ST. TAMMANY, La. — With all the makings of a reality TV drama, a St. Tammany Parish woman leads a group of volunteers snaring would-be child predators online and exposing them while hundreds watch on Facebook live.
Holly, who asked us not to use her last name, created the Facebook page Southern Mothers Against Predators last spring after she said another online-predator-hunter group urged people around the country to join the fight.
Volunteer “decoys,” posing as underage girls and boys, post pictures and comments on various social media sites, messaging and gaming apps and then wait to see who will take the bait.
Holly said hundreds do, most of them men over age 18, with some reaching out just to chat, while other conversations spiral into explicit talks about sex.
“We have to play the role of a child. So, when they ask things, like different sexual innuendos, per se, when they say different things, we play dumb,” Holly said.
Meeting the men face to face
Their tactics are similar to those used by law enforcement officers, but there is no police involvement in SMAP sting operations. It is simply a group of mothers, led by Holly.
In the exposure videos, Holly is always the face on camera, often appearing nervous, regularly puffing on a vaping device or a cigarette. She urges her viewers to share the live feed to get more people to see the suspected predators.
In some of the confrontations, the men will sit and talk to Holly, others hide and some speed off when they see her phone with video recording.
Two of the men admitted to chatting with a girl they believed to be 15 and the chat logs Holly provided to WWL-TV, screen shots of the conversations between the men and a SMAP decoy, can be shocking.
“It's very emotional, making me cry, I can't imagine my children or anyone else's children reading some of the things that we've read,” she said, visibly holding back tears.
Holly is both calming and confrontational with the men during the exposures, leading some to confess.
“You did think that she was 15 years old? Wrong or right,” she asked one of the men. He replied, “Right.”
You're Live on Facebook
Since the group began its sting operations, Holly said they have confronted eight men on Facebook live, all of them over age 24.
The decoys tell the men at the beginning of the conversation that they are anywhere from 13 to 16 years old.
The ease at which a single attractive picture of a decoy can net chat requests is shocking. On a weekday afternoon, one picture posted by Holly on the messaging app Whisper drew 65 messages in less than an hour from men in the metro New Orleans area and some in other states.
Whisper is a social app that identifies a poster’s location so that those nearby can reach out.
The messages don’t all start out sexual, but most contain comments on how pretty the girl is in the picture.
“This phone will go off all night long,” Holly said after posting the picture.
Holly confronts suspected predators with the chat logs from their conversations with the decoys. She has also posted some of them in the private SMAP Facebook group.
You just don't know who is lurking online
Among the logs, she has posted a decoy’s conversation with a man we will call “John” on the Text Now app last Fall.
John, whose name has been changed because he has not been formally accused or convicted of a crime, tells the decoy, “…I want to help and watch you masterbait [sic] I want to help your explore your sexual self.”
John was 26 years old. The decoy told John she was 15.
When Holly confronted John on Facebook live last year, hundreds of her followers weren’t the only ones who would see the video. John’s live-in girlfriend, “Jenny,” the mother of his child, saw it too.
We agreed not to use her real name.
“I didn't know how to react. I just broke down. I was upset and I was curious about who these people were,” she said.
Jenny was collateral damage in John’s exposure.
“I stayed home for a long time. I didn't go anywhere. I was afraid to,” she said.
The two had a rocky relationship and Jenny said she has caught John chatting with other women online, but never underage girls. When asked whether she thinks she would have known about what John was doing if it wasn’t for SMAP, Jenny replied, “I think it's a 50/50 chance. I've caught him with everything else that he's done but at the same time he got better at hiding things, you know.”
She has since broken off their relationship, but continues to co-parent with him. Jenny said she “wouldn’t wish this on her worst enemy.”
Without law enforcement involved, the exposures are a public shaming, Holly says, aimed at stopping the men’s dangerous behavior.
“It was their decision to come there. Ultimately, it was their decision to talk to a child, to be sexual to a child, to groom a child, to meet a child with the intent to have sex,” she said.
