Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Wednesday, Jan. 19. I’m Justin Ray.
Warning: This story discusses child abuse.
An activist behind a YouTube channel based in California is catching people in the state who are trying to meet kids for lewd acts. His followers have hailed his work and praised him for keeping kids safe, while others in law enforcement and legal experts say he’s putting himself in danger and jeopardizing potential criminal cases.
The channel, called CC Unit, has 137,000 subscribers. It is led by a man who operates under the moniker “Ghost.” He tells The Times that he is a student in his early 20s based in San Diego. He’s in his last year of college.
Recently, the account reportedly led to the arrest of a man in Elk Grove.
Ghost said his team is made up of about five people who serve as decoys, perform phone calls and act as security for encounters. Some members are based in San Bernardino, Hawaii and Texas.
He explains that he finds people on online forums, messenger apps, dating apps, social media and other web mediums. Ghost said he and his team never make first contact. “Let’s say they get arrested,” he adds. “It’s better in court if they reached out first, because it doesn’t look like we enticed them or we instigated the conversation first.”
He said his knowledge of law regarding child abuse came from lawyers he contacted, fans of the page who gave him advice and reporter Chris Hanson’s controversial NBC series “To Catch a Predator.”
“Once they reach, we basically tell them, ‘Hey, we’re underage, we’re 11, 10 years old, 13 years old,’” Ghost says. “Then they eventually set up a time and a place to meet the kid for bad purposes. And then that’s when we go and confront them.”
Although some of the sting operations are dangerous, Ghost doesn’t appear to be afraid.
“I know that these guys are criminals and stuff, and they’re probably carrying weapons sometimes. But that’s the risk that we take, just like police officers. . They go out and they deal with criminals all the time, and they know what they’re getting into,” Ghost says. “I bring my security with me,” which consists of Ghost’s friends. “I have a bunch of witnesses around. I do it in a public area, so that way there’s cameras around.”
Why does he do it? He said he was a fan of “To Catch a Predator” and “always wondered how many creeps were in my area.’
“And then, once I started doing it, I was like, Wow, that’s crazy. It kind of snowballed where, you know, I can’t just stop now.” He says he’s never been a victim himself, but he knows some victims.
“I do it for survivors, I do it for victims, I do it for kids out there. I serve the community,” he says.
Ghost says he gets some money from viewers through donations, which goes to traveling throughout the state to find potential abusers. He also receives money from a part-time job.
He says he often contacts local police departments before conducting stings. Many departments enjoy the channel’s work, while others that aren’t as enthusiastic “usually just say, ‘Let us handle it. You don’t have to do this,’ or like, ‘Oh, you’re putting other people in danger or you’re putting yourself in danger,’ like stuff like that usually.”
The Elk Grove Police Department — the agency that recently arrested a suspect — as well as three other departments that Ghost says he’s reached out to did not respond to The Times’ requests for comment. Google also didn’t respond to an inquiry about the YouTube channel.
However, CBS Sacramento reported that Elk Grove Police aren’t happy about “Ghost vigilantes,” citing the fact that the suspect in that case had a weapon. “We have our own local and federal units that will do these operations,” Elk Grove Police spokesperson Jeremy Banks told the station.
Is the YouTube channel breaking the law?
Is this work legal? UC Irvine law professor Bob Solomon says, mostly yes, but there are more things to consider.
“I understand that he’s trying to do what he thinks is a good thing, but generally vigilante plans do not end well, and he should leave this to law enforcement,” Solomon tells The Times. “I think people have a sense of their own power and ability to intervene in systems, but usually it creates more problems than it solves.”
Narrowly looking at the law, Solomon explains that the main question is whether Ghost’s actions qualify as entrapment. In criminal law, entrapment occurs when law enforcement or government agents try to induce or encourage someone to commit a crime.
But, because the people behind the YouTube channel aren’t affiliated with the police or government, it doesn’t qualify as entrapment, according to Solomon. “It is not entrapment for a private citizen to accumulate information and turn it over to the police, which does happen, in drug cases.”
But Solomon condemns Ghost’s YouTube channel.
“There’s always the chance that this can escalate to violence, and he’s not prepared to deal with that,” Solomon says. “And so when someone gets hurt, the answer is, ‘Well, you know, I was doing a good thing. It’s not my fault.’ Well, in part, it is your fault because you’re trying to take the law into your own hands and make decisions that really aren’t yours to make.”
When asked if he believes that pedophiles can change, Ghost says perhaps people in their 20s.
“But the older ones? No, I don’t think they can change. They’ve been doing it for their whole life. It’s not like, one day out of the blue, when they’re 50 years old, they wake up and they want a kid. It’s not how it works.”
To report online child sexual abuse or obtain resources for help, you can reach the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at (800) 843-5678.
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Los Angeles: 66 San Diego: 62 San Francisco: 56 San Jose: 63 Fresno: 62 Sacramento: 58. There are two kinds of dogs.
Also, I recently asked readers for the music they listen to when they want some nostalgia in their lives. Here is a response from Theo Moreno:
I had seen the Beatles movie “A Hard Day’s Night” twice in the summer of ’64 and was thrilled to do so. As with so much of the youth of America, after seeing them perform on Ed Sullivan in February 1964, I was completely captivated by the group and their music, and am STILL a Beatles fan to this day. Eleven years later, living in Ocean Beach/San Diego and going to college, I went to the Strand Theatre in OB one Saturday night because they were showing “AHDN” and it was 99 cents to get in! I was stunned when the opening chord and scene of the movie’s title track burst forth, with the boys running down the street, George tripping and falling, and before I could give it a thought, tears were rolling down my face from the sheer joy of seeing it all again on a big screen. It was beautiful.
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Justin Ray is a Metro reporter who writes the Essential California newsletter. He joined in 2020 from Columbia Journalism Review, where he grew the magazine’s digital audience as a digital media editor. Previously, he served as a web editor for NBC New York and NBC Chicago. He’s originally from Cincinnati.
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