The Orange County District Attorney’s Office has declined to file charges against a man who was the target of a sting operation by an underground group that exposes and helps apprehend online child predators. The case highlights the greater level of scrutiny the District Attorney’s office is now bringing to these cases.
The man was arrested last week after a separate investigation by the Fullerton Police Department corroborated some of the findings of the CC Unit, which stands for “Creep Catchers Unit,” although it is not affiliated with a national “Creep Catchers” association (CCUSA).
CC Unit is a self-described child advocacy group that targets predators by posing as minors online.
Organizers claim to be responsible for “catching” over 300 people in Southern California, even though law enforcement and prosecutors are reluctant to publicly support their efforts.
Recently, members of the group said a 39-year-old man had made arrangements to meet whom he thought was a 14-year-old boy near the Anaheim-Fullerton border.
The child was actually an adult decoy from the CC Unit.
When the man didn’t show up at the initial meeting location, members of CC Unit went to the parking lot of the man’s nearby workplace in Anaheim and confronted him on video about the sexually explicit messages and pictures he had allegedly sent to whom he thought was a minor.
The confrontation was live-streamed and eventually moved across the street, on the Fullerton side of the border near Lemon and Orangethorpe.
In the video, “Ghost,” the founder of the group who conceals his identity, shows the man paper copies of an online conversation that included lewd photos and graphic descriptions of sexual activity that the man allegedly intended to engage in with the minor.
The man claims he never intended to follow through with the sex acts and also claimed he “has mental issues,” the confrontational video shows.
Fullerton Police arrived at the scene and launched an investigation based on the group’s findings but did not make an arrest right away.
“The intricacies of these investigations are not just: ‘Here’s a printout of what was said so go make an arrest,’ and I think sometimes there’s a false expectation that that’s possible,” said Captain Jon Radus of the Fullerton Police Department.
“Ultimately, we as a law enforcement agency, need to provide the charging agency, which is the Orange County District Attorney, with credible evidence that we have discovered on our own independent of what we are told,” Radus said.
On July 12th, three days after CC Unit confronted the man, Fullerton Police said they had gathered enough evidence to make an arrest and took the man into custody, where he was ordered held on $100,000 bail.
However, just days later, the man was released after the District Attorney’s Office announced charges were not being filed.
Kimberly Edds, a spokesperson for the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, said the case was rejected “in the interest of justice” and for “insufficient evidence to prove a crime beyond a reasonable doubt.”
While Edds wouldn’t provide specific reasons, she did say that the OCDA’s office introduced a policy in March that outlines the criteria that need to be met to prosecute cases brought by “vigilante” groups.
She told KTLA this case did not meet the criteria of the new policy.
A copy of a March memo outlining the policy that was sent from District Attorney Todd Spitzer to “Chiefs of Police” around the county indicates even an independent investigation by police might not be enough to bring charges.
In the memo, Spitzer writes that “some of the actions taken by cyber-vigilantes have been reckless or even endangered public safety” and that his office does not condone or endorse the practice.
“Even when provable through independent evidence, the Orange County District Attorney’s Office retains the discretion to make filing decisions on a case-by-case basis. The threat to public safety will be considered along with other factors such as whether the vigilante engaged in egregious behavior in making that determination,” Spitzer wrote in the memo.
Even so, Fullerton Police say detectives still have outstanding search warrants in the case and if they discover new evidence of criminal activity, they will again forward that information to the DA’s office.
Edds says if new evidence is presented, it’s possible charges could be filed at a later date.