Estimated reading time — 14 minutes
I’m a vigilante online predator hunter, and I can’t explain the bizarre things that happened last night.
I jolted awake in bed as my phone blared with a message.
hey baby. we’ve been talking long enough. i want to meet you now.
My blood turned to ice as I read the message. Just like it does every single time.
I messaged back:
hi okay. i really want to meet you. where?
I sat up in bed and rubbed the sleep from my eyes. I haven’t been sleeping much lately.
I haven’t really slept much in the last year.
I’ve never liked the word “vigilante”, but I guess that’s what you are when you pretend to be preteen girls on the internet.
There are dozens of different groups of us, spread out all over the US, that spend our free time talking to and catching the worst human beings on earth. The kind of scum that prey on children, trying to coerce them into doing horrific things.
Catching these guys isn’t how I make my living. I wish it was, but I spend my days pouring concrete, laying tile, and any odd construction jobs I can get to stay afloat. I come home exhausted most nights, plop down on a chair in my empty house with a beer (or five), and sign into one of my many decoy child profiles. And I do the work I actually care about.
I always hope that this will be the night that no monsters reach out trying to groom eleven, twelve, and thirteen-year-old children. But they’re everywhere. It’s endless.
Luckily, I’m not alone in this fight. Look up “predator catchers” or “creep busters” on Facebook or YouTube, and you can see other people like me, normal citizens, doing the work that law enforcement can’t or won’t do.
We’re not exactly Chris Hansen on To Catch a Predator, but we do the best we can. They had state-of-the-art hidden cameras and youthful actors playing decoy “children”. And they had law enforcement on their side, ready to throw these creeps into a cop car and slap them with charges.
We just have our cell phones to record ourselves confronting these guys when they show up trying to meet an underage girl or boy. And our recordings stream live and straight to Facebook (and sometimes YouTube), so that everyone around them can see the kind of people that are going after their children.
We don’t usually get these guys convicted the way that they did on To Catch a Predator. The cops don’t exactly love what we do. But that’s not why we do it. We do it to get their names and faces out there. And I know, of course, that some in the community of creep catchers are doing it for the thrills. Or the praise. Or the power trip.
But I promise you, that’s not why I do it.
I do it for my daughter.
My phone blared again with another message. I’ve set the tone loud enough that any message can rouse me from even the deepest sleep. Could rouse me from the dead, probably.
meet at blue lantern??
The Blue Lantern is the third most common place these creeps want to meet in my town, after their house or the kid’s. It’s a diner at the edge of a thick wood that separates the town’s middle school from the elementary school. Dark, secluded, and close to most of the town’s children? They couldn’t have built a better place for these monsters to trap kids.
And I couldn’t ask for a better place to trap them.
sure, wanna meet there after school tomorrow? i get out at 3 pm
no. now. meet now.
I glanced at the time. 2:23 AM. The Blue Lantern’s the only diner in town open 24 hours, and sometimes you get guys looking for a late-night meet-up. Trying to get kids to sneak out and walk along the dark, gravel road between the town’s residential area and the diner.
I didn’t want to go there in the middle of the night. I never do.
But then I imagine the predator pulling up a real child’s profile, and convincing them to make that silent dark walk. Alone. Toward a person who’s sole intention is to hurt them.
And I always reach for my coat and keys, and go out into that pitch-black night.
Last night was no exception. I messaged back:
okay, i can walk over now
good. see you at blue lantern.
On the way out the door, I grab my handgun.
I’ve never even been close to having to use it. I’ve had plenty of guys threaten to beat me up, and had a guy pull a knife on me once. But just mentioning that I’m armed, paired with livestreaming the whole encounter usually shuts down any real threat.
I walked to my truck in the chilly night air, and I sat there, waiting for the text. They expect that the kid is making that cold walk alone, toward the diner.
It was almost 3:00 AM when I finally got the text.
i’m here. inside. you close?
yeah, almost there. it’s just super dark and the wind is really strong tonight.
good. i’m waiting for you, baby.
I shuddered and turned the key in the ignition. It was time to expose this guy.
I get this indescribable feeling every time my tires crunch down the gravel road toward the diner. Something between the amped-up adrenaline rush that comes before a catch, and the weight of a thousand stones in my gut.
Imagining my daughter Abby walking down this road, headed toward whoever I’m meeting.
Abby’s still so young. She turns thirteen soon.
My truck rumbled into the small dirt parking lot of the Blue Lantern, and I found a spot as far as I could from the other three cars in the lot. I recognized two of the cars: one belongs to Edie, the server who’s almost always on the night shift, and one is the cook’s.
