Tommy Fthiellows’ hands shook as he looked at the text message from a man who said he wanted to meet a teenage girl for sex.
“What are u going to wear for daddy when I pick u up?” the message said.
Fellows handed the phone back to his colleague, Celeste Hilton, who was pretending to be a 13-year-old girl.
“Does my makeup look trashy enough?” asked Hilton, who had just applied thick, black eyeliner.
She snapped a selfie, then altered the image with Face App so that she appeared 20 years younger than she actually is. Hilton texted the photo, hoping to keep the man interested in meeting her. The two started packing their backpacks inside the garage of Fellows Westminster home, where he runs Colorado Ped Patrol — a YouTube channel established to expose internet predators.
“Let’s get him. I love it,” Fellows said. “These people are all disgusting.”
Hilton jumped and shouted, “Yes! Yes! Yes!”
Five months ago, Fellows created Colorado Ped Patrol, a loose group of people who set up meetings online with child predators and then livestream their encounters to expose and shame the men who prey on children. Ped Patrol’s YouTube channel has more than 19,000 followers and last month the group gained notoriety on the East Coast after Fellows traveled to Atlantic City, N.J., to participate in a sting that ensnared a Pennsylvania police officer.
But the group’s vigilante stings, which occur in places like parking lots and city parks, are drawing warnings from police and prosecutors, who say Fellows and his crew put themselves and the public in danger. Law enforcement officials also say Fellows’ tactics don’t follow proper criminal procedure, making it difficult to bring charges against alleged perpetrators.
On this day, the man chatting with Hilton sent a flurry of text messages, many of them vile, about his plans for her. He told Hilton via text that he would drive from Colorado Springs to meet her at a park in Lakewood.
“I give them multiple outs. I don’t just tell them I’m 13 once. I tell them multiple times I’m 13,” she said.
This man takes the out.
Just as Fellows and Hilton were packing their gear for the meetup, the man texted that he wasn’t coming. His message said he was only role-playing and needed someone older than 18.
The excitement evaporated.
“That’s a bummer,” Fellows said.
A passion for catching predators
The pursuit to expose pedophiles and facilitate their arrests is personal for Fellows and Hilton.
One of Fellows’ sons was sexually abused by a relative. That man is in prison, Fellows, 39, said.
He watched other online citizen predator stings and decided during the winter that he would give it a try. After his first catch, Fellows was motivated to do more. He set aside his window-washing business and now runs Colorado Ped Patrol out of his Westminster home, relying on financial support from his followers to make ends meet.
“I’ve always had a passion for this,” he said.
At 12, Hilton joined an online chat group and soon found herself in a sexual relationship with a much older, married man who had children. That man’s wife discovered Hilton’s name and phone number and called. Hilton denied knowing the man and hung up.
“To this day, I freaking regret it because who knows if I’d told her what happened, I could have saved his little girls or some other little girls,” she said.
That relationship ended, but Hilton, now 34, said, “I got lost on that loop.” She had sexual relationships with much older men that she met online throughout her teens. Looking back, she realizes she was being sexually assaulted. She suffers from depression and anxiety, and she continues to get therapy for the trauma.
“There were times where it wasn’t really consensual, but they didn’t ask,” she said. “I wasn’t saying no, but I wasn’t saying yes.”
Hilton, too, followed other pedophile hunters on YouTube and a few months ago found Fellows’ Colorado Ped Patrol channel. After talking it through with her husband, Hilton emailed Fellows to volunteer. Pretty soon, she was posing as a “nerdy, punk teen” on various social media apps.
“Honestly this is the best kind of therapy for this kind of situation,” she said. “I’m not doing this for me. It gives me comfort to know for these nasty guys that someone is going to see them and keep them from hurting someone else.
“The more exposure these peds get, the better humanity is.”
Police raise concerns
But local police do not agree that online citizen pedophile hunters make the world safer for children.
Lakewood police Cmdr. Randy McNitt said that although his department has taken three reports from Colorado Ped Patrol, only one case has been accepted for prosecution by the 1st Judicial District Attorney’s Office.
Colorado Ped Patrol’s tactics concern McNitt.
During one sting, Fellows set up a meeting with an online predator at a bus stop near a Motel 6 in Lakewood. The chaos that followed led multiple people to dial 911, McNitt said.
These encounters between Colorado Ped Patrol and alleged pedophiles could become violent. That not only puts Fellows and Hilton in danger but other people who just happen to be in the area, McNitt said.
Child predators always carry a potential for violence, McNitt said, pointing out the case in February in which two FBI agents were killed and three more were wounded in a shootout in Florida as the agents tried to serve a federal search warrant in a child pornography case.
“People will say it’s a pedophile and they’re not dangerous because I’m an adult,” McNitt said. “What’s to say this person who is showing up to meet who they believe to be a teenager has a gun in their car and now there’s a video camera in their face. It’s a crisis for them. It’s a dangerous situation.”
McNitt said the quality of evidence that Colorado Ped Patrol gathers and how they obtain it is questionable, too.
Their methods of livestreaming interactions and then editing videos makes it hard to use his work as evidence in a courtroom, Detective Cheri Spottke, a Westminster Police Department spokeswoman, said. The requirements law enforcement must follow to prove guilt in court do not apply to Fellows. So the chat messages, pictures and videos he provides to police don’t always hold up under that scrutiny, she said.
“They really believe in their cause and what they’re doing,” Spotke said. “But unfortunately the suspect goes unpunished and knows how to avoid it next time.”
