The Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office released a statement Tuesday regarding an undercover sting operation targeting an individual from Lake Mills.
The sting was set up by a Johnson Creek based vigilante group over the weekend. The vigilante groups use decoy profiles of fictional children to attract adults alleged to be seeking illicit contact with minors. If an adult shows up for the meeting with the fictional child, these meetings are recorded, and the videos are released on social media.
The DA’s office says, while these stings do not involve actual children, the harm caused by such stings is real.
“While these vigilante groups are well intentioned, the cases created through such vigilante activity rarely lead to criminal charges,” said Jefferson County District Attorney Susan Happ. “When citizens take matters into their own hands, it can be extremely harmful to a successful prosecution,” Happ cautioned.
Law enforcement must complete extensive training and learn techniques before taking part in these types of investigations.
“Police have the necessary experience to collect and preserve digital evidence. Citizens lack this critical experience and training, and the vigilantes’ actions may result in important evidence being destroyed, compromised or suppressed. This can negatively impact our ability to effectively do our job,” she said.
Happ said that the loss of potential digital evidence from a suspect’s phone is extremely problematic. “Because citizens do not possess the authority of law enforcement to arrest, the suspects are free to leave the vigilante sting,” said District Attorney Happ. “When suspects are confronted and then let go, there is an extremely high probability that the suspect will wipe or destroy his or her digital devices and eliminate key evidence that would have otherwise been preserved by law enforcement.”
Happ stressed the danger for the public in these types of sting operations.
“Confronting suspects even in a public place not only endangers the vigilantes themselves, but also puts members of the public at risk. It puts citizens directly in harm’s way and it negatively impacts our ability to keep our children safe and protect them from dangerous individuals.”
Happ said the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office vigorously prosecutes crimes against children in conjunction with law enforcement professionals who are trained in such investigations.
“I strongly urge the public to leave this work to law enforcement experts,” she said.
The incident relating to the sting operation in Johnson Creek remains under investigation by local law enforcement.
“Not only to gather additional facts, but to also assess whether any of the evidence collected thus far is usable in a prosecution,” Happ said.
The Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office requests any suspicious or criminal activity be reported to law enforcement immediately for investigation. Parents are also encouraged to speak with their children about safe internet and cell phone usage.
The Facebook page in question over the weekend called Worldwide Predator Hunters was shut down by Facebook Tuesday.