On June 11, 2015, the sun shone down on the River Tyne, and Colin Patterson was led handcuffed out of the courtroom at U.K.’s Newcastle upon Tyne Combined Court Centre to serve a two-year jail sentence, his name added to the sex offenders register for the next decade. The heavyset 51-year-old, a former shipyard worker, would soon change out of his gray-green polo shirt and into the regulation prison uniform of gray sweatpants and a gray sweatshirt.
The story of how Patterson arrived at this ignoble end begins just a mile from the court, in Newcastle’s Ouseburn district, a leafy neighborhood bisected by a tributary of the River Tyne. Once derelict industrial space, where tree branches wended their way through abandoned warehouses and broken windows, it’s now gentrified, home to trendy pubs, an inner-city horse stables, and in a converted Victorian warehouse, Seven Stories, the National Center for Children’s Books.
In Ouseburn lived 14-year-old Tasha Jones. Like many a teenage girl, she spent her life on her cellphone. She chatted on Badoo—a site that’s part social network, part dating service—and used the messaging service WhatsApp. On Feb. 1, Patterson messaged her on Badoo.
“hiya ms T u ok x,” Patterson asked. In working-class English slang, he dared her to talk to him: “dont be shy have bit chat x make an old man happy if u got the bottle that is xx”. Jones replied with a laugh and an apology: “soz a bit shy am only 14 just on here 2 make some mates”. With that began the fateful conversation that would lead Patterson to prison.
Six months later, with Patterson jailed, Tasha Jones walks into a pub 30 feet from courtroom, looks around the bar, and sits down at a table across from me. There’s a whiff of roll-up cigarettes. She sits back and hunches forward at the same time, placing her phone down on the table and tapping her fingers on the surface at the same time.
She does these contradictory things at once, because Tasha Jones isn’t actually a 14-year-old girl. She’s two 20-something men who won’t give their real names. They use fake profiles to pose as teenagers online, then wait to be approached by pedophiles. When the perpetrators ask to meet, they’re lured to a public place and arrested.
The two anonymous vigilantes call themselves Dark Justice.
• • •
“Scott” wears a black Adidas baseball cap, three white stripes slung low over his brow. He’s the bigger of the two men, while “Callum” is younger, mousier, with a wisp of hair on his chin and under his nose. Both wear hoodies, toting cellphones that buzz and beep during our conversation; they’ve come hotfoot from the local police station, where they’d been giving witness statements following the arrest of their latest bounty.
The two met when Scott was 18; Callum was 16 or 17—he can’t quite remember—through Scott’s brother. Both interviewed at a multimedia company; neither got the job. “They knocked us back,” says Callum, “so we said we’d start up something.”
The media website they started around 2012 (they won’t name it for fear it’d offer digital clues to people trying to unmask them) soon fizzled out, leaving them casting about for something better to do, something worthier. At the time, Britain had just begun a reckoning with its recent history: It emerged that in the 1970s and 1980s, many public figures had engaged in endemic sexual abuse of children. That reckoning continues today; after a rocky start, an official inquiry began Thursday and is due to report back in 2020. The chair of the inquiry said there were suggestions that in the U.K., one child out of every 20 had been sexually abused.
“I don’t mind my pictures getting used, as it stops these perpetrators from actually grooming real minors.”
The scale and frequency of the alleged abuse shocked the nation. Scott and Callum were especially galled by the lack of police resources devoted to the problem. (A report released this month by the U.K. police inspectorate found that less than one-third of police cases covering vulnerable children were dealt with adequately.)
Then one day Scott received a knock on his on the door. A policeman stood outside. According to the policeman, a man had tried to invite a young girl playing nearby to his house “for food.” The encounter triggered an idea in Scott. “If we put the amount of time we put into this media thing into something better,” he recalls thinking, “something where we can make real change, that’d be great.”
They talked about setting up honey traps for men looking to meet children. But they didn’t act until one evening in October 2014. “We said: ‘Are we going to fucking do this?’” Callum recalls. They were: They signed up to Plenty of Fish and Badoo, got talking to two men, and soon arranged to meet. “Two were done, one after the other,” Scott says. “We thought, Jesus Christ, that was easy.”
In fact, Scott says the hardest part is naming their characters. “You sit there and think of a female name, and you go brain-dead. ‘Fucking hell, whose name can I use?’ You pick a name, then realize it’s your sister’s. ‘I can’t use that: I don’t want people talking to that.’”
They just finished their 20th sting, and most follow a simple pattern. The pair creates a cast of characters, usually girls, always aged between 11 and 15, and post fake profiles on Facebook, Badoo, and Plenty of Fish. They’ve managed to convince four young-looking but legal age female friends to provide profile pictures. (One, “Grace,” says, “I don’t mind my pictures getting used, as it stops these perpetrators from actually grooming real minors.”) And the profiles list interests typical of young girls, including Justin Bieber fan groups and makeup discussion boards. According to Dark Justice, grown adults rapidly strike up conversations with the characters.
And they do so in worryingly high volumes, according to Dark Justice. The pair says they are juggling tens of potential perpetrators of sexual grooming of minors, defined by the U.K.’s Crown Prosecution Service as “befriend[ing] a child on the Internet or by other means and meet[ing] or intend[ing] to meet the child with the intention of abusing them.”
But Dark Justice never start conversations. “There are groups out there that have instigated conversations,” says Scott. “They don’t realize that once that goes to court, they could actually be arrested as well. They’re going to end up in the dock next to them.” The two say they’re very careful to remain on the right side of the law.
That’s crucial, according to Simon McKay, a solicitor specializing in entrapment who wrote the leading textbook on covert policing law. He says U.K. courts have repeatedly found that anyone who instigates the commission of an offense can in theory be as guilty as the perpetrator. “The charges could range from conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, incitement or, in this case, conspiracy to commit a child sexual offense,” he adds.
Scott has a defiant message to those who blunder through stings: “Never assume what we do is easy. Never try to think you know how we do it, because you don’t.”
• • •
Dark Justice isn’t the only group of online pedophile hunters, and the work these vigilante groups do can have serious, unpredictable consequences. This month, a group called True Justice disbanded after they posted to Facebook a video of a man who believed he was about to meet an underage girl. True Justice posted the video before contacting police, and before the man was arrested. Released on bail, he later killed himself. (Dark Justice quickly distanced itself from True Justice’s actions.) And in the United States, the popular TV show To Catch a Predator ended in infamy, when one suspected pedophile killed himself mid-sting. Perverted Justice, the group that liaised with NBC on the TV show, continues, but without a vital source of funding.
The possibility of similar incidents is just one reason some experts urge caution about supporting such vigilante groups, no matter how professional they may seem.
“Never assume what we do is easy. Never try to think you know how we do it, because you don’t.”
“Everybody’s concerned about terrorism, and we want everybody to report suspicious activities to law enforcement,” says David Finkelhor, a professor at the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, “but if you had an independent group investigating terrorists and taking the role you’d expect law enforcement to take, you’d think: ‘Uh oh, they’re getting in way above their heads.’”
He worries about the ultimate ramifications of citizen justice groups. “I respect their desire to help out,” he says, “but I don’t think they’re making good judgments.”
There’s the issue of entrapment, for example—a concern that long dogged To Catch a Predator. “Once you start to engage in deceit of some sort, presenting yourself as 14-year-old girls, even if you’re not soliciting somebody, that’s getting tricky. You’re getting into the issue of ‘is there some entrapment going on there,’” Finkelhor says. “I think law enforcement understands the rules,” but he’s less sure about civilians in chat rooms.
According to solicitor Simon McKay, “Not being the initiator, staying off the topic of sex and not proposing the meeting are all factors likely to avoid a finding that the suspect has been entrapped”—though, he’s quick to add, it all depends on the circumstances. Scott and Callum say they know what the lines are and make sure not to cross them. To date, they’ve not been accused of breaking the law.
