Jessica is pretty, petite, and young — 5’2” and slim, according to her profile on the dating app. Golden bangs cascade across her forehead, and in her profile picture her sweet, silly smile is reminiscent of a young Miley Cyrus.
Jessica is 14 years old.
Jon is a big man with tiny eyes and brownish-blondish hair, styled in a crewcut. He’s got a long mustache and a balbo goatee. He’s looking for “friends, dating, chat,” according to his profile.
Jon is 39.
Jon initiates contact: Hi there wyd
Jessica: Hii. Wats up
Jon: Not much just chillin at home. Whats up with you
Jessica: I’m from Oceanside
Jon: Me to…. What would you like to do
Jessica: Tbh I’m actually 14 lol. Hope ur not mad
Jon: No not mad
Jessica: Kk cool:)
Jon: What are you wanting to do with older guys
Jessica: Umm anything I’m not picky
She asks him for a selfie; he sends her one and she sends back three, one with a “doodle” puppy filter.
As soon as he gets the photos, Jon responds:
Have you had sex with a older guy?
Jessica: 15 ya. Hbu?
Jon: Yes only with older females
Jessica: Ohh cool:) Ya I’m free today
Jon: Oh yeah so you want to have sex?? I can get into a lot of trouble.
Jessica: Umm today if u want
Jon: What have you tried so far
Jessica: I just had ex bfs
Jon: OK did you sex with them? Do you suck them off?
Jessica: I did everything lol
Jon: Oh yeah you wanna do it all with me. I will show you how great sex is.
They arrange to meet at 5 pm. Jon suggests “somewhere low key,” like a field off Mesa Drive and El Camino Real. Jessica says she’d rather meet at a store, and they agree to meet at the Vons across from the Carlsbad mall.
Jon: What do you want to do
Jessica: Umm anything. Wats on ur mind?
Jon: Sex. I really want my dick sucked.
The chat continues. Jon asks for “naked pictures” but she says she doesn’t send nudes; he tells her she can “sit on my face” and that he’s “a great kisser.”
A little while later, Jon texts her that he’s running a little late; he’s on foot and “these hills suck,” so he’s hoping a bus will come along. Jessica says she just got out of the shower and he responds, “Mmm wet and naked awesome.”
En route, Jon tells Jessica, via text, that he has to pick up some photos at the CVS in the same strip mall as Vons.
A few minutes later, Jessica texts, “I’m inside cvs where r u?” Jon responds, “Walking in the parking lot…. I have a black hoodie with blue jeans on and a sucker in my mouth.”
Jon is a real person. Jessica is not. Her profile was created and posted to one of the more popular dating apps by a young North County college student known only as Ghost. We’re not going to tell you his real name, or what he looks like, or where he lives. Let’s just say that growing up, Ghost heard more stories than he cared to from his friends, mostly young women, about a creepy neighbor, uncle, or friend of the family. There were stories of uncomfortable stares, inappropriate comments, and from time to time, unwanted touching or unseemly propositions. “Did you tell someone, or call the cops?” was invariably the first thing Ghost would ask. But in every case, he got one of two responses: either “No, I didn’t, because nobody would believe me,” or, “Yes, I did, but no one cared.”
So eventually, Ghost decided to do something about it. As a teen, he says, he was a big fan of To Catch a Predator, a Dateline NBC reality show in which host Chris Hansen confronted adults arriving at a sting house to have sex with a minor. The “minors” were members of the show’s staff, impersonating underage boys and girls (generally 12 to 15) in online chat rooms. To Catch a Predator ran from 2004 until 2008, when it was canceled after an assistant district attorney in Rockwall County, Texas shot himself after he was caught talking to and exchanging pictures with a volunteer posing as a 13-year-old boy.
A youth ministry coordinator in Fallbrook was suspended after he was outed by CC Unit for arranging a meeting with a 14-year-old boy on the dating app Grindr in November 2019.
Using pictures of real teens he obtains, with permission, from friends, Ghost began posing as underage boys or girls on several dating apps — Tinder, Grindr, Zoosk, and the like — and was surprised at how many responses he received from older men who didn’t seem to mind at all that the boys and girls with whom they were flirting were 14, 13, or even 12. “Having seen To Catch a Predator, I always wondered how many of these guys lived in our area,” Ghost says.
He rallied up some friends to form an informal outfit known as the Creep Catchers Unit, or CC Unit. His plan was to post fake profiles, and then expose the adults who hit on them by arranging a meeting and filming the results, which would then be posted to the CC Unit Instagram account and YouTube channel. The YouTube videos start with a flashing Guy Fawkes mask. Lightning strikes over a twilight shot of the downtown San Diego skyline, and then comes the disclaimer: “Warning. Some viewers might find the following video disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised.”
