[This is the abridged edition of the article that appeared in the print edition of the paper.]
Aloe Vera stood terrified outside the Detroit, Michigan courtroom at 9:30 a.m. on a spring morning in 2008, waiting to be called in as chief witness in the preliminary hearing of a man she knew was a pedophile.
Vera, a 20-year-old student, wore black slacks and a black top, a business jacket and heels. She had showered and prepared her dark hair carefully that morning, wanting to look as professional as possible.
The Attorney General Special Agent for Michigan, Mike Ondejko, picked her up at the airport when she arrived in the state. He was waiting for her with a sign, foolishly holding it upside down, which had her Internet username written on it: Aloe Vera. He drove her in an unmarked black car to a hotel apartment.
“I read your chat log,” Ondejko told her. “I was really impressed.”
Vera worked for the organization Perverted Justice and, in this case, the first in which she was brought to court as a witness. She had pretended to be a 13-year-old girl who liked to hang out with friends and had a widowed father. Her character was a good student though she procrastinated a lot, and she liked to listen to music and spent a lot of time online.
The real “Vera” now stood outside the courtroom.
A guard next to her suddenly drew her attention.
“I want to tell you, this stuff fascinates me and I want to tell you, you do a good job. I don’t know how you do what you do … it’s solid work.” The guard could tell that she was afraid, and his words soothed her. “Nothing’s going to happen to you. Don’t worry about it; they’ll take care of you.”
The night before, the special agent told her not to answer the door or phone. In the two years she worked for Perverted Justice, she talked with one hundred pedophiles. Twenty-five of them were later arrested. Her friends called her “the Perv Whisperer,” and when co-workers encountered a difficult case they would say, “Let Aloe talk with him.” On the Perverted Justice Web site, Vera could never risk divulging her true name because the members online often received death threats.
Vera was called in.
There were two doors in front of her, the left leading past the prosecutor’s table, and the right leading past the defense.
Since Vera did not want to show any fear, she walked through the door on the right and looked at the defendant.
She recognized him immediately, without having to be told his name. He had sent her his photo with his penis sticking out of his pants. Now he was different, subdued. He was a short, petite Indian man. Like her, he dressed well, in black pants, a blue shirt, a tie and a black jacket, trying to make a good impression.
He was staring at the floor. He did not look at Vera. When she turned her brown eyes to him, she saw his fear.
Courage and wonderment filled her. She knew everything about this man through their chats. She knew that he was a vegetarian, that he worked in an office, and that on the night that he was captured, he had an appointment with a taxes associate. She knew everything about him, while he knew nothing about her.
Vera first met the man in a chatroom on Feb. 9, 2008.
“Hi, sexy,” he said.
“Hi,” she said.
In the first three lines of the chat, she told him that she was 13 years old, so that he’d have no excuse if he started making advances.
In the first 15 minutes of the conversation, he had already asked, “Can I meet you sometime?”
Vera said, “What do you mean, like meet where? What?”
She wanted to pull his teeth, to make him spell it out so that it was obvious to any court what his intentions were.
He said, “Oh, we can meet wherever you want.”
“What do you mean, like for real?” she asked.
“Sure, yeah,” he replied.
After another 15 minutes he said, “I want to have sex.”
When pedophiles say this online to Vera, she responds immediately with questions like, “Are you serious? Really? You want to do that to me?”
She asks these kinds of questions three times so that he’d look ridiculous in court, trying to say that he didn’t mean it. When Vera told him she lived in Michigan, he asked where in Michigan.
“Oh, here and there.” Her character’s personality was supposed to be a bit bratty, with a kind of “Why do you want to know?” attitude.
He asked where again.
“A place on the map,” she dodged.
She wouldn’t be ready to get this one for a month, because the law enforcement couldn’t afford the manpower to go after every pedophile that Perverted Justice nabbed. Instead, they arranged with Perverted Justice that every few months, they would set aside a weekend for a “sting.” At a sting, police officers would camp at a special house and collect everu pedophile that arrived.
All of PJ’s contributors and junior contributors — the adults that pretended to be children online to bring predators to justice — would arrange meetings with their pedophiles for that weekend and give them that address. The men would arrive throughout the day, one after another, and the police would capture them.
Vera saw that with this guy, she would have been able to get him to the house the very first day they started chatting. It wouldn’t have taken any longer than that.
As their conversation proceeded, he started calling her, “Hey, beautiful,” and telling her she was “cute.” He was trying to groom her, to get her location from her. And before signing off, he said, “Oh, I’m going to dream about you tonight.”