Even in a fairly crowded shopping mall, it doesn't take long to spot the Surrey Creep Catchers.
Despite the covert nature of their work, which involves publicly shaming and filming people they have deemed to be pedophiles, members of the organization frequently wear clothing emblazoned with the Surrey Creep Catchers name and logo.
On this crisp October evening, a handful of them gather in the food court at Lougheed Town Centre in Burnaby, BC. The president, Ryan Laforge, is tall, broad, and bearded. He sports a light grey Surrey Creep Catchers hoodie, camo shorts, and a black baseball cap; his chihuahua Pinto is slung over his shoulder in a green leather bag, softening his otherwise imposing presence.
LaForge, 33, is debriefing a couple of young-ish guys and a woman on the sting that's about to take place.
"Do we know what he's wearing?" he asks.
"Did you see his big head? He won't be hard to spot," replies a man in a red-and-black Surrey Creep Catchers t-shirt who has a skull shaved into the back of his head.
"I don't give a fuck," Laforge snaps. "It's not about for us. If this goes to court, we want him saying what he's wearing and then showing up in what he's wearing."
The man with the skull on his head apologizes. Like the others, he hangs off Laforge's every command.
This is a part of a VICE Canada project investigating the impact of vigilante pedophile hunting in Canada.
Part One: The Real Story Behind the Rise of Creep Catchers
On Facebook, they've started a group chat called "Tuesday goof" ("goof" is prison slang for child molester) to stay in constant communication with each other as they go through the night's catches.
First up is a 52-year-old man who, based on his chats with a member of Laforge's team, allegedly thinks he's meeting a 15-year-old girl. At the meeting spot, a McDonald's inside the mall's Walmart, a petite brunette woman in her 20s—a decoy—sits at a booth and awaits his arrival, while the others, including Laforge, disperse and position themselves nearby.
The man arrives. He's overweight and balding; what little hair he still has is white. He's wearing an ill-fitting grey polo shirt, with black track pants and a black windbreaker. He sits at a booth alone and looks around a little. Laforge slides into the seat across from him and holds his phone up to his face. Others in the crew follow suit, whipping out their cameras.
"Surrey Creep Catcher, you're here to meet a 15-year-old girl," Laforge states, along with the man's name. He explains he's filming to protect both of them and lays down the man's options—run or explain why he set up a date with a minor. The man doesn't move.
"OK, so first things first," Laforge says, speaking calmly. "Do you want to admit that you made a mistake?"
"I guess I did make a mistake," the man responds, sounding somewhat bewildered. "But initially the ad that I responded to said she was 18 years old."
Laforge concedes that that's true, but claims that during their chats, the decoy informed the man that she was actually 15. He threatens to pull out the chat logs.
Flustered, the man replies, "What I didn't know is what the actual age of consent was," and says his intention was to "get together, talk, whatever. See where it goes." Eventually he admits, "I guess I was sort of… excited at the fact of meeting a young girl."
People at the surrounding tables are starting to stare.
Laforge gives the man a spiel about Creep Catchers ("You know that we're out there, you know what we're doing, so why is it that you're still here meeting an underage child?") and lectures him about how meeting a minor is morally wrong. "This is going to be on Facebook and YouTube and everything," he says. "I can promise you someone you know is going to see it."
It ends with the man vowing he'll never do this again and Laforge repeating the Creep Catchers catchphrase, "Yer done bud."
The man skulks away quietly, through Walmart, past the greeters, and into the parking lot.
Laforge and his team will complete a half-dozen of these ambushes tonight, performed in rapid succession at fast food joints and coffee shops around the Lower Mainland. And in cities across Canada, other groups are doing the exact same thing.
"We don't sleep," says Laforge.
Up until about three years ago, Canada didn't have any so-called "pedophile hunters." These days, they're a fixture of local news cycles, particularly out west.
VICE has spent months tracking the movement, shadowing stings in multiple cities and conducting dozens of interviews with vigilantes, members of law enforcement, experts in child exploitation and pedophilia, lawyers, and people who claim to have been victimized by the videos. We have learned of at least one instance in which Creep Catchers interfered with a police operation, resulting in the suspect fleeing town and molesting children before he could be arrested. And just last month, a Red Deer Creep Catcher was charged with harassment and mischief relating to one of his stings. Successes, on the other hand, appear to be limited—only a handful of arrests and one conviction yielded from hundreds of videos posted.
In this three-part series and an upcoming VICE Canada documentary, we'll reveal an organization that is in the midst of an identity crisis, with new branches seemingly opening every week, in the face of intense infighting and allegations of bullying and harassment coming from the outside.