Ghost set up his first decoy account, pretending he was a 13-year-old girl, on August 2, 2018. “As soon as I made it, I had 15 messages already,” he says. “One guy, named Oscar, messaged me 24 times. Within an hour I met him at an Oceanside Walmart and busted him, using my iPhone.”
Since that first bust, Ghost says, he’s caught, and exposed, over 100 predators. His YouTube channel has 15,700 subscribers, and the more than 40 videotaped encounters he’s posted have amassed a total of more than 1.5 million views. On Instagram, the CC Unit has 24,800 followers, many of whom regularly tune in for live streams of “busts.”
One encounter was with a 19-year-old young man who arranged to meet with what he thought was a 13-year-old girl. The opening montage shows photos from his Facebook page. In one he’s standing beside boxer Muhammad Ali’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In another, he’s clad in full Eagle Scout regalia.
Then comes the chat log, scrolling slowly. The 19-year-old “hits up” a 13-year-old girl, and upon discovering her age, responds “Damn… u a bad girl?” He invites her to “meetup” and offers to buy her dinner in exchange for oral sex. The chat turns increasingly graphic, with all sorts of lewd propositions; the “girl” agrees to meet him at the Michael’s store on Vista Way in south Oceanside.
Iran M. had sent pictures of his penis to what he believed was a 14-year-old boy. “Police saw the catch live — a police car drove by as I was walking after the guy, trying to talk to him,” Ghost says.
Ghost and his team spot the young man, who is wearing a Patagonia jacket and green baseball cap, and approach him. “Yo, dude, what’re you doing here?” Ghost asks, shaking the man’s hand. “Can I have a word with you?
Ghost asks him his age and tells him he wants to talk to him. The man, clearly nervous, toggles from one foot to another, simultaneously swaying back and forth. He knows exactly why he has been confronted.
“I can have a word with you or I can just send this over to the police,” Ghost says, holding his phone out. “And it’s not going to be good for you.”
“Okay,” the young man responds. He admits he’s there to meet up with a 13-year-old girl he met, and propositioned, on a dating app.
“Why do you think that’s, okay?” Ghost asks.
The man responds, “I know it’s not okay — look, I’m having a family emergency and I’m making bad decisions. I’m in a bad place right now.”
“You could have put this girl in a bad place, too,” Ghost says.
The conversation stretches on for more than 20 minutes, with Ghost calling the young man out “for all the dirty and disgusting things you said to her” and letting him know he intends to expose the encounter on his YouTube channel. The young man apologizes and pleads, “Can you please not do this? I don’t want this to happen to my life right now.”
He starts to cry; Ghost tells him, “If you want to clear your name, get therapy. There’s no excuse for this.”
The encounter, posted to the CC Unit’s YouTube Channel, has more than 148,000 views.
Another encounter involves a gay couple, both 26, who arrange to meet a 13-year-old boy. “Are u free ryt now? Wanna hang out,” they ask, via chat. When the “boy” says he will be free that night, the couple ask if they can pick him up to play video games at their home. They instruct him to tell his older brother that he plans on hanging out with “friends from school,” because they don’t want to get in trouble. They also ask him if he is a cop. When he responds, “No,” they ask if he had any shirtless pictures. “Only in person,” he says. The chat turns explicit. They agree to meet at Vons.
Ghost meets the two young men inside the supermarket. “Hey, how you guys doin’?” he says to the startled pair. He asks them what they are doing there; they say they are shopping for dinner. “You sure you’re not doing anything else?” he asks. “Why are you shaking? Why are you acting so nervous?” Flustered, the two say nothing. “You don’t think I know what you’re doing?” Ghost asks. “I know what you’re doing. You were talking to me.”
A clerk approaches the group; one of the young men says he’s being harassed. Ghost tells the clerk the two came into the store to meet up with a 13-year-old boy and the pair hurriedly departs, one putting his phone to his ear. Ghost and his CC Unit team follow them outside. “Call the cops,” Ghost yells after them. “We’ll show them the chat logs.” The two get into a car and Ghost, still filming, says, “Let’s get their license plate.” As they drive off, he yells after them, “Hey, I’m going to post this online.”
A few days later, Ghost makes good on his threat. The video is one of CC Unit’s least popular — just 17,755 views.
