They go after suspected pedophiles while others watch online
CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. – Many days, Brandi Lehrian wakes up to five or six text messages from men wishing her a good morning – and sometimes more.
She spends most of the day and night letting multiple men believe that she can make their fantasies come true: No, she’s never been with a man before, and, yes, she wants him to be the first one.
Eventually, one of the guys asks to meet her. She says she can meet Saturday night at the gas station down the street from her house. She will walk there after her parents leave for the evening.
Once the guy shows up, his expectation for a rendezvous with a 15-year-old girl falls apart quickly as Lehrian confronts him and says he is being livestreamed by Southcentral Pa. Child Predator Exposure. The guy had been talking the whole time to a 34-year-old woman, not a child almost 20 years younger, and she is giving all the chat logs to police.
Some guys stand there fidgeting with their eyes trained on the ground, while Lehrian and a companion calmly lecture them.
Others - such as a man who had been talking to three of Lehrian’s “decoys” - immediately jump in their vehicle and take off as Lehrian yells after them.
Hundreds, sometimes thousands of people watch and comment as the amateur sting plays out live on Facebook. The man’s photo and big, bold text giving his name, age and town are soon plastered on the group’s page.
Worldwide phenomenon hits local streets
Southcentral Pa. Child Predator Exposure is one of many groups around the country and world that work to expose adults who seek to have sex with minors. Many are in the United Kingdom where, unlike in the United States, the law allows the groups to hold the suspects until police arrive - and allows police to use evidence the groups provide.
One of the other groups is also right here in central Pennsylvania.
Justin Perry has been running “MR 17 5 40” out of Lancaster County for about a year. The name is inspired by the ZIP code of Leola, where he lives.
“I’m here for one reason – to expose these guys, and that’s it,” he recently told the York Daily Record.
Inspired by other groups she was following, Lehrian decided to start her own in southcentral Pennsylvania. She started work last June, and since then the team has confronted 31 or 32 people, she estimated.
The Franklin County group has around 14 people working as decoys, exposers and page administrators. Using a phone just for the group’s work, decoys make accounts for various chat apps, then wait for guys to contact them. The decoys never make contact first.
Decoys usually tell guys they are 15, but sometimes 14 or 13. They never go older, as 16 is the age of consent in Pennsylvania.
Men will message at all times of the day and night, but when a decoy has a guy whom she thinks will eventually ask to meet up, she will keep up the ruse that she is in school during the day.
This can go on for months. Lehrian said she has been trying hard to get one guy whom she’s been talking to since July.
“He’s the one that will call and text me at 3, 4 in the morning … He’s like, I wanna see you, I wanna see you,” she said.
Running the group is a full-time job for Lehrian, and she spends much of each day as a decoy. But the time it takes is not the hard part.
“It does take a toll on me. It’s not the time. It’s the things I see and they say,” Lehrian said.
Text messages get sexually explicit, and she said the decoy goes along with it. Guys will send photos of their genitals. When they ask the decoy for photos, Lehrian has friends of her group who are over 18 but can pass as younger who will provide images at a moment’s notice.
Lehrain and Perry both keep text messages from their targets. After they expose a guy, those logs are among the materials they provide to local law enforcement in the hopes that police will take up the case.
Police vs. ‘vigilante’ groups
While Lehrian and Perry go after people they suspect are child predators, police rarely take up the cases or use the evidence they provide.
In the description for illegal contact with a minor, the Pennsylvania crime that could be leveled against someone in these situations, the victim must either be an actual minor or a law enforcement officer assuming the identity of a minor, York County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Chuck Murphy told the York Daily Record.
“They have to be coming to meet the actual child or an officer posing as that said child,” said Detective Andrew Wolfe, of Mt. Holly Springs, of would-be child predators.
Beyond not being able to take up the cases the groups present, law enforcement are not supportive of the efforts by Lehrian and Perry.
“We told them we do not approve,” Wolfe said. “They risk getting injured or even killed.”
He said the groups also come close to breaking Pennsylvania’s wiretap law, which dictates that one cannot record another person without their permission.
Chambersburg Police Department released a message last year denouncing the Franklin County group’s “vigilante activity.” The title was straightforward: “Chambersburg police ask vigilante group to stop.”
Chief Ron Comacho told the Public Opinion last week his view has not changed.
“We, CPD, are all for citizen and police collaboration, when done in a safe and proper manner. The group we were dealing with were not safe,” he said.
Lehrian said she does think about the bad things that could happen during an operation.
“But at the same time, the children’s safety is more important than my safety. I’d rather myself get hurt than a child.”
The York Daily Record’s Ted Czech contributed to this story.