“If he would have had a place to go, maybe it would have never happened to me.”
In the days since VICE published a three-part series on vigilante pedophile hunting in Canada, many have accused us of normalizing pedophilia.
The story about Todd Nickerson, a non-offending pedophile who lives near Savannah, Tennessee, seemed to particularly strike a chord—several people emailed and tweeted at me to express "disgust" that I was offering a platform to Nickerson, who says he has never abused a child despite being attracted to young girls.
On Facebook, many of the thousands of commenters suggested that Nickerson and anyone like him be killed or locked up for life, regardless of whether or not they had actually committed a crime.
But Rhea Martinez, who was raped and repeatedly molested by a male family friend as a child, feels differently. Martinez, 28, told VICE she believes society should be more empathetic towards pedophiles before they offend—and that they should have more options for getting help.
"I feel like if he would have had a place to go, maybe it would have never happened to me," Martinez said.
Martinez grew up in Niles, Michigan, a child of divorce. When she was around eight years old, her dad remarried and was granted full custody of her and her brother. Martinez said her stepmother owned a creditor's business with her ex-husband—they were still friends. Her stepmom's ex had a daughter, whom Martinez befriended.
"We went over there for a playdate, and that's how it all got started," Martinez told VICE.
The first time she slept over, her friend's dad had her sleep on the living room couch, instead of in his daughter's bedroom. While she was asleep, she said he came out to the couch and started molesting her, removing her underwear.
"There was a few other times that stuff like that happened, it got more intense the more he did it," Martinez told VICE.
On a camping trip, the summer between fourth and fifth grade, Martinez said he raped her repeatedly while she was inside their tent.
"It hurt so bad I couldn't pretend to be asleep any longer," she said. When she acted as if she was waking up, he stopped.
Martinez kept silent about the assaults for years. As a teenager, she said she had social anxiety. Terrified that someone would find out how she lost her virginity, she started having sex at age 14.
Finally, after she graduated high school, she decided to report the assaults to police.
"That's how I learned that he had done this multiple times. He was already on the (sex offender) registry."
VICE has viewed the profile of the man Martinez said raped her on the Michigan sex offender registry. He is 61 years old, and has been convicted of two counts of criminal sexual conduct with a person under 13, as well as one count of criminal sexual conduct with intent to commit sexual penetration. The latter conviction, which took place in 2009, relates to Martinez, she said. VICE is not naming Martinez's abuser because Martinez said she doesn't currently have unredacted court records showing she was the complainant in that trial.
On the witness stand, Martinez said she was grilled by a "ruthless" defence lawyer, who asked her everything from the colour of pyjamas she'd been wearing to the positioning of furniture in her abuser's home. She was asked how she could identify her perpetrator if she'd been pretending to be asleep.
"I would peek once in a while," she told VICE. "Plus, it was an adult man's hands."
Eventually, he pleaded guilty to sexual assault with intent to commit sexual penetration on a minor.
"Our prosecutor said I should take what I could get."
Martinez, who now works as an ophthalmic technician near Detroit, believes her offender was a serial pedophile.
"Vigilante justice has never been the logical answer."
She said if pedophiles were less stigmatized, they might be able to get counselling before acting on their urges.
"How are we going to understand these sorts of people if we don't talk to them?... If they're too scared to speak up and say anything, how is it going to be prevented?"
As for vigilante predator hunters, like Creep Catchers, Martinez told VICE she thinks publicly shaming people like her abuser will only push them further underground—a theory that's been echoed by police and experts in pedophilia.
"Vigilante justice has never been the logical answer," she said. "You can take all of them and shoot them in the head, and that's not going to change my life."
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