped.”

She didn’t have to explain what happened next. Prosecutor Lauren Parmley put a DVD into a computer and hit play. It was time for the jury to see what thousands of people had watched live on Facebook.

There was Hull, telling Clark she didn’t feel comfortable getting in his car, and that they should go into the restaurant.

There were Nolley and Schmutte, waiting for the right moment to corner him.

“What are you doing, bro?” Schmutte said, appearing beside the hostess stand.

“Do you want us to call the cops?” Nolley asked. “You should probably come outside and have a conversation with us.”

Then, the barrage began.

“Why do you like little kids?” Schmutte demanded.

“If you talked to my 14-year-old daughter, I’d break your neck,” another volunteer spat at Clark. “I’d be driving your car to dump your f---ing body somewhere.”

The jurors were transfixed. Some shifted in their seats, clearly uncomfortable. The sole Black juror had his hand over his mouth. More than one juror was smiling.

On the screen, Clark was saying, “I really thought she was 18,” and “You are right. I’m an idiot,” and “I thought someone was just f---ing with me.”

All the while, the Clark in the courtroom was staring straight ahead. He was thinking, he’d say in an interview later, about what he hadn’t done in that video. What the jury would never know.

That day at the Olive Garden, he’d brought a loaded gun.

‘Monsters’

Clark didn’t testify at the trial. His lawyer, who didn’t present any witnesses, advised him against it. She believed there were too many things he’d said in those texts he just couldn’t defend.

Clark took her advice, he said later, because he was afraid he would fall apart on the stand. Chest pain, panic, a familiar feeling that everything was closing in on him. Since returning home from his second Afghanistan deployment in 2013, he said, anything could cause him to have a mental breakdown. Crowds, loud noises, small spaces.

“You see things you don’t want to see anymore,” Clark said.

Working in a prison had helped. There were rules again. Order. Clark hoped it would fix him. He hoped becoming a police officer would fix him. His mother, Cindy Hisey, feared that he would never be fixed.

“The PTSD - it’s not just from the war,” Hisey said. “It’s from his dad.”

She blamed herself for not leaving Clark’s father after he became abusive. She excused it, she said, because he had back surgery, and then because his pain pills were addicting, and then because she thought when you married someone, it was forever.

She remembered her husband’s abuse as mostly verbal and psychological. Clark remembered being repeatedly hit, locked in a basement and once, thrown through a window. He was 16 when his father died of an overdose.

“The happiest day of my life,” Clark called it.

After high school and between deployments, Clark had four kids with three women. He had little-to-no relationship with any of them until 2020, when he reconnected with the mother of his 8-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter. He loved being there, he said, to help them get ready for school, or to watch his son unwrap a hoverboard on Christmas Day.

He didn’t know, he said, why their mom cut things off again.

By the spring of 2021, just as he was starting his job as a police officer in Portland, Ind., he was alone, spending his free time browsing dating apps.

He said Mackenzie messaged him first.

The rest of their interactions can be explained, Clark said, by a justification his attorney didn’t think a jury would believe.

“I knew it was a scam,” Clark said. He claimed he recognized Mackenzie’s picture from another time she’d messaged him, saying she was 14. Clark said he is not attracted to minors and thinks anyone who talks sexually to them is disgusting.

But he decided to keep replying.

“I was trying to screw with them like they were screwing with me,” he said. “I thought it was just some idiots trying to get people and rob them. I never thought it was about predators.”

When asked why he would drive two hours to meet someone he thought was going to rob him, he grew quiet.

“I didn’t want to live anymore,” he said. “I wanted to hurt myself. But I couldn’t hurt myself. I believe I was trying to find somebody to do it for me.”

On the day he went to meet Mackenzie, he said, he loaded a 9mm Glock and brought three extra magazines. When an actual young woman showed up at his passenger side door, he was taken aback. When she wouldn’t get in his car and talk to him, he followed her into the Olive Garden. When he was suddenly surrounded by Schmutte and his team, Clark thought about the gun in his waistband. But he decided not to pull it out.

“Because they didn’t deserve it,” he said.

After he sped away, a friend called to say the video of him was already on Facebook, gaining more viewers every minute.

Instead of going home, he drove to a cemetery. He moved the gun from his waistband to his lap. For three hours, he recalled, he sat on the phone as his friend talked him out of killing himself.

Every day after, his mother feared he’d change his mind. She helped pay his $5,000 bail when he was arrested. She brought him his groceries when he refused to leave his house.

She didn’t understand how what these predator catchers were doing was legal, or why the police would trust them.

Her son wasn’t so sure.

“I’ve watched some of their videos, and they do good things,” Clark said. “Some of those guys they catch are monsters. They really are.”

‘Bad guy off the street’

After the catch video finished playing, there was one last witness for the jury to meet: Jacob Boggess, the detective who messaged Schmutte when he saw the Olive Garden showdown in his personal Facebook feed. Since then, Boggess told the jury, he’d earned a spot on the state’s Internet Crimes Against Children task force, the federally funded unit responsible for stopping online predators.

Clark’s lawyer, Dorie Maryan, was eager for the jurors to hear what happened when actual police encountered a suspected pedophile.

Maryan asked the detective about previous arrests he’d made: “Did you and your fellow officers treat the suspect in the manner in which Eric Schmutte and his crew treated the suspect in the Facebook Live video?”

“Are you referring to, like, etiquette-wise?” Boggess said. “No.”

“You didn’t call him ‘stupid’ or a ‘dumba--,’ right?” Maryan asked.

“Right,” Boggess said.

“Nobody in law enforcement said, ‘I can’t believe you have kids. This is ridiculous’?”

These questions, Boggess knew, were why some police and prosecutors refused to work with Schmutte.

