This week, at the Crescent Theatre in Birmingham, England, Stinson Hunter, better known as the Pedophile Hunter after a Channel 4 documentary about him, held a ticketed meet and greet. For the princely sum of about $18, his fans could meet the UK's answer to Chris Hansen.
This was the sort of event that should only be held in the freezing, pouring rain. Walking to the Crescent Theatre, batting the warm sun out of my eyes, didn't quite seem fitting for the dark occasion. Stinson Hunter is responsible for over 50 convictions of men caught grooming young girls. He acts, or rather used to act, as the child, inviting these men to a decoy child's home. Then they would be filmed, asked why they were there, and footage of them would be uploaded to Hunter's Facebook group.
Hunter has a ghoulish agony in his eyes. They're eyes that have seen an incredible amount of pain. They're almost discolored from it. He has emerged from years of drug addiction and crime to answer his true calling, the only thing he's ever truly felt good at: trapping men who want to have sex with underage girls. He wanted to be a train driver, but he is colorblind, so he "turned into a scumbag instead," as he told the assembled audience.
Most people in the Crescent Theatre, a mass of old dears and dressed-up middle-aged couples, were there to see a musical performance of Jekyll and Hyde. Stinson's Q&A session seemed to be a source of great embarrassment for the staff of the venue. It was being held in the studio area of the theatre, in the basement, as if to hide it away from everything. After the last call was made for the musical, a silent group of sparsely arranged people were the only people left in the bar. These were the Hunter fans. I asked one of them for a chat about why she was there, but she told me that she doesn't speak to press, and that she herself was a "hunter." She spent the rest of the evening taking notes on Stinson's talk.
I called Hunter the next morning. "I think she came as a bit of a fan and came away really disappointed with me to be honest," he said, of the woman I had met. "We were keeping an eye on her because she was being really evasive. I'm against this wave of copycats who are kind of doing it for fun. The message gets lost."
Another fan was a short-haired woman called Belinda, who had a notebook spilling with questions. Belinda was on the edge of life, contemplating suicide, but she says she watched a video of Stinson's, in which he discussed his mental health, and it saved her life. "It blows my mind, and it's difficult to take in," Stinson told me. "I'm used to people not liking me. There are people out there who don't like me, who run their little hate campaigns. [They] tried to get the theater to cancel."
One of Stinson's enemies is a man called Nigel Oldfield, a kind of pedophile rights advocate, who demanded that an irate throng encircling his Rotherham home "bring your children to [him]".
For a man who has dedicated his life to impersonating pubescent girls in order to entrap perverts, Hunter is quite the charmer. He thanks every person after they ask him a question, and he gesticulates when speaking, as if he's about to unveil a new iPhone. He told the theater about shedding his birth name, Kieran Parsons, in favor of the How-I-Met-Your-Mother-referencing Hunter. He spoke of his disdain for an attitude of violence toward the people he captures, stating that talking to them calmly "gets to them more." But he also spoke about the incident in which he was run over by someone he caught, who later killed themselves, something he appears to be, essentially, remorseless about.
It's important to ask how much of Hunter's work is a PR-led endeavor. I don't mean to suggest that he does what he does for fame, but the way in which he carries himself, the smooth behavior he exhibits, shows that he knows how to play a crowd. Perhaps it's his skills in talking to people that make him ideal for the job of manipulation. Everything he does is to promote his message—that the police need more resources to tackle online pedophilia. The point isn't necessarily to promote himself, but it does come with the territory. He says he feels forced to use controversial tactics to get people talking about a phenomenally dark and still largely taboo subject. It is hard to argue with him.
Hunter admits that he's done many bad things in his life. He was in prison for burning down an empty school. But there is a quiet story of redemption in him. You might expect people who move away from drugs and crime to help people in those situations. Hunter has emerged, as if reborn, with the primary goal of raising global awareness about online grooming.
It presents a deep moral quandary. Naturally, I cannot abide abusers, and I think that often more complexity and pathos is awarded to abusers than is warranted. But is a person taking his or her own life out of embarrassment and shame the price that must be paid for this type of prevention? Most people in the room with me in Birmingham that night would have said yes.
Hunter's fans adore and respect him, but Stinson seems uneasy with being the object of their admiration. He strikes me as the sort of person who likes to be almost constantly alone, charm or not, and to see him standing in front of not just moderates, but fans—I imagine that must have been galling for him.
That it was a predominantly female crowd surprised me. I asked Stinson why he thought that was. "I don't know, to be honest. I never really thought of it like that until you just said it," he said. "I didn't really see the crowd as men or women—I just saw them as people."
Hunter says he's now out of the pedophile-hunting game, though clearly he doesn't want anyone else to take up his mantel. I get the impression that he believes he's the only person who can do this job, this task that's been given to him, almost as if it's a secret mission. He is the one who has to do it, on his own terms. While he may not be tricking wronguns into houses anymore, he is constantly working on ways to raise and re-raise awareness of the issues. You get the feeling that he will never stop until he gets the results he wants, and fickle things like complex moral discussions won't thwart him. It's almost as if he's trying to redeem himself from a life of darkness by entrenching himself further in it, like pushing your arm into the murky waters of a blocked sink to pull out the plug. "I've got to go and make noise, again, so they start listening. I don't know what they can do mate, I'm not the expert, you know? But when they have that conversation, I think then I might be satisfied. Might."
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