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Child predator hunter group in central Pennsylvania faces legal pushback

Clearfield County District Attorney Ryan Sayers sitting at his desk.
Sydney Roach
Clearfield County District Attorney Ryan Sayers no longer pursues cases using evidence from a child predator hunting group because of a judge's recent opinion.

A Clearfield County judge’s recent opinion means cases based on the work of a child predator hunter group are being dismissed in Clearfield and at least six other counties.

But that's not slowing down Brian Knepp, the founder of the 814 Pred Hunters group. He said a personal experience led him to create the group when he left a friend he trusted alone with children he was caring for.

“He went and he raped a child with another child there watching it happen. That's when I decided ‘you know what, it's time for me to try and do what I can do to stop this from ever happening to another child again.’ That's why we started doing it," Knepp said.

Knepp said members of 814 Pred Hunters pose as minors online to find adults who approach them sexually. Then they set up in-person meetings and confront the alleged predators. They live stream the confrontations on Facebook. After that, they bring their evidence of sexual conversations and pictures to law enforcement.

The group is based in Clearfield County, but the Knepp said they’ve “exposed” people in other counties and states.

Since the group started in September, Knepp said they’ve confronted more than 70 people.

“People don't realize just how bad a problem is. There's hundreds of guys just waiting in line," Knepp said.

Clearfield County District Attorney Ryan Sayers said he isn’t surprised.

“The number of cases of child sex crimes, child abuse that actually make it into the system, statistically, is very low. And that's just because juveniles don't come forward. It doesn't get caught. It's dealt with within a family, a whole slew of other things," Sayers said.

The Jefferson County District Attorney’s office has filed charges against people accused by the 814 Pred Hunters group within the last month. But Sayers said cases based on stings by Pred Hunters are being dismissed in Clearfield and at least a half dozen other nearby counties.

That’s because in July, Clearfield County’s President Judge Frederic Ammerman released an opinion saying predator hunter groups do not legally qualify to pose as a would-be victim, so courts cannot bring cases against the alleged child predators they expose.

Pennsylvania's unlawful contact with minor statute reads: Section 6318.  Unlawful contact with minor.

(a)  Offense defined.--A person commits an offense if he is intentionally in contact with a minor, or a law enforcement officer acting in the performance of his duties who has assumed the identity of a minor, for the purpose of engaging in an activity prohibited under any of the following, and either the person initiating the contact or the person being contacted is within this Commonwealth.
Screenshot of Section 6318 in Pennsylvania's legislation: Unlawful contact with minor.

Pennsylvania’s Unlawful Contact with Minors statute says in order to prosecute a child predator, the victim must be either an actual minor or a law enforcement official posing as a minor.

Currently, only Clearfield County is bound to Ammerman’s opinion, but Sayers said many other district attorneys agree with his reading of the law and are following it.

“Obviously, I do not sympathize or in any way promote the terrible activities and these pedophiles going after these juveniles. But I have to follow the law," Sayers said.

Sayers said he has not appealed Judge Ammerman’s decision because if Clearfield County lost the appeal, Ammerman’s opinion would become law for the entire state.

Legislators could change the language in the statute to allow civilian decoys to act as minors. State Rep. Jim Gregory, a childhood sex abuse survivor, says he plans to introduce a bill to do just that. But Sayers says even if that bill passed, police are better equipped to do this work. They’re trained in how to question suspects and in use of force.

“An untrained group going out seeking justice could be as good as it is problematic," Sayers said.

Sayers said he’s concerned by some of the tactics he sees in the Pred Hunters’ social media videos, especially since they often carry firearms.

In one video on the 814 Pred Hunters group’s Facebook page, the accused child predator informs Knepp he has a gun in his car, but doesn’t plan to use it.

“That’s none of my worries as long as it stays in there. I’d hate to have to shoot somebody," Knepp responds in the video.

In another of the Pred Hunters’ videos, Knepp tells a man their interaction would be violent if it weren’t for the live stream.

“Dude, I’d beat you down. Plain and [expletive] simple. If these cameras weren’t here we wouldn’t be having this conversation," Knepp said.

Knepp said the Pred Hunters need to step in because the problem is too big for law enforcement.

“They don't have the time or the revenue to do it to the extent it needs done," Knepp said.

“I will not disagree with that," Sayers said. "Law enforcement is stretched very thin in our area and I know around the Commonwealth as well. If we could have more officers, that would be great. And does every report get followed up on in regards to everything that is called in on a daily basis? Probably not, I don’t know."

Sayers said unless the law changes, cases originating with pred hunters groups will continue to be dismissed in Clearfield County and most of the surrounding area.

Sayers and Knepp do agree on guidance for anyone trying to keep their children safe online.

“Know what your kids are doing on the internet and social media platforms," Sayers said.

“Watch your kids’ phones," Knepp said.

Knepp said 814 Pred Hunters is in the process of meeting with district attorneys in the area to see what they can do differently to get charges to stick. He said the group will continue to work on exposing possible child predators despite the Clearfield County judge’s ruling to not prosecute these cases.

Sydney Roach is a reporter and host for WPSU with a passion for radio and community stories.