The Perv Whisperer (full edition)

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.”

Pedophilia has a wide variety of damaging effects on children. According to the APSAC Handbook on Child Maltreatment, “Research conducted over the past decade indicates that a wide range of psychological and interpersonal problems are more prevalent among those who have been sexually abused than among individuals with no such experiences.” Kendall-Tackett, Williams and Finkelhor’s review of 45 studies agrees, saying, “Fears, post-traumatic stress disorder, behavior problems, sexualized behaviors, and poor self-esteem occurred most frequently among a long list of symptoms noted.”

The researchers say that feelings of “anger, fear, helplessness, loss, guilt and shame,” as well as “pervasive issues around gender and sexuality” and interpersonal troubles such as feelings of “betrayal, isolation and alienation, and negative childhood peer relations,” are common results of pedophilic actions.

Robert L. Johnson, M.D., wrote in a clinical study that, “70 percent of those who had been molested (by a male or female) felt devastated immediately after the molestation incident had occurred.”

Trauma existed whether mothers reacted as though it was a bad thing or an acceptable thing, according to a Tufts University 1984 study. However, the study found that in cases where the mothers behaved as though the sexual intercourse was acceptable, the psychological harm on the children was worse.

According to Bill Watkins and Arnon Bentovim’s “review of research on the sexual abuse of male children,” a common result of sexual abuse is sexual confusion. Homosexuality, sexual promiscuity and prostitution are common results. Abused adolescents said that these feelings or activities started for them after the abuse.

The study authors also said that male victims will often “deal” with their anger by turning it outward, making them anti-social and highly aggressive. They will sometimes then try to “re-enact” their victimization on others. According to a 2000 National Institute on Drug Abuse report and Becker-Weidman’s Child Abuse & Neglect Study, a third of abused children eventually victimize their own children. Eighty percent of people have been abused as children are diagnosed with at least one psychiatric disorder by the age of 21, and people abused as children are 30 percent more likely to commit a violent crime than children who weren’t abused. They are also 59 percent more likely to be arrested as a juvenile, and 14.4 percent of all male prisoners in the United States were abused as children, as were 36.7 percent of all the women in prison. Two thirds of those in drug rehab reported being abused as children.

The predator contacted Aloe again, the next day. “When are we going to meet?”

The question became a guiding theme of the predator’s conversations with Aloe. “When are we going to meet? When are we going to meet? When are we going to meet?” He hammered at her constantly. “He could not relate to my kid,” Aloe said. She would try to tell him about her day at high school, or tell him about how she loved art, because she liked to sometimes mix truth into her stories. He would respond by asking her about sex.

The man was insistent and Aloe came to find him very annoying. On Yahoo, Aloe’s system was set so that the person on the other end could buzz to attract her attention. It was her first year at UCI and she was struggling with philosophy classes, but he would never leave her alone. As soon as she logged on, he would buzz her. “I was waiting for you,” he’d say. “Where were you? What are you doing?”

As if he cared. The moment she tried to tell him about her persona’s “activities,” it was back to sex again.

“What if we have it ten times a day?” he would ask. “We’ll do it all weekend. We’ll do it all over the house.”

And he sent her stories to read, paragraphs and paragraphs of sexual fantasies. One story described a man who wanted his friend to have sex with his wife. He let it happen, watching, and then had sex with her after. She didn’t want to subject herself to this kind of garbage.

“I don’t want to read it,” she told him.

He got mad. “Just read it. Just tell me what you think of what happens.”

Aloe didn’t want to pretend to read it in case he tested her. “I don’t want to read it, it’s too long.”

“Fine, leave it,” he said, angrily.

“Okay,” she said.

The man began to make plans. He was laying out the territory. He wanted to know how strong her dad was and whether or not Aloe would be alone when they met.

In case they were caught together, he began to work out options. “I’ll say that I’m a math tutor, that I’m teaching you math.”

He wanted to know how many exits the house had. “Can I go out the back?” Yes, she said, he could. He was paranoid about being caught; yet his desperation to be with her persona was stronger than anything. It was the driving force that controlled him.