Even so, Peter Saunders, of the U.K.’s National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC) and himself the victim of child sexual abuse, strikes an ambivalent note about the work of Dark Justice. “There’s an awful lot more that can be done for child protection,” he says. “It isn’t that we need more policies: We need more people.” He understands that people want to help and is appreciative of Dark Justice’s goals, but he asks, “Is that good for child protection, for bringing criminals to justice? Is it likely to protect children in the future? We don’t know, and we’re not sure.”
Scott and Callum say they’re spending 10- to- 16-hour days on Dark Justice—neither works right now—but that doesn’t mean they’re ready to shout from the rooftops about it. “They must think you get a bottle of Champagne everywhere you go,” says Callum, “but you don’t.” They don’t share their names, primarily, Scott says, because “we’re not in this for the fame.”
In fact, they worry about being exposed. “If I was unmasked, would I be able to get a job?” asks Scott. And he’s concerned how it might affect those around him. “I don’t mind being responsible for myself, but if we bring someone else in and they get attacked or hurt or don’t realize what needs to be said at the right time… You’ve got to think of these things.” Their families know what they do, and both men say their loved ones have become more comfortable with the work.
”It’s stressful at times,” Callum admits in a quiet voice. “You come out of the court and the press want to talk to you and they’re like, ‘Oh, can we have a comment on this and that and that.’ Some days you can’t get away from it; some days you can.”
Of course, there’s also the stress of the work itself: spending hour after hour, day after day, week after week chatting online with suspected pedophiles. Content moderators at YouTube and Facebook, who see beheadings, extreme violence, and abuse on a daily basis, burn out after months of work; police officers tasked with viewing child abuse images as part of evidence-gathering receive therapy. There’s no such support for two guys working off cellphones and each other’s couches.
“I just think to myself about the people who are on remand or are in prison, and it makes me smile.”
“We don’t get any psychiatric help or anything like that,” says Scott. “We don’t have time for that. We’re fully grown men: There are people who need psychological help.” He says he has been sent abuse images by men he’s tried to catch. “That will stay with me for the rest of my life,” he admits. “But I can either let that get me down, or I can use that anger and that pain to fight against them, to keep at it, and that’s what we do.”
Anger and pain are two things that drive him. But seeing men behind bars also gives him a sense of satisfaction that fuels his vigilante crusade. “I just think to myself about the people who are on remand or are in prison, and it makes me smile,” Scott says. “You know you took them away, we’ve caught 20 people—that’s 20 children who weren’t abused.”
• • •
Tasha Jones would’ve been one such child, had she been real. Colin Patterson’s conversation with her started on Feb. 1, a Sunday. The next Saturday Patterson arrived near an inner-city science museum expecting to meet the 14-year-old.
Waiting for him were Callum and Scott.
“Our hearts are going when you spot them,” begins Callum. “Ten to the dozen, man,” adds Scott. “All your emotions are running crazy; it’s so hard to explain. You just have to get over it and remember why you are there.”
“You’re like, ‘Shit shit shit’, but you’ve got to think,” Callum says. They’ve honed a routine; they’re now able to run their lines beforehand, saying them almost by rote: I’m from an organization known as Dark Justice, you’ve come here to meet what you think is a 14-year-old girl…
Patterson was confronted. The pair didn’t even have to call the cops this time: They simply collared a passing policeman. And soon Colin Patterson found himself walking out of court on that bright June day, headed to prison.
In the pub, Scott puts down his cellphone. He’s barely audible over the music and the ambient noise and the chatter of bar patrons going about their daily lives.
“The sad fact is that if you look at the police, we’ve got a very good police force,” he says. “They’re fair. They’re not like the Yanks in that they shoot to kill, but our police are being failed by the government and the public are starting to think, ‘fuck the police, they aren’t doing anything.’”
“We’re a team of two,” he continues. “A team of two, and we’ve done 20 people.”
Callum chimes in, thumbs hovering over his cellphone screen. “What if there were 200 police officers online a day?”
“Yeah,” adds Scott, looking over. “Imagine there was 200 of us doing this, just what we do?”
Illustration by J. Longo | Photo by Chris Stokel-Walker