Vigilante group says San Diego District Attorney refuses to prosecute the sexual predators they "catch"
San Diego's Creep Catching Unit has been responsible for a number of prosecutions in other counties, however, District Attorney Summer Stephan hasn't followed suit
A local vigilante group that exposes sexual predators after they try and set up meetings with minors through social media says the San Diego County District Attorney refuses to prosecute the predators they refer.
Meanwhile, public records obtained by CBS 8, show that District Attorneys in Los Angeles, Riverside, and other neighboring counties have prosecuted the group's cases.
Creep Catching Unit: San Diego's vigilante group
The Creep Catching Unit uses fake profiles of young boys and girls to find the sexual predators who use social media as a hunting ground for their young victims.
The unit, headed by a San Diego college student that goes by the name of "Ghost", spends months chatting with the adult predators and lets them always make the first move.
"Well, we never entice them, they always are the first to talk about anything sexual," said the Ghost during one of two interviews with CBS 8. "We pose as a very innocent kid, you know, like, we're not enticing them. All we do is we act like a kid, 'oh yeah I'm doing homework today' or 'I'm listening to music,' just everyday little kid things that little kids do. Some creeps talk really graphic and want to meet right away while others take their sweet time. They want to make sure the kids are real make sure the kid is not a cop to make sure the parents aren't around."
Ghost tells CBS 8 that the online interactions and messages can go on for months, even more than a year, before the alleged predator asks to meet with the decoy.
After the adult asks for a meeting, the CC Unit arranges their sting operation. Instead of meeting their young victim, they are approached by a shaggy, and skinny man wearing a mask with two or three others holding phones and recording the confrontation.
During the shakedowns, Ghost asks the predators to admit to wanting to meet a young person. They are shown the pictures they send, sometimes nude photos, and the messages the predators sent to the fake account. At the same time, the unit notifies the police as well.
Ghost says the unit has nabbed more than 300 predators so far, more than one hundred of those cases here in San Diego County.
In San Diego County, the predators include high school principals, active duty service members, and school cafeteria workers.
Despite the group's success, San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan has thus far refused to prosecute any of the alleged predators. That despite the fact that Stephan has made human trafficking and sexual predators one of her chief issues since getting elected to office.
"When I first started, like, 90 percent of my work was in San Diego County, because that's where I'm from. But unfortunately, [District Attorney Stephan] doesn't press any charges on these guys that we catch. So a lot of the guys that I caught early on wouldn't get arrested," said Ghost.
However, that is not the case in surrounding counties.
CBS 8 confirmed that district attorneys in Los Angeles and Riverside have prosecuted some predators successfully.
Los Angeles County: CC Unit Prosecutions
In Los Angeles County, the CC Unit's busts have resulted in numerous convictions including charges for "annoying or molesting a child under 18," another for "lewd act on a minor," and "meeting with a minor for a lewd purpose."
And while confirming that the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office has in fact prosecuted a number of the CC Unit's cases, a spokesperson cautions against any group that tries to take law enforcement into their own hands, regardless of the type of crime committed.
"Operations such as those engaged in the “CC Unit”, while well-meaning, often pose inherent legal concerns as well as unavoidable safety risks to the public and those directly involved. For those reasons, the [Los Angeles] District Attorney’s Office will continue to strongly discourage this form of vigilantism," reads a statement from a LA District Attorney spokesperson.
“Our office has prosecuted cases reported by this group. Police agencies submitted the cases to our office in those instances and the group’s personnel were witnesses," said the spokesperson before adding, "we do not encourage any group to take the law into their own hands.”
Riverside County: CC Unit Prosecutions
Meanwhile east of Los Angeles in Riverside, the CC Unit has been responsible for a number of prosecutions including a 42-year-old man found guilty of "contacting a minor w/intent [to] commit specific crimes." Another Riverside County resident was charged and found guilty of "Attempted oral copulation w/person under 18 years." Lastly, another man was found guilty of "attempt[ing] harm/injury on a child," as well as indecent exposure.
