In mid-August, the police department in Fairfield, Connecticut, received a most unusual phone call. It was from Chris Hansen, former host of the infamous NBC reality series To Catch A Predator, which filmed the arrests of men caught soliciting sex from underage decoys online. Hansen informed the department that he was setting up a sex sting in Fairfield that would mirror the operations he became famous for a decade ago, with one key difference: This time, he was going at it without the backing of a major—or any—television network. It was just Hansen and his small team of producers, technicians, and security personnel. Hansen had chosen Fairfield as the site of America’s first-ever Kickstarter-funded sex sting.
To Fairfield’s deputy police chief, Christopher Lyddy, the operation appeared well underway: Hansen vs. Predator, as Hansen named the project, had quietly scouted for a staging house in town and had already courted an array of putative predators on social media. Hansen vs. Predator would follow the familiar format: Hansen’s crew would pose online as underage boys and girls to lure men to a house rigged with hidden cameras ready to record Hansen’s confrontation with them, and their arrests. Lyddy said that it seemed clear the sting was going down with or without the police department’s help, but it could be involved in the arrests—and the publicity—if it wanted.
Hansen’s sting posed a set of difficult decisions for the police department, Lyddy said. Fairfield had never conducted such an operation, and had not identified the online solicitation of underage partners as a particularly large problem facing the community. Not only would Hansen’s group be attracting potentially dangerous men into Lyddy’s jurisdiction, but Hansen’s brand of reality TV had proven dangerous in the past. In November 2006, in Murphy, Texas, an assistant district attorney and suspected sex criminal named Louis Conradt shot himself while being confronted by a local SWAT team while Hansen’s crew waited outside his home. To Catch A Predator was ultimately cancelled, and in 2008, NBC paid Conradt’s family an undisclosed sum to settle a wrongful death suit against the network.
“We thought long and hard about this,” said Lyddy, "but at the end of the day we completely understood that this was going to happen no matter what, and that we really had a responsibility to become involved and to ensure this neighborhood was safe.”
Beginning on October 1, Hansen’s camera crew camped out with police for four days at a decoy house in an undisclosed Fairfield neighborhood. “Every time I thought I’ve seen every possible scenario, something else comes up,” said Hansen, whom I interviewed by phone about the Fairfield sting. “You just have to be prepared at every level.”
Hansen said one man showed up with a gun in his car; another, when confronted by Hansen and his cameras said he knew him from commuting on the Metro North train together and pleaded, “No, Chris, please don’t do this to me”; another admitted to police to having previously sodomized a 15-year-old. “In almost every case they were extremely specific about what they wanted to do, which sexual acts, how they would start,” Hansen told me. “You could see the grooming process in action: ‘we’ll do this in the kitchen together, we’ll take a bath together, we’ll go to bed.’”
In all, Hansen’s sting netted ten men, all arrested by Fairfield PD and booked into the local jail with bond set as high as $1.1 million. The charges range from attempted sexual assault to “impairing the morals of a minor.” Lyddy was pleased with the sting’s results, and he said that Hansen and his team were not only excellent to work with but that, without their technological resources, the operation would not have been conducted as efficiently. But when the sting concluded without a hitch in Fairfield, Lyddy breathed a sigh of relief. “This was a four-day operation,” he said, “and we worried about things going wrong up until the very last moment of the very last day.”
Hansen was thrilled with how things went. “As Fairfield demonstrated, this is still very much a huge issue,” Hansen told me the first time we spoke. And then later, he asserted: “We just made that the safest neighborhood in America.”
Before To Catch A Predator, Hansen had enjoyed a successful career in broadcast journalism. But the sex sting show quickly launched him into a new and very particular sort of fame, while also reviving Dateline’s NBC ratings. More recently, Predator has been reportedly sold for millions to television stations around the world.
During and after the filming of Predator, Hansen also hosted a variety of less salacious operations on NBC in which—with equal vigor that he applied to suspected pedophiles—he chided petty bicycle thieves, pimps, and Nigerian scammers. Yet this apparently didn’t do it for his fans, who have frequently demanded the return of To Catch A Predator. “There was a pent up demand,” Hansen told me. “The most-asked question on Twitter or Facebook or any other social media that I participate in was: ‘When are you going to do another one?’” Finally, Hansen decided to give them what they wanted.
In crafting the Kickstarter campaign, Hansen enlisted the help of a crowd-funding expert at his talent agency, William Morris Endeavor, and put together a pitch that centered on, and almost fetishized, the intense first moments of confrontation with the men who wandered into his set houses: Funders chipping in as little as $50 could receive coffee mugs, signed photographs, and t-shirts showing Hansen’s scowling face and his famous catchphrase: “Have a seat.” Those who chipped in at least $1,200 would get to “have a seat with Chris Hansen, literally”—a lunch with the host in New York City. The campaign exceeded its initial $80,000 funding goal, bringing in $89,068. Hansen told me that he plans to at least initially release the new show as an online series, perhaps on a subscription model, but that he is currently in talks with multiple broadcast networks and digital platforms interested in picking up Hansen vs. Predator.
Many of the ingredients that make To Catch A Predator irresistible to its fans—Hansen’s raw face-to-faces, the vigilantism, and the voyeurism of public shame—have generated significant scrutiny of the show.
Critics have accused Hansen of taking men who might not be dangerous predators and facing them with a moral obstacle course that could land them in prison. Others have expressed concern that by subjecting the merely accused to the potential of mass public humiliation, the show neglects the common notion of innocent until proven guilty.