Out of his more than 100 encounters, Ghost says, only one turned physical. “The guy started throwing some punches at me,” he says. But there have been plenty of threats and frequent attempts to grab his phone, all caught on the GoPro camera Ghost wears around his neck. That’s why he always makes sure to bring along a handful of fellow CC Unit members, all of them in their early twenties.
“I’m not a military veteran, I’m not police, I’m not a security guard — just a plain old college student who catches predators and exposes them,” Ghost says. “I always wanted to change the law so that these guys get what they deserve. But of the more than 100 predators I’ve caught, only two or three of them actually faced any legal punishment, although we generally do call the cops. That tells you how bad it is — they know they get a slap on the wrist, if even that, if they get caught. A lot of cops have told me that since there is no real victim, there’s no crime. I’ve always wondered why it is like that, that there has to be a victim — why does it have to get to that point? Why can’t get they get arrested and sentenced without someone’s life getting ruined?”
Ghost and his CC Unit are not alone. There are a handful of similar operations across North America, including Predator Poachers in Houston and Predator Poachers Toronto, which has 14,200 YouTube subscribers and 13 videos posted to its channel. In March 2020, a similar operation in Woodstock, Ontario, Canada, called SouthBound Productions, was the subject of a critical article in the local newspaper, the Woodstock Sentinel-Review, which reported, “Anonymous video vigilantes using online messaging and YouTube to snare suspected child predators in the Woodstock area could be doing more harm than good, experts say. Taking justice into their own hands sets a ‘bad precedent’ while hampering proper police investigations and hurting the Crown attorney’s ability to successfully prosecute these cases, a Laurier University professor said. ‘The biggest problem is it sets up a culture of vigilantism,’ said Scott Blandford, the program co-ordinator of Wilfrid Laurier University’s policing and master of public safety programs and a former London police officer. ‘It’s a whole host of problems for the police and prosecution. Instead of going to the police and showing screenshots of the conversations and letting the police take it from there, you have a public sideshow.’”
Ghost bristles at the suggestion that he is engaging in vigilante justice. “I’m more of an activist than a vigilante,” he says. “I’m not taking the law into my own hands, or arresting these people, or beating them up. I’m just filming and documenting, taping and interviewing them. Then I post it all online, and if law enforcement contacts me and wants more — which happens quite often — I will send them over the entire chat log.”
Jon denies any knowledge of a chat, as well as Ghost’s claim that “you came out here to have sex with a minor.” He insists he came to CVS to pick up some pictures. Ghost again tells him he has all the evidence on his phone and asks whether he should call the police.
In the spring of 2019, a Camp Pendleton Marine was court-martialed, sentenced to six months in the brig, and dishonorably discharged after his military superiors saw a recorded encounter with Ghost and his CC Unit team. The Marine had been chatting with a 13-year-old girl, asking her for sex. “The reason he got into trouble was he was in the military system, not the civilian system,” Ghost says.
Last November, a youth ministry coordinator at St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church in Fallbrook was outed by the CC Unit after arranging a meeting with a 14-year-old boy on the dating app Grindr. He was subsequently suspended by church officials. According to an article in the Fallbrook Village News, Kristine Almada, a pastoral associate, said in a statement, “Toney R. has been suspended from his position as youth ministry coordinator, effective immediately. St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Parish is working closely with the appropriate parties, including law enforcement and the Diocese of San Diego, to investigate these allegations further. We are following the policy of the Diocese of San Diego and are taking the allegations against Mr. R. seriously. It is our responsibility to protect those entrusted in our care, especially children and youth.” The paper further reported that San Diego Police “confirmed that a criminal investigation into the allegations has begun.”
In February, Carlsbad police arrested a local man for sending obscene matter to a minor. The incident came to light through a CC Unit encounter; the man had sent pictures of his penis to what he believed was a 14-year-old boy. “Police saw the catch live — a police car drove by as I was walking after the guy, trying to talk to him,” Ghost says. “I flagged it down, and showed the officer the chat log. His sergeant came and arrested him on the spot.”
Carlsbad police, flagged down by Ghost and his crew, arrested 22-year-old Iran M. in February 2020, charging him with sending obscene matter to a minor.
At end of the YouTube video clip chronicling the encounter, three Carlsbad police officers are seen handcuffing the suspect. A request under the California Public Records Act confirmed the arrest outside 2608 El Camino Real of 22-year-old Iran M., a student who lives in Calexico, on a child molestation charge. Asked whether the department works with the CC Unit, Paula Crewse, senior projects manager for the Carlsbad Police Department, said the department “has no comment regarding groups such as the CC Unit.”
