When University of Toronto ethics and anthropology professor Paul Salvatori first reached out to self-described pedophile hunter Justin Payne after reading about him on VICE, his intention was to shoot a documentary on him. Instead, he quickly found himself wanting to participate in Payne's vigilante investigations.
For two years, Payne, 29, has been posing as a little girl or boy on dating websites, acting as bait for adults who are sexually interested in kids. Up until he teamed up with Salvatori last fall, his method had been to meet up with one of his pursuers in a public place, like a parking lot, and film himself confronting the person (usually a man) about their warped sexual proclivities, later posting the video online. Aside from gaining attention from Payne's thousands of Facebook followers, it yielded few results—to this day Payne isn't aware of a single one of his investigations that has led to criminal charges.
But in the last few weeks, Salvatori, 35, told VICE the two of them have been in talks with the FBI regarding a California-based sex offender who was convicted on child porn charges. It's the warmest reception they say they've received from law enforcement, noting Canadian authorities, including Toronto police and the RCMP, have either told them to stop their activities or been dismissive of the information they claim to have.
"Indirectly, I think [the FBI agents] are supporting it because they didn't say 'stop,'" said Salvatori. "You could hear it in the tone of their voice that they like it."
The FBI told VICE it would not comment on open investigations but said in a statement "while the FBI routinely encourages the public to provide information to assist and/or further investigations, we do not recommend that private citizens conduct law enforcement type operations independently."
As Payne's new partner in crime, Salvatori advocated moving away from the public shaming tactic. Instead, they now carefully file all chat logs, emails, and recordings of Payne's phone conversations with perceived child predators, in which he attempts to put on the voice of a preteen boy. Salvatori mines the internet looking for ways to verify the identities of the men they're speaking with based on things they say and photos they send.
Some of the cases they've been dealing with as of late have been the most "messed up" Payne has encountered. A retired BC man, for example, admitted to having had sex with two minors, including one of his former students, decades ago.
Using a reverse image search, Salvatori found out another one of these men, who lives in Sacramento, served jail time for child porn. In conversations with Payne, the man, believing Payne was a young boy, expressed an interest in having him visit California for the purpose of having sex. Payne and Salvatori suspect that just by interacting online with someone he believes to be a child, the man might be breaking his bail conditions.
"He said, 'If anyone were to hear us talking to each other, I'd probably go to jail for the rest of my life,'" said Salvatori.
After going to Toronto police, the RCMP, and Sacramento police, and claiming each agency more or less passed the buck, the pair reached out to the FBI.
VICE has obtained an audio recording of a conversation between Payne and two men who identify themselves as FBI agents. On it, the agents say they would normally take over for Payne in these circumstances, but it's more difficult to do that because the suspect has already heard Payne's voice.
The agents then walk Payne through different crimes they typically deal with in these investigations, including several relating to child porn and enticement of a minor, and what thresholds would have to be met in order to merit a charge.
"Generally in these kind of cases we try and move toward actually meeting," an agent tells Payne.
They also inform Payne of some potential pitfalls that undercover officers should avoid, such as entrapment, and note that whatever Payne does could be seen as an "extension" of the FBI if a case was to open up.
Speaking to VICE, Payne said when he first realized the FBI was interested in talking, "it scared the shit out of me."
But afterward, he said he felt more encouragement than he'd ever received from Canadian officers, and that he's going to spend more time chatting with potential American predators because "it seems like we're gonna get convictions."
The conversation with FBI stands in stark contrast to another exchange obtained by VICE between Salvatori and a man who identifies himself as a Toronto police detective.
The detective, sounding impatient, advises them to stop what they're doing.
"Clearly, I've explained it is difficult for us to proceed on cases involving vigilantes because I need the best evidence," he says. "[Payne] doesn't follow the rules we set out in doing these types of investigations. We obviously can't have every Joe and Jane doing these things online."
The Toronto police declined to comment for this story.
From a reporting standpoint, civilians can turn to Cybertip.ca, a national tip line dedicated to complaints relating to child sexual abuse. Staff are trained to take down information and forward it to the correct authorities.
"We're set up with all the proper protocols and things in place in order to be doing the work we're doing, which is very serious in nature because we're intersecting with issues that tie into the criminal code," cybertip.ca director Signy Arnason told VICE.
It receives 4,000 reports a month, 90 percent of which deal with child pornography. The US-based CyberTipline, run by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, received 4.4 million reports in 2015 relating to child porn, online enticement, child sexual molestation, and child sex trafficking.
Arnason said the numbers don't encompass anything close to the full extent of the problem here, especially considering most Canadians aren't aware of cybertip.ca.
"If child pornography is our biggest concern, at the root of that is child sexual abuse. In homes and bedrooms across this country every single day, children are being sexually abused," Arnason said.
But Arnason said civilians acting as investigators isn't the solution. Confronting people who've expressed a sexual interest in children offline could be dangerous, she said (Payne has had people threaten to kill him), and shaming them is probably not going to be effective long-term. She also said vigilantes could get into trouble when investigating if they end up downloading child porn—or worse, some vigilantes could be hiding their own interest in that.
Arnason adds, "How do we know that individual themselves isn't sexually aroused by the material?"
Cops who work in child sex crimes units already have difficulty keeping up with their caseloads; finding them more resources should be a priority, she said.
But for Payne, Salvatori, and a network of creep-catching vigilantes across Canada growing in spite of police disapproval, the work seems to border on obsession.
Salvatori described the attitudes of Canadian law enforcement agencies as "arrogant."
"It is also offensive to countless civilians of goodwill who wish to do this and are indeed, as intelligent and committed persons, capable," he said. "In an era where online child abuse has never been so rampant, it is high time this arrogance disappear."
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