KELSO, Wash. -- Ask Curtis Hart if he considers himself a vigilante and you’ll get a blunt answer.
“I’ve been called worse,” he said.
Regardless of the title, Hart says he and roughly five of his friends, who call themselves the Punisher Squad, are serving a vital purpose. They’re catching potential child predators before they have the chance to strike, posting videos of their encounters on YouTube, and only calling police once it’s time for an arrest to be made.
Their first experiment, which happened Thursday, was a success in Hart’s mind.
The proof, being that of 36-year-old Adam Olson, of Castle Rock, who is behind bars, being held on $50,000 bond.
“He believed he was there to meet a 13-year-old girl to have sex with,” said Hart. “The whole thing was exactly like an episode of ‘To Catch a Predator.’”
According to the Kelso police report, Hart and a friend posted a message Thursday in the online app ‘Whisper’.' They posed as a 14-year-old girl, looking to “have fun with an older man”.
“Immediately, I got 30 to 40 responses,” he said.
Hart says he zeroed in on Olson. The two traded selfies, and Hart, still posing as the teen, said he was actually 13.
Quickly, reports show, the conversation became sexual.
“It was absolutely disgusting,” said Hart.
Hart said Olson pressed to meet the fake teen, so he rounded up some buddies, at least one of them armed, and headed to Kelso’s Tom O’Shanter Park.
This YouTube video (warning: explicit language), Hart says, shows what happened next.
He said Kelso police had no idea, until Hart and his friends decided it was time for officers to make an arrest, which they did moments later.
“We didn't want to leave it up to the police because you can't just sit around on your hands waiting for government to come and fix everything,” said Hart. “To wait for government is to want your city to end up like Flint, Michigan.”
It’s the same rationale used by similar civilian groups around the world.
The trend, in one city, was dubbed “The Hunter Phenomenon”.
Police elsewhere have pleaded for it to stop, saying it’s ruined lives, put civilians at risk and left would-be slam dunk cases riddled with holes.
KGW reached out to Kelso Police for comment on Olson’s arrest. We were told no one was available.
People living in Kelso and Longview, though, did want to talk about the idea, including David Willis. He has two daughters, and he’s all for it.
“The police are overwhelmed,” he said. “As far as a community, you want people to come together.”
Others were not so sold.
“They're not police,” said Bob Johnson. “They don't have experience. They don't know what they're doing, and we have laws that protect people that haven't done anything yet.”
Prosecutors in Cowlitz County have yet to file formal charges against Olson.
He’s being held on probable cause for one count of second-degree attempted rape of a child and one count of communication with a minor for immoral purposes by electronic means.
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