I crept past their cars and snapped a picture of the unknown car’s license plate. I used to start livestreaming on Facebook before I even got out of my truck, zooming in on the creep’s plates. But after the police busted down the door of the family of an innocent man who was at the diner applying to be a line cook, I keep the pictures of these plates to myself.
This is what happened one of the few times the cops actually tried to “help”.
I hadn’t been able to find much information about the guy I was there to bust last night. Just a couple of generic pictures and a general idea of who this man might be. It looked like he might work for a school. So this was dire.
I heard a rustle from the treeline right next to me and nearly jumped out of my skin. I imagined someone watching my every move, hiding just out of sight. But I walked closer to the trees, and there was nothing back there. I figured the wind was just stronger than usual tonight.
I signed into the Facebook account of my one-man watchdog operation, which I call Creeps Caught, and started livestreaming.
“What’s up everybody, this is Mike from Creeps Caught. We’ve got a late-night creep bust for you tonight. Not sure if any of you night owls are up and watching live, but this guy demanded to meet our thirteen-year-old decoy girl tonight. Thirteen. His profile’s pretty limited, but all signs point to him being in his mid-50s, and potentially a teacher, which is why it was especially important to confront him tonight.”
I flipped the camera back around and walked toward the Blue Lantern’s front entrance.
Edie was at the front counter, like she almost always is on night shifts. She’s seen me do this countless times. I pointed to my phone, and she gave me a silent nod, and a sly smile, and indicated to the corner of the diner, where a man sat alone, staring at his phone.
He was the only customer in there. The Blue Lantern’s open late for all the shift workers in our town, but they’re usually either working or too exhausted at this time of night. I beelined toward him, holding my phone out.
“Hey, buddy, who are you here to meet?”
He looked at me, his face a mixture of confusion and horror. I realized that he didn’t look much like the pictures in the profile he used, but these creeps use fake pictures all the time.
“You here to meet a thirteen-year-old girl? Why would you come to this diner, in the middle of the night, to meet an underage girl?”
“I’m not, I… Mike?”
I wondered how he knew my name.
“You’ve been talking to ‘Jenny’ for the last three weeks, haven’t you? I gotta say, this is one of the most horrifying, explicit chat logs I’ve—”
He cut me off, and insisted “It’s not me, man! Put the camera down, that’s not me in the chat logs.”
That’s what they always say. I gave my standard speech:
“I’m filming this for your protection and mine, so that you can’t say I hurt you, and I can’t say you hurt me.”
“Dude, I’m one of the creep catchers on the Predator Busters page. We do work a couple towns over. I’m Joe. I got the same messages. I’m here on a bust, too.”
“Oh yeah? Show me the messages,” I said, still filming him.
He fumbled with his phone and pulled up a profile, where he scrolled through chat log after chat log. He pulled up a chat with the same profile I’d been talking to for weeks. It was an almost identical conversation, down to this guy telling Joe that he was inside the diner, about 20 minutes before I showed up.
I flipped my phone’s camera back around to my face, getting Joe in the frame as well.
“Well, it looks like me and Joe from Predator Busters just got duped, guys. There’s no one here but us. Could have been someone we already caught trying to humiliate us like we humiliated them. But there’s no shame in protecting children. Stay safe out there, everyone.”
I ended the livestream and took a look at the video. It had racked up a few more viewers and comments while I was recording. Things like:
Omg, is that Joe from Predator Busters?
it definitely is. did these guys get set up?
predators should ROT IN JAIL!!!!!
I’ve amassed a pretty good little following for my creep catching, enough that there were people up in the early hours of the morning that wanted to watch a live bust.
“Sorry for doubting you, Joe. Didn’t realize you were one of the good guys.”
“It’s all good,” he said. “You’re doing great work out here, man. I’ve been following the videos of your predator busts ever since the news broke about what happened to your daughter. How are you holding up?”
It’s still a knife to the heart any time anyone mentions Abby.
“Taking it day by day. Trying to make sure other parents don’t have to go through this.”
Joe pushed his chair out from the table and stood, saying “You’re braver than all of us, man. You headed back? I’ll walk you out.”
“You go ahead Joe,” I sighed. “I’m gonna stay a little longer.”
As Joe nodded and walked toward the diner’s exit, Edie walked up to me with my usual, a cup of black coffee. I always need to take a minute after a bust to decompress.
But that night felt different. There was no release. Nowhere for my energy to go.
“Got anything a little stronger, Edie?”
Edie looked around conspiratorially, and said, “Not officially on the menu, but some nights I gotta do something to get through these shifts.”
Edie disappeared into a back room, and came back with two very full paper cups of cheap whiskey. She sipped at hers, and I downed half of mine in one go.
When the diner’s empty, we always end up talking. It beats going home to an empty house. We talk about anything and everything.
