Sections

Weather Forecast

Close

His group hunts for child-sex predators, Twin Cities law enforcement is leery

Josh Harwell, shown in Forest Lake’s Cedar Park, founded a Facebook group called Predator Hunters, whose mission it is to expose alleged sexual predators of children, Feb. 28, 2019. Harwell confronted and Facebook Live-recorded an alleged predator in this park; the video received 100,000 views. (Scott Takushi / St. Paul Pioneer Press)

ST. PAUL — It’s a well-known law enforcement tactic.

A police officer goes online pretending to be minor. An adult messages the undercover officer, assuming they are connecting with someone underage. The talk turns sexual and a meeting is arranged. Then, the adult shows up to find law enforcement instead of the minor and gets busted.

Of the eight cases charged in Ramsey County alone since January, one came with a twist.

Masudee Adesina Ojetokun showed up to meet a 15-year-old girl in New Brighton last fall, according to a criminal complaint filed in Ramsey County District Court. But the 31-year-old St. Paul man instead was confronted by someone from a group aimed at exposing and publicly humiliating suspected child predators.

It’s the first case involving Predator Hunters USA to be charged in Ramsey County.

More could be coming as the group continues to stage controversial citizen-stings around the metro area and beyond.

EXPOSING ALLEGED PREDATORS

Joshua Harwell started the effort five months ago and his Facebook page already has 74,000 followers.

Some of the videos posted to it — which capture Harwell “exposing” alleged predators on camera — garner upward of 100,000 views.

More than 1,000 people reacted to a video posted about a month ago from a Duluth incident.

“Thank you for what you do to keep our kids safe,” one person wrote as footage streamed live on Facebook.

“Get a rope. Stretch his neck,” wrote another.

Law enforcement officials interviewed for this story, including those with Ramsey, Dakota and Anoka counties, St. Paul police and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, said they have significant concerns about the group’s work.

The biggest worry is someone getting hurt.

“You have to balance what they are trying to accomplish against the potential unintended consequences,” said Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo. “Say they show up at a scene and a potential defendant panics and takes off at a high speed and goes through a red light and hits and kills a family of three. Or a defendant shows up and gets enraged and kills somebody.”

Harwell recorded his confrontation of Masudee Adesina Ojetokun outside a gas station in New Brighton in November. Ojetokun was charged in February with one count of engaging in electronic communication relating or describing sexual conduct with a child. Authorities began investigating his case after Harwell’s group tipped them off to Ojetokun’s alleged behavior.

‘KICK ROCKS’

Harwell, who lives in Eagan, sometimes responds to the comments as he sits in his car, camera rolling, waiting for suspected predators.

The suspects who do approach him often hear the same message from him.

“Kick Rocks.”

It’s become Harwell’s tagline. It’s screen-printed on hats and sweatshirts he sells promoting his group’s work.

It essentially means “get out of here,” and Harwell almost always says it to suspects he encounters.

Harwell is wearing his “Kick Rocks” sweatshirt as he recounts his first time going after a suspected predator.

It was set up after Harwell started noticing groups in his Facebook feed engaging in so-called “predator hunting” in other states.

‘A HUGE ADRENALINE RUSH’

The father of two set up an online dating profile on a site called MeetMe and started phishing.

“Within like 30 minutes, I had probably 15 messages,” Harwell said. “Once I started telling them my age, 15, 14, 13, they had no regard for it at all. It was unreal.”

Days later, a man he chatted with while pretending to be a 13-year-old girl asked to meet. They picked a gas station in Forest Lake — where Harwell says his group is based.

“It was a huge adrenaline rush,” Harwell recalled of approaching the guy. “But, uh, I called the guy a pedophile. I swore at him. I lost my temper. It wasn’t the greatest.”

Now, he holds his temper.

“Yelling and screaming, it doesn’t do anything,” he said. “If you can just talk to them then maybe they’ll open up. You might get your message across.”