This was dangerous, Aloe thought, as this kind of person would go after anyone for sex, whatever the age. He didn’t care to stop and think if it was a child. He was stupid and didn’t think things through.

As their conversation progressed, though, it became apparent that he was beyond even this.

He said, “When I get there, we’re going to have sex.”

She said, “If you want to.”

He said, with a smiley face, “You’re not allowed to say no to me”

Aloe was shocked, quietly. She asked what he meant.

He responded, “I’m not going to go all the way over there for you to say no.”

By then, Aloe understood for sure what he was saying. “Okay,” she thought to herself, “so you’re going to rape me if I say no.”

“Fine,” she told him. “We’ll do whatever you want.”

Later he told her, “You can’t say no, even if you’re tired.” He continued, “When are we going to meet?”

To have a case, verifiers for Perverted Justice must have proof in writing that the man intends to have sex with their invented child. The pervert’s intent must be oral, anal or vaginal penetration. He can’t just say, “I want to kiss you and show you the house.” Verifiers need proof, not implication. Aloe’s pedophile, from their very first meeting, had provided plenty.

After she’d known the man a month, the day of the sting, when predators would be lured into a decoy home and arrested, had arrived.

Cops assembled at a house in Wayne County, Detroit. Verifiers began to give the time and location to the pedophiles that had latched onto them.

By sting time, the opportunity for second chances is also over. If pedophiles appear to be backing out on Aloe for moral reasons, she lets them go. If they are backing out because they’re scared of imprisonment, they might still get their nerve together and go after another kid in the future. So she hammers them.

“I knew it,” she’d say. “You’re all talk.”

They would stammer, “No, no, no, I really want to meet.”

She’d say, “Whatever,” and continue to draw them toward prison.

But the one that had latched onto her now needed no such squeezing. He was desperate, rabid.

At sting time, Aloe closes herself off in her room, she separates herself from family and friends, and makes herself a hermit for a weekend. She doesn’t answer personal mail or callers except to tell them briefly that she’s busy, and she struggles with next to no sleep to keep up with all the verifiers and contributors contacting her. Red and yellow lights flash from her computer screen as they send her messages waiting for her to click, or open chats. She finds herself constantly struggling to keep on top of it all, and sometimes the predator too might want to talk. Aloe’s desk is stacked high with paper and the lights blinking on her screen remind her of a Christmas tree.

Some of the pedophiles assembling at Wayne County had sent porn to the verifiers. Aloe’s predator was one such person; he had sent a webcam image of himself with his penis exposed. Some had also admitted in chat that they’d had sex with kids.

Aloe was in her apartment in Irvine at 5:00 p.m. that evening. She was sitting in her apartment in Irvine in her pajamas as she waited for the news, her laptop blinking red and yellow lights. She was working for Perverted Justice and simultaneously taking an online history quiz for a class at UCI.

In Detroit, the pedophiles were coming to the house at different times of day, as pre-arranged with their verifiers. One after another, the police were capturing them and then moving their vehicles out of sight to prepare for the next arrival. Several had already reached the house and been arrested.

The week leading up to the sting, Aloe got very little sleep because the workload grew so much. She felt stressed and tired.

Frag handled finances for Perverted Justice, a bald, middle-aged man who wore a white shirt, blank except for red letters saying, to the amusement of the other contributors, “This is what a 13-year-old looks like online.” He kept in contact with Aloe over instant messaging, telling her when a predator showed up.

He gave her the usual heads up. “I see headlights.”

A taxi pulled into the driveway of the decoy home. The decoy home looked like an average suburban household from the outside. Aloe’s man pushed the door open and dashed over to the house.

“He’s at the door,” Frag told Aloe.

Officers who had been waiting on the other side of the door arrested the man.

Frag said, “In custody.”

Aloe felt a wave of relief. At many stings, the predator doesn’t show because of fear of a possible police capture. The evidence also had to be just right, when he is caught. But she was relieved most of all because she was just so glad to be rid of him.