Fellows openly criticizes local police departments on his videos if he believes they do not support him. That has led to people calling the Westminster Police Department and city hall to admonish city officials for letting pedophiles walk free. So many people have called that Westminster police wrote a one-page letter explaining their position to send to those who complain.
Westminster detectives have met with Fellows to talk about police procedures, public safety and the liability he faces, Spotke said.
“I guess he believes more in his cause than anything we have to say to him,” she said.
Arvada police also have tried to discourage Fellows over similar concerns, said Detective Dave Snelling, a department spokesman. Police have taken reports from Colorado Ped Patrol when the group does stings in Arvada, he said, but so far none have resulted in charges.
“We obviously won’t ignore crime, but we are waiting to see one of these cases through prosecution to understand all the dynamics of it,” he said.
Michael Teague, a 1st Judicial District Attorney’s Office spokesman, acknowledged that his office has filed charges against at least one person caught on camera by Colorado Ped Patrol. But he declined to discuss the group’s work.
Since his start, Fellows said he has more than 100 catches on his channel. While he mostly operates in Colorado, he also ventures to other states.
In late July, Fellows joined other online predator hunters in Atlantic City to set up stings. That led to four arrests, including one man who is a corporal in the Central Bucks Regional Police Department in Pennsylvania. The police department credited the private citizens for the arrests and the story made evening newscasts on the East Coast.
Two weeks ago, a donor gave $2,000 to Colorado Ped Patrol so Fellows and Hilton could travel to Iowa to catch a predator. The two said they were successful in exposing him to their audience and that they exposed several others while on the trip.
All of the police departments’ spokespeople said their agencies participate in task forces to catch pedophiles and internet predators.
But McNitt admitted the problem of internet predators is growing.
“I would be naive to say we have the time and resources to address all of them,” he said. “It’s a problem in the internet age how many are out there.”
In 2020, the Colorado Internet Crimes Against Children task force, which investigates online predators, received 5,100 cyber tips, Colorado Springs police Sgt. Jason Ledbetter, who is the task force’s deputy commander, said. Of those tips, the task force opened 950 investigations.
The problem grows every year as technology becomes more accessible. For example, the task force received just 829 cyber tips in 2011, Ledbetter said.
“It’s a record every year of how many we’re getting,” he said.
“It’s all about the kids”
Citizen vigilantes trying to bust child predators grew in popularity after the NBC reality show “To Catch A Predator” debuted in 2004. In that show, “Dateline NBC” host Chris Hansen ambushed predators with TV cameras inside a private house after they were lured by decoys to have sex with minors.
But the show ended in 2007 after one of its targets died by suicide during an arrest.
Dozens of online predator hunters operate around the country, drawing hundreds of thousands of viewers to their websites and social media channels.
In June 2019, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel issued a warning to people in her state that her office would not tolerate vigilantes after a Grand Rapids man started hunting predators. She called the actions “reckless and dangerous.” Still, that man, who runs the YouTube channel “Anxiety War,” continues his work and has 950,000 subscribers.
Casey Fiesler, an assistant professor of information science at the University of Colorado Boulder, said experts in her field are involved in ongoing debate on the ethics and public benefits of online sleuthing and vigilantism. On one hand, crowdsourcing has solved crimes. On the other, when people get it wrong they ruin others’ lives, she said.
“This is one of those areas where people are disagreeing on the ethics of what’s appropriate,” Fiesler said.
When Fellows goes live on his YouTube channel, people immediately tune in. The comments, most of them cheering Fellows on, pour in. He often responds to them as he is confronting a predator, thanking them for their donations and support. People also pay between $4.99 and $19.99 a month to support his mission and receive exclusive video content.
On July 28, Hilton posted her fake profile with an altered picture on the social media app MoCo and soon started exchanging messages with a man.
His messages included pornographic images.
“He wanted me to be his sex slave. He was showing me pictures of collars and chokers,” Hilton said. “He was sick.”
On Aug. 4, the man agreed to meet at a bus stop outside an Englewood King Soopers. Hilton, Fellows and two other men who volunteer with Colorado Ped Patrol gathered in the parking lot at 12:30 p.m.
The man was supposed to meet them at 1 p.m., but Hilton quickly spotted him, based on a picture he’d texted, lurking behind some trees near the bus stop. Each time a bus stopped for passengers, the man would walk past it, peering inside to look for the girl he thought he was meeting.
Hilton texted him to say she got off at the wrong bus stop and was walking toward the store. She wore black leggings, a long-sleeved workout jacket, a mask and sunglasses to disguise her age. The man crossed the street and walked through the parking lot. Then he called her name. As he approached, Fellows and the other men jumped from their cars with their cameras rolling.
The man tried to walk away as Fellows screamed about the man’s predatory behavior. He also urged the man to stop and talk.
“I’m going to make a scene,” Fellows yelled just before the man cut through four lanes of South Broadway traffic in an attempt to escape.
The pursuit continued for a half mile through an Englewood neighborhood. Hilton called Englewood police.
“You were here to destroy a 13-year-old!” Fellows shouted, peppering his accusations with expletives.
The man finally stopped and police arrived. Fellows kept cameras rolling until the man was placed in the back of a police car. Then he and his crew filled out statements for police and agreed to provide copies of their video footage. They also received a lecture about public safety from a sergeant.
Sgt. Tracy Jones, an Englewood police spokesman, said Tuesday that the man had not been arrested.
But no matter the outcome of an encounter, Fellows and Hilton said their work exposes another bad person to the world. Maybe another child will be spared, both said.
“It’s literally exposing the predators. We want them famous,” Hilton said. “It’s all about the kids. We’ve probably saved thousands of kids from these disgusting guys.”
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