As NBC gears up for fall, no doubt full of hope that it can avoid a third consecutive season as the fourth-place network, you're likely to see a lot of familiar faces plastered on the sides of buses: Meredith Vieira, Brian Williams, Steve Carell, Donald Trump. One face you won't see, however, belongs to a 27-year-old community college dropout from Portland, OR, who is responsible for an NBC ratings phenomenon that has eclipsed or matched those stars' shows: His cunning idea, which makes for endlessly watchable and deeply nauseating television, regularly doubles Today's audience, draws more viewers than both the Nightly News and The Office, and nearly tied The Apprentice in audience last season, a tonic that NBC desperately needs as it founders in the ratings.
His name is Xavier Von Erck, and the program he helped create is "To Catch a Predator," the recurring special "investigation" into the sexual depravity of drooling, sweaty creeps that periodically hijacks Dateline NBC during sweeps months. Xavier Von Erck—if the name sounds invented, that's because it is, but more on that later—is the founder and public face of Perverted Justice, an all-volunteer online organization that seeks to expose adults who troll chat rooms looking for youngsters to have sex with. Its members do this by posing as 12- or 13-year-olds online, engaging in sexual banter with older men, setting up meetings purportedly for sex, and then, after verifying a target's identity, posting his name and personal details online and encouraging readers to call his family and employer to let them know what he's been doing with his free time.
But it's not only predators who have found themselves duped and publicly disgraced by Von Erck. He once set out to destroy an enemy by posing as a woman, seducing him online with graphic sex chats, posting the transcripts on the web, and threatening to release a purported video of his target masturbating—not the kind of behavior you'd expect from NBC News's golden boy.
Von Erck, who previously worked tech support jobs, launched Perverted Justice in 2003. "I was a chatter in the Portland Yahoo regional rooms," he tells Radar in an e-mail. "I, like many, had the notion that individuals going online to solicit kids would be arrested, that cops were all over the chatrooms monitoring things. However, week after week passed and the same guys who would mass-post things like, 'Any 14-to-15-year-olds in here want to make money modeling?' and other solicitations would still be there. It was disturbing." He figured that if he could pretend to be a kid, he could embarrass the lurkers and make every potential predator paranoid about contacting children online.
Perverted Justice initially limited itself to publicizing the names and contact information of its targets on the website. Eventually, local news crews in Portland and elsewhere began collaborating with Von Erck to set up sting operations—drawing perverts to a rented house, filming them as they approached, and using the footage to scare the shit out of parents during sweeps. It was, at best, a mediocre gimmick suitable for mid-market local news until Dateline hit on the idea that would make "To Catch a Predator" a cultural touchstone: Set up a pompous correspondent inside the house to interview the startled pervs and make them sweat. With smarmy host Chris Hansen onboard, the show takes on the classic elements of Aristotelian drama. First, viewers feel pity for the marks, who slowly come to understand before our eyes that they've just wrecked their lives; next comes fear, enhanced by creepy graphics and hard-to-prove statistics indicating that everybody on the Internet wants to molest your daughter; and finally we experience a satisfying sense of purgation as each sucker is taken violently to the ground by local police waiting outside the house.
Even by the bug-eating, race-baiting, promiscuity-celebrating standards of reality television, "To Catch a Predator" is monstrously exploitative—a Television Age Roman coliseum where freakish criminals are publicly humiliated for bloodsport and ratings. Granted, these are bad men, and it's a good thing they are being stopped, hopefully, from hurting actual children. But they can be stopped—and are stopped all the time by local police stings—without parading them across our television screens for titillated and enraged audiences to gawk at between commercial breaks.
And, of course, "To Catch a Predator" is not reality television. It's produced under the auspices of NBC's vaunted news division, which has gone to unprecedented lengths to secure Von Erck's ongoing cooperation, reportedly paying him in excess of $100,000 per episode for his services, and even giving him, according to one source, a cut of any revenue from future DVD sales of the shows. That arrangement, and the show's sensationalism, make some at the network squirm.
"I think it's fascinating television," says one former NBC News producer who loathes the show but often can't look away. "Although I find myself rooting for the pedophiles."