But the anything and everything is usually Abby.
Abby didn’t make the quiet, dark walk down the gravel road from our house to the diner.
She didn’t have to. The man she was talking to came right to our house. He waited outside in his car for her to come out.
I found the chat log in her Facebook messages on the computer in the living room the next morning, after tearing her room apart, looking for any sign about where she could have gone.
They still don’t know who he is.
They probably never will.
It’s been almost a year, and we still haven’t found her body.
That used to give me hope.
But the more predators I catch, and the more research I do on all of this, the more I realize that in all likelihood he’s just hidden what’s left of Abby in a place so deep or so remote that we’ll never find her.
That, or… he’s still…
I don’t want to think about the alternative.
But Edie and I weren’t talking about that. Instead, we sipped our whiskey and talked about the funny things that happened in the diner that day.
Sometimes it’s all we can do to get by.
After some time passed, an exhausted-looking nurse slumped into the diner, and Edie sprang up to help her. She indicated to our paper cups, hers almost full and mine almost empty.
“This one’s all yours.”
I downed the rest of mine, and got to work on hers.
As she took the nurse’s order, I pulled up the Predator Busters page. I scrounged through my coat pocket, and found an old pair of earbuds I attached to my phone.
I watched some of Joe’s videos. His audio was too quiet, and he didn’t really know how to hold the camera right, but he’s a natural at catching these guys. Knows exactly what to say to get them to stay and spill their guts. He reads the horrific contents of their chats with these young children, and the predators squirm and lie and trot out some sob story.
But they know what they’ve done. You can hear it in their voices.
I pulled up another video, and just as it started to play, a message tone blared through my headphones, nearly deafening me. I tore the headphones out, and looked down at my screen.
My stomach dropped.
i’m still here, i’m still at the blue lantern diner
come out around the back, i’m here
I texted back, furiously.
This isn’t funny, man. You got us. Good for you. Leave me alone.
But the texts just kept coming.
please come out back, out back by the dumpster
i’m out here waiting for you, please come back
come out back, you have to come out back by the dumpster
he’ll hurt me if you don’t come out back
I exhaled sharply. This was another trick. This was another prank.
But what if it wasn’t?
I stood up, a little wobbly from the whiskey and the lack of sleep.
The first thing I did was call the police.
“I need you to send a car down to the Blue Lantern right now.”
“Mike, it’s almost four in the morning, we can’t make the trip down every other day for your vigilante routine. Just send us the transcripts and the video of your ‘catch’ tomorrow morning.”
“It’s not that. This guy might have a kid here. They might be hurt.”
“Mike, are you drunk?”
“Just send a car.”
I hung up and headed toward the back door of the diner. The only thing back there is a dumpster along the entrance to the treeline, and a small patch of dead grass where servers go on their smoke breaks.
Before I opened the door, I pulled out my phone and started livestreaming on Facebook.
“Hey, everybody. The guy from earlier is trying to play games again. Chances are I’m going to open this door and be face to face with nothing, or with some idiot trying to prank me. But if there’s even a sliver of a chance that there’s a kid in trouble out there, I need to help. As usual, law enforcement in this town won’t do what they should to keep our kids safe.”
I touched my concealed handgun, just to make sure it was still there. If it had to come to that, it would, if it meant saving an actual child.
I turned the camera back around and swung the door open.
It was pitch-black outside the diner. I’d been out there once before, helping Edie take the night’s food scraps to the dumpster. I know there’s a motion-sensor light that turns on when you step out of the doorway.
I stepped out of the doorway.
The light didn’t turn on. The only light was my phone screen, but it was no real help since it was just recording the dark.
It was almost impossible to see out there, but I could see the vague outline of something moving behind the dumpster.
“Hello?” I called out.
I walked closer to it, and I could make out the form of a person a little bit more clearly. I could only see a small part of their body sticking out from behind the dumpster. I couldn’t understand the way their body was contorted, and it made it difficult to see if they were standing or sitting.
“You wanna talk, man?” I tried to sound as authoritative as I could to make up for the frantic heartbeat roaring through my veins. “I’m here. Let’s talk.”
I fumbled with the flash on the video controls, and my phone emitted one bright flash, temporarily blinding me and destroying my eyes’ adjustment to the darkness. But for a split second, I could see a corner of the face behind the dumpster.
It didn’t look like a grown man.
It looked like a little girl.
“Abby?” my voice choked out, stuck in my throat like a stone.
I tried to turn on my phone’s flashlight, but before I could, whoever it was behind the dumpster sprung up and went tearing into the treeline, disappearing into the dark, dense wood.