It’s one of many lessons Harwell learned since that first exposure. He now runs a team of about 25 volunteers, each charged with different tasks.

Some are decoys, setting up dating profiles online where they pose as minors and converse and eventually arrange to meet with adults interested in sexual interaction with minors.

Others work as Harwell’s security and accompany him to exposures. Harwell and his security are always armed, he said, though no one has ever had to draw a gun at any of his roughly 60 exposures.

Other members operate the group’s website and Facebook page, monitoring it for comments that break the group’s rules, such as outing the location of an exposure too soon or calling out the suspect’s family.

‘WE DON’T WISH HARM UPON THEM’

Harwell said he adamantly opposes violence or harassing people’s loved ones.

“We get a lot of people who say, ‘Kick their ass.’ But we don’t wish harm upon them, we want to get them convicted and move on,” Harwell said. “That’s why we bring security, to protect me and the predator.”

Other volunteers serve as liaisons with law enforcement, with whom the group is increasingly trying to work.

The group sends everything it collects before and after an exposure — such as chat logs and videos — to the appropriate law enforcement agency in hopes it will lead to charges, Harwell said.

He’s not doing this because he wants to be a cop, though he did briefly go to school to become one years ago, Harwell says.

And the snowplower and house painter says it’s not about fame. He also claims it’s not about power, and quickly swats away the notion he’s a vigilante.

So why does he do it?

“I feel like exposing these guys will help stop them. The humiliation will help stop them,” Harwell says. “The things that these guys say are very explicit. … If a real child showed up, that child’s life would be ruined. If it’s us they run into and not that child, maybe they will think twice about doing it again.”

KNOWS WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE THAT CHILD

Here’s the other reason: Harwell knows what it feels like to be that child.

He said he was sexually abused by an adult he knew growing up. Ashamed and confused, he never told anyone until years later, he said. The person was never criminally charged.

Harwell got quiet and looked out the window when asked to describe his experience.

“I just closed myself off and avoided it,” he said. “A lot of (victims) don’t talk about it. It’s a scar that they don’t want to reopen.”

Now he’s talking about it more than ever. A lot of volunteers on his team are reportedly past victims, and his group hears from others all the time.

“We get so many messages. ‘Hey, I was a victim. What you guys are doing is amazing.’ … Some have never told nobody before and they say feel comfortable telling us,” Harwell said. “It’s inspiring.”

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

The team is careful about who it will accept, Harwell says. Every volunteer applicant is screened and trained.

They don’t take people who can’t commit enough time, Harwell said. Nor those who don’t want to use their personal picture on dating apps. Fake ones raise red flags for potential perpetrators, he said.

They’re also screening for people seeking attention, or power. Extra care is given to volunteers who’ve been victims in the past, Harwell added, noting the work can trigger past trauma.

His team includes eight administrators and 15 decoys, including three head decoys, who oversee and train the others.

Decoys — who operate on over 30 dating apps — are taught the rules of engagement, several of which Harwell says are based on what the group knows law enforcement needs to build a chargeable case.

The decoy has to share his or her age at least three times, for example, and can never be the one to initiate conversation. The decoy also has to wait for the other to turn the conversation sexual, and to ask to meet.

BEHIND THE CAMERA

Harwell is the man behind the camera at every exposure.

Sitting in his car at the meeting locations, he often instructs decoys to ask the person to go inside and grab a Snickers or a Sprite from the gas station they agreed to meet at.

That way, Harwell knows he’s got the right person when they come out with the requested item.

He admits to once getting it wrong, a situation caused by a cascade of coincidences, he says. Harwell wound up apologizing profusely to the guy, who turned out to be a fan of the group and was understanding of the mistake.

Harwell repeats the same thing every time he starts an exposure.

“Hi, my name’s Josh. I’m recording for your safety as well as mine. I’m not law enforcement. You’re free to go at anytime. Who are you here to meet?”