Not much is known about Von Erck's background. He's cagey in interviews—he agreed to talk to Radar only via e-mail—and doesn't reveal much personal information for fear of being targeted by one of the men he has exposed. He was raised in Portland by his mother, who struggled to support the family by working odd jobs—from Taco Bell to a gas station—and moved 12 times before his junior year of high school. He was the captain of his high school's mock trial team, and he continues to demonstrate a facility for debate and rhetoric on his blog, Angry German, where he alternates between charming posts about his love of Portland, video games, and professional wrestling, and vicious, unhinged screeds against various targets. Some of Von Erck's rants betray a hint of the sadism that informs "To Catch a Predator." After a spate of kidnappings and beheadings in Iraq in 2004, Von Erck wrote that he was "positively appalled at Nicholas Berg," who "kneeled meekly and struggled naught [sic] as his death was thrust upon him ... bending to the will of the kidnappers." He was even more enraged by the "shameless and pathetic" conduct of Kim Sun-il, a kidnapped South Korean translator who appeared in a video released by Iraqi insurgents (he was later beheaded). "The asshole, yes, the asshole, screamed in English, pleading for his life," Von Erck wrote. "Let me be the first and probably only American to wish for his speedy death.... No life of such a worm, a coward, can be considered important." Of 9/11 conspiracy theorists, Von Erck had this to say: "I wish I could fucking kill 9/11 conspiracy theorists. Yes, kill. I'd like to kill them. Kill them all... I want you to die. I wish you would die. Why don't you die? Just die."
Von Erck's birth name is Phillip John Eide. Although he legally changed it earlier this year in a Portland court, he says he has gone by Xavier Von Erck since he was 15. Erck is his mother's maiden name, to which he added the "Von" in a nod to his German heritage. "Xavier" he just picked. "My old name was the name my father gave me," he says. "Being that my father had no role in my upbringing, as a teen I did not see the logic in being stuck with his name. So I took my mother's name as a tribute to her, and a new first name." (In the Perverted Justice world, where anonymous volunteers going by handles like Epiphany and Peppermint Patty pretend to be children online, identity is a tricky thing to nail down. Von Erck's longtime friend and roommate, formerly known as Nicholas Wilkins, has also legally changed his name to his online handle, Phoebus Apollo.)
Von Erck briefly attended Mt. Hood Community College before dropping out in the face of what he called a "productive Internet addiction." He then worked various tech support jobs while building up Perverted Justice; now, running the website and coordinating Perverted Justice's role in the Dateline busts is his full-time job. As for how and why he made a career of humiliating perverts, Von Erck is demure: "The site has grown and evolved because people have come to it and suggested ideas, come up with technological improvements, etc. I just organize and direct it. I try not to take credit for the site succeeding, the credit goes to how pervasive the problem is online and how dedicated people are toward fighting it."
Nevertheless, Perverted Justice has many enemies. There are websites devoted to attacking Von Erck and his nameless volunteer corps, and to outing and identifying the people who conduct Perverted Justice's stings. These anti-PJ activists describe themselves as combating vigilantism and what they see as the group's entrapment tactics.
According to an account posted by Von Erck, one of Perverted Justice's fiercest critics was a 44-year-old software developer from Searcy, AR, named Bruce Raisley. Raisley was a frequent poster to a forum at an anti-PJ site called Anti-Vigilante Special Operations (AVSO) and he posted several threatening and seemingly deranged comments to the site. He claimed, among other things, to have written a virus that he would unleash upon Perverted Justice volunteers, and used his computer skills to harass Perverted Justice members by exposing the online handles they used when posing as children and tracking down their real identities. He once threatened, during an IM chat, to "fuck or beat" one Perverted Justice activist if he ever met him (Raisley thought he was communicating with a woman at the time). It's unclear why Raisley, a private pilot and ham radio enthusiast, was so militantly opposed to Perverted Justice. He has claimed he was once a Perverted Justice member but broke with the group after another member found a photograph of Railey's son online and used it in a decoy Yahoo profile—in other words, used his son as bait for perverts. Perverted Justice denies this.
Von Erck claims he contacted local authorities in Arkansas and the FBI about Raisley but they "simply weren't moving fast enough for my tastes, considering how bold he was getting about his threats." So he decided to mete out his own form of perverse justice, introducing himself to Raisley online, via instant messenger.
He called himself "Holly."
Holly and Raisley hit it off. They conducted a months-long correspondence via IM, and gradually, Raisley fell in love with his new online pal. Holly would occasionally inquire about Raisley's anti-Perverted Justice activities, but eventually the conversation turned to sex:
[Raisley]: what r u doing?
[Holly]: I have my fingers in
[Raisley]: i am holding it
[Holly]: are you rubbing it
[Raisley]: r u rubbing your clit?
[Holly]: yes. it feels so good baby
The couple had cybersex twice. Holly repeatedly begged Raisley to masturbate in front of a webcam for her. Raisley told her about his son, his job, his role as a Boy Scout troop leader. Eventually, Raisley came clean to his wife about Holly, told her that they were in love, and declared that Holly was moving to Arkansas. After securing an apartment for the two of them to live in, he went to pick up Holly at the airport. He was carrying flowers.
