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Thu Sep 22, 2022, 05:08 PM

How vigilante 'predator catchers' are infiltrating the criminal justice system


How vigilante ‘predator catchers’ are infiltrating the criminal justice system

It began with a live-streamed shaming in an Olive Garden parking lot. It ended with an Indiana cop on trial for child solicitation.

By Jessica Contrera
September 22, 2022 at 8:00 a.m. EDT

DANVILLE, Ind. — The jury was waiting. They’d cringed when they learned what kind of case they’d hear in this Indiana courthouse. Child solicitation. ... But don’t worry, the county prosecutors assured them. There would be no graphic pictures. There would be no testimony from an abused child. ... Because in this case, there was no child. ... The man charged with the crime — a 37-year-old veteran named Joshua Clark — didn’t know the 14-year-old girl he thought he was texting with was actually an adult, prosecutors said.

Law enforcement had been using this tactic for years, investing millions to train detectives on how to go online, pretend to be teenagers and wait for predators to emerge. Clark knew they conducted sting operations like these; after serving in the Army and working in a prison, he’d been hired as a police officer himself. That was, until he was arrested and fired. ... Now on this July morning, the jury was going to meet the person responsible for catching this cop. ... The prosecutor stood up. “The state calls Eric Schmutte,” she said. ... The courtroom doors opened. But no detective walked in.

Instead, there was a man in a polo shirt. His dreadlocks were tucked into a ponytail. After raising his right hand and swearing to tell the truth, Schmutte, a 35-year-old welder, began to explain why he was there. ... He wasn’t just a welder. He was the founder of an organization called Predator Catchers Indianapolis. ... “Our mission,” he said, “is to expose men and women that are online, preying on kids.” ... “And when you say ‘expose,’ ” the prosecutor said, “what’s your plan to expose them?” ... “Put their faces out online,” Schmutte explained. “Post videos so that community knows … these men and women are out here, and they’re okay with the idea of meeting up with your children for sexual activity.” ... For two years, Schmutte had been taking it upon himself to do what the police do. Go on dating and social media apps. Pretend to be 14 or 12 or 8. Agree to meet up with an adult to do something sexual.


In Indiana and across the country, the criminal justice system is reckoning with an unprecedented boom in vigilante activity. In the past three years, at least 160 groups have been “catching predators” in the United States, according to a Washington Post analysis of their social media posts. This year alone, a YouTube channel tracking catchers has counted more than 920 stings by amateurs. ... Some are fueled by right-wing rhetoric about “groomers” and the need to “save the children.” Some are parents fearful for their own kids, or, like Schmutte, say they are called by God to do this work. Some make thousands of dollars from clicks and donations.


Story editing by Lynda Robinson. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Video editing by Amber Ferguson. Copy editing by Anne Kenderdine. Design by Twila Waddy. Alex Horton contributed to this report.

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By Jessica Contrera
Jessica Contrera is a reporter on The Washington Post's local enterprise team. She writes about people whose lives are being transformed by the major events and issues in the news. Twitter https://twitter.com/mjcontrera

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