Before I even knew what I was doing, I ran behind them, deeper and deeper into the wood. I could still hear them in front of me, breaking branches, their feet pounding onto the dirt below. But the wind had picked up even more, and it got harder and harder to tell what was the sound of running through branches, and what was the wind whistling through the trees.
Finally, I lost any sense of the direction this person went. I doubled over, panting. I’ve had to chase after predators trying to flee the scene of the bust before, but I’ve never had to chase something this inhumanly fast.
I realized that the phone in my hand was still livestreaming to Facebook. I was sure the footage would be unusable because of the darkness, so I ended the stream. I looked at the screen and saw that a few people had tuned in to watch the dark, shaky footage live.
Then I read the few comments on the video. And my stomach dropped.
wtf what’s going on? this is freaking me out
why did he follow that man into the woods?
I don’t think that’s a man, that looks like some kind of weird animal
OH MY GOD WHAT IS THAT?
I clicked my phone off, suddenly very aware of how much it illuminated my surroundings when it wasn’t recording the darkness. I backed up, quietly walking back the way I came.
I didn’t realize how deep into the woods I had gone.
I picked up my pace, booking it back toward the treeline. Then I heard it.
“Come here. I want to show you something.”
It was clearly a man’s voice, coming from behind a thick mass of trees.
“Come here,” he said again.
My phone dinged with an impossibly loud message tone. Letting this guy know exactly where I was.
I clicked the sound off and broke into a sprint.
And I heard whatever was behind me do the same.
I ran until I could barely breathe. I only hoped I wasn’t running deeper into the woods, and I started to convince myself I was until I saw lights in front of me.
I broke through the treeline in the parking lot in front of the diner.
I fell against the door to my truck, struggling with the keys, until I got it unlocked, jumped in, and locked the doors.
I took a second to exhale, and as I reached for the ignition, I heard knuckles rapping on my passenger side window.
I looked up in horror. It was Joe.
I had no idea what to think, and even less of an idea what to say, so I just sat there, frozen.
“Hey man, I saw you start livestreaming again, and whatever was on that screen really freaked me out. I drove back to the Blue Lantern as soon as I could. Are you okay?”
I thought about that thing in the woods. I thought of the horror and revulsion I felt every time I had to talk to a man telling an eleven-year-old all the things that he’d do to her when they met up. I thought of all the times I put on a brave face when people asked about Abby, and all the nights I haven’t slept, imagining where she is. Or was.
“No, Joe, I’m… I’m not okay. I’m not okay,” I stammered, as I broke down sobbing.
Joe waited with me until the police came, doing whatever he could to comfort the shaking, quivering mess that I was.
They called for backup to comb the woods near the diner, as they drove Joe and I to the police station.
We gave our statements. We turned over all our chat logs. I showed them the video of Joe and I confronting each other in the diner, and then the footage of me following something into the woods.
Rewatching the stream is chilling. It’s blurry and shaky, and the darkness behind the diner obscures any distinctive features of the thing that made me run into the woods. All I can tell is that based on its size and shape, it doesn’t look anything like a child.
It looks more like a large figure, crouched unnaturally and strangely. Or some kind of animal I don’t know how to describe. I don’t know how it moved the way that it did.
It doesn’t look anything like Abby. I still don’t understand how I thought it did.
The police chalked it up to the whiskey and my lack of sleep. They told me I have to stop doing this, or the next time I might not make it out of a bust alive.
They always say this. And I always think about stopping.
But then I think of all the kids out there, getting messages from the horrors that live around us.
I think of the kids who make that long, dark, lonely walk down the gravel road to the diner.
And I think about Abby. And how stopping all this feels like a betrayal to her. And I know that this can’t be the end. It never will be.
The police sent me home, and by the time I got back to my bed, the sun was already creeping through my windows. I closed the blinds and fell into the deepest sleep I’d had in months.
Hours and hours later, I jolted awake in bed as my phone vibrated next to me.
Right. I turned the sound off in the woods.
As I tried to adjust to my surroundings, I could see that my entire house and the sky outside was pitch-black. Somehow I slept through the entire day.
I rolled over to turn on the light, but when I saw the notification screen on my phone, I stopped cold.
I talk to a lot of different predators, on a lot of different apps, with a lot of different profiles.
But somehow, every notification on my screen, from different apps and dozens and dozens of different predator’s profiles, said almost the exact same thing:
meet me at the blue lantern
meet now at blue lantern
come back to the blue lantern
come back right now blue lantern i’m waiting
meet now blue lantern meet now right now meet now
They’ve been sending them all day. Every couple of minutes. From so many different profiles.
Then, my phone vibrated with the three most terrifying messages I’ve ever received:
don’t come to the blue lantern
stay at home
i’m coming to meet you now
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