Pedophile hunting blew up in the US when a California-based volunteer organization called Perverted Justice teamed up with Dateline to produce To Catch A Predator. The series debuted in 2004, and featured host Chris Hansen and his team posing as teenagers online and confronting adults who solicited them for sex.
It's Hansen who inspired Brampton, Ontario's Justin Payne, arguably Canada's original pedophile hunter. VICE first wrote about Payne in October 2015. His profile has since grown exponentially, and he's inspired many copycats, including Dawson Raymond who founded the Creep Catchers Canada organization in Calgary in September 2015. That in turn has spurred more than 30 branches and spin-offs across the country in cities such as Vancouver, Surrey, Calgary, Edmonton, St. John, and Halifax.
Vigilante pedophile shaming groups have set up shop across the country.
Payne, 29, a bricklayer who recently went on a cross-country pedophile-hunting trip, operates mostly as a lone wolf. His chats are usually sexually explicit. "Father Attempts To Meet 12 Year Old, For Blowjobs & Ejaculation In His Mouth," reads the description for a recent Facebook video he posted to his thousands of followers.
On a September evening, he can be found sitting in the parking lot of a Brampton shopping center in his beat-up Kia Spectra, the word 'VIGILANTE' affixed to its bumper. He's using the dating app Skout to chat with a man in his 20s who thinks Payne is a 12-year-old girl.
The man is on his way to the parking lot—he's picking some condoms en route, according to the chat logs.
"I always try to get them to say they'll bring condoms 'cause it shows intent," Payne explains.
After entering the dark and deserted parking lot, the man appears to grow skittish and begins walking away quickly. He's short and slight, wearing a bucket hat, his earphones in. Payne chases him. Once he catches up, he pulls out his phone and starts filming while laying into the man for wanting to have sex with a little girl.
"I never believed she was 12 years old," the man protests, claiming that the woman he spoke with on the phone (Payne's decoy) sounded much older. (She was.) After the confrontation, the man, who recently moved to Canada from India, tells VICE he grabbed condoms with the hopes that the person he'd been chatting with was actually of legal age.
Chats between Justin Payne and a suspected sexual predator.
Despite having just been humiliated, he says he supports Payne's work.
"You need somebody to show the fucking truth of what's going on," he says. But he's equally emphatic about what he'll do if he ends up being exposed online.
"I'll kill myself. My family will fucking not accept me so what the hell am I going to do living by myself?"
Payne is not a part of Creep Catchers and says he will never join it—"it's too much drama."
He's not wrong about that.
While Raymond initially founded Creep Catchers in Calgary and set up outlets around Alberta and in BC, including Surrey, he and Laforge have since have a very public falling out. It's difficult to discern exactly what the beef is tied to—a clash of male egos certainly seems to be a factor—but Laforge says in part he felt his Albertan counterparts weren't pulling their weight in terms of posting enough videos. That they were more interested in a "rockstar" lifestyle. Turf wars and smear campaigns accusing various chapter leaders of abusing and selling drugs or doctoring chat logs are cropping up weekly on Facebook. And negative media attention relating to the busts of Katelynn McKnight, a trans woman from Edmonton who killed herself after a Creep Catcher showed up at her house and filmed her, and more recently, a controversial sting Laforge conducted on a man in a scooter with cerebral palsy, has exacerbated the tension.
"It's a joke," Raymond tells VICE, adding he's washing his hands clean of how other vigilantes conduct themselves. "Basically I started a movement, and now any fucking asshole dickhead is coming out there doing it."
Laforge, meanwhile, refers to at least one member of Raymond's crew as a "punk bitch" and has declared Surrey Creep Catchers its own entity, along with branches in the Tri-Cities and Fraser Valley. Ironically, the latter has since divorced Laforge, describing his tactics as bullying and borderline entrapment.
Laforge's team primarily uses Craigslist ads to ensnare alleged predators. When making the ad, they always pretend to be at least 18 and later say they lied and are actually younger—a bait and switch. Laforge says it doesn't matter to him whether or not the accused predator mentions anything explicitly sexual or not.
"To me, it's the same thing—if you meet a child, you're a creep, you're a pedophile."
He says the ratio of people who express sexual intent versus those who claim they just want to hang out for ice cream or a bike ride is about 60:40. He has no issue with publicizing any of their addresses because he thinks parents should know who to avoid.
