Earlier this month, Colorado sex offender Travis Joe Benson was arrested in Greeley after falling into a trap set for him by members of Hunted & Confronted, a new Facebook group whose mission involves bringing justice to "overage adults who pose a threat to society."
Afterward, most members of the press dubbed the crew vigilantes, but founder Jesse Weeks, 28, rejects that description.
"Vigilantes are against the police, and we're not," he stresses. "I think the police are doing an adequate job, but they have limited resources — and sometimes I feel they focus on things like small bags of marijuana or parking tickets when there are real issues out there. Tax dollars aren't going to certain things that make sure areas are safe."
As for himself, he says, "I'm just a civilian who pays his tax dollars and am here to help, plain and simple."
No specific incident led to Hunted & Confronted's formation, Weeks maintains. "The inspiration is just the love of kids. I like to say I'm pro-kiddo" — a term the group has turned into a hashtag.
Weeks, who lives in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, doesn't have a law-enforcement background. "I'm a flatbed semi driver — heavy haul and oversize loads," he says. "I travel eleven Western states, including Colorado. So we target certain states and areas where we know I'm going to be at."
According to Weeks, "there are five other members" of Hunted & Confronted. "They vary in age from 21 to 47, and we're spread all across the country: Massachusetts, Alabama, South Dakota, Washington and me in Coeur D'Alene, which is just outside Spokane."
In June, he goes on, "we formed a team, generated a plan and went with it." The Facebook page officially launched on July 8, and shortly thereafter, the crew began trying to lure suspects to rendezvous by way of decoy messages posted online that were supposedly written by fourteen- or fifteen-year-olds. But the person actually waiting for alleged pervs would be Weeks, armed with a camera intended to record the situation and expose the perpetrator.
The initial effort focused on "a 29-year-old male in Wyoming," Weeks says. "And ten minutes prior to that, we had made contact with a 24-year-old male who had been hoping to meet up with a fourteen-year-old, but he ended up circling the parking lot and never stopped. So Travis was really our first arrest."
In that case, he continues, "we posted an ad on an application called JustSayHi, and Travis responded within a few minutes of the conversation starting."
The Alabama member of the Hunted & Confronted squad was on the other end of the chat, Weeks reveals. "The age was presented as a fifteen-year-old child, and Travis insisted on continuing the conversation after getting confirmation that the age was okay. He gave us his full name, and we looked him up online and saw that he'd failed twice to register as a sex offender."
The exchanges continued for multiple days while Weeks made his way to Colorado. Upon his arrival in Greeley, the trucker notes, "I contacted the police and let them know what was bound to happen — that this person was on parole and he was a danger to society. I gave them his full name and date of birth and then waited alongside this gas station while the decoy contacted him and distracted him so I could get closer and sit down. He actually asked me for a cigarette before the police showed up and searched my cell phone, with my permission. They saw that everything matched up and they arrested him."
The bust can be seen in the following Facebook video:
Benson, thirty, was cuffed on suspicion of criminal attempted promotion of obscenity to a minor and attempted sexual assault on a minor with a ten-year age difference. His next court appearance is scheduled for August 13, and Weeks says the Alabama decoy plans to be in town for the occasion.
After the news broke, Weeks says the Hunted & Confronted page ballooned in popularity; it now has more than 4,000 followers. In addition, "we heard from people like bounty hunters who are licensed to do work for bail bondsman and got a huge influx of stories from people about things that happened to them. They're sometimes hard to read, but hearing that they're proud of what we're doing makes it a little bit easier. And we get back to everyone, always. We're never going to get too big to do that."
Not all law enforcers have been as cooperative as the ones in Greeley, he acknowledges. In the days after the Benson episode, "we confronted a 38-year-old male in Oregon who was trying to get together with a thirteen-year-old child, but the police refused to come — and we called them twice."
Even if cops aren't resentful of the Hunted & Confronted approach in general, they might fear the operations could spin out of control and get violent. But Weeks doesn't think he's in any danger when he faces off against a potential pedophile.
"We always do it in a public area, and a camera is a very powerful tool," he allows. "When I'm recording them, I left them know that I'm a part of a sting operation but that I'm not part of a law enforcement — and when the camera's right in front of their face, there isn't much they can say other than, 'Get lost.' I know there's risk involved, but I feel like it's a small risk. And if something does come of it, I'm more than willing to deal with the consequences on my end if I can turn one of these predators away from a child."
The Benson success has led to Weeks and his cohorts stepping up their activities. Recent confrontations include unmaskings of 56-year-old Dwight, 35-year-old Jonathan and 23-year-old Jesse, whose creepy texts to a fictional fifteen-year-old he drove more than an hour to meet wound up pasted all over the Hunted & Confronted Facebook page — a platform that's supplemented by a YouTube channel and a nascent Instagram address.
This may sound like a reality TV show in the making, but Weeks says he has other goals. In his words, "We're here for kids and families and to spread awareness."
And if a few Travis Joe Bensons wind up behind bars, that's fine by him.
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