Computer-aided solicitation of a minor is a felony in Louisiana and anyone convicted of it is required to register as a sex offender.
Shame, but no arrests - yet
But law enforcement has not made any arrests for sex crimes based on SMAP's exposures.
St Tammany Sheriff's Office spokesman Cpt. Scott Lee said the agency is aware of the group.
“We would like to stress our extreme concern and caution citizens about the potential dangers that may exist to anyone who chooses to take matters into their own hands, rather than allowing the appropriate law enforcement agency to perform its function. Law enforcement personnel are trained professionals bound by rules set forth under the law,” Lee said.
The STPSO and other law enforcement agencies are leery of the dangers involved and the evidence gathered by predator hunter groups like SMAP.
“You have to be very careful about how you conduct that investigation because you want it to go all the way to the prosecution phase,” said Corey Bourgeois, Manager of the Computer Forensic Lab at the Louisiana Bureau of Investigation, a division of the La. Attorney General’s Office.
The AG has the largest task force in the state, six investigators, dedicated to finding and stopping child predators and child porn. Since 2016, they have made 330 arrests.
“Leave law enforcement to law enforcement. Your hearts are in the right place and we love what you're doing, but there are dangers that it poses,” Bourgeois said about SMAP’s stings.
While SMAP prides itself on fully digging into the backgrounds of the people they expose, as civilians, they cannot run the same background checks on the men that law enforcement can.
“We totally understand [the safety risk]. But as a parent and as a concerned citizen, I feel the need to do something about this,” Holly said.
While law enforcement is focused on prosecuting the predators, Holly cites past exposures as proof the public shaming works.
In one case, a man exposed by SMAP contacted a decoy again, and when the decoy told the man she was underage, the man blocked all communication from the decoy.
In another case, one of SMAP’s exposure videos of a 28-year-old man who thought he was meeting a 15-year-old girl tells Holly, “I was stupid for coming. I’m definitely not gonna do this again.” But when Holly asks him whether she will she will see him on the apps again, he hesitated before responding, “Maybe looking for someone over 18.”
Holly said she would be happy to work with law enforcement and has had multiple meetings with different agencies.
She said she feels law enforcement is outmanned, and SMAP hopes to add to their army. But no agency has officially taken her up on it yet.
Online predator hunter groups are popping up around the world and in communities across the United States.
That’s how Holly got the idea to start SMAP. She said she saw the Tennessee organization Dirty South Justice conduct an exposure and the group’s leader challenged others around the country to join in.
Without law enforcement involved, the exposures can violate Facebook’s policies aimed at combating cyberbullying and vigilante violence. The leader of Dirty South Justice said in a recent exposure video that their page has been taken down by Facebook 12 times.
“Facebook has taken pretty much, pretty much every group's site down at least once,” she said.
So far, SMAP’s page has not been removed. But she takes the page down when they are not actively pursuing someone to keep it that way, and Holly says to keep her followers local.
Facebook regularly removes pages for violations of their community standards if the content is reported by someone who feels it violates their privacy or feels bullied by negative claims against their character.
A spokesperson for the company said, “We want people to use Facebook and our products to raise awareness about threats to public safety, including those who may pose harm to children. However, we do not want people to use Facebook to facilitate vigilante violence. That’s why we have policies against threatening real-world harm and to protect people’s privacy if they are being publicly shamed. We will remove content that violates these policies when it is reported.”
SMAP’s actions walk a fine line, with the support of the masses for their attempts to keep would-be predators away from children. Jenny said she also thinks the group’s intentions are good.
“I hope the group can find a way to do the things that they do in a way that they can work with police. Work with people who know what they're doing and make it legal and prevent other people from getting more hurt,” Jenny said.
While Holly is passionate about what her group is doing, she doesn’t personally decoy online anymore, instead leaving it to her volunteers.
“I’ve stepped away from it,” she continued, “It emotionally just wrecks you especially if you've been a victim yourself.”
She didn’t want to explain, but Holly said she was a victim when she was a teenager. Once the prey, now she sees herself the hunter.