Miss America Lauren Nelson and veteran fugitive-hunter John Walsh of “America's Most Wanted” recently teamed up with police in a New York City suburb to catch suspected online predators — “Dateline NBC”-style.
Nelson, the brainy beauty from Oklahoma who promised during the recent national pageant to promote Internet safety, posed as a 14-year-old girl to help Suffolk County, N.Y., computer cops arrest a handful of men who showed up at a house teeming with police and a television crew.
NBC's “To Catch A Predator” series with correspondent Chris Hansen has identified more than 200 suspects in similar fashion, but Walsh said there are so many online predators out there that the more people focusing on the problem, the better.
“Does it surprise you that you set this stuff up and these guys still come out?” TODAY's Al Roker asked Walsh during a live studio appearance with Nelson on Thursday.
“It doesn't surprise me. I think the public should be surprised and young people should be surprised that anyone can show up,” Walsh said. “Anyone from a 43-year-old man who works at a Mercedes dealership selling Mercedes to a 21-year-old guy that is coming to have sex with who they think, and they know through all of these chats back and forth, is a 14-year-old girl.”
Miss America undercover
Nelson posed as a young girl in phone calls initiated after online chats in which suspects allegedly engaged in inappropriate conversation, sometimes exposing themselves via Web cams. The suspects rounded up in Suffolk County after showing up for a meeting with Nelson have pleaded not guilty to attempted dissemination of indecent material to a minor.
One suspect's lawyer told TODAY that his client cannot form the mental intent necessary to commit the crime because of a psychiatric problem. By definition, Walsh said, online predators have something wrong with them, but that doesn't mean society has to give them a pass.
“They've all got an excuse,” he said. “I've been hunting these guys down for 20 years. I'm the father of a murdered child. Yeah, there's something wrong with them.”
Walsh became a victim’s advocate after his 6-year-old son, Adam, was murdered in Florida in 1981. Walsh is a co-founder of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and he championed a new federal law that increases the penalties for people convicted of crimes against children.
‘A very brave young lady’
Nelson said she hooked up with “America's Most Wanted” during her first week as Miss America, and the show proposed going after online predators. “They came up with a sting operation idea. I was a little apprehensive, and nervous,” she said. “Definitely I was very nervous, but it was a controlled situation .... It was very safe.”
For Walsh, the key to the sting's success was having Nelson actually speak to the suspects on the telephone to trick them into believing that the meetings they hoped to arrange were with a 14-year-old girl and not a police trap. When the men showed up, they were dressed down by Walsh, as police officers slapped handcuffs on them.
“Lauren was the dealmaker in this,” Walsh said, referring to the capture of one suspect police were calling “The Phantom” because he was so careful in the past about whom he would meet and where. “She talked to him on the phone ... She's a very brave young lady.”
“He wanted to hear a voice,” Nelson said. “He wanted to know that it was an actual girl he was going to see, a 14-year-old girl.”
This “America's Most Wanted” special airs 8 p.m. EDT Saturday, April 28, on FOX.