Remember 'To Catch a Predator,' the awful festival of horror and shame from Dateline NBC that briefly captured America's heart in the mid-aughts? We thought we'd check in with the creepy internet vigilantes behind it, and guess what? They're broke.
"To Catch a Predator" was a series of Dateline internet stings where fake 13-year-old girls and boys would lure would-be statutory rapists to fake houses set up by NBC News. Instead of the promised pre-teens, they'd encounter NBC News correspondent Chris Hansen, who would explore their awfulness and berate them in an interview before sending them out the door and into the arms of awaiting cops.
For a while, it was the best thing NBC had going, beating The Office and matching The Apprentice in ratings in 2006. Then one of the caught predators shot himself in the head while NBC News cameras waited outside his home, and people started to wonder whether reveling in the sickness and criminality of damaged people whose crimes were hypothetical and who wouldn't have even been there if NBC hadn't lured them there was really such a good idea. The network pulled the plug in 2008.
The stings were conducted by Perverted Justice, a loosely organized online vigilante outfit founded by a Portland man named Phillip John Eide in 2003. Eide—who changed his name to Xavier von Erck in 2006—and his volunteers initially just documented the predators they caught and exposed them online, but soon they started working with law enforcement and local TV stations. When NBC News took them national, the network paid Perverted Justice more than $100,000 per sting. "Von Erck" was an odd partner for a national news organization—he looked like Kevin Smith, called the civilian victims of al Qaeda "shameless and pathetic" on his blog, and once pretended to be a woman to seduce an online enemy in an attempt to ruin him. All told, NBC News paid him somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.2 million between 2006 and 2009.
Where did the money go? Back in 2006, "Von Erck" had big plans for his franchise. He founded a nonprofit called Perverted Justice Foundation Inc. to receive NBC's funds, and hoped to apply them to the tax-exempt goal of "promot[ing] internet safety" and helping cops "apprehend internet based sexual predators."
In 2006, according to PJFI's application for tax-exempt status, he predicted that NBC would pay the foundation $2 million in consulting fees by 2008, and that it would soon be raising hundreds of thousands of dollars from major corporate donors like Wal-Mart and Microsoft. It planned to develop special software to help parents monitor their kids' internet usage. It hoped to send its members on speaking tours to spread the word about predators and to publish guides and brochures for parents and kids. PJFI set up a web site and started paying "Von Erck," treasurer Dennis Kerr, and secretary Allison Shea $120,000 annual salaries. Shea and Kerr were active volunteers for Perverted Justice prior to the NBC deal; Shea, who also goes by the name Del Harvey, is now Twitter's "director of trust and safety."
The NBC money dried up sooner than expected, and corporate donors never emerged. In 2009, according to PJFI's tax return, the group had a whopping $2,148 in income and $10,368 in cash on hand at the end of the year. While Perverted Justice as a group still conducts untelevised stings and claims convictions of predators—their 542nd, they say, was convicted on Tuesday—the foundation is obviously nonfunctional. Its "programs" are little more than apparently defunct web sites—howtodealwithcreepypeople.com, for instance, purports to help teens deal with abuse and hasn't been updated since 2008. The Perverted Justice Academy, which supposedly trains law enforcement in how to conduct stings on its own, is "conducted online in our own private law enforcement training chat rooms." Each course lasts an hour.
All told, the Perverted Justice Foundation spent more than $1,202,739 in from 2006 to 2009 in pursuit of its tax-exempt goals. Of that, an astonishing 82%—$984,233—went to salaries. Almost all of it—$783,000—went to "Von Erck," Kerr, and Shea.
Over the course of four years, the foundation spent just $218,506 on things other than employees. More than $50,000 of that went to "travel and entertainment." Another $13,766 went to "equipment," and nearly $29,000 went to "web site." In other words, "Von Erck" basically set up a nonprofit to accept NBC News' money and spent it on himself, his friends, and his web site. Rather than use the money to build a long-lasting institution that might help people—or at least spark more pedophile suicides—he blew through it, and now he's got about ten grand left.
"Von Erck" didn't return an e-mail seeking comment. A message left on the foundation's voicemail wasn't returned.
Read the Perverted Justice Foundation's 2006 application for tax exempt status and its 2007, 2008, and 2009 tax returns here:
Photos: Perverted Justice's Xavier von Erck (top right); "To Catch a Predator" host Chris Hansen (second photo); a screenshot of the Perverted Justice website (third photo)