This post originally appeared on VICE UK.
Bringing pedophiles to justice might seem like a pretty black-and-white moral issue. But when you have neo-Nazis and drug barons on one side and innocent or psychologically vulnerable men on the other, the waters become a little murkier.
Yesterday, a vigilante pedophile hunter was jailed for life for stabbing an innocent man to death. In a seemingly typical ploy, 42-year-old Darren Kelly was lured to a property in Pitsea, Essex by a 15-year-old girl. But two things went wrong. Firstly, as a spokesperson for Essex Police makes clear: "Mr. Kelly thought he had been speaking to a woman [the 15-year-old girl's mother]. There was no evidence he was interested in underage girls."
Secondly, rather than a dressing-down on camera, Kelly received a beating at the hands of Chris Carroll and three teenagers, who cannot be named for legal reasons. Carroll, 20, then stabbed him with a hunting knife and fled the scene, but forensic detectives pinned him to the crime. Carroll will serve 21 years for murder, but his co-defendants were released without charge.
Anti-pedophile activism has been associated with illegality and violence in the past, and has been practiced by some of society's more unsavory characters. In the 1970s, for instance, the National Front picketed meetings of the Paedophile Information Exchange, and it was the NF, the British National Party, and the English Defence League that led protests in 2014 against the sexual abuse of 1,400 children in Rotherham—the fact the perpetrators were British-Pakistani Muslim men no doubt being a contributing factor.
In 2003, 60-year-old Scottish crime boss Maggie "Big Mags" Haney was sentenced to 12 years for running a drug-dealing ring which sold four-figure sums of heroin daily out of a base known as "Haney's Hotel." Before that arrest, the grandmother attracted headlines as a militant campaigner against child grooming on her Stirling council estate.
Other vigilante campaigns are less carefully-orchestrated. In 2000, an innocent man, Iain Armstrong, was targeted because he was wearing a similar neck-brace to a convicted sex offender. The same year, pediatrician Yvette Cloete was hounded from her home by impassioned but somewhat confused protesters. Bijan Ebrahimi, 44, was registered as disabled and unable to work when he arrived in Britain as a refugee in 2013. But when he photographed children vandalizing his hanging baskets, Bristol police took him into custody, carting him away in front of a crowd chanting: "Pedo, pedo."
Mr. Ebrahimi was soon released without charge. The night of his release, he was beaten, dragged from his home, and set on fire by his neighbor Lee James. James is serving life for his murder, and two police officers were imprisoned for deliberately ignoring a string of panicked phone-calls from the victim.
A more recent wave of anti-pedophile activists have been taking the fight from the streets to the internet. These vigilantes set up an online honey-trap, posing as underage children and arranging to meet adult men, before bursting out to confront them with a video camera. Many of those involved say they are themselves survivors of abuse.
The trend was popularized by 34-year-old vigilante Stinson Hunter, who started confronting alleged pedophiles in 2012 "to make waves and get parents, the government, and people who can change things talking." He feels the Carroll murder was an inevitable tragedy, as multiple copy-cat vigilantes have sought to emulate his work for less honorable reasons.
"It's getting out of hand," Hunter says over the phone, his voice rising with emotion. "It's heartbreaking. This guy got murdered, and for what? Because a bunch of muppets wanted a fast track to fame and to look cool in front of their mates."
Hunter says he "always talks to [his targets] like they're my best friend." While this might be stretching the point a little—friends don't often hit other friends with cars, which is what happened to Hunter when he went to confront a target in Warwickshire—he has certainly never laid hands on any of his subjects.
Other YouTube warriors are less pacifistic. Last year, a member of a group called "NWI Nonce Busters" was jailed for head-butting a man who thought he was arranging to meet a 14-year-old girl. His target lost his front teeth and 12 months of freedom, after a judge found him guilty of grooming. ("NWI" indicates a link to the "North West Infidels," one of the dominant neo-Nazi groups currently active in England, whose members have been imprisoned for moving cocaine across the north of the country.)
