As online paedophile vigilante groups become increasingly common in the UK, Caitlin Elliott speaks to the leader of Predator Down, a team dedicated taking matters into their own hands.
John, dubbed as John Hunter, has a routine day job as a courier ferrying packages around the country in a van.
On the surface, the Margate father of seven appears to be an ordinary working family man.
But at the end of the day as his van sits parked and locked on the driveway, John takes on a startlingly different role, taking the law into his own hands.
He’s the leader of paedophile hunting team, Predator Down.
John and his team go undercover, posing as underage girls and boys on online chat rooms, luring in men as much as six times the pretend child’s age.
The decoys engage in digital conversations with the predators, doing their best to chat as a young teenager would.
The end aim is to get the men to agree to meet up with who they think is their underage prey.
But those who agree to meet, in what John calls a ‘sting’, are greeted with much more than they bargained for. John and his team surround, interrogate and hand them over to the police.
However, legal authorities disapprove of the DIY vigilante missions, deeming groups like Predator Down as risky to those involved and an obstacle in police investigations.
Predator Down was created just three months ago in March 2018, after John was inspired by watching other paedophile vigilante videos online.
It has since become a six-man-strong team, with each successful catching being shared with over 7,000 Facebook followers via live stream.
John said: It was other groups that got me interested. I think there’s about 120 groups across the country. So I started looking into it and looking at the laws behind it.
“It looked like something I’d be able to do legally that I’d be pretty good at doing. So I just started it up by myself and gave it a crack.
The operation is run primarily from the comfort of John’s Margate home, but Predator Down’s team members are spread across the county.
“It really runs out of my house. But the team’s spread out, we’ve got guys in Sittingbourne, Dover, Canterbury, right down to Gravesend.
“It seems to be going well we seem to be catching a lot of these guys”.
But there is deeper reasoning behind Predator Down. John and his team do what they do out of fear that the situations they simulate online could one day be reality that is far too close to home.
“Most of the team are parents and if they’re not parents they’re foster parents. It’s just that little bit of extra motivation knowing we could be saving our kids from being exposed to these men online.
“It’s personal for me, my kids are on social media and to think they may be exposed to some of the people we’re catching or people we’ve had conversations with.
“It’s scary. If I can catch just one person who would’ve otherwise met with a child and done things that they just shouldn’t be doing, then that’s worthwhile for me”.
In addition to his busy family life raising seven kids, John is never off duty from his role as an online decoy.
“It’s like having a second full time job. I get up at four in the morning and my phone will be going off. I’ll have messages to reply to from the night before. Messages will start when the men sending them are getting up for their own jobs at about six. It doesn’t stop until about midnight.
“Sometimes I find myself pulling over during work to reply to messages.
“It’s non stop throughout the day. Some of the other decoy guys struggle to keep up with it. It’s constant.”
Although the group is gaining a huge following and successfully stinging individuals who are potentially huge dangers to society, vigilante paedophile hunters are hugely frowned upon by police.
Kent Police have commented on the workings of John and his team.
Detective Chief Superintendent Thomas Richards, Head of Kent Police’s Public Protection Unit, said: “Vigilantes are taking risks they do not understand.
“We do understand people’s concerns but would urge them to contact us and not take the law into their own hands.
“Keeping children safe is a top priority for Kent Police and we dedicate significant resources to tackle this issue. We have specialist units that target offenders who abuse children.”
Kent Police also argue that because men caught via Predator Down decoys have not been proved to have been speaking to or harming real children, they are unable to spend time investigating the cases.
“No actual children have been harmed or found to be at risk from any of the people caught by vigilante stings in Kent.
“All allegations are taken seriously but police time spent investigating incidents involving `pretend’ children diverts them from investigating the actual abuse of children.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, John hasn’t let the police’s comments derail his missions.
“Fair enough it’s the police’s responsibility to catch criminals and these guys are criminals. But the police don’t have the time, the man power or the resources to do it.
“If I can bring someone to their attention of course I’m going to do it.
“Although they may be speaking to adults, it’s never going to be the first time these people have had an inappropriate conversation with a child.
“A sting of ours that was done by another team in Devon involved a man walking out of the police station with a caution because it would be too much of a strain on the courts.
“This is a guy who had been sending pictures of his penis to a 13-year-old girl and asking her to masturbate.
“This guy walked out with a caution”
He has also deemed Kent Police’s reaction as irresponsible.
“Obviously the police are never going to condone what we’re doing or admit it’s a good thing.
“If they’re saying they won’t deal with it because there’s not a real child involved then I would say that’s letting down thousands of children all over the country.”
On top of the desire for justice, the thrill of the chase is undoubtedly a contributing factor in why John continues to hunt.
“I do get a big adrenaline rush from it because I know all the work I’ve done with the team has all lead to that moment.
“It’s a bit nerve wracking at times especially if you’re dealing with someone who might be a bit volatile.
“You have no idea what sort of mind set they’re going to be in and you don’t know how they’re going to react.
“But personally I do get a buzz from it. We’ll all shake hands and congratulate each other on our hard work”
John’s further justification of the existence of the group, in the form of his anecdote about his favourite catch, is enough to make your skin crawl.
“There was a man that we had been speaking to in the form of a 13-year-old decoy. He had been arranging for her to run away from home and live with him.
“He was going to teach her how to have sex, he was going to teach her how to give oral sex, he was going to lie to his flat mate to say that his niece was staying.
“I’d put a lot of time into it. He would message me half a dozen time until I replied.
“For me that one was nerve wracking but satisfying. It really motivated me to carry on.”
After backlash and lack of support from police, it is clear that John and his Predator Down team are not set to stop their mission any time soon.
In fact, it seems that motivation to continue is growing with every message sent, every sting and every refusal of support from authorities.
With thousands of followers, there’s potential that paedophile vigilante groups could be inspiring countless others.
Is Predator Down a sample of what the future in the battle against child predators has to hold?
Listen Below: John Hunter on starting Predator Down…
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