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The DIY Predator Catchers of Erie, Pennsylvania

Doing what the police can't (or won't) do
Nathaniel Burgos (left) in pursuit of an alleged predator at the Millcreek Mall in Erie County

Nathaniel Burgos (left) in pursuit of an alleged predator at the Millcreek Mall in Erie County

Probably the most dystopian form of entertainment available on social media is the "predator catcher" video. A citizen poses on social media as a minor and lets potential predators contact them. If the predator is willing to meet, the catcher will confront them in a public place (it could be anywhere, but many catchers — particularly in Canada — seem to be fond of Walmart). 

Predator catchers aren't just activists, they're social media influencers. One high-profile catcher is the pseudonymous CC Unit, whose videos have chalked up over 22 million views since early 2020. He claims to have caught 195 predators since he began. His total earnings on YouTube are an estimated $56,413 — and that’s before you throw in monthly subscriptions to his paywalled content and donations received through PayPal and CashApp.

This past weekend, I saw a video of someone who may or may not be named "Dennis" as he was hounded out the Millcreek Mall in Erie County, Pennsylvania after allegedly going to meet a 14-year-old autistic girl for sex. There was no underage girl, however; this was the latest sting operation of Nathaniel Burgos, the co-founder of Erie Predator Catchers (EPC). Working with his brother Ethan Perez, Nate lures potential predators into public, where they film the interaction. It’s a kind of social media public shaming. And it's effective, according to Burgos.

"I think it's stopping predators," he says. "Where my brother lives, he actually cleared out the whole neighborhood of predators, actually. No one in his area will talk to anyone that's underage. We've caught five guys in that area."

The group does what the cops can’t (or won’t) do, according to Burgos. And he is definitely not a cop. He has conspicuous tattoos, and in April he went to jail after getting into a fight. But he says that shouldn’t reflect poorly on his work catching predators.

"I made a mistake and I regret it," he says in a statement on Facebook. "I got angry and my emotions got the best of me and they shouldn’t have and I should have kept it in check. I apologize to everyone I affected from the bottom of my heart and I’m willing to accept [the] consequences."

Burgos consults with police

Burgos consults with police

The following interview took place at Burgos’ apartment outside of the City of Erie. It has been edited for length and clarity.

FAILED STATE UPDATE: Thanks for taking the time to meet with me. You seem to be very busy.

NATHANIEL BURGOS: It's very time-consuming. A good chunk of my day goes towards just talking to these guys, trying to figure out who they are, where they work, what their names are. All that stuff. And then getting them to meet is a whole other ballgame as well. So it's very time-consuming.

Talk me through that. Maybe we'll just talk about “Dennis” from this weekend. Is he a good example of how it goes down?

Initially, we get on dating apps. I'm not gonna say which dating apps, but we get on dating apps and we pose as teenagers lying about their age. And, you know, once we say the age, it's up to the predator or potential predator to turn away or keep going with it. And from then on, that determines how we conduct ourselves.

So, you get on a dating app — you have to be an adult to use these apps — but once someone contacts you, you “admit” to being a 14-year-old girl. Just to see if they’ll take the bait. What do you use for a picture?

We use pictures of adults that could pass off for younger.

Where do you get these pictures? Are these people you know, or do you find them on the internet?

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It's a mixture of both.

So they contact you, and then you say, “Oh, by the way, I'm really 14.”

Yeah. And then some of them will be like, “Oh, yeah, I can't do that. That's illegal.” That's how maybe 45% of them go. The other half, they really go for it. And then some of them are really careful. Because they're aware of us, or groups like us, or law enforcement. Or some of them just don't care. The ones that don't care seem like they've done it before. They're so confident about it.

How long had you been chatting with this Dennis guy before he made plans to meet up?

My brother was in communication for about three days or so. From what we could gather, he is some type of contractor. He was doing work on developing businesses and stuff, doing labor stuff, construction stuff. Eventually, he said he had a day off, and we were able to get him to come to the mall. The stuff he was saying was crazy. He was talking about "wine, dining, and 69-ing" a 14-year-old autistic girl.

Dennis was unusual in that he didn’t stop and talk to you. I’m always surprised, when I watch these videos, how often the predator will agree to appear on camera. They give you a sob story and try to make excuses for what they’re doing.

We usually follow them until they get in their car and leave. Sometimes, the places we go to, there are children present because it's public. It's unavoidable. So we try to get them to at least leave the premises, so we know these kids are safe. And then this guy [Dennis], he decided to just abandon his car and keep walking.

What happened to Dennis after he was arrested?

The cops actually told us that the DA is not happy with us doing this, at all. They don't condone it or anything like that. But it's not going to stop us, in all honesty. We're gonna keep going and doing it.

And why do you think that is?

I'm going to be blunt: I think maybe we embarrass the police. They have a whole unit based out of Harrisburg for this type of thing, but I firmly believe that we've caught more predators than them in the last six months. It's been less than six months, and we have caught 23 different men and counting. And how come we haven't heard of any police busts like this in Erie or anything? It gets swept under the rug a lot in the area and around the surrounding areas.

You've had 23 catches in almost six months, a little less than six months. How many people have you talked to that seem interested, but then don't show up and flake out?

It's been quite a few. It's a lot more than people think. It's time-consuming because you're talking to multiple predators at one time, because one of them might be interested. One of them might be interested and be ready to meet, you show up and the guy backs out at the last minute. It's very tedious. Sometimes we’re dealing with about 100 messages at a time.

There's so much stuff on the internet about child predators and #SaveTheChildren and QAnon and stuff. Do you think that there's any truth to that?

Definitely. Yeah, I wholeheartedly 100% believe it.

Watch "Dennis" get busted below: