'Just a Normal Guy' Nabs Predators

Monday, February 05, 2007

On a rainy day in Portland, the mastermind behind the nation's most visible sex-predator patrol manages to extricate himself from his Southeast apartment.

Xavier Von Erck pulls up to a Sellwood coffee shop in his Scion xB. He's wearing his standard uniform -- a hat and coat, all in black -- and points out a woman on the sidewalk as a non-native: She's using an umbrella.

Waiting for a cup of chai tea at the Twin Paradox cafe, he says he never drinks coffee or goes out, but quickly adds that there's nothing wrong with people who do.

The 27-year-old Portlander makes a living catching online sex predators prowling for underage victims. But he's not on a crusade to protect children; he doesn't even like children.

"People don't like it when I say that, but I just don't like kids," he said. "I'm not a kid person. I don't like being around 'em; I'm never gonna have 'em. But I don't like pedophiles more."

In 2003, Von Erck created Perverted-Justice.com, an online group of volunteers who pose as children or young teens in chat rooms and nab men who solicit them for sex. The group has gained fame through the prime-time NBC show "To Catch a Predator," in which a "Dateline" reporter greets men caught in Perverted Justice's stings after they arrive at a decoy house expecting to meet an underage prospect. Locally, Fox affiliate KPTV (12) had collaborated with Perverted Justice but turned to local police for recent stings.

Von Erck is something of a paradox himself, beyond not liking children. His group points to 140 convictions as a result of its work, yet Von Erck is a libertarian with a distaste for authority. He's regularly interviewed by national outlets such as "The O'Reilly Factor" and The New York Times, yet says he doesn't know what the public thinks of him or why some seem baffled by his ways.

He settles into a comfortable sofa to chat for a couple of hours, but never takes off his hat or coat.

Some critics say Perverted Justice is sensationalizing a marginal, perhaps even largely phantom, problem of online sexual predators. And, they say, such stings might even create criminal behavior by luring men to act on fantasies that otherwise would have remained just fantasy. Other critics pose ethical questions about television journalists joining forces with police in the stings.

The criticism is tiring, Von Erck says. But then, he's a man who admits being frequently irritated. In fact, it's what got him started down this road in the first place.

Sickened by chat rooms

Von Erck was 17 when he first laid hands on a computer.

He says he was too poor to buy a computer, so he would collect friends' library cards and cash in their daily Internet use at the Multnomah County Central Library, hopping among computers and staying online five or six hours a day.

He thought the Internet was great.

"There's a lot of information, a lot to read," Von Erck said. "It's a good way to talk to people."

At least it used to be, he says, back when Von Erck met his fiancee in a Lycos chat room on philosophy and religion. After all the quality chat rooms closed, he said, he was forced to try a Yahoo chat room.

He was sickened by what he saw: young girls getting bombarded with sexual offers.

"I like the Internet," Von Erck said. "I don't like people trying to hijack it for these sorts of things. It's just disgusting."

Perverted Justice was born.

Born Phillip Eide, Von Erck said his mother left his father shortly after giving birth and that his dad wasn't around for much of his life.

So Von Erck started working at 16; he and his mom struggled to make money for rent, he said.

That's when he dropped the name his father gave him and started going by the one that's now legally his -- adopting the first name of former Seattle SuperSonics player Xavier McDaniel and taking the last name of his maternal great-grandparents.

In school, he was never part of a clique, didn't care much about his image and didn't care for those who did.

"I didn't like goths, I didn't like the smokers, I didn't like the cool kids, I didn't like anybody," he said.

Online stings criticized

Critics of Perverted Justice agree that child abusers should be stopped. But they say Von Erck and his group are going after the wrong people.

Lynn Davenport is a former child protective services worker in Portland who researches child abuse risk, including whether Internet predation is a real threat.

She says online stings rarely catch men who have abused minors, so they divert public attention and resources from the majority of child abuse, which comes from family and friends.

"For every guy that doesn't have a victim and is put away," Davenport said, "we could be serving a dozen or two kids."

Instead, she said, online stings stoke dangerous fantasies with unlikely invitations.

"Who would recommend, with a deviant fantasizer, that you encourage" more fantasizing? Davenport asked.

Von Erck has heard the "entrapment" criticism many times, but he says many men aggressively pursue his group's decoys.

"That argument would be fine if they weren't driving and showing up," Von Erck said of the sting's targets.

In November, a former district attorney in Texas caught in one of Von Erck's stings shot himself in the head after police came to his door while "Dateline" crews waited out of sight nearby.

Von Erck said he felt no responsibility for the prosecutor's death. He was distressed mainly by one thing: losing a potential conviction.

"We'd never gotten a district attorney before . . . and he just took the cheap way out," Von Erck said. "I would very much have preferred to go to court and beat him there than to have the guy just shoot himself."

Now in its third year, "To Catch a Predator" consistently outperforms other newsmagazine shows in ratings, according to "Dateline," and there's no definite end in sight, said the show's host, Chris Hansen.

"We've really been able to raise awareness about this issue," Hansen said. "And we've been able to create a dialogue between kids and parents and students and teachers."

In the new episodes that launched last Tuesday and continue for five more weeks, Hansen said stings attracted record numbers of predators -- a total of 80 -- and even a man "Dateline" had caught in a previous sting.

"It's undeniably captivating television," Hansen said.

But it makes some journalists uneasy.

"Our job as journalists is to report on the issues and events, not to be participants, barring the exceptional circumstance," said Bob Steele, Poynter Institute journalism ethicist.

Steele argues that "Dateline's" collaboration with Perverted Justice and police undermines its ability to critically report on their work.

"Dateline" this year will pay Von Erck and his two co-administrators just under six figures each as consultants, Von Erck said. Hansen said Perverted Justice organizes the stings with law enforcement and is paid for its expertise.

Hansen said that online stings are worthy of the same kind of hidden-camera techniques that "Dateline" has used in other investigations exposing sex slaves and working conditions.

"I'm getting involved as a correspondent, as a journalist," Hansen said. "I'm seeking answers."

A proud mother

Von Erck says he works at least 15 hours a day, seven days a week, from his apartment. His mother, Mary Erck-Heard, 46, of Gresham is proud of what her son has built.

"Nobody works as hard as he does," she said.

If he comes off as cold, friends say, it's because of his black-and-white sense of right and wrong. By the same token, he cares for people who are living a good life and working hard.

"He is (caring) with almost anybody if they're decent people," his mother said. "He doesn't get along with ignorance."

Von Erck admits his job is bizarre, particularly for someone who has never been abused. But it makes sense to him.

"The problems you see are the problems you deal with," he said. "I'm just a normal guy who wanted to do something about the (chat)rooms, and then it got big."

There is one personal hazard to his job, though -- to his sex life. Sleazy chatter can wreak havoc on a person's libido, Von Erck said.

"It's very disgusting a lot of times."

Elizabeth Suh: 503-221-8215; elizabethsuh@news.oregonian.co m