The spokesperson for the District Attorney in Riverside told CBS 8 that while prosecuting some of the CC Unit's cases, it requires police to conduct its own investigation before making any arrests or prior to filing any charges.
"Riverside District Attorney’s Office will only file a criminal complaint when, after a thorough review of all available evidence, it is believed that a crime has been committed and that the crime can be proven in court by evidence which has been adequately investigated by a trained law enforcement professional," reads a statement from the District Attorney's Office.
"In recent months, a number of matters which were reported to law enforcement by a group identifying themselves as the “CC Unit” have been submitted to our office for filing review. At the time of submitting these cases, our law enforcement partners were well aware that our office policy is that; “the District Attorney’s Office will not file a case initiated by one of these citizen groups unless it has been fully investigated by a law enforcement agency and can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt without reference to or reliance on anything provided by or witnessed by these civilian vigilantes."
Added the spokesperson, "Each of the five cases identified in the media inquiry were cases submitted to our office by a law enforcement agency after the 'CC Unit' brought potential criminal conduct to the attention of the agency and the law enforcement agency then conducted their own independent investigation."
San Diego District Attorney: "I've emailed them, but nothing" happens"
And while District Attorneys in neighboring counties avoid the appearance that they work alongside the vigilante group, Ghost tells CBS 8 that he is often in touch with the DA and has served as a witness during trials.
The same cannot be said for San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan.
"I've emailed them, but nothing happens. I've messaged her on Instagram and she has never replied. The police departments already know who I am. So whenever they show up, they tell me, 'hey, we're gonna take your information, and we're gonna send it off to the DA's office but it's gonna get rejected because she's not going to press the charges," says Ghost before adding, "but the police also tell me that at least it will be reported. So you know, like this happened, this guy, the creep that you caught, at least there's going to be like a report about him."
The DA's Response: "May Prove Difficult at Trial"
A spokesperson for San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan says the office appreciates any tips that leads to the arrest of online predators, however, the office says stings such as these are often dangerous. Stephan's spokesperson also says the tips and information provided by vigilante groups such as the CC Unit may prove difficult at trial.
"The District Attorney's Office appreciates receiving information that can lead to an investigation that helps us hold criminals accountable and protect children from predators. We do not have a policy against bringing prosecutions that include legally admissible evidence from citizen groups. In fact, we have and will prosecute cases where the legal and ethical standards are met. But ultimately, we depend on trained law enforcement to safely investigate cases and submit information and evidence that is legally and ethically gathered. Our office, along with our law enforcement partners, have prioritized crimes against children and have invested in successful task forces that work day and night to protect children, including the Internet Crimes Against Children and Human Trafficking Task Forces."
Added the spokesperson, "'Sting operations' conducted by untrained citizens can be dangerous and may result in evidence that is not admissible in court. It's also important that any member of the public who contacts the police or our office turn over all the evidence they may have and not withhold key information.
"Law enforcement and the DA’s Office have repeatedly asked that any citizen’s group who decides to directly engage rather than turn over tips to police, provide all evidence related to an incident in order to evaluate prosecution. In the past, requests to turn over all evidence have been denied. Meeting our constitutional obligation to provide the defense with exculpatory evidence cannot be done when only partial evidence from a video is provided, for example. Citizens are not trained on the importance of a thorough, legally valid investigation, and this can be a barrier to getting a criminal case filed. Even when a case cannot be filed because of the legal standards not being met, we still use the information to conduct an independent investigation in order to protect victims and uphold justice."
In conclusion, Stephan's spokesperson said it remains dedicated to going after those who prey on young people online. "The San Diego District Attorney’s Office remains vigilant in our work to hold online predators accountable and encourages all members of the public who have information about abuse to report it to law enforcement and cooperate with any future investigation."
Ghost, from the CC Unit, says that while the predators they catch may not be charged, the group is happy to put the predator on notice and make sure they know that someone is watching.
"The cops often tell us, 'This guy, the creep that you caught, at least there's going to be like a report about him and he will be identified."
For the Ghost and his team, they say they will take what they can get.
District Attorneys from Orange County and San Bernardino County declined to comment for the article.
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