Von Erck never got on the plane, but he did find someone to go to the airport at the appointed time to snap a picture of a hopeful Raisley waiting for his love to arrive. Then he posted it online, along with the entire text of their chat and a threat to release a video file he claimed showed Raisley masturbating. And then this message to Perverted Justice's detractors: "[W]hen you attempt to threaten members of Perverted-Justice.com... this can happen to you. Tonight, Bruce Raisley stood around at an airport, flowers in hand, waiting for a woman that turned out to be a man. He's not in love. He has destroyed his relationship with his wife, he has denigrated her, and he has betrayed all those around him. He has no one. He has no more secrets. We at Perverted-Justice.com will only tolerate so much in the way of threats and attacks upon us."
Today, Von Erck professes sympathy for his victim. "As much as I hated Bruce Raisley for what he tried to do," he says, "I felt bad for him in the sense that the guy definitely has some mental issues. My hope is that Raisley gets mental health help, he sticks with his wife, and they live a happy, threatening- and harassing-free life. The head game that was played with him was only done in order to 'knock him out' so to speak."
Raisley was indeed knocked out. A call to his home in Arkansas was answered by a woman who said she was his wife. "That was just a big old mess," she said. "He's already lost one job over this, and he doesn't want anybody to know about it. I'm just hoping this will just fade away." Though she would not comment on the accuracy of Von Erck's online account, she admitted having read it.
Von Erck is not the first strange man—and pretending to be a woman for the purposes of seducing a man over a period of months in order to publicly ruin him is nothing if not strange—that NBC News has worked with in order to gather the news. But the extent of the network's business relationship with Von Erck has raised eyebrows in the halls of NBC News.
According to an April Washington Post story, Perverted Justice was paid a "low six figures" consultancy fee to organize a sting operation for Dateline in Ohio. Sources knowledgable about the inner workings of NBC confirm that account, and say NBC is paying the group between $100,000 and $150,000 per show. According to one current NBC News staffer and one former NBC official, the figure was arrived at after Perverted Justice saw the ratings success of its first three Dateline shows and retained the services of Steve Sadicario, a former ABC News executive and agent with NS Bienstock, a firm that represents Bill O'Reilly, Anderson Cooper, and Dan Rather. Sadicario, according to the sources, started a "bidding war" for Perverted Justice's services after shopping an idea for a show to Fox and ABC. NBC won.
The deal that Perverted Justice cut with NBC is unusual in two respects: For one, according to the former NBC News official, it was negotiated by the network's entertainment lawyers, not by the news division's legal staff. Secondly, according to an NBC News staffer, Perverted Justice is entitled to a portion of any revenue from DVD sales of "To Catch a Predator" episodes—an arrangement common in the entertainment world but unheard of in the context of a news division's relationship with a consultant.
The staffer notes, "It would be the first back-end deal in the history of journalism."
It's not hard to see why NBC would go to great lengths to keep Von Erck in its stable, and to ride the "To Catch a Predator" phenomenon as far as it can. So far, the original broadcasts have averaged 9.2 million viewers, beating out such entertainment-division staples as Will & Grace (with an average of 8.6 million viewers last season) and The Office (7.9 million). In the advertiser-friendly 18-to-49-year-old demographic, "To Catch a Predator" episodes ranked 16 among NBC's 41 regularly broadcast shows last season, beating Scrubs and Fear Factor. While it's a special edition of Dateline NBC, rather than a show in its own right, it was one of NBC's few successful new offerings last season. Only Deal or No Deal, Surface, and My Name Is Earl outperformed it in the 18-to-49-year-old demographic.
Both Von Erck and David Corvo, executive producer of Dateline, who submitted to a brief interview and did not return subsequent phone calls, say they are unaware of plans for a DVD, and both say they don't know if Perverted Justice would get any portion of the revenues if a DVD were sold. Sadicario did not return repeated phone calls.
Both NBC and Von Erck declined to discuss specifics of the deal, and Von Erck says that "by and large," he hasn't seen any of the NBC money yet. (He told Willamette Week in May that he'd only been paid $20,000 so far.) But if Perverted Justice is getting paid more than $100,000 per sting, it has earned more than $400,000 since April.
"It was getting expensive," Von Erck says. "We literally could not keep our website up anymore due to the site traffic. At that point it was either no more Datelines or a consultation fee. At the end of the day, the cameramen were getting paid, Chris Hansen was getting paid, the producers of Dateline were getting paid, the police were paying themselves via public funds to do the arrests, the guy who owns the house was getting compensated, the security there was being paid. So it was only natural to seek compensation for the expensive work that we do."
