Jailbait

How does a 65-year-old behavioral biologist explain being exposed as an Internet masher hot for 15-year-old girls?

A female detective posed as Kelley on the phone to confirm a meeting at a Denny's. They would bring music books to start the conversation, see whether they got along; then if there were sparks, they'd go from there.

The detective arrested Welles at 5:30 p.m. November 1, 2002, without incident. He had no prior arrests, no record, no porn on his hard drive. Welles contends today that the paper trail that law enforcement submitted into the state's records omits conversations that would make him seem less of a ghoul. He was only following "her" lead, not that the sort of earnest folks you find on juries can be counted upon to make such distinctions.

"My case is a bit complex," Welles says. "I'm not totally innocent, I'm not blameless, I made a mistake, I did something wrong. But I see it as immoral; I see it as breaking a taboo."

But illegal? Probably not, Welles contends. He offers long, flailing explanations. It's not illegal to meet a young teenager for food, a discussion of shared interests, and a friendly powwow, even if you haven't ruled out the possibility of sex later. By online standards, their conversations were tame, Welles says. "She said, 'I'll bring my music book — you bring yours,'" he protests. "She did not say, 'I'm on the pill, but bring rubbers. '" And by the admittedly base standards of supposed predators, his deeds were almost quaint.

As humiliating as his arrest was, though, the crusher was the way it became an international story, reverberating through newspaper news briefs, Internet curiosity collections, and standup comedy routines, including Jay Leno's late-night monologue. You see, Welles wasn't just an ordinary schmo with an interest in teenaged girls; he was the author of two respected books on stupid behavior, The Story of Stupidity and Understanding Stupidity.

As one wire service story, which was picked up around the world, noted: "Incredibly, he even used his real name while writing in one damning message to his teenage friend: 'You just have to remember — bottom line, I'll be committing a crime. '" How stupid was that? Welles became the punch line of a thousand bad jokes.


But Welles is just one of hundreds of men caught in similar stings in recent years. Just this week, the nation was shocked when Homeland Security Department spokesman Brian J. Doyle was arrested and accused of 23 felony charges involving online chats with an undercover Florida cop who posed as a 14-year-old girl. Two years ago, local television news programs around the nation discovered that setting traps for men who troll the Internet for youngsters made for big ratings.

Hooking up with an Internet vigilante group called Perverted Justice, TV crews in Kansas City, Portland, Phoenix, and other cities lured chatters like Welles to rented houses where, instead of willing young sex partners, they found accusing TV reporters wielding microphones.

NBC's Dateline is the latest, and probably most aggressive, of the TV programs to get in on the act, enjoying big audiences for operations like the one in Washington, D.C., last year that snagged a rabbi looking to have sex with a young boy. Now producing its fourth set of stings with Perverted Justice, the news show is finding itself defending the practice to other journalists, who are increasingly raising questions about the ethics of TV reporters and vigilantes joining up to set such snares.

One of the early criticisms of Perverted Justice, for example, was that it had no relationship with law enforcement. Its operators posed as underaged chatters, talked dirty with men for an hour or so, then suddenly made the big reveal — aha! You've been exposed! Perverted Justice encouraged its readers to bombard the victim with e-mails and phone calls as a kind of punishment, but otherwise, there was no legal consequence to the stings. Founder and director Xavier Von Erck says that arrests of men exposed by the website's stings began in 2004 and that 49 convictions in 25 states have occurred because of Perverted Justice operations.

That means that the vast majority of the more than 700 men "caught" in Perverted Justice stings haven't been punished at all. Instead, they've been labeled predators and perverts, with much of their private information archived at the website, along with the things they typed in chatrooms when they thought they were conversing with young boys and girls. Critics contend, however, that such work should be done by law enforcement agencies, which tend to rely on more than simply what is said in chatrooms.

And spurred by the outcry resulting from the TV stings, police agencies are increasingly going after Internet predators as well.


At the Lantana Police Department, Capt. Andy Rundle, queried about cases like Welles', thinks for a second and asks: "Is that the idiot guy?"

Although Welles dismisses his crimes as mere moral lapses, law enforcement authorities have much more clear-cut ideas about the seriousness of virtual sexual contacts between adults and adolescents and about the damage done by sexual predators. Most of the men snared in online sex stings need little enticing, Rundle says.

"We have people fly in from other states to come here and have sex with 12-year-olds," he says. "If they're going to put up thousands of dollars, get a hotel, rent cars, they've been successful before. Here you have these criminals who are coming into your own home and preying on your children."

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