Police are still cautioning against vigilante groups out to expose alleged online sexual predators in the wake of a Kamloops man who sent pictures in his B.C. Sheriffs’ uniform to what he thought was a 14-year-old girl.
Mitchell Shelswell, a Penticton man formerly of Creep Catchers, which is now operating as a separate branch in the Okanagan called Creep Hunters, was part of the team that lured the Kamloops man. (Read more on Shelswell’s involvement here: Penticton vigilantes out to expose alleged sexual predators)
The man allegedly sent pictures of himself in a B.C. Sheriffs’ uniform as well as nude photos to what he thought was an underaged girl on Craigslist.
“We were just in shock when we saw that (the sheriffs uniform). We couldn’t believe it,” Shelswell said.
In a press release following the arrest of George Torresani, a 48-year-old Surrey man who police said performed a sex act live via webcam to a fictitious 13-year-old girl, the RCMP addressed the groups out to expose online predators and their emerging popularity.
“The police do absolutely recognize the need to pursue individuals who look to prey on our children. However, given the tremendous risks for public safety should these vigilante confrontations go horribly wrong, or for the true predators to walk away without being prosecuted, this is a job that should be left to the police,” said Sgt. Hernan Topacio, who heads the B.C. Integrated Child Exploitation Unit.
The task force has been in operation in B.C. since 2011, and the ICE unit is a group of highly-trained sex crime investigators seeking to identify, engage with and prosecute the “worst of the worst offenders — adults who are looking to meet children on the internet for a sexual purpose.”
“We acknowledge we have a common goal with vigilante groups in identifying child predators,” Topacio said. “Having been in the BC ICE team for a number of years now, I know from experience that perpetrators will not stop targeting children simply by being identified publicly through social media or other means. The greater focus needs to be placed in identifying and rescuing victims and ensuring that perpratrators are not able to victimize further. Any effort should certainly extend beyond just the initial public identification.”
Shelswell noted the RCMP agreeing there is a common goal with the groups already indicates a shift in language.
“That’s a change of attitude from a month ago really, that’s good to hear something like that,” Shelswell said. “I’ve talked to some police officers personally and there is a difference of opinions, some of them actually love what we’re doing, but they can’t say it publicly.”
The group is open to the possibility of modifying their methods to address the concern. Promoting that repeat offenders find counselling when they are confronted is one action Shelswell’s group is currently considering.
The possibility of those getting exposed suffering from mental health issues or becoming suicidal is another debate which has been brought up.
“It could be a possibility of something like that happening. It has been mentioned to me before,” Shelswell said.
Creep Hunters is currently working with police, Shelswell said, in light of the exposure of the man from Kamloops. He said an investigator spoke with the seven members of the group and charges may be considered for the man.
“We’re always going to be growing and evolving,” Shelswell said, noting a chapter just opened up in Vancouver.
He has received negative reactions online as well, but Shelswell said the good comments overwhelm the negative ones.