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By sunset, Inez Larson was staking out Ala Moana Beach Park for more than an hour, waiting for a man she’s never met to appear near the L&L Hawaiian Barbecue stand. After a few false leads, she and two members of her team paced along the park’s perimeter looking for their target: an adult male who thinks he is meeting a 15-year-old girl in the park for sex.
In reality, the teenager is fiction, the work of a fake social media profile set up by the latest crime-fighting group on Facebook, Hawaii Predator Hunters.
Its goal? To draw out adults and shame them online for seeking sex with children. Fresh off the group’s first Oahu confrontation in Kapolei over the weekend, Larson and her team headed to Ala Moana on Monday night to “expose” the next “suspect” who had taken the HPH bait.
“It’s a beautiful night to catch a pedophile,” Larson tells viewers who had just tuned into the group’s Facebook Live video. (The Civil Beat reporter left the park shortly before the confrontation, but reviewed the post on the group’s Facebook site. )
Minutes later, she and the team confront a homeless man who calls himself “Jerome” on the Facebook feed and confirms he is the person who reached out via text to Hawaii Predator Hunters phony 15-year-old.
“This is a Facebook exposure by Hawaii Predator Hunters,” Larson informs the man.
“I’m not a predator,” he says of the texts, and brushes off any intent to follow through with his text messages. “I was just talking shit to the girl.”
Larson continues videotaping the encounter. “If you go with the cops tonight we’re going to say you went to jail because of us … so you won’t do this to another.”
But there would be no arrest.
A Honolulu Police Department officer who was contacted in the downtown Honolulu park by Larson and the team, gave the crimefighters a quick lesson in criminal law.
Off-camera, the officer, who is not identified, tells them in a conversation that: “There’s a line. You guys have got to watch yourselves on this. I have to have probable cause on this.”
Local police discourage such confrontations. A spokesman for the Hawaii Police Department said they don’t advocate “vigilante justice,” worrying these incidents could turn into dangerous encounters.
The encounter on Monday night in Ala Moana is the second citizen-led “sting” inside a week conducted by citizen volunteers affiliated with the Hawaii Predator Hunters Facebook Group, according to Giovanna Arioli, who started the group.
The group was started by Kona-based Arioli, who said she wants to bring a better community awareness of the problem of sexual predators. She says she was sexually abused as a teen.
“It would be the greatest thing if these guys went to prison for what they did,” said Arioli, who launched the Facebook group on Nov. 4, with her son, Kalani Kapule. “But our main goal in this adventure is exposure and education.”
She said the group confronted its first Oahu resident after he came to a Kapolei parking lot on Saturday, Nov. 17. The group said he had been texting its 14-year-old decoy saying he wanted to have sex with her.
She declined to let Civil Beat review any of the texts.
In that encounter, group volunteer Paulo Salas yelled at the man who allegedly came to meet the girl: “You’re trying to have sex with a 14-year-old. You’re done,” according to the video posted on Facebook .
Salas was also present at the Ala Moana Park “exposure,” as the group calls their actions. He says the old Neighborhood Watch method of organizing against crime is useless against today’s criminal who can move undetected online.
“I just want to make the predators more scared,” said Salas.
Citizen-led groups that conduct their own “stings” of suspected sexual predators is not a new phenomenon on the mainland or in other countries. Arioli believes it is new in Hawaii.
Such tactics give pause to law enforcement agencies on Oahu and the Big Island.
“The group is not affiliated with the Honolulu Police Department, and the department discourages private citizens from pretending to be juveniles in order to communicate with and confront others,” HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu wrote in an email. “Anyone with information on suspicious or illegal activity should contact HPD.”
“We do not advocate vigilante justice and recommend that these investigations be left to trained professionals for the safety of all involved.” — Alan Richmond, spokesman, Hawaii Police Department
Alan Richmond, a spokesman for the Hawaii Police Department agreed, saying that confrontations could lead to a more dangerous situation.
“We do not advocate vigilante justice and recommend that these investigations be left to trained professionals for the safety of all involved,” he wrote in a statement.
Bystanders could be unknowingly in close proximity to a confrontation and that could “potentially escalate into violence, thereby getting innocent people injured or worse.”
But Arioli, who works from the Big Island for a bail bond company in Tennessee, says shaming through a public and recorded confrontation is the point.
“It is not vigilante,” she said. “If this was vigilante, these predators would be killed. I’m sorry.”
A background check by Civil Beat found that Salas pleaded guilty to a felony forgery charge in 2011 in Hawaii and was placed on probation, which he acknowledged to a reporter. Neither Arioli or Larson have criminal records, according to available records.
Arioli said she started the Facebook site to help police, not get in their way, because officers can’t be everywhere at once. She enlists the help of adult volunteers who pose as underage girls.
Once an adult approaches the “decoy” social media account set up by Arioli’s group, group members notify the contact via text that the girl they are interacting with is 14 or 15 years old.
If the suspected predator continues contact and wants to meet the decoy, Arioli said volunteers with the group, who call themselves “exposers,” confront the adult and then videotape the encounter as a warning to the community.
Arioli said she has done at least five “stings” on the Big Island and that two of the people they confronted have been referred to the Hawaii County Prosecuting Attorney‘s office. She declined to offer more details about the cases and any videos were not available on the group’s Facebook page.
Civil Beat could not reach prosecutors in Hawaii County on Tuesday to find out if that office was aware of the group.
But are citizen stings effective?
Not according to law enforcement elsewhere who say the only case that can stand up in court is one put forward by the police. The Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office in Ohio announced last August that citizen stings have absolutely “zero impact” because only police officers can pose as underage children for the case to go to court.
Marcus Landsberg, a criminal defense attorney in Honolulu, said these types of video-recorded confrontations that are posted online, often derided as “justice porn,” will inevitably lead to someone getting physically harmed.
“This whole thing is headed for a fight and the police are going to be the ones to shake it out,” Landsberg said. “I think they’re inviting violence. It’s very easy to predict that one of these confrontations is going to end in violence.”
“It is not vigilante. If this was vigilante, these predators would be killed. I’m sorry.” — Giovanna Arioli, founder of Hawaii Predator Hunters Facebook Group
But Arioli said her group takes safety precautions and believe it is preventing a greater risk to the community.
“You all can dig your head in the sand and not want to think about what is going on here until it happens to your child or your grandchildren,” she said.
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