After the Walmart sting, the Surrey crew reconvenes in the parking lot of another McDonald's. There's an air of excitement as they stand around in a circle, smoking and discussing their next catch.
"It's like you're on crack," says a dark-haired man in his early 20s who is wearing a black Surrey Creep Catchers t-shirt, grinning as he chats with a suspected predator on Grindr.
Laforge claims he and his team members try to tell their potential suitors that they are underage as soon as possible—within four or five messages. But VICE witnessed one sting in which a man was shamed after a chat on Grindr that commenced less than an hour before the bust went down.
Not surprisingly, law enforcement and members of the criminal justice system have come out strongly against these vigilantes.
"There's nothing good coming from this, nothing good at all, except for an emotional response that's very acute and very short lived," Staff Sergeant Stephen Camp of the Alberta Law Enforcement Response Team's Integrated Child Exploitation Unit tells VICE over the phone from Edmonton.
ICE was established 15 years ago to protect children from sexual exploitation. It deals with about 400 files annually, primarily pertaining to the possession, creation, and distribution of child pornography.
Nationally, the number of child porn-related offenses has ticked upwards, from 1,958 incidents reported to police in 2011 to 4,310 in 2015, according to Statistics Canada. Meanwhile, the total number of sexual violations against children in Canada, including sexual interference, luring, and sexual exploitation, has gone from from 3,804 reported incidents in 2011 to 4,532 in 2015. Police say the spikes are due to better reporting of crimes, specialized units like ICE, and the prevalence of smartphones and social media.
Offenses of luring a child via computer—one of Creep Catchers' main focuses—have doubled in the last five years from 568 in 2011 to 1,060 in 2015. Under the criminal code, it is illegal to lure a child off the internet to commit another crime, such as sexual assault or kidnapping. But, contrary to what vigilantes often state in their videos, talking to a minor online platonically isn't in and of itself a crime. An adult can still be convicted of luring a child after having non-sexual conversations online, but there would have to be evidence to suggest they had criminal intentions.
Camp, who leads a team of 16 people, says he found out about the Creep Catchers when he joined ICE in May.
"What Creep Catchers does is catch and release the individual back into society to continue to offend."
He notes one occasion in which his undercover officers had already engaged with a suspect online but their operation was blown when Creep Catchers shamed the man.
"This person left Alberta, went to Saskatchewan, and there was nothing we could do at that point. What that person went on to do is sexually offend two toddlers a few months later," he says.
Had police been able to complete their arrest, Camp says the man would have either been remanded or placed under a court order preventing him from leaving the province or being near children.
"What Creep Catchers does is catch and release the individual back into society to continue to offend."
Laforge tells VICE he thinks there are officers who respect Creep Catchers work off the books. He says he's heard of one case in which Creep Catchers in BC interfered in an RCMP ICE case by having a decoy meet with a man being investigated. But he's not sorry, reasoning authorities should've acted faster.
"To me if this guy is bad enough to have an investigation on him… Why is he out?"
Camp says there have been about 20 instances in which his team has investigated a tip about luring, only to find out it was a Creep Catcher sting, wasting time and resources.
He also points out vigilantes are essentially making money off their stings by growing support through each video—something police could never do, ethically.
To that end, Laforge quit his job as a construction safety officer six months ago to dedicate himself to Surrey Creep Catchers. Several other hunters tell VICE they aren't working. To fund their activities, they sell branded hoodies and sweats for $35-$55, and take donations for electronics and cash. Laforge wouldn't disclose how much they make off these sales but "It's not much," he says. "I ran through $20,000 in savings." He says he'll be forced to return to work soon.
Camp's criticisms about Creep Catchers' tactics have been echoed many times over: They have no oversight. They overrule due process. They don't know how to collect evidence properly. They're putting themselves and the public at risk, especially if a sting turns violent. On at least two occasions, Surrey Creep Catchers or their followers identified the wrong people as pedophiles.
BC-based lawyer Craig Jones is so concerned about the movement that he's compiled a list of the ways in which vigilante predator hunters may be breaking the law, including violating privacy and entrapment legislation, and potentially being in possession of written child porn if chats become explicit.
"In some cases, the intimidation of the 'target,' if it places him in fear for his safety, may constitute criminal harassment or even assault," he says—a theory that was bolstered by the recent Red Deer arrest.
Both men believe the movement is an affront to democracy.
"We're very strong in that we would not work with Creep Catchers, and we want nothing to do with them," says Camp.