Sometimes the person rolls up his car window and leaves. Other times, they call Harwell a liar. Some talk for a while.

The majority of those he’s exposed so far have been white men between 30 and 60 years old, Harwell said.

‘WHY ARE YOU HERE AGAIN?’

Harwell managed to keep one guy he exposed recently in Duluth around for several minutes.

After persistent questioning, Harwell — camera rolling — gets the man to admit that he was there to meet who he thought was a 15-year-old girl, and that he told her online he’d bring condoms.

“You are here to meet with a 15-year-old child and do disgusting things that you said you wanted to do with that child. You realize if that was a real child, you realize the harm you could have done to that child?” Harwell responds.

“Yeah. I do. I do,” the man responds.

“Then why are you here again?” Harwell asks.

“I don’t know, man. I don’t know. OK,” the man responds. “I don’t know. Honestly. OK?”

After more badgering, Harwell hands over a card he gives out at his exposures. It includes phone numbers for mental health, suicide prevention and sex addiction hotlines.

After informing the man he’ll be turning everything over to Duluth police, he jumps to his slogan:

“Leave our children alone. … Kick Rocks,” he tells the man, still filming as he drives away.

LAW ENFORCEMENT SAYS GROUP’S WORK DANGEROUS FOR COMMUNITY

So far, the group’s efforts have led to a handful of arrests. Ramsey, Anoka and Hennepin counties have each charged at least one case.

Still, law enforcement officials like Palumbo aren’t in favor of the group’s efforts.

“When law enforcement does a takedown, they are always minimizing the dangers to others,” Palumbo said. “People acting like law enforcement (don’t have) … the wherewithal to make sure (the exposure) is effective and minimizes harm to others.”

St. Paul police Sgt. Mike Ernster said much of the same, adding that officers still need to conduct their own investigations into the group’s work. That can involve everything from reviewing chat logs, verifying IP addresses and interviewing everyone involved.

In that sense, the group’s efforts don’t save officers time, Ernster said, though they may alert law enforcement to suspects who may otherwise go undetected.

Still, he said his department would rather see investigations left to trained professionals.

So far, the group has alerted St. Paul police to two suspects. One resulted in the charges filed against Ojetokun in November.

Ojetokun has yet to enter a plea. His attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said the case took him and his staff by surprise.

“Our staff had very strong feelings about some of the public-safety issues and the identification issues and just the fairness issues this brings up for someone who might be accused of a crime,” he said.

The prosecutor who signed the complaint was among those with the strongest concerns, Choi said. But when she saw the evidence, she felt compelled to act despite the case’s route to her desk.

“We wouldn’t have charged the case if we thought there were probable-cause issues,” Choi said. “At the end of the day, I guess we’ll just keep handling these on a case-by-case basis.”

Both Dakota and Hennepin counties developed policies to respond to the group’s work.

Dakota County’s mandates that citizens contact law enforcement before meeting with a potential suspect and that law enforcement be present when it happens, for example.

Despite the risks, more effort aimed at curbing sexual exploitation of minors could help, acknowledged Anoka County sheriff’s Lt. Dan Douglas.

“We all want predators and pedophiles to be brought to light. … We just have to make sure whether it’s us or a private party doing it, public safety is paramount and rules and laws are adhered to.”

‘LEAVE OUR CHILDREN ALONE’

Harwell says more law enforcement agencies are starting to work with them.

His group is willing to shift practices to accommodate their demands, he said, such as ensuring law enforcement’s presence at stings.

It recently worked with Hennepin County to stage a sting, but the suspect stopped communicating with the group’s decoy and deputies ended up arresting him at home instead, Harwell said.

If there’s one thing Harwell and Choi agree on, it’s that the problem of sexual exploitation of minors is pervasive.

Demand is so high, Choi said, that an undercover agent posing as a minor online easily racks up 150 responses over an eight-hour period.

randomness