INDIANAPOLIS — They’re taking justice into their own hands.
Recently, Indiana has seen an increase in social media groups setting up sting operations to confront potential sexual predators, but several prosecutors believe those efforts are doing more harm than good.
A conversation on the social app Kik quickly escalated to sexually explicit messages, and prosecutors claim Brian Boyer, a band teacher at Lebanon High School, agreed to meet someone he believed to be 14 years old for sex at the school.
In reality, Boyer was confronted on Facebook Live by two members of Predator Catchers Indianapolis.
“Do not confront these individuals. You’re placing yourself in danger, and you’re placing other people in danger,” said Boone County Prosecutor Kent Eastwood.
While the vigilante group’s confrontation in January resulted in child solicitation charges against Boyer, Eastwood, who filed the case, admitted he has serious concerns about the way groups like PCI pose as minors to lure child predators into meeting.
“They are not trained law enforcement officers on how to obtain evidence, so all this work often goes for naught,” said Eastwood.
“I don’t like to see these groups encouraged by people who are ill informed as to what they’re doing,” said Howard County investigator Don Whitehead.
While the Facebook groups using various names have posted dozens of videos and gotten hundreds of thousands of views, a vast majority of the cases don’t result in arrests.
Whitehead believes the citizen stings may actually make Indiana less safe by allowing alleged predators to avoid prosecution.
“They have a lot of support. They have a lot of people thinking they’re doing good things, and in reality, it’s the opposite,” said Whitehead.
“Please contact law enforcement before you do something that could jeopardize a case against a legitimate suspect,” said defense attorney Ralph Staples.
Staples agrees with prosecutors that citizens who aren’t trained in evidence collection can lead to legal challenges if cases do end up in court.
“You’ve got citizens who are gathering evidence that don’t understand the rules that apply and guide law enforcement,” said Staples.
Our repeated requests for comment from several of the Facebook groups were either ignored or outright declined, but our partners at NewsNation did speak to Eric Schmutte, the founder of Predator Catchers Indianapolis this year, who explained his motivation.
“I have always wanted to do something to make a difference. This was something I could do, so I made a profile one day and started catching guys,” said Schmutte.
“It doesn’t matter to me what the motive is. It’s too dangerous,” said Madison County Prosecutor Rodney Cummings.
In Madison County, Clifford Pierce III pleaded guilty to child solicitation after conversations with Predator Catchers Muncie led to a live confrontation at a Dollar General in Alexandria, but Cummings insists he won’t prosecute additional cases where vigilante groups confront alleged offenders.
“I didn’t dismiss that case, and I’m not planning to, but we’re not going to file any more,” said Cummings.
In fact, multiple prosecutors agree that if predator catchers groups truly want to see their targets punished, they need start sending their tips to police instead of confronting the suspects on Facebook Live.
“The best way for us to be most successful in prosecuting and holding people accountable for their actions is to involve law enforcement,” said Eastwood.
“If you have information about a crime, call the police. It’s far too dangerous for citizens to take the law into their own hands. Someone’s going to get hurt,” said Cummings.
The group of prosecutors also believes the predator catcher groups could actually find themselves liable for civil damages if confrontations turn violent.