Nor are head-butts the worst of it. Michael Duff killed himself after being confronted by a group known as True Justice, and Gary Cleary committed suicide following an altercation with Leicestershire vigilantes Letzgo Hunting.
In a well-publicized case, Michael Parkes hanged himself while out on bail after being entrapped by Stinson Hunter. At the time, Hunter "accepted no responsibility" for Parkes' death, and he remains remorseless: "Yeah, a guy killed himself after talking to me, but he made his own choices."
But there is more than one way to catch a predator. Groups such as Dark Justice, Online Predator Investigation Team (OPIT), and Public Justice PHL (PJ-PHL, formerly known as Paedophile Hunters London) position themselves as the Co-ops of the crowded pedophile-hunting market, claiming to adopt a more ethical approach to extra-judicial crime-fighting.
"Shouting, 'Give me your fucking phone, you fucking nonce,' doesn't get you anywhere," says Jay, a member of PJ-PHL's two-man team. "The minute you attack these people it becomes a different kind of crime. You turn them into a victim."
Stinson Hunter pours scorn on groups who work with the police, and says he releases his videos before trial because his goal is raising awareness, not custodial sentences. (This contradicts his position in a 2013 Channel 4 documentary, where he wept with joy after securing his first conviction.) But all of these second-generation vigilante organizations withhold their video footage until the relevant court cases are closed, saying they prefer securing convictions to hogging the limelight.
"Everyone, including child abusers, has the right to a fair trial," says Callum, a member of Dark Justice. His team are advised by practicing solicitors and barristers, as well as human rights experts, and he claims to have secured 48 arrests and 22 convictions. (Stinson Hunter has racked up over 50 convictions.)
"Often, we don't release videos at all," says Brendan Collis of OPIT. "We get the evidence, get them prosecuted, and then release their details." His teenage daughter Leah was groomed by a 40-year-old man, who then abused her in a hotel room. Since that scarring attack, he and his daughter (who's now of age) have used old photos of Leah to entrap sexual offenders.
All of these groups rightly point to the failure of courts and police to adequately tackle sexual crime. "They need more funding, and they need more training," says PJ-PHL's Jay. He thinks a targets-driven culture forces police to focus on crimes that are easier to convict. Fewer than ten percent of child sex offenses in the UK result in a conviction.
But though all three organizations vehemently condemn Carroll's attack, no one seems sure how to stop a repeat of the Kelly murder. "That's like asking if the Loch Ness monster is real," shrugs Callum of Dark Justice. "No one knows." Brendan of OPIT doesn't think people will ever stop taking the law into their own hands: "Even the most placid of people will react. [Carroll and his co-defendants] might not have killed anyone, had they not been blinded by anger."
A spokesperson for the National Crime Agency's Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command argues that amateurish vigilante action could have a number of other "serious consequences," including "the compromise of ongoing investigations into pedophile networks, abusers harming a child if they feel threatened, and individuals being mistaken for offenders."
American statistics also suggest that around 90 percent of child sexual abuse victims know their attacker beforehand, rather than meeting them online. Even acknowledging the failings of the police and setting aside the issue of knife-wielding watchmen, it feels hard to be sure that vigilantes like Stinson Hunter and his successors are doing more good than harm.
Charities such as Circles, which provide sex offenders with small support networks, exemplify a more positive model for reducing rates of child sexual abuse. Speaking in 2013, Circles UK CEO Stephen Hanvey said: "Demonizing such serious offenders, even given the awful things they have done, renders them less safe, and less inclined even to attempt to lead offense-free lives. It has to be more about supportive vigilance than mere vigilantism." (A spokesperson for Circles told VICE they could not comment specifically on the issue of vigilantism.)
Online Predator Investigation Team have provided photos (above) of a firebombed car and a house daubed with graffiti. The property was targeted after the vigilante group revealed the identity of its inhabitant, a man convicted of sexually abusing a child. "There was a child in that house," says Brendan. "Who's to blame? The pedophile? Us? Or both?"
The names of vigilantes have been changed at their request.
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