Meet the Construction Worker Moonlighting As a Vigilante Pedophile Hunter
He's confronted dozens of men in the last year but police believe he is a danger, both to himself, and their investigations.
All photos by Nam Phi Dang
Justin Payne spends his days pouring concrete in the suburbs of Toronto. Almost every other waking hour, he's on his smartphone pretending to be a little boy or girl.
Payne, 28, considers himself a vigilante pedophile hunter. At any given time, the construction worker is logged onto three different dating websites, posing as a child between the ages of nine and 13.
He says he's inundated with messages from adult males as old as 60 within minutes of going online.
"I drop the bomb and just say, 'Hey I'm nine turning ten in a couple days, is that OK with you?' Ninety percent of the time, they're totally cool with it," Payne told VICE.
According to him, the exchanges quickly become sexual, with the men asking if he's a virgin and requesting naked photos. Payne doesn't oblige; he has several fully-clothed images of both children he's impersonating (old photos of his friends' kids), which he posts to his profiles. His pursuers, on the other hand, don't hold back.
"They'll start off with their shirts off, then penis pictures," he tells me, pulling up a litany of stomach-churning examples on his phone while driving around the city on a sunny October evening. His vehicle, a Kia Spectra that's seen better days, is filled with the tools of his bizarre trade—a wire, spy glasses with a hidden camera, a laptop that contains a soundboard he can use to send audio messages in a kid's voice.
With brown hair and eyes and olive skin, Payne is attractive in a rough-around-the-edges way. When we meet, he's wearing a backwards baseball cap, gray beater, shorts, and work boots, all splattered with concrete. The Chinese characters tattooed to his right bicep stand for "love, peace, and loyalty." At 5'11", he's muscular, though not intimidating, speaking softly, and chain smoking to ease his anxiety. It's difficult to imagine him confronting anyone, but about once a week, he meets up with one of the many guys propositioning him and reams them out on camera.
"I go based on if they've done it before or if it's been a fantasy of theirs," he says.
Payne picks public but deserted locations for the stings, such as mall parking lots after hours. Armed with print-outs of his chat history and a camera, he zeroes in on his target, later posting videos of the encounters on Facebook or YouTube for his thousands of followers to see.
In addition to the videos featuring him confronting alleged predators, Payne posts silly skits to his YouTube page.
Sitting in the parking lot of a North York strip mall, he points across the street to a high rise apartment building, the home, he says, of a 51-year-old who thought Payne was a ten-year-old boy named Christopher. Payne produces a chat log in which the man proposes having oral sex, sends dick pics, and admits to previously having sex with a 14-year-old boy.
In a recording of their painfully uncomfortable exchange, Payne holds up a photo of "Christopher" in the man's face and demands, "Did this turn you on? Did this make you fucking horny?" The man repeatedly says he's "really sorry" and promises not to do it again. Still shouting, Payne replies: "That's not going to fix a goddamn, fucking thing. Nightmares every night, therapy all the fucking time, relationships ruined." At the end of the clip, the man, almost in tears, begs Payne to "have pity." This is typical, I'm told.
Usually, Payne will report his findings to police, but that's yet to result in an investigation, he says, expressing frustration at the inaction. He is convinced a child sexual assault suspect, whose photo police recently released, was featured in one of his first videos.
"They haven't done anything. So people are happy when people like me come out, because there are no rules."
But there are rules, says Detective Sergeant Kim Gross with Toronto police's child exploitation unit, who argues that someone without training might screw up the evidence-gathering process needed to support a charge like luring or worse, tip off a would-be offender.
"He's alerted this person to this technique," she tells VICE. "What if he's scaring them away to the point that we never capture them?"
When one of Gross's 17 officers carries out an undercover operation, she says it takes meticulous planning to follow legal protocols. For example, if a cop engages in entrapment by encouraging someone to commit a crime they wouldn't otherwise commit, it's considered a Charter of Rights violation. Despite admiring Payne for his good intentions, the potential for screwing up even the most basic of protocols is partially why Gross advises against vigilantism. Even if his activities lead to an arrest, she says a good defense lawyer "could tear him apart" on the witness stand, throwing a case into jeopardy.
"Wouldn't it be better to have this person in jail?" Gross asks.
According to Toronto criminal defense attorney Arun Maini, Payne's actions have a number of potential legal and societal implications. Exposing someone's identity could be a breach of privacy and Payne could open himself to a defamation lawsuit (he hasn't been sued yet but he has received death threats). He could even get into trouble if he winds up unwittingly chatting with an undercover officer.
As far as his recordings being used to make an arrest, "that would be problematic because it's not evidence collected by the police... There could be an argument in court that this is what's called 'an abuse of process.'"
