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News show or tele-vigilantes?

A Web site helps NBC set up a child sex sting, and 24 people end up in jail.

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published April 26, 2006


One showed up with duct tape and a length of rope. Another came with his sister and her two kids. A third immediately shed all his clothes.

They were, according to Fort Myers police, men who came to a home expecting to have sex with a minor. What they found were undercover police, representatives of Perverted-Justice.com and a crew from Dateline NBC.

Fort Myers police arrested 24 men this past weekend who they say engaged in explicit conversations with Perverted Justice staffers pretending to be children online. The men traveled from as far as Ocala, only to be met by Dateline NBC reporter Chris Hansen inside the home and questioned for the program's "To Catch a Predator" series.

Ellahzar Rashad Henson, 24, of 820 Eighth Ave. S was the only St. Petersburg resident arrested, according to police. No one answered the door at Henson's apartment in the Roser Park neighborhood Tuesday; the Lee County sheriff's Web site indicated he was still in custody at the county jail.

According to a police report, Henson believed he was conversing online and by telephone with a 13-year-old girl, who he expected would provide oral sex. Instead, he was arrested at 10 p.m. Friday and charged with attempted lewd and lascivious battery on a victim age 12 to 15 and use of computer services to seduce a child.

"(Henson) was kind of an ordinary kind of guy," said Perverted Justice's founder, Xavier Von Erck. "(Henson) said it was the first time he'd done something like this and apologized. Basically, just like every other guy we see."

Von Erck said he helped direct the efforts of 35 to 40 volunteer "contributors" who scheduled the men's visits for Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Though Perverted Justice has been criticized in the past for cyberspace vigilantism, Von Erck said more law enforcement agencies have been willing to work with the group since it pulled together a successful sting in Riverside, Calif., with Dateline NBC and local police.

Journalism ethics experts have questioned whether Dateline NBC is practicing "checkbook journalism," hiring Perverted Justice and sometimes covering the expense of renting the home where the suspects are arrested. Von Erck said he could not confirm press accounts that Perverted Justice was paid at least $100,000 for stings in Greenville, Ohio, and Fort Myers because the group now has an agent who negotiates with the network.

"I've never gotten one e-mail from a parent saying "How could Dateline do that?' " said Von Erck. "It's kind of a media-only obsession."

According to police, none of the men were registered sex offenders. They included a security staffer from the Miami airport, a Sunday School teacher in Orlando and a youth group leader from Coconut Creek.

Dateline NBC will begin airing "Predator" installments based on the Ohio stings at 9 tonight. The Fort Myers arrests air May 10 and 17, during network TV's May sweeps ratings period.

"The biggest reason for Dateline being involved is for the national attention," said police spokeswoman Maureen Buice. "It's a nationwide problem and we need national awareness. And it's great to try to get people like this off the streets."

Eric Deggans can be reached at 727 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com See his blog at www.sptimes.com/blogs/media/