For more than two years, Kyle Swanson and his vigilante group have been tricking men in St. Louis to meet in parking lots by posing as children on social media and then live-streaming the confrontations for tens of thousands of followers.

Swanson, a bearded and tattooed 30-year-old from Wood River, Ill., claims that he has helped police jail hundreds of would-be pedophiles since launching KTS Predator Hunters in 2019.

But now he is the one facing criminal charges after a Jan. 12 sting went awry.

A grand jury this month indicted Swanson for unlawful restraint and obstructing justice, both felonies, as well as misdemeanor assault, after he allegedly lured a man into his car in Madison County, Ill., refused to let him leave, and threatened to hit him.

“The Grand Jury’s decision here reflects the fundamental idea that when members of a community decide to take justice into their own hands, even for laudable purposes, they can place themselves and others in danger and damage potential cases,” Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Haine said in a statement shared with The Washington Post.

Swanson has denied wrongdoing on his social media accounts and denounced law enforcement’s decision to charge him.

“They are protecting the pedophiles over me,” he said in a TikTok video this week. “I’ve done nothing but try to do good. I try to protect kids, and now they’re screwing me over.”

Madison County law enforcement officials have been feuding with Swanson’s group since its inception, the Telegraph reported last year.

The former Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons had previously warned Swanson that his sting operations could easily devolve into violence and jeopardize criminal cases because his tactics made it “virtually impossible for us to charge somebody.” He urged the group to stop setting up meetings with suspected pedophiles. The Madison County sheriff similarly asked Swanson and his partners to call police with tips instead of confronting people without any law enforcement involvement.

Last year, one of the men that KTS Predator Hunters targeted sued the group for defamation and claimed that the group’s posts about him had led his family to be ceaselessly harassed by Swanson’s followers.

“Defendants maliciously and intentionally caused the publication of the false statements to a Facebook page with thousands of followers for the purpose of harming the Plaintiff’s good reputation,” the lawsuit alleged, the Belleville News-Democrat reported. That case was dismissed in March, according to court records.

In September a local school district blasted Swanson for convincing a “potentially dangerous adult” to meet him in the parking lot of an elementary school, without warning police or school officials.

Although Swanson claims that his group’s efforts to name and shame pedophiles have led to hundreds of arrests, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in 2019 that many of those cases ultimately fell apart because prosecutors lacked the evidence needed to secure convictions.

Swanson credits NBC’s “Dateline: To Catch A Predator” with inspiring his group. The show, hosted by Chris Hansen, became a household name when it aired from 2004 to 2007, but was often criticized for blurring the line between news and entertainment. Hansen worked with volunteers who posed as children online