Imagine learning that a pediatrician, special education teacher or school bus driver was an Internet predator using computer chat rooms to try and lure youngsters into sexual rendezvous.
As shocking as that might sound, it's precisely what Milford resident Greg Brainer said he's discovered over the past couple years — and more — and has helped try to halt through his work with a national watchdog group.
Brainer is one of 32 volunteers with Perverted-Justice, a grass roots organization dedicated to finding and exposing chat room users who try to arrange meetings for sex with children. A Dateline NBC segment featuring the group's work in an upscale suburb of Washington, DC — including three potential predators who set up meetings with Brainer — is scheduled to air Friday at 8 p.m.
This is the second time Dateline NBC has featured stings arranged through the efforts of Perverted-Justice workers like Brainer; last year, a similar segment was aired, earning Dateline an Emmy nomination. Perverted-Justice has also been involved in a number of stings with local television news crews in several major cities, including Detroit.
Perverted-Justice was established in 2002 in Portland, Ore. So far this year, the group has reportedly been involved in the convictions of some 30 Internet predators, with 51 awaiting trial. Most commonly, the culprits have been convicted of attempting to engage in sex with a minor.
Brainer has been directly responsible for bringing 10 predators to the attention of law enforcement officials, and three have already gone to trial. Two pleaded guilty and the other took a plea bargain, he said.
The 38-year-old Brainer, who is self-employed, joined Perverted-Justice in 2003, motivated after several teens started talking to him through on-line chat rooms that he frequented to correspond with adult gay men like himself. Many of the teens were in the midst of coming to terms with their sexuality, looking to speak with other gay people, and were particularly vulnerable, he said. Brainer noted that he was concerned for their safety, explaining that predators are known to hunt for adolescents that are confused, lonely and otherwise susceptible — and Web sites are prime places to do so.
Brainer knew he had to do something to thwart those trying to prey on youngsters. He soon discovered Perverted-Justice and right away decided it was the answer. "I found the Web site, read about it and realized it was right up my alley," he said.
Perverted-Justice volunteers like Brainer — which the organization calls "contributors" — are screened and then trained to pose as pre-teens or young teens with fake on-line screen names. A specific protocol is used, Brainer said, "to keep it as clean and as legal as possible."
After entering chat rooms, the contributors wait for potential predators to strike through instant messages and invitations to get together. Brainer's on-line persona is a lonely 13-year-old boy, typical of the kind of youngster that predators seek, he said.
Once the predator wannabe sets up a meeting, Perverted-Justice volunteers turn over their evidence — including predators' phone numbers which Brainer said are readily provided by the unsuspecting predators — to interested law enforcement officials. Chat room transcripts, photographs and other identifying information are posted on the Perverted-Justice web site, as well, serving as a warning and spreading awareness of the potential danger awaiting unsuspecting chat room users.
"Public awareness is huge. Every time we get an arrest or conviction, it hits people," he said. What people often don't realize, he added, is that while Milford is a safe community where residents watch out for each other, that safety net isn't there once a child logs on a computer.
"I can't tell you how many people I preach Internet safety to," he said. "And people need to know that predators are willing to travel for (rendezvous), and they are traveling now."
For security reasons, contributors generally aren't permitted to work in their home state. And though Perverted-Justice has worked with local TV news crews in Michigan, it isn't involved with any law enforcement agencies in Michigan. Brainer explained that he's had minimal contact with Oakland County and Macomb County officials, and hasn't been able to develop a relationship in order to work in tandem.
Brainer said some see Perverted-Justice as a vigilante group and simply don't want to coordinate efforts with them. But he maintains the organization's effectiveness could be a welcomed addition to agencies operating with strained budgets and limited personnel.
"I don't blame them, but in the same respect they should start looking at alternative resources," he said. "Every law enforcement agency is underfunded and understaffed. We can help save taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. And every police officer I've ever talked to about this supports what I do, and praises it."
In Milford, Internet predator cases are very rare, according to Milford Police Lt. Tom Callahan. "There is no pattern or any frequency that would be alarming," Callahan said. "It's not a problem in Milford."
As for Highland Township, Lt. David Pement of the Oakland County Sheriff's Department, Highland Township substation commander, said such cases are uncommon in that area, as well. Any suspected incidents, however, are turned over to the Computer Crimes Unit of the Oakland County's sheriff's department, which is responsible for investigating Internet predator cases throughout the county. The division is headed by Det. Sgt. Joe Brian, who explains there are difficulties in working with groups like Perverted-Justice. While their intentions are good, Brian said, procedures differ and lead to road blocks in tracking down the suspects and prosecuting them, as well as entrapment concerns.
"Type in one wrong thing, and it can be considered entrapment. We don't want to take that chance," he said. "If there is a guy out there trying to arrange a meeting with a little kids, we don't want to take the chance of screwing up the case."
Instead, the county has its own protocol to follow in the effort to deal with what he sees as an ongoing problem that won't go away. Since November 2004, the county has identified nine "travelers" who've set up meetings for sex with people they believe are children, based on chat room conversation. One of these cases was from the Huron Valley — Highland Township — though he said he wasn't familiar with any cases from Milford. Yet Brian cautions that Internet predators are everywhere, from all walks of life.
"My advice for parents is to just keep an eye on what your kids are doing on the computer," he said. "Keep the computer in a common area, don't allow secret passengers and don't let a computer be a baby sitter. And know that you can't trust your kids the way you think you can."
Regardless of his group's conflicts with law enforcement agencies in Michigan — which result in the efforts being focused far from home — Brainer is clearly committed to Perverted-Justice; his work with the organization consumes about 40 hours of his time each week.
Yet Brainer doesn't see himself as a crusader. Rather, he said, he's "just a citizen who cares about kids."
"Convictions are our reward. It's good to know we have taken one of these (predators) temporarily off the street — and hopefully they will get some type of treatment," he said.
He admits, however, that the work can take a marked toll on him, emotionally. As such, his cases that are part of tomorrow's Dateline show were particularly disturbing, he said, because they involve professionals who are commonly entrusted with children. "After those, I just had to step away for awhile," he said. "You can get burned out doing this kind of work."
But after a brief respite, Brainer was right back at it. Internet predators are a growing problem that demands attention — much more than is typically given, he said. "It's real, it's out there and it's never going to end," he said.
"Predators have been around for centuries, but the Internet is the new threat. We teach kids not to talk to strangers or accept rides from strangers, but now we also have to teach them not to talk to them on the Internet. Because they are out there, and with the Internet, they are in every town and can be in every house that has Internet access. It puts children at the fingertips of predators," he said.
Brainer said he appreciates the Internet and sees it as a very valuable communication tool — as long as it's used properly. That's why he urges parents to visit the Perverted-Justice Web site at www.perverted-justice.com to learn more about the organization and ways to keep safe. He'd also like to see stricter and more defined laws in every state to keep Internet predators behind bars for a substantial amount of time and encourages people to lobby in that effort.
In Michigan, soliciting a child to commit an immoral act is punishable by up to four years in prison.
"My question to legislators and judges and everyone else, can you look a child in the eye that was molested by (a convicted predator) who had been released? We need stiffer penalties for people convicted of attempting to molest," he said. "An ounce of prevention is worth 20 gallons of safety."