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Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Texas, Bud Kennedy Column: Collin County Predator Sting is Short on Proof, Ethics

June 10, 2007

By Bud Kennedy, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Texas

Jun. 10–We all want creepy predators locked up. But not the way NBC does it.

And not the way police handled it in one Collin County town.

By now, you’ve heard about the bungled bust in Murphy, where Dateline NBC baited men and police locked up 21, all freed for now because both NBC’s paid “decoys” and police botched the cases.

The leader of a Collin County children’s agency said Friday that she wasn’t surprised.

“I know that law enforcement works very hard to find and prosecute Internet predators,” said Susan Etheridge, director of the Children’s Advocacy Center in Plano.

“When citizens do it — I don’t know whether that can work. Perhaps policing is best left to the police.”

She definitely disagrees with Oregon-based Perverted-Justice.com, an online activist group that has turned computer sex stings into cheap TV ratings fodder, staging them for Dateline episodes titled To Catch a Predator.

On its Web site, Perverted-Justice.com accuses Collin County prosecutors of “the mother of all lies” and asks whether the prosecutors are “so corrupt, so inept and so incompetent” that they would blame the activists for sloppy evidence.

Collin County Assistant District Attorney Greg Davis said last week that police and the Web site didn’t provide enough useful proof.

Some former Murphy police have told a Dallas TV station that officers didn’t bother to write arrest reports after the TV cameras were gone.

The police chief has been quoted as saying that he will rewrite and refile the cases.

But some of the cases apparently involve computer conversations that took place totally outside Collin County. If that’s true, then the cost of jailing suspects and taking them to court should be borne by the county where the crime occurred, not simply where a TV network happened to set up its cameras.

“Online solicitation of a minor” — basically, any dirty computer talk or text messaging to somebody 16 or younger or acting that young — is a third-degree felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison — 20 years if they’re 13 or younger.

Etheridge said she supports the county prosecutors.

In a letter posted on Perverted-Justice.com, Davis tells the activist group: “If you wish to help in the fight against child abuse, you can call the Collin County Child Advocacy Center in Plano. They are always in need of more volunteers and private donations.”

Etheridge said, “Amen, Greg! We’re all for Greg Davis!”

The advocacy center is concerned about online child predators, she said.

“They’re definitely out there,” she said. “They’re looking for children. But most children who are abused are the victim of someone they know — a family member, someone from a friend’s family, a church member, somebody from a youth group.”

The Murphy bust is also back in the national news because a former NBC News producer is suing the network. Marsha Bartel, now at a Fox station in Chicago, is suing NBC for $1 million, saying she was laid off after she complained about what she saw as ethical lapses on earlier Predator episodes.

NBC pays Perverted-Justice.com, giving the activists a “financial incentive” to decoy targets, her lawsuit says.

The network also compensates police officers “to enhance and intensify the dramatic effect of the show,” it says.

NBC officials responded that they have “open and critical discussions” about the show’s ethics and that “audience reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.”

In other words, NBC talks a good ethics game, but — hey, the show’s bringing in the money.

In Plano, Etheridge encourages worried parents to watch their children, not their TVs.

“Whether they’re on the computer or in the yard, watch your kids,” she said. “It all begins with watching your kids.”

Not to mention watching the Murphy police.

Bud Kennedy’s column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. 817-390-7538

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