The prosecutor in Delaware County, where Schmutte and Nolley lived, had publicly condemned the idea of ever working with a predator-catching group. His fears echoed prosecutors across the country who had issued press releases and given interviews, trying to explain to a riled-up public why they believed vigilantes caused more harm than good.

There was the danger of confrontations turning violent. The possibility that the chat logs handed over to police had been altered. The reality that vigilantes were, in some cases, targeting only gay men, or ensnaring individuals who were clearly intellectually disabled. There was the potential for catchers to target a suspect who was already under police surveillance and end up botching the case. And perhaps worst of all, the risk that making predators believe they are successfully talking sexually to children will only encourage them to pursue more kids - and next time, real children could get hurt.

“No matter how noble the goal is, I cannot legally or ethically condone civilian predator catchers,” Delaware County prosecutor Eric Hoffman wrote in a press release after being harangued online by Schmutte’s fans for not taking his cases. “We must leave criminal investigations to sworn law enforcement officers who are extensively trained in how to conduct these types of investigations.”

But in Hendricks County, a different calculation had been made. Elected prosecutor Loren Delp said that as much as he wished Predator Catchers Indianapolis would turn over evidence to police and forget the live-streamed humiliation, he predicted that this rise in vigilantism was probably just the beginning.

“There are individuals out there that may look on this and say, ‘Hey, if it’s good for child predators, why is it not good for thieves or, you know, drugs or something of that nature?’ " Delp said.

But to him, ignoring cases because they didn’t come in an ideal package was wrong, too. If it appeared someone had committed a felony - especially a police officer like Clark - didn’t he have an obligation to act?

“In the end,” Delp said, “everybody’s in favor of having a bad guy off the street.”

He instructed his attorneys to move forward with the case against Clark. He knew Detective Boggess would be scrutinized on the witness stand. But then, it would be up to a jury to decide.

“If police officers did what Mr. Schmutte did, would any of the statements that Mr. Clark made be allowed as evidence?” Clark’s attorney asked Boggess.

“Probably not,” the detective admitted.

“Is there anything that Mr. Schmutte did in this interaction that concerns you, based on your training and experience?”

Boggess took a long pause before saying, “Not off the top of my head.”

“Would you have done it the same way?”

“No,” Boggess answered. “I wouldn’t have.”

‘Very exciting news’

The bailiff didn’t have time to order lunch. After little more than an hour, the jury had reached a verdict.

“You’ve been nothing but a gentleman,” the judge, Rhett Stuard, told Clark. “When the verdict is read, no reactions, no nothing. Stay calm.”

The jurors were called into the courtroom for the last time, and Clark was instructed to stand. They handed over a written decision for the judge to read aloud.

“We the jury find the defendant, Joshua D. Clark, guilty of count one, child solicitation.”

Clark’s hands were already behind his back when the sheriff’s deputies closed in. His mother left the courthouse in tears.

Schmutte wasn’t there. He had to be back at work that day, making the same engine parts he’d made the week before. But by mid-afternoon, Predator Catchers Indianapolis volunteers were blowing up the group text. That night, Schmutte and Nolley sat down in their dining room turned office, picked up a phone and this time, pointed the camera at themselves.

“Hey guys,” Schmutte said, talking to the 50, then 100, then 200 people watching his live stream.

“We have very exciting news,” Nolley said.

Schmutte held up a picture of Clark, reminding everyone of the police officer they’d caught the year before. As soon as they said the word “guilty,” the live-stream chat lit up in celebration.

“This was our first pred that actually requested a jury trial,” Nolley said. “You know, we’ve been doing this for almost two years now. And to actually watch how they try one of our cases in open court was very interesting. To hear one of our videos in open court was extremely interesting.”

“I wish y’all could have seen his face,” Schmutte said. “He was just so smug looking.”

They thanked the jury. They gave a shout out to the Avon police. They called the prosecutors “our lawyers.”

“Hendricks County was already down with us,” Schmutte said. “But hopefully that shows, makes more people feel better that our cases will work.”

“And we’re only going to get better, from experiencing this jury trial and hearing what they had to say,” Nolley said.

“Did you make the judge hit LIKE?” one commenter asked.

As the live stream continued, Clark was lying on a bottom bunk of a cinder block cell at the Hendricks County Jail. He couldn’t sleep. His shirt and tie had been traded for a neon orange uniform.

He was thinking, he said later, about the gun he never fired. He was thinking about what was coming next.

In September, a judge would sentence him to six years in prison. When he is released, he will be on the sex offender registry.

On the night he was convicted, Clark wasn’t sure he’d make it that far. He was a former prison guard, a former cop, and now, a convicted child predator.

“I’m going to die in prison,” he said.

The Predator Catchers Indianapolis celebration video lasted nearly an hour. Schmutte and Nolley updated their supporters on all the other men they’d gotten arrested, and when, they, too, might be convicted. The guy who was already a registered sex offender. The guy who talked to nine decoys at once. The school board president.

“Check your kids’ devices,” Nolley reminded viewers. “And talk with your kids about online safety, and yeah, have a good night!”

She clicked off the recording.

Schmutte checked his phones. There were new notifications on every app, all messages and comments from potential targets, all trying to talk to the teen and preteen girls Schmutte was pretending to be.

“Please DM me,” one man had written.

“Super cute, love your lips,” another had texted.

On an Instagram account for a 13-year-old Schmutte had named “Kelsey,” there was a message from a man whose pleas were becoming increasingly sexual and demanding. This time he’d sent a voice memo.

“I wish I could talk to you,” the man said, “And tell you how much I truly love you. Kelsey, you are the one. You are my heart. My love. My Kelsey.”

Schmutte laughed. Nolley sighed.

“He’s ready to be caught,” she said.

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