Aloe no longer would have to log onto her computer to find multiple messages waiting for her from the predator, telling her to get online and that he was waiting for her. She no longer would have to deal with his questions: “Are you wearing underwear?” or his comments that he planned to get her alone and watch her masturbate.

She said, “Sitting through hours of someone telling me how much they want to have sex with my decoy often leaves me with a feeling of disgust.”

She didn’t have to talk to him anymore. She felt a quick rush of happiness.

Twenty-seven men were captured in the sting, their ages between 19 and 57. Four came by taxi, one was dropped off by his sister, one drove on a shredded tire, and one biked ten miles in 15-degree weather to reach the house.

Attorney General Cox said, “Law enforcement has a clear choice in dealing with the danger of Internet predators: either react after a child has been subjected to an assault or be proactive and intervene before they can harm a child. For us, this is an easy choice … Let this be a message to all those who would put children in harm’s way – we’re watching you.”

Aloe Vera leaned closer to the mic, in the Michigan courtroom where she had been called to testify against the predator. About a hundred pages of chat log transcript lay in front of her and each of the attorneys.

Aloe put her hands on the table, thinking to herself, “It’s starting.”

The defense attorney wore a tan suit and a tie. He had a round, balding white head and a southern accent. He liked to lean back on the railing, as if to say, “No problem … you’re just small potatoes.”

The defendant did not match his dominating demeanor. The little Indian man was expressionless, looking straight down. He looked scared.

“So,” the defense attorney began, “Aloe Vera, so that’s your name?”

She said, “Yeah.”

He inquired, “What’s your other name?”

She told him. She had no fear of the background checks attorneys practiced, for she’d had many of them. She also knew that the worst thing you could do was yell or get angry. You had to stay calm, even if you were terrified.

The defense attorney asked, “Isn’t it possible for you to go in and change the chat logs?”

“No, I don’t have access,” she said. “I just log it in and I have no access to it.”

The attorney then scared her. He proceeded to show the chat pages from two different logs that had recorded Aloe’s conversations with the predator.

He said, “Look at this page and this page. They’re completely different, aren’t they?”

Aloe didn’t understand. She knew that she had said both things written on the two pages. Only the time stamps on the pages of the transcripts, which had been produced by two different, logging systems, didn’t match.

The prosecution was swiftly able to prove that the discrepancy of the time stamps did not mean there was any difference between the conversations. They showed that exactly the same pages were in both logs, down to the typos. The two logs were different kinds of systems, which was why the time stamps differed. The conversations on them were the same.

The Attorney General Special Agent offered to bring in a technician who understood both programs, to explain it.

The judge could see that the conversations from the different logs appeared exactly the same.

He asked, “Is the wording the same?”

The Special Agent said, “Yes.”

The judge inquired, “Is the spelling the same?”

“Yes sir,” The Special Agent replied.

The judge asked another question, “Is the punctuation the same?”

“Yes sir,” The Special Agent returned.

“If the wording is the same and the spelling is the same and only the time spans are different, I don’t care,” the Judge made clear.

With that, the defendant’s only hope at defense died. Special Agent Ondejko took Aloe to his office and they ate Chinese food. He told her that he couldn’t imagine his office arresting 27 guys in a whole year, much less three days.

Aloe says you can’t help feeling happy when your guy shows. Even the defense attorney who had been scaring her told her after the case, “I owe you a handshake … you guys are doing a great job. I’m sorry I came across harsh on you.”

When Aloe told the prosecuting attorney what he’d said, she answered, “Are you kidding me?”

The case appeared set to end with a quick conviction.

It didn’t.

The Indian predator didn’t show up for his later hearings. The police couldn’t track him down. The man had been able to see that he was going to get convicted, and soon it became clear that he had fled the country. Aloe’s efforts had proven fruitless.

“I just hope that if he is enough of a coward to run from his hearings,” she said, “then he is enough of a coward not to talk to kids online anymore. That’s the best I can hope for after this case has been left open.”

After the hearing, Aloe checked out of the hotel and flew back to California. At her apartment near UCI, she did some homework. Then she logged onto her computer again, pretending to be a 14-year-old girl. She was working on another case.