Asked to outline the expenses involved in operating Perverted Justice, Von Erck cites only server costs to handle traffic driven to the group's website by the exposure on Dateline and "confidential" expenses associated with the stings. Perverted Justice has no paid staff and no offices. In fact, it is not even a legal entity. Von Erck says he is in the process of incorporating it as a nonprofit, but claims not to know in which state. Von Erck says he is not personally being paid by NBC and claims not to know precisely to whom NBC is making out the checks.
The arrangement, and the fact that the shows involve cooperation with law enforcement, has some NBC News staff apoplectic. "We've crawled into bed with the cops. People think this will be the pickup truck for the new decade," says one Dateline producer, referring to the notorious episode in 1993 in which Dateline was caught faking exploding gas tanks in GM trucks. "One of these guys is going to go home and shoot himself in the head. The Perverted Justice people are insane, and they'll do something to embarrass us. One of the biggest corporations in the world ought to find a better target than skanky guys in shorts."
"There's no doubt," says another NBC News staffer, "that somewhere down the line, some district attorney is going to ask us for outtakes or footage from a story, and we're going to say, 'We don't do that because we don't want to be an agent of the police.' And he's going to say, 'You did with "Predator." There is a sense [in the news division] that standards don't matter."
Indeed, the network has already been confronted with such a dilemma: In one prosecution that resulted from a Dateline sting, that of Rabbi David Kaye of Rockville, MD, the defense issued a subpoena for the unedited footage of Kaye's conversation with Chris Hansen. NBC's lawyers filed a motion to quash the subpoena, according to Kaye's attorney, in which they signaled their intent to argue that as a news organization they should be shielded from having to reveal the products of newsgathering. But it would be incoherent of NBC to assert its independence when it comes to judicial subpoenas at the same time it invites police officers to participate in its newsgathering efforts. NBC's lawyers quickly realized this and agreed to make the unedited footage available for download on the Dateline website. If the network published it for the world to see, the twisted logic went, it could avoid the unpleasant prospect of defending in court the very principle of independence that it had sacrificed on the screen. (On September 6, Kaye was convicted in federal court of enticing a minor and crossing state lines for illicit sex with a minor.)
It's not just NBC staff that finds fault with "To Catch a Predator." Brad Russ, the former commander of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (ICAC) for Northern New England, a federal program designed to help local authorities fight child pornography and Internet predators, has participated in many online sting operations. "I have a real problem with any citizens' group conducting any investigation into any crime," he says. "It's a mistake for law enforcement to abdicate its responsibility to citizens." And NBC, he says, is playing with fire by drawing potentially dangerous men to residential neighborhoods and confronting them. "How would you feel if the media rented a house in your neighborhood and drew 30 people who've demonstrated a propensity for children to your house? What happens when they flee at a high rate of speed and they T-bone your wife's car? We would never set up a sting in a residential neighborhood." Russ adds that targets could be armed, and that an ICAC officer in Florida was shot and killed during a sting.
Kimberly Mitchell, a researcher for the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, has studied both the efficacy of Internet stings and the risks that children face online. While she says properly conducted stings by law enforcement are a useful tool, she worries that "Predator" overstates the problem. "We've talked to kids, and I think [sexual solicitations online] are something they've come to expect to happen," she says. "It's fairly common for them to see these things and experience them." In fact, according to Mitchell's research, fully two thirds of children who were solicited online last year brushed off the incident, and only four percent of children who regularly used the Internet received "distressing" solicitations. "On the one hand," Mitchell says, "it's good that people are aware. On the other hand, it's blown very far out of proportion—it's extreme. It tells you one small piece of the story. It can distort the truth and present this false fear."
NBC and Perverted Justice are in the process of filming more stings for this season. "They have a whole fresh new bunch for September," says the Dateline producer. "Several weeks' worth. There are a lot of people who would like to see it as a show."
But if initial reports from the unaired stings are any indication, a new series based on "Predator" wouldn't last long. One of the key elements of "Predator" segments is Chris Hansen's "and you won't believe ... " moment, when the predator turns out to be a teacher, a lawyer, a rabbi. It's a message that plays well to the upscale audience NBC caters to. These people could be your neighbors. But according to an NBC News staffer, the stings have become a victim of their own success. "What I heard was that they had a tough time of it," the staffer says. "The smarter predators have figured it out. You're not getting the rabbis, doctors, and teachers. You're getting losers."
And losers, as the former NBC News official put it, "aren't in the demo."