Despite the backlash, the appetite for shaming perverts is enormous and growing. A video posted by Payne in October of him confronting a man inside a trailer in BC garnered 225,000 views. Many of the local Creep Catcher presidents, including Laforge, have multiple Facebook accounts, with thousands of friends on each. And in the past year, three stings have given them more credibility. The first two resulted in child luring charges for Surrey, BC RCMP Constable Dario Devic, and Mission, BC school principal Jason Obert. The third involved Chilliwack, BC man Doug Putt, whose child luring conviction is believed to be the first time a vigilante bust in Canada has yielded jail time.
Chats between Justin Payne and a suspected sexual predator.
But Laforge tells VICE he doesn't necessarily consider those the movement's biggest successes. Rather, it's about raising awareness and lobbying for tougher laws against child predators.
"When you do a video, it puts it out there, and people start talking," he explains, eating a yellow lollipop at the Surrey library. "It's basically bringing the community together."
Laforge hasn't always been considered an upstanding citizen. By his own admission, he spent half his life dealing drugs, and court records show he was convicted of trafficking, possession of a controlled substance, mischief, and breach of probation.
He says he quit selling drugs five years ago to work in construction. While picking up his nephew and niece from school earlier this year, he heard a radio report about a sex offender who'd been released after one month in prison. The story angered him.
"We googled how to deal with pedophiles, and Creep Catchers came up," he says. He connected with the group and launched his own chapter in Surrey.
Laforge admits he has no personal connection to child abuse, no close relative who was victimized. So it's easy to wonder what keeps him motivated. While he says it's not about fame, the group's desire to have its own reality TV show— " To Catch A Predator meets Dog the Bounty Hunter"—suggests otherwise.
"It's entertaining," he says, of the videos.
To hang out with Laforge is to witness him receive a steady stream of props from people who recognize him, either by face or his branded clothing.
If a bystander observing a bust asks what Laforge and his team members are up to, they respond "Creep Catchers: We hunt pedophiles" with the same sense of self-importance as FBI agents identifying themselves in movies. They even have their own theme songs that play at the beginning of every video.
"This is one way to fancy oneself as a warrior of justice," says Christopher Schneider, a Brandon University sociology professor who has written a book on policing and social media.
Schneider says it's probably no coincidence that many pedophile hunters are white men who come from blue collar backgrounds—the same overlooked demographic losing work in the oilfields in Western Canada and partially responsible for electing Donald Trump down south.
On occasion, Laforge will offer to live-stream a bust on Facebook in exchange for 500 or 1,000 comments; he'll receive excited responses, like "popcorn is ready."
"People are paying attention, and they're applauding their efforts," says Schneider. "This is one way of feeling good."
A clip from VICE Canada's upcoming documentary 'Age of Consent'
Schneider says the vigilantes have tapped into a "moral panic" about online pedophiles—one that's not necessarily based in fact. Coupled with society's desire for immediate results and a justice system that can be both painfully slow and light on sex offenders, the group's popularity is a no-brainer.
"It's really easy to get on board with demonizing pedophiles," says Schneider. "They're probably the most demonized and stigmatized of all criminals."
Though they put up a defiant front, there's no question that pressure from detractors is getting under the skin of the Creep Catchers.
"It's just gotten to the point where it's out of control, and I'm not going to be taking nobody's liability when I don't even know who the fuck they are and they don't do things to our standards," Raymond tells VICE while pacing around his new apartment in Calgary. He points to the bright green and pale blue walls of his bedroom.
"It looks like a fucking kid's room," he says, but it's better than the garage he was sleeping in until very recently—a result of being dead broke from Creep Catching.
"Mostly [I was] getting fired from jobs 'cause of them seeing me on the news and being afraid it would reflect bad on their company."
"I'll do this until my fucking grave."
Raymond has deleted his Facebook profile, citing stress from the incessant online bickering amongst the various vigilante groups. Despite his exasperation, he is adamant that he will never stop doing "catches."
"I'll be in a wheelchair 90-something years old fucking chasing after these guys in an electric fucking wheelchair, you know what I mean?" he says. "I'll do this until my fucking grave, or until it puts me in my grave."
A couple days later, from his home in the neighboring province, Laforge hosts a Facebook live. He's angry about the arrest of the Red Deer Creep Catcher, and even more so about the backlash the group has been receiving.
"There's more haters than ever lately," he says, referring to the media as snakes. "If you're gonna tell us we're doing it wrong, you're not a supporter, and I'll block you."
Toward the end, he chills out, discusses starting a warm clothing drive for the homeless, and takes questions from his followers. Then it's back to business:
"I gotta get out in the snow and go catch some goofs."
Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.