WARNING: The following story contains graphic content not suitable for all readers
FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – They walk into the north side furniture store acting like customers at first, but when they get the man away from his co-workers they begin to grill him.
“You don’t recognize my face?” the woman says.
“You told me you masturbated to me several times,” she says.
“I look a little older, huh?” she adds.
“I have every single message,” she tells him.
The man does not recognize her, but he denies nothing.
He admits to sending sexual photos to someone he met over the internet. He admits to asking her to meet multiple times. He admits to fantasizing about this person, telling her about it and calling her gorgeous. He acknowledges he once sent her a message saying he “wants” her.
He admits to believing whoever he was talking to was only 14 years old.
All while the entire interaction is livestreamed over the internet.
The man in the video is now identified as 47-year-old Jeffrey Michael Vernace, who Allen County prosecutors formally charged with two felony counts of child solicitation earlier this week, partly due to the efforts the group who confronted him at the Kittle’s Furniture store on Coliseum Boulevard where he worked.
That group, PCI: Predator Catchers Indianapolis, is one of many that have been popping up throughout the country.
They are private citizens banding together to gather evidence against those who are trying to prey upon children through various social media apps.
They use decoys to interact online with people seeking to exploit minors, and then they confront those people with the plethora of messages or photos they’ve collected – usually with a camera recording everything.
It’s very much in the style of the former NBC reality show “To Catch a Predator.”
While many of these sting operations have led to charges and arrests, some law enforcement experts caution about what these groups are doing and how they are operating.
They warn these groups may be taking undue risks with people who could react violently or that, because they are not trained in law enforcement, they might not properly know the ins and outs of the justice system.
“There’s a reason we have a police department and a detective bureau,” said Allen County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Michael McAlexander. “The concern is, if (an investigation) is done improperly, it could essentially defeat what the good-intentioned people are doing. It could mess up a case so it would be harder to prosecute.”
Aware of the risks
His daughter had a cell phone at 13.
When the man called “Boots” once took a look at it and saw a man in his 20s trying to exploit his child and threatening her if she did not comply with the things he wanted her to do, it changed the direction of his life.
“The biggest thing is, they shouldn’t have cell phones,” said Boots, referring to children and teenagers. “If you think you’re checking their device and they are safe, there are ways around that.”
Boots is now the president of the Goshen-based group Bikers Against Predators. He did not want his identity revealed due to safety concerns connected to what the group does – which is set up stings to try and catch potential sexual predators.
Like many of the organizations operating all over the country, members of Bikers Against Predators set up online decoy accounts over various social media platforms. Then they sit back and wait.
“Our first rule is, we never reach out to anybody,” said a woman, who also did not want to be identified for safety reasons, who acts as one of Boots’ decoys. “They have to reach out to us first.”
The decoys also must say whatever age they are using multiple times. For instance, they have to tell someone they are 13, or 14, or whatever they decide, and make that clear. If the person chatting with them tells them they have no interest in talking to someone underage, those decoys terminate the conversation immediately and do not engage with that person again.
If the conversation continues, though, the decoys are not to turn any of the talk sexual. The other person must do that first. Likewise, the decoys never ask to meet in person. It’s up to the other person to make that suggestion first.
When they collect enough evidence, they confront that person and livestream it over the internet. They’ve done this to people in Fort Wayne, Goshen, Warsaw and other parts of Indiana.
“Here’s the thing, in our organization, we are fully aware of the safety,” said the woman who works as one of Boots’ decoys. “We are fully aware of the safety. We don’t go in there thinking nothing is ever going to happen. We know things might go wrong, but to us it’s such an important issue.”
As chief deputy prosecutor in Allen County, McAlexander and others in law enforcement understand the sentiment.
He raved about newer technology that has helped in prosecuting crimes, noting that people’s willingness to come forward with surveillance footage from homes or doorbell cameras have assisted law enforcement like never before.
Still, he cautioned that in almost every sense, the police are better trained to gather evidence and approach these types of people that might be involved in these types of crimes.
“The practical side is, if you’re right and they’ve targeted a person who is doing these kinds of acts, confronting them up close and personal could turn out very bad,” he said. “You don’t know if they have a weapon, and I’m guessing their knowledge of this person’s criminal history is very limited.”
“I would encourage them, if they reach a certain point in their investigation, contact law enforcement to cover the final stages,” McAlexander added.
Allen County Sheriff spokesman Capt. Steve Stone said a lot of things could go wrong in such a confrontation.
Police officers are trained to handle situations that go bad, and they do have information about potential suspects and criminal histories that the public might not. Plus, there are always the danger of mistaken identity.
“How do you know you’re confronting the right person,” Stone said.
Those involved in these predator hunting groups, though, say they know what they’re doing, and that they always turn over all their evidence to police and prosecutors whenever they are finished. Livestreaming interactions keeps members safe, according to Boots, as someone is not as likely to get violent or do harm in front of a camera.
Plus, they said they do their due diligence in following the law and verifying who people are before any confrontation begins.
“Our cases are rock solid,” Boots said.
Help is still help
At one point in the video, Jeffrey Michael Vernace is sitting on the edge of a bed at the furniture store.
He holds a phone in his hand. His wife is on speaker. She is crying.
“I’m a horrible person,” he says.
The video keeps going. For 40 minutes anyone with an internet connection can watch the breakdown of people’s lives.
At some point, Fort Wayne Police are called. A detective arrives – off camera – and an investigation begins. Police collect everything from Predator Catchers Indianapolis – the sexually explicit videos Vernace is accused of sending, the sexual messages, even the attempts to get the girl he thought he was interacting with to come meet him.
And then there are the messages where he’s told he’s talking to a 14-year-old girl.
Nearly eight months later, Allen County prosecutors file felony charges against Vernace, who has previous sex crime convictions in Missouri.
Despite his caution against such investigation tactics, McAlexander understands and is appreciative when a crime is uncovered.
“When we ask for the public’s help, we can’t turn around and say we don’t want you to do this,” McAlexander said. “By the same token, crime is crime. We would prefer, if they have a reason to believe someone has done something, they notify the police and let them take over the investigation.”
It’s hard to gauge success of such sting operations in terms of charges and convictions, according to some of these groups.
Boots said some of the people they’ve confronted are facing charges in Kosciusko County and Elkhart, and added that some of their confrontations have not led to charges yet. But, he measures success in another way.
“We’ve saved upwards of 97 children,” he said. “These are children who could’ve been victims.”
And for people like Boots, who had someone close preyed upon, that is huge.