The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Three teens, tired of video games, decided to play ‘catch a predator.’ Police say it worked.


The three best friends who call themselves the “Hive” usually spend their Saturdays and Sundays playing Call of Duty and other Xbox games at their parents’ houses. One weekend earlier this month, the teenagers decided they wanted to do something else: take down a predator.

Just after midnight on Nov. 8, the trio holed up inside a Walmart in the northeast Alabama city of Anniston, armed with a camera. They had set up a meeting there with a man named Bradley White — a high school choir teacher they said sent explicit messages to an online account where they were posing as a 17-year-old high school student.

Their target arrived but soon headed for the exit, pulling his jacket over his face. The teenagers trailed behind him, calling out, “He works for the Calhoun Board of Education, and he came here to meet an underage kid!” Later, they posted the footage to YouTube, spliced together like a low-rent version of NBC’s reality TV series “To Catch a Predator.”

“Hi, welcome to Hive vs. Predator, the show where we expose the sick people who like to hide in the shadow from the law,” begins the video, titled “HE RAN FROM US!” “Today we’re going to be taking a look at a man named Bradley.”

The sting orchestrated by the teenagers — Dillon Busby, Cody Waller and Jackson Lewullis, all 18 — is the latest iteration of a growing trend that has alarmed some law enforcement officials. Inspired in part by the popular NBC show that was canceled after the suicide of a suspect, social-media-based groups have sprung up throughout the country to track down and expose alleged predators.

In this case, the teens’ vigilantism had an almost immediate effect. Within a span of a few days, the school board called an emergency meeting and White resigned from his job at Alexandria High School, reported. The Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office arrested the 27-year-old man Thursday, charging him with the misdemeanor offenses of distributing obscene material to a student and having sexual contact with a student.

He wasn’t the only one. A second man who was ensnared by the teens hours earlier at the same Walmart, 23-year-old David Fox Jr., was charged with electronic solicitation of a child, a felony. The charges were more serious because the teens had posed as a 14-year-old in that case; Alabama’s age of consent is 16.

Richard Jaffe, the lawyer representing White, declined to comment on the case. It wasn’t clear Tuesday whether Fox had an attorney.

Calhoun County Sheriff Matthew Wade told local station WVTM that the agency was “proud of these young men,” but discouraged others from making similar attempts. And the teens said that in hindsight, they realized they had done something “very dangerous.”

“Things could have gone south very fast,” Busby told The Washington Post. “But I don’t regret what we did.”

Confrontations like theirs have led to sometimes glowing news coverage and occasional arrests, but they’ve also led to other, more troubling consequences. Last year, according to NBC News, a 20-year-old Connecticut man killed himself after being confronted and berated by a camera-wielding member of a Facebook vigilante group. And in October, a 17-year-old girl was briefly kidnapped by a man she and two other teens were attempting to expose for allegedly preying on underage girls.

“What’s important to remember is that there are resources that law enforcement has to deal with these issues,” said Adam Scott Wandt, an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “And if kids suspect that a certain person is violating the law or that they are a predator, they should bring it to the attention of law enforcement instead of trying to take the law into their own hands.”

For the “Hive” kids, best friends since elementary school, the idea came during an Xbox session. They each have their own personal YouTube channels, where they post mostly gaming videos. They had seen YouTube clips of another teen group, “Predator Hunters,” and, even though it has been off the air since they were 6, “To Catch a Predator.”

Inspiration struck.

“We all decided that that would be a fun thing to do, and it would be a good service to the community,” Waller said.

They downloaded apps like Grindr, Tinder and Bumble and created fake profiles. Then, they started messaging with users, claiming ages between 14 and 17. In messages captured by the teens, Fox and White allegedly sent explicit images. White also revealed that he was a teacher, which the trio said concerned them. Busby and Waller are still in high school, in a district other than the one that employed White, while Lewullis is a recent graduate. They say they worried White could be a threat to students.

After deciding on in-person confrontations, the teens told their parents varying degrees of information about their plans. Busby, who dreams of being an FBI agent, said he “kind of lied to them,” believing at the time that “this is the right thing to do.” They didn’t spend all that much time fretting over their safety.

“In the moment, you really don’t care,” said Lewullis, who wants to become a police officer. “In the moment, you want to go catch and expose that guy. It ran through our minds; that’s why we brought three of us in a public place. But it really just — you just want to catch the guy. All you’re really thinking about is catching him.”

After White drove away, the teenagers took a moment to collect themselves at the Walmart.

“If I’m being honest,” Busby said, “we felt pretty proud.”

They regrouped at a McDonald’s, and later posted the two videos under a new YouTube channel, Hive vs. Predator. The sheriff’s office called the next day, the friends say, and they went to the station to share their information with investigators.

Wandt, the criminal justice professor, said such a scenario can create a tricky calculation for authorities.

“They put law enforcement in a very weird predicament where one, they want to make sure that those predators are caught and prosecuted and brought to justice, which is extremely important,” he said. “But two, I can’t speak for everybody, but I don’t really know that many law enforcement officials that would encourage teenagers to go and do this on their own.”

The teens said they, too, are wary of others copying their moves. Having realized the danger of striking out on their own, they worry someone else could get hurt.

“We don’t recommend anybody else lying to their parents and doing it,” Lewullis said. “Nobody else should do it. We don’t recommend it. Don’t lie to your parents, eat your veggies, all that good stuff.”

Read more:

A priest at a teen’s funeral said his suicide was ‘against God.’ The mother is suing.

‘Meth. We’re on it,’ South Dakota says in ridiculed ad campaign that cost $449,000

A prosecutor used his 13-year-old daughter as bait to catch her molester. His plan could backfire.