It all started for EJ Twyman exactly like you would guess it might.
“When I was younger I used to watch ‘To Catch a Predator’ when it was on, and it was always interesting to me,” he said. “I was in between jobs, and I was just sitting at home, saw an episode on YouTube and said, ‘Let me see how safe it is out here.’”
Right then, Twyman made an account on some social media sites, posing as an underage girl.
“You know, to see if anyone would bite,” he said. “All of a sudden these guys started hitting me up.”
“Within the first, I think, 30 minutes I had like 20 messages,” Twyman said
That response “freaked” him out, he said. That’s when he decided to act.
Twyman created Gotcha Predators, which was originally a one-man operation and is now a three-man crew that works to expose adults looking to prey upon minor children in the community.
He uses nonsexual photographs of people that he knows with consent and once he lures a subject in for a meeting, generally at a local strip mall or shopping center, he reveals himself with video cameras blazing.
Twyman recalled back to that first interaction with a subject who was eager to meet a girl he thought was just 14 years old.
“First I let them know I’m not 18,” he said, adding that the apps he uses are for users ages 18 and older. “The ones I just continue wanting to talk, I’ll keep talking to them. And within the first 30 minutes I had a guy who was like, ‘Hey, I gotta go to (location removed). I’ll come to you right now.’ And so before I could even really get anyone else to come out there with me and let people know what I’m doing, I just went up there and met them, and that’s how I got the first video.”
He admitted that he didn’t think too much about the danger he could be putting himself in at first.
“I thought about it like, ‘I don’t know who this guy is, he could be crazy,’” Twyman said. “But what I kept thinking was, you know, what about my daughter or someone’s kid that I know in the community. Who would he take advantage of?
“I didn’t really think he would show up, maybe he was just talking and stuff. And I went up there, he was there and I just knew I had to at least document it, so that way he can’t say that I did anything to him.”
At that moment is when Twyman said he decided to create Gotcha Predators and publish the video he had captured, complete with the chat sessions between himself and the subject.
“I didn’t really have any fear factor. It’s more just like, it’s wrong and people need to know about what’s going on out here,” he said. “And I just, you know, did it.”
To date, Twyman has posted six videos to his YouTube account, which he shares on the Gotcha Predators Facebook and Twitter accounts.
He recently created a Patreon account to raise money to continue his work as well as purchase new equipment to produce better quality videos.
“The first four videos I put out those all by myself,” Twyman said. “And then I started getting a lot of comments and people sharing the videos, stuff like that. I talked to a police officer once my video started getting around, and he said that I would be liable for any civil lawsuit that would come from these people that I was capturing or catching.”
Not wanting to get himself into trouble, he decided to shut it all down. Once he posted the proclaimed “last video,” others came to his aid to help him continue the work.
Twyman said the biggest driving factor for him is his two young daughters, his girlfriend and his mother.
“I don’t go into too much detail with (my daughter) about it, but as she starts to ask for phones and things of that nature, that’s when it became more of like a worry for me,” he said. “Because I know she, individually, like all these kids are going to have phones or they already have phones and parents aren’t aware of how easy it is for these people to contact their kids, and it can become a big issue. So, my main goal is just to bring awareness.”
Twyman said he turned over the footage he had shot to a deputy in hopes of there being an arrest.
The Valley News reached out to the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department for comment regarding people like Twyman who are embarking on these types of sting operations. As of Thursday, Dec. 19, the department has only commented that they can’t talk about an active investigation and refused to elaborate.
These vigilante-type groups are popping up all over the country. Another one, called Creep Catchers Unit in North County San Diego, has done close to 100 videos similar to the ones that Twyman is doing.
The difference is, many of these groups work in anonymity, but Twyman does not. That choice adds another element of danger, and he admitted to receiving some pretty serious threats of late.
But, he said he’s undeterred.
“My girlfriend supports it,” Twyman said. “My mom doesn’t want me to do it because it’s not safe, you know. But that doesn’t bother me.”
He’s focused on the bigger picture.
“I think what was getting to me is I watch the news a lot, CNN, Fox, all of them,” Twyman said. “And I kept seeing like almost every day like sex trafficking, sex trafficking, something about sex trafficking, you know?”
He knows – and he’s learning more every day he does this – that the issue is bigger than most everyone believes.
“I don’t think that the police can’t do it or that they’re not trying to. It’s just they can’t be everywhere,” Twyman said. “That’s just the bottom line. They just can’t be everywhere. They just can’t.
“And so I feel, unless it’s community and parents with this issue that take it up and do it themselves to help the police officers or just to bring these people out to light, nothing’s going to change.
“A lot of people don’t think that it can happen out here. And that’s why I was like, I want people to know like this can happen anywhere, even Wildomar, Temecula, wherever it’s at,” he said.
Jeff Pack can be reached by email at email@example.com.