Xavier Von Erck is not what you'd expect from a rising star of TV news.
In a black coat and backwards cap, the 27-year-old Internet whiz from east Portland resembles Silent Bob from the movie Clerks.
Von Erck enunciates his words with the precision of a high-school debate star—he captained Franklin's Mock Trial Team—and still finds time to write rambling commentaries on the Web about pro wrestling.
He also is the founder of Perverted-Justice.com, the online dragnet responsible for catching dozens of would-be pedophiles on NBC's Dateline over the past several weeks.
Born Phillip John Eide, Von Erck says he grew up poor, with an absentee father and a mom who struggled to keep food on the table. When he dropped out of Mount Hood Community College about six years ago, he began spending hours online, often trolling for "intelligent conversation" on Portland chat rooms.
Instead, he found dirty old men—and he decided to act. Posing as a pliable 14-year-old girl in local Yahoo! chat rooms, Von Erck would tease out a phone number with the promise of a date, then post the man's name, his address and the entire, salacious chat on his blog at www.angrygerman.com.
He set up Perverted-Justice.com in 2003 and soon began cooperating with law enforcement and TV stations nationwide to bust unsuspecting predators. This year, he dropped his given name and legally adopted the online handle he used on his site.
Perverted Justice now claims 30,000 volunteers who will go on the site to pose as teenagers, as well as about 30 "young-sounding" phone verifiers.
This year, the website landed a six-figure contract to complete the Dateline series (Murmurs, April 19, 2006) in which TV cameras and police officers greet men who have responded to Von Erck's lures. Von Erck says his efforts with Dateline and other media have netted 59 convictions in 26 states and 230 arrests.
Predictably, the crusade has also generated a chorus of opposition, from a website devoted to exposing Von Erck as an entrapment entrepreneur (www.corrupted-justice.com) to criticism lambasting media outlets that pay for his services.
Von Erck's methods don't seem to qualify as entrapment, which is enticing someone to commit a crime they wouldn't ordinarily do.
Von Erck swears he's not in it for the money. While he says he's incorporating as a nonprofit, most likely in business-friendly Delaware, he hasn't registered as a corporation in Oregon, or anywhere else.
A proprietary corporation set up by his agent cashed Dateline's checks, Von Erck says, but he can't remember the company's name.
"I don't handle much of the business," he says, noting that so far, he's received only about $20,000. "I still drive a Geo Metro, so it's not like I'm a fat cat, yet."
His website has the sick pull of watching a car wreck on repeat. You know what's going to happen, you know it's going to be terrible, but you read on anyway.
Von Erck's motto on his site is printed in old fashioned typewriter font: "As Long As Our Children Aren't Safe From Predators... ...Predators Aren't Safe From Us." There is a silhouette of a cloaked man holding a lollipop in the shape of a girl with pigtails.
Clicking away, viewers are presented with the twisted audacity, and utter stupidity, of your average pedophile—who bluntly about age and sexual curiosities before gamely offering a phone number. A category called PeeJ Wankers links to chats with men who've sent pictures of themselves masturbating to Von Erck's moles. At the bottom of each chat, there are screen shots of naked men holding their members.
Von Erck's drive to bust the bad guys, he says, comes not from a childhood scar or the victimization of a female friend, but from his natural disgust at what he saw online.
Although he insists he doesn't want to come off as a secretive vigilante, Von Erck doesn't publish the names of his operatives and does what he can to disguise his own personal details. Public records show little trace of his existence: a recent traffic ticket and a request for a restraining order filed by his former stepfather, which was thrown out by a judge.
Concerns about payback aside, Von Erck says he enjoys the hunt.
"You spend a week talking to this guy and he's telling you all the things he wants to do to you," he says. "The release comes when they show up and the tables are turned."