AP NEWS

Video Vigilantes

June 3, 2018

Using any number of false identities, photographs, social media and chat servers, a Lake Havasu City man lured his naïve online victim into an offline encounter…but not in the usual way.

The online vigilante group Havasu Creep Sweepers just posted their latest in a series of videos in an attempt to expose or otherwise confront suspected child predators. Their efforts have led to one criminal conviction, but police say they’d prefer to leave the crime fighting to the professionals.

In the Creep Sweepers’ latest video, one of the group’s members posed as a 15-year-old child to elicit sexual advances from a Lake Havasu man. When he invited the “adolescent” to his home, according to the group, a Creep Sweepers member arrived instead to chastise him. The video was deleted from Vimeo Friday afternoon.

The Havasu Creep Sweepers made headlines in September when one of its videos led to the arrest and conviction of Havasu resident Jeremy Laska on charges of attempting to lure a minor for sexual exploitation and possession of drug paraphernalia. The Havasu Creep Sweepers resumed their activity in earnest earlier this year.

The Setup

The group works through online chat programs, where members pose as underage boys and girls with “decoy photos” of actual adolescents to enhance the illusion. Many of the conversations are saved for posterity, and group members arrange to meet with potential predators. As of Friday, the Creep Sweepers members have posted 18 videos and chat logs from alleged child predators to social media venues including Facebook, Vimeo, You Tube and Google Plus.

According to Lake Havasu City Police Sgt. Tom Gray, the police department has not investigated the Creep Sweepers group, but officials have identified and spoken with one of the group’s members.

The member was encouraged to work with the police department rather than acting on his or her own.

Police response

“There are times when citizens must act in self-defense or in defense of others to prevent the immediate loss of life or injury,” Lake Havasu City Police Chief Dan Doyle said Thursday. “Absent an immediate threat or need for intervention, the best course of action when becoming aware of criminal activity is to notify the authorities.”

Of more than a dozen individuals confronted by the vigilante group over the past 12 months, only one was arrested due to the group’s findings. After Laska was confronted by Creep Sweepers members in August, an anonymous tip from one of the group’s viewers led police to Laska’s home, which was near Oro Grande Elementary School.

Police discovered quantities of methamphetamines, steroids, marijuana and drug paraphernalia in Laska’s home, the report said. Laska waived his right to a trial in December, and was sentenced to 99 days’ time served, with four years’ probation.

“(Notifying authorities) not only protects an individual who may have otherwise taken action on their own, but provides a much better chance for the criminal conviction of a guilty party,” Doyle said. “By acting on their own a person may unwittingly expose themselves to unnecessary harm or allow the criminal to avoid legal consequences.”

According to Doyle, citizens’ willingness to work hand-in-hand with police to detect, investigate and solve crimes is the core tenant of community-oriented policing. “The key component is the law-abiding citizen working with the police department to bring the criminal element to justice, rather than acting independently with no plan for a legal prosecution.”

Creep Sweepers members

The Havasu Creep Sweepers often operate under assumed names and false online identities, rendering their true identities difficult to determine.

Many of the Creep Sweepers’ videos feature a single male voice accompanying camera phone footage, although in some videos there is an additional female voice as well. Videos and chat logs recorded by the group are published online, and all have been posted to You Tube, Vimeo or Google Plus under the name “Fiona Jensen, with the exception of one.

A video published to Fiona Jensen’s account in March was preceded by an identical video, titled “Meet Eric,” published to the Google Plus account of user Jarrod Hicks in January.

Much of the group’s current activity has been spurred by members on Facebook, although Facebook user Walden Frances Thievenbrooke took credit for the group’s operations in September. The name is suspected to be an alias of another man, but attempts by Today’s News-Herald to confirm the user’s identity were unsuccessful as of Friday evening. Police Sgt. Tom Gray said police know the man’s identity, but declined to make that information public.

In one video on Thievenbrooke’s Facebook page, he said he had a criminal felony record. According to the Arizona Supreme Court, no such record exists under his name. Thievenbrooke’s Facebook page says he is from Havasu, but no record could be found to ascertain this.

In March, the user known as Thievenbrooke posted a video in which he indicated anticipating an attempt on his life. While he said the scenario was hypothetical, Thievenbrooke directed police agencies or interested parties to a 12-page list of potential suspects if such an attempt was made.

Legality

According to defense attorney Michael Wozniak, of Kingman-based law firm Whitney & Whitney, the Creep Sweepers’ actions aren’t technically illegal.

“From a legal standpoint, it’s not entrapment,” Wozniak said. “There would need to be a state agent in these stings, encouraging criminal activity for it to fit the criteria for entrapment. But (Thievenbrooke)would still be impeachable in court.”

Wozniak has been involved in cases in which stings were performed against alleged sex offenders beyond Havasu. In those instances, Wozniak said, civilian organizations worked alongside police agencies to bring potential predators to justice.

“It was a little more professionally done than the Creep Sweepers,” Wozniak said. “The best way for people to do something like this is with the assistance of law enforcement. In my opinion, it doesn’t shock me that only one case was prosecuted out of all of these stings. If that case had gone to trial, (Thievenbrooke) would have had to testify, and he would have been impeachable. Aside from the fact he said he had a felony conviction of his own, he also clearly lacks the kind of training in questioning suspects that the police have.”

Wozniak made clear that this was his objective legal opinion. “I don’t condone the kind of behavior (the Creep Sweepers) are opposing by any means. What they’re doing isn’t illegal…but it’s not entirely legal either.”

Keeping Kids Safe Online

According to the FBI, social networking sites can appeal to sexual predators, allowing easy and immediate access to information about potential victims. The FBI says its agents receive hundreds of complaints per year about children who have been victims of criminal incidents on social networks.

Adults have been reported to have posed as children of the same age as victims, and later traveled to abuse those victims. Adults have also posed as children on social networks, and convinced those children to expose themselves or perform sexual acts on webcam, the agency said.

The FBI cites a National Center for Missing and Exploited Children survey of children 12-17, in which 38 percent said they posted photos, video, artwork or stories to their social media accounts. Another survey of children 10-17 showed 46 percent had given personal information to someone they did not know. Children 16-17 are most likely to give personal information to a stranger, the survey said.

To learn more about protecting children from potential online predators, visit the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s website at www.missingkids.com/education.