Maini says there's also the fear of "lynch mob"-style retaliation if Payne's followers were to recognize any of the accused predators.
Toronto dad Cliff Ford was hailed as a hero when, last year, he posed as his pre-teen daughter online to gather intel on a man who was "grooming her." At the time, Ford told the media his instinct was to burn the guy's house down. He refrained, instead turning over the investigation to police, which resulted in a 22-year prison sentence for the perpetrator on child exploitation charges. But not everyone has that kind of self-control.
In the UK, people who've been accused of being child predators online have been beaten, received death threats, been subject to vandalism, and gone into hiding, even in the absence of any formal charges.
"It's difficult to erase what gets put on the internet," says Maini.
In the case of the 51-year-old from North York, the man's family members contacted Payne claiming that his accusations were baseless. But the video remains online. Asked if he ever worries about making false accusations, Payne claims he's diligent about backing up all of his evidence on his computer.
He seems to have little regard for his own safety, although he says his mom worries about the fact that he's undertaking these missions solo. Detective Gross echoes those concerns.
"He's going in blind," she says. "Some of these are vicious people who are predators. You don't know who you're up against."
Their fears aren't unwarranted. Though his motto is "Stay vigilant and bring the Payne," Payne avoids getting physical during his confrontations, but he has chased after suspects before. He tells me one of the men ran him over: "He started going on a joy ride with me on the car."
While it's clear that Payne feels he's performing a public service, it's hard to grasp what motivates him to dedicate almost all of his free time to chatting with potential pedophiles.
Growing up "dirt poor" with his parents and two older brothers in a trailer park in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, Payne says he suffered from depression and anxiety. He got into lots of fights, occasionally bringing cops home. By the time he was a teenager, he'd taken to cutting himself on a regular basis and twice attempted suicide—once by hanging and again by swallowing his grandmother's arthritis medication. He says he lost his virginity at age 14, when his mom's friend, a woman in her 40s, snuck into his bedroom after a party.
At 18, Payne moved to Ontario with his mom and one brother. He says he became inspired by the Dateline series To Catch A Predator, in which host Chris Hansen and his team posed as teens online to investigate sexual predators. A year and a half ago, Payne decided to try it himself and was flooded with positive feedback when he posted the video online.
"A lot of people just said, 'Keep going, don't stop,' and I kind of found a rhythm."
Payne is a bit of a lone wolf. He rarely parties—says the emotional hangovers are too great—and suffers from bouts of social anxiety so crippling that as a test of strength, he sometimes sits in a crowded mall alone, just to prove he can stand it. Online, somewhat paradoxically, he boldly wears T-shirts bearing his name and face and frequently posts videos, some completely unrelated to pedophile hunting—clips of him goofing around on a banana phone or performing "random acts of kindness." Each post garners hundreds if not thousands of "likes." He tells me he wanted to be an actor. For a guy who describes himself as "numb" most of the time, he seems drawn to the attention.
"Even though I have anxiety, I love putting myself out there," he admits. "I feel more calm in chaos."
Regardless of his intentions, Payne appears to show no signs of slowing down. To date, he's confronted around 150 men and in the process has amassed a following of individuals who praise his every move.
One of them, Alycha Reda, 26, was sexually assaulted as a teen in Kingston, Ontario by Mark Bedford. Bedford was sent to jail in 2008 for sexually exploiting hundreds of girls online.
Reda has since become a victim's advocate, sharing her story at high schools around Ontario and Alberta, where she now lives. She says she supports Payne because he gets results that can be elusive when going through the criminal justice system.
"You don't see him going out and beating up the pedophiles, you see him exposing them with a camera," she says.
"We're talking 20 to 30 of them in the span of a month. Would the police ever catch that kind of a number in one month? No. Not even close."
Read on Motherboard: One Step Ahead: Pedophiles on the Deep Web
Detective Gross tells VICE the high volume of interest Payne attracts doesn't surprise her in the least.
"I could keep every single one of my officers busy talking to a pedophile every day. It's overwhelming the number of people online who are interested in children."
While he is partially out to shame the men, Payne is also trying to raise awareness about how easy it is for children to get lured online.
"I'm trying to shock the shit out of parents," he says. "The most important thing is showing non-believers that think this doesn't happen in their area that it does."
That goal is what drives him, despite what it may be doing to his mental health. He hears from hundreds of sex assault victims, most recently one who says she was molested by her father. Sometimes he sits alone in his car and cries.
"I'm sick to my stomach most of the time," he says, noting he's incapable of having relationships with women because "I'm always thinking about the last person I talked to or the guy I'm supposed to meet."
"I've contemplated just turning away and leaving all this behind," he adds. "But then I think about all the people I'll be letting down."
Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.