And then there’s the sheer emotional charge of Hansen’s confrontations: It might be downright dangerous. “We see situations that in a second turn volatile,” said James Drylie, a professor of criminal justice at Kean University, who has studied the ways in which arrests lead to suspects becoming violent and suicidal. “Imagine hearing: ‘lights, camera, action, you’re on TV.’ A person can just explode — they’re looking to escape and they’ll use any means.” Drylie asserts that, for these reasons, it would be necessary for a television crew to work with trained law enforcement personnel when conducting undercover sex stings.
And Hansen agrees—almost. “I think it would be socially irresponsible, and, from a production standpoint, unsatisfying to the viewer to conduct an investigation like this without the police,” Hansen said. But when I asked him whether he would move forward with a sting in a town without the involvement of a police force, he stopped short of ruling out the possibility. (His first two episodes of Predator were filmed without police.) “We would take a look at it certainly,” Hansen said, “depending on what kind of investigation it was, and how urgent it was.”
Sally Berenzweig, co-founder of the Boca Raton-based KidSafe Foundation, which teaches and promotes child safety, says that although the vast majority of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by family members and other acquaintances, Hansen’s show exposed what she believes to be the new hazards of strangers taking to the internet to finding children to exploit in real life. “Technology is a wonderful thing: It brings our children to the world but it also brings the world to our children.”
In March, Berenzweig’s organization will honor Hansen with its “Child Advocate of The Year” award. She says Hansen was a key figure not only in spreading the word about the dangers of online pedophiles but his show also likely played an important role in deterring would-be online predators. “He was the one that raised awareness,” Berenzweig said, “and I’m very appreciative for what he's done.”
Before Hansen set up shop in Fairfield, it had been nearly a decade since he had confronted an alleged pedophile. Yet in his absence, the influence of To Catch A Predator had only expanded, and not just in its seemingly interminable off-hour NBC reruns. The show found new life in myriad small towns and mid-sized cities where copycat stings have become wildly popular among local law enforcement. The police frequently film the stings, footage of which they distribute to local news. Even now, regional media coverage still attributes the local sex stings’ inspiration to Hansen’s former show.
Hansen vs. Predator’s Facebook page in particular praises an operation spearheaded by Grady Judd, Sheriff of Polk County, Florida, who has become the figurehead of the national trend of pedophile stings. In the years after Hansen’s show was cancelled, Judd—an evangelical Christian who routinely preaches in uniform—has built a cult of personality around conducting massive undercover sex crime operations that can net more than 100 people at a time. “We were going after predators, pedophiles, people who were trying to attack your children online,” Judd said during a 2013 press conference about an underage sex sting that concluded on Father’s day and that he described as “our gift to not only to fathers but to all of those that have children.”
Judd’s stings themselves have courted controversy. Critics characterize them as ploys for elected sheriffs to get easy press attention. The Florida stings have also been lucrative for departments around the state: The police can sell the suspected predator’s car, which deputies frequently seize after making arrests at decoy houses.
“They target military men, they target gay men, and they target young, stupid men,” says Peter Aiken, a Florida defense attorney who represents alleged sex criminals. “Most of these guys can’t afford a good lawyer and they plead to four, five, or six years in prison,” Aiken said. “Then they get out and they’re on a sex offender registry and their lives are over.”
Hansen, who has no involvement with the Florida stings, says that his team follows strict protocols to avoid luring non-predators into making bad decisions. “The online decoy can never make the first approach,” Hansen says, adding that the online personality must be “unmistakably” underage. Hansen also says that, as a policy, his team reminds the target of the decoy’s age multiple times “so that there’s no question” as to the predator’s intent. “We approach this with integrity, Hansen said, “we’re completely transparent about our methodology and that’s the key to it.” Hansen says that his Fairfield sting used 12- and 13-year-old decoys “so that there’s no grey area.”
One of the men arrested in Hansen’s Fairfield sting was a teenager himself: a 19-year-old from upstate New York who had allegedly planned to meet a 12-year-old for sex. When I asked Hansen whether he would air the footage of the young suspect, he said: “that editorial decision hasn’t been made yet.”
But it is the editorial—or perhaps entrepreneurial—forces behind the stings that worry Drylie, the criminology professor. Drylie fears that television programs might have incentives that clash with norms of law enforcement. “What about ratings?” Drylie said. “Viewers generate shows right? So is something being done for a commercial purpose?” Drylie says he’s not worried about entrapment in the legal sense, but his concern lies rather in the ethical hazards of a television show “generating an incident” that would not otherwise occur. “You can have fantasies all day long,” Drylie said, giving the hypothetical example of a reformed sex offender, “so what if you ignite a spark in a person that otherwise would not have been reignited?” “So I wonder sometimes: is art imitating life?” Drylie said, “or is art directing life?”
“People can say: Okay, it’s not the old-fashioned traditional journalism that took place in the Houston Chronicle in 1975—it’s different,” Hansen said. “But that’s also why newspapers are having a hard time staying relevant, you know? You have to reassess the way you do things and be creative and enterprising about it, and this is a perfect example of that.”
Hansen considers what he does to be investigative journalism, and asserts that he got into the sex sting business primarily out of an interest in exposé storytelling, rather than an urge to deter criminal activity through public shame.
Hansen told me that, initially, his primary motivation was to examine the psychology “of these guys, to figure out what they were thinking.” And he believes that the dozens upon dozens of men successfully prosecuted as a consequence his investigations represent results that speak for themselves.
“When you put it all together,” Hansen said, discussing the sting in Fairfield, “not only does it take you inside the minds of one of these guys, it’s very dramatic television.”