Oceanside police are more forthcoming. Spokesman Tom Bussey says the Oceanside Police Department has a mixed reaction to Ghost and his CC Unit. “From a police standpoint, anything that comes to us that is investigatable, we would certainly take a look at,” he says. “That’s just the way we do business. We wouldn’t take something like that and totally blow it off. But it’s not something we advocate — putting yourself in danger, you don’t want to do that. If you confront somebody, it could cost you your life.”
CC Unit members are gathered inside the CVS drug store, watching the front door, as Jon walks in. I am with them. Jon walks to the photo department, picks up a pack of photos, and pays at the register. Ghost approaches him from behind, his GoPro strapped to his chest:
“Jon! What’s up, Bro? Why are you sweating? How ya doin’? What are you doing here?”
Jon, startled: “That’s my business.”
Ghost: “I know what you’re doing. I have your chat log. Do you understand me?”
Before Jon can respond, the cashier rings him up. Ghost moves around Jon toward the exit, turns around and faces him. “I’ll be waiting on this side,” he says. “Just so you know, the last guy who tried to lie to me, he got arrested.”
Ghost: “So it’s better for you to just talk to me.”
Jon pays the cashier, in cash, and as she counts out the change Ghost loudly proclaims, “So you think it’s okay to come have sex with a 14-year-old girl?”
Jon: “I just came here to pick up pictures.”
Ghost: “Is it okay if I call the cops right now?”
Ghost: “You sent pictures to this girl, you said, ‘I can get into a lot of trouble,’ right? I’ve got everything on screen shot, from A to Z — your pictures, everything you sent, how you wanted to have sex with her, you asked her if she was a virgin, all of that.”
The cashier interrupts: “You need to take that outside.”
Ghost steps outside, waits for Jon to leave the store, and then follows him, with the rest of the CC Unit — maybe half a dozen guys and one girl — in tow. He’s headed toward the bus stop on El Camino Real.
Jon denies any knowledge of a chat, as well as Ghost’s claim that “you came out here to have sex with a minor.” He insists he came to CVS to pick up some pictures. Ghost again tells him he has all the evidence on his phone and asks whether he should call the police. This goes on all the way to the bus stop, with Ghost telling him he has the entire chat on his phone and even has Jon’s picture and Jon denying everything.
Clearly frustrated, Jon pulls the sucker stick out of his mouth and throws it on the ground.
One of the CC Unit members says, “Jon, now you’re a litterbug, too.”
Jon: “I am not a litterbug. I wasn’t raised that way.” He picks the stick up and deposits it in a trash can next to the bus stop sign.
More accusations, more denials. Jon picks up his phone and says he’s calling his mother to pick him up. Ghost says, “Oh, I can’t wait to tell her what you did.”
Jon breaks. Sweating profusely, he admits his role in the chat, but insists he wasn’t going to follow through. “I don’t want to get in trouble,” he pleads. “I don’t want to go back to jail.”
Ghost questions him about jail, and Jon admits he spent time behind bars for a narcotics violation.
He starts walking north along El Camino Real, Ghost and the CC Unit following behind. Ghost continues to badger him: “You know what you did was wrong. How could you think having sex with a 14-year-old was a good thing to do, Jon?”
They cross the onramp to State Route 78, then the bridge over the freeway, then the offramp, then Vista Way. The entire time, Ghost continues to lob questions at Jon.
At the next corner, Jon turns and responds, “It was a bad decision, all right? I wasn’t going to do anything. It wasn’t nothing but for my own amusement, that’s it.”
Ghost tells him he doesn’t believe him — if it was merely for amusement, then why did Jon follow through and not only arrange a meeting, but actually show up for the meeting?
“Come on, I’m not interested in jailbait,” Jon says, sweating more and his eyes welling up with tears. “My preferences are the women.”
Two girls come out from a nearby strip mall. “Should we call the police?” one asks. “We were watching the live stream on Instagram.”
Jon pleads with Ghost to leave him alone. “I served 15 years in the Navy,” he says.
“Do you think the Navy would approve of what you’re doing?”
Ghost: “Why would you dishonor the Navy like that?”
Jon, flustered: “It wasn’t, it wasn’t… just words. I only came to pick up the photos.”
Ghost: “And to have sex with a minor.”
Jon: “Not really. That’s not what was going to happen. I wasn’t going to do anything.”
Ghost: “So why would you talk about it?”
Jon has had enough. He turns and bolts across El Camino Real, dodging cars in six lanes of traffic.
Ghost does not follow. He’s done his job. In a few days, there will be a new video on the CC Unit YouTube channel.