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TO CATCH A PREDATOR

The "To Catch a Predator" sting in Harris County had its beginnings 1 years ago as decoys tapped messages to 1,000 contacts made in online chatrooms.

It neared its end in early February as the third of three men who wanted a trial purportedly tried to kill himself two days before his conviction on charges of attempted child molestation and attempted statutory rape.

The sting was the result of "Operation Predator," which brought together several law enforcement agencies and Chris Hansen of the "Dateline" NBC show "To Catch a Predator." Decoys with Perverted Justice, a civilian watchdog group, posed as underage children and connected with 1,000 people online. — From that group, 113 of whom showed the intent to travel to Fortson, Ga., and have sex with someone they believed was under 16 years old.

Forty-three of those scheduled a date to meet with the "child." Only 20 showed up.

Those 20 men then began a journey through Harris County Superior Court that ended in guilty pleas for 15 of them and trials for three, the last of which concluded Feb. 1.

Only two remain: — Cody Michael Green, 21, who is back in jail on similar charges; and

Abilash Bhaskaran, 35, who has fled.

Their day in court, while temporarily delayed, will likely come.

For the children|

"It's absolutely worth it," said Chief Assistant District Attorney Mark Post, whose Hamilton office is a 10-minute drive to the blue house used by the sting operation. "Some children were saved, I have no doubt in my mind."

Post has heard the arguments against the sting. Entrapment, problems with Miranda warnings, the fact that a real child wasn't even involved — they all fell apart in front of a jury, he said. Just because a TV show is making money isn't going to lead him to let a criminal go free, he said.

It was that show that drew the attention of deputies with the Harris County Sheriff's Office. They spoke with their boss, Sheriff Mike Jolley, about bringing "To Catch a Predator" the show to Harris County. By Independence Day 2006, members of Perverted Justice were posing as children in chatrooms, waiting to see who made contact.

The sting culminated between July 21-27, 2006, as the 20 men drove to the blue house, stepped inside and encountered either show host Hansen or a law enforcement officer.

All were sent to the Harris County Jail, though six made bond before having to appear before a magistrate judge. The rest bonded-out over the following days and weeks.

Neither housing the suspects nor having his employees participate in the sting cost taxpayers any extra money, Jolley said. And because Bhaskaran fled and his bondsman had to reimburse the county government, Harris County got a $20,000 shot into its general fund, Jolley said.

"I don't think there's anything more important than our children," Jolley said. "We didn't postpone anything (to conduct the sting). We didn't put anything on the back burner."

Defense attorneys may argue the predators wouldn't have come to Harris County if not for the sting. Post questions how they would know, wondering if July 2006 was the first time many of the suspects had spoken online with a child. It doesn't matter to him if a predator lives in Atlanta or Fortson.

"If it saves a kid in Atlanta, I'm just as happy as if I'd saved a child here," he said.

Questions

Public Defender Bob Wadkins represented Todd William West, a tall, thin man who sported a dark goatee and a bald head when he was arrested at the Fortson home. That goatee was gone when he pleaded guilty on Feb. 13, 2007, to attempted child molestation and attempted statutory rape. He was sentenced to five years in prison, followed by 15 years probation.

Wadkins wonders if his client would have tried to molest a 14-year-old girl if it wasn't for what he called his enticement by a decoy. If trained Perverted Justice decoys weren't sitting at their keyboards, Wadkins asked, would West have tried to make contact?

"They know the weaknesses of those who have this fantasy bent of mind, and they know how to get them to act," the chief defender said. "They were literally enticed given their proclivity to enjoy this kind of chat. They were literally enticed to act rather than be satisfied with reading or talking."

Defense attorney Stephen Hyles isn't sure the sting accomplished anything. On one hand, it could have netted dangerous sexual predators and locked them up for years. On the other, it might have caught men who showed poor judgment.

Wadkins said many of the men had no history of molestation, and probably would have kept their fantasies in an online chat. Hyles pointed to the chat logs and the persistence of the decoys in getting the men to drive to the house.

Someone could draw the inference in some of the cases that if the actress playing the role of an underage girl hadn't called some of the men back, they wouldn't have ever contacted her again, Hyles said.

"And that's the 'You never know' scenario," he said. "It is a very good question to which there will never be a definitive answer. You never know how many times lightning could have hit you. You only know when it hits you."

Lightning hit Joseph Myrick, who pleaded guilty on Feb. 19, 2007, to attempted child molestation and attempted statutory rape. He was sentenced to five years in prison, followed by 15 years probation.

Myrick was represented by attorney Mark Shelnutt, who said a decoy posed as a 15-year-old girl when chatting online.

"Let's say they used a 16-year-old," Shelnutt theorized. "There wouldn't have been anything illegal about that. She began the sexual conversation. Do I think he's some horrible sexual predator? He doesn't have any record of that. The 15-year-old continued to push for it, ask for it, didn't want it to stop. Once, Perverted Justice should have a decoy say, 'That's not OK. We shouldn't talk about that.' ”

In the case of Hyles' client, Denis Coulson, a then-23-year-old electrician, received a number of unsolicited phone calls and online messages the attorney labeled badgering and tempting that led his client to drive to Harris County and encounter Chris Hansen.

Perverted Justice, Hyles said, has a money-making incentive to bring such men to a sting, and he hopes similar operations don't happen in the Chattahoochee Valley again.

"(Coulson's) in his early 20s, and he's got a girl saying she's almost 16 and she's willing to do all these crazy things," Hyles said. "We don't need Beverly Hills reporters coming in and doing this for us as a means to create a product for TV."

Answers

Shelnutt said if anything positive came out of the "To Catch a Predator" sting, he hopes it makes teens and parents understand the dangers lurking online. He wants children who watched or heard about the sting to become more careful when they use the Internet.

Schools should be used to teach students about the potential consequences of meeting people online, and prosecutors should ensure child molesters get the maximum sentence, he said.

Wadkins also suggested a more proactive method of keeping predators away from children through education.

"Quite frankly, parents nowadays don't have nearly the control of where their kids are or what they're doing," he said.

Hyles also wants law enforcement to remain vigilant about sexual predators and have them prosecuted, though without the added element of a television show that's in it for a profit.

Jolley, however, said his office couldn't have conducted the sting without the assets and expertise that groups such as "Dateline" NBC and Perverted Justice brought with them. Whether it's decoys on the Internet or a confidential informant in a drug case, Jolley said he will continue to use information given to his office.

"If a mom calls me and said, 'I read my child's Internet and there's an alcohol party on the south side of Harris County,' should I not use the information?" Jolley questioned.

While Jolley doesn't know yet whether he'll work with "Dateline" again, he knows his office will continue its efforts in stopping online predators.

The sheriff wasn't able to give a number for how much the sting cost his office in manpower, though he said it incurred no overtime and no cases were neglected during that time. Likewise, Post said his office also had no overtime and only has to worry about the costs of traveling to the three trials held in other counties.

When asked the sting's cost, Harris County Clerk Nancy McMichael said it would cost $223.76 to conduct the research, which would include about 100 pages of records, in order to reach a number.

For some defense attorneys involved in the case, it's the number of dollars NBC raked in that bothers them.

"You hardly ever turn to MSNBC and they're not rebroadcasting 'To Catch a Predator,' ” Hyles said. "They've taken the criminal justice system and turned it into reality TV and that's dangerous."

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