A group of volunteers is taking the fight to expose child predators into its own hands.
989 Child Predator Exposures isn’t armed with a badge, rather a camera that records every moment of their stings for thousands to see across social media.
But many local law enforcement worry they could be putting themselves and others at risk.
In this new Mid-Michigan version of To Catch a Predator, 989 CPE volunteers go undercover online - creating decoy profiles of young teen girls, waiting for a predator to approach and then agreeing to meet in a public place once the suspect provides the online invitation.
Members say when they reveal their decoy is 15-years-old, most often, it doesn’t deter these potential predators.
“We have our inboxes flooded every day,” said a member of 989 CPE who wanted to go by the alias Ruby.
In its first few months of operation, 989 CPE has already posted confrontations with three accused predators.
“But you sent her d*** pictures, right,” one member asked during a video. The suspect replied, “I did, yeah. It was wrong.” “Even though she was 15,” The member shot back.
“You ask her if she was a virgin. You ask her if you could lick her mhm. You ask her if she shaved. You wanted her to wear certain underwear,” another member told the group’s first suspect.
The group also tipped off law enforcement about 41-year-old Justin Fountain in September after volunteers say he mentioned bringing his child with him to meet who he thought was a 15-year-old girl. Police intervened on the way to the sting and arrested him.
“His 2-year-old son was along with him in the vehicle,” Tuscola County Prosecutor Mark Reene said. “He was actually apprehended just outside Caro.”
The Mayville man has been charged with 15 counts of using a computer to commit a crime and 15 counts of accosting a minor for immoral purposes. Fountain’s pre-trial is scheduled for Nov. 26.
Reene said 989 CPE provided extraordinary evidence, but he worries about the safety of volunteers and the general public during these stings.
“That’s why it’s important if somebody is engaging in those type of discussions that they loop in law enforcement as quickly as possible,” Reene said.
Ruby said 989 CPE is trying to help fill a void for local police.
Michigan State Police Trooper Steven Kramer acknowledges the group’s mission to help law enforcement, but he says it only takes one hardened criminal for things to get ugly.
“You don’t have the protections. You don’t have the training. You don’t have the skills involved to necessarily deal with that,” Kramer said. “I think they’re well-intentioned. I think their hearts are in the right place, but I think it’s a bad way of going about it.”
Ruby said 989 Child Predator Exposures doesn’t expect law enforcement to condone what its members do, but she hopes its work is taken seriously.
“The only thing we ask of them is if we turn something over to you, look at it with an open mind, determine from there whether or not you have enough to take legal action or not,” Ruby said.
Regardless of what law enforcement thinks, Ruby and her teammates are adamant about their mission to expose child predators and raise awareness for parents.
“A lot of people have the misconception, ‘it’s not gonna happen in my community. It’s not gonna happen to our kids,'” She said. “But the fact of the matter is, it’s literally happening everywhere.”
Ruby hopes the group’s work causes parents to think twice about who their children are talking to on social media.
She adds 989 CPE is working to form relationships with local law enforcement to continue its mission of exposing potential child predators and eventually, getting them locked up.