“Bill Smith,” a 42-year-old high-school math teacher from Michigan, fired up his computer one night last fall and logged into Yahoo’s Detroit chat room for a little sexual repartee before bed. The experience would bring him to the verge of suicide and change his life forever.
Smith, who is married with three young children and wished to remain anonymous for this article, said he was having marital problems at the time and that online flirting was his way to “blow off steam” without having an affair.
In the chat room, Smith sent instant messages to several participants with female screen names, including “keely_kandy69u”:
pbass1957b: hi kandy, care to chat?
keely_kandy69u: asl? (age, sex, location)
pbass1957b: m/42/grosse pointe … you?
keely_kandy69u: 13 f Ferndale
pbass1957b: do you have a (web) cam?
Although “Keely” had identified herself as a 13-year-old girl, Smith continued his erotic banter. He encouraged her to send him pictures of herself, and asked whether she’d had sex before and if she liked her “nipples sucked on and licked.”
“I could show you how to do your math and afterward show you how to enjoy the pleasures of good sex,” Smith wrote. He told her his first name, his occupation and his cell phone number. She called it to confirm the number was real, hung up and then continued the virtual conversation:
keely_kandy69u: check out this site in tha meantime
keely_kandy69u: Make sure you pay very close attention to it.
keely_kandy69u: You might wanna bookmark that site. Your name, telephone number, photo, and a transcript of this chatlog will appear on the front page within 24 hours.
keely_kandy69u: You are a sick, sick man…
keely_kandy69u: And your life just took a serious turn for the worse.
Smith quickly disconnected his Internet connection, but Keely’s threat came true. And in a matter of days, Smith lost his job, received anonymous death threats and had reporters camped out in front of his house.
As it turned out, Keely was not an adolescent girl, but a 29-year-old male volunteer with Perverted Justice, a vigilante group that trolls regional chat rooms for would-be pedophiles.
The group’s volunteers pose as kids, and when an adult hits on them, they publish the person’s picture, phone numbers and e-mail address on the site so the group’s supporters can hound the person by phone and e-mail. Perverted Justice has made more than 600 such busts since it was formed in July 2002, and many of its marks have lost their jobs and been scorned in their communities as a result of the exposure.
Critics charge that the activists’ controversial crusade rarely results in convictions, but the group insists that the public humiliation suffered by the men – and two women – they’ve busted is itself enough to make pedophiles think twice about victimizing children online.
In Smith’s case, Perverted Justice was able to pinpoint his identity after locating his picture on a high-school website; in it, he wore the same shirt he sported in the photo he sent Keely. They e-mailed the chat transcript to his colleagues, to parents of students at his school, to the local police and press.
Smith, who’s been a high-school teacher for 17 years, insists that he thought Keely was an adult role-playing at being a little girl.
“This is a way people live out their fantasies,” he said. “I never thought it was a 13-year-old girl. No one ever is who they say they are in these chats.”
He asked Perverted Justice to take his file off the site, but the group refused. His boss told him not to bother coming into school on Monday. And then the media circled in on his house. He grew so despondent, he said, that he found himself in his basement holding an old shotgun he’d received from his father, but it had a trigger lock and he couldn’t locate the key. He called a suicide hot line, which alerted the Grosse Pointe, Michigan, police. The police confiscated his gun and brought him to a local emergency room to talk to a psychiatrist.
The Perverted Justice volunteer who busted Smith has no sympathy for the teacher’s plight.
“(He) hung himself. All we did was make an example out of him,” said “Beef the Troll,” who like other Perverted Justice volunteers won’t identify himself for fear of retaliation for his activities. “To this day, he is not allowed anywhere near a classroom. And I count that as a personal victory.”
One of Smith’s former students who heard of the bust said she wasn’t surprised.
“He would make inappropriate comments frequently,” said Laura Pankow, 20, who said Smith was her algebra teacher when she was 14 and 15. “If a boy was late for class, it was always, ‘Did you have a date with Rosie Palma and her five friends?'”
The Macomb County Sheriff Department did not charge Smith with a crime because no actual meeting occurred between the teacher and a minor – and the chat transcript alone was insufficient evidence.
“We don’t know for sure that this teacher is the one who wrote these Internet messages,” Sheriff Mark Hackel told The Detroit News. “That’s like buying a bag of cocaine and then telling the police (who the seller is).”
Although police routinely pose as minors in chat rooms to snare pedophiles, they follow strict guidelines to ensure their chat logs are admissible in court.
Smith, whose teacher’s union refused to support him, is now on paid administrative leave. He hired a lawyer to press invasion of privacy and harassment charges against the group, but the lawyer has been unable to ascertain the volunteers’ true identities.
“I have a long road to go with my wife, and my kids will eventually find out as well,” Smith said. “I’ll have to build a new life, find a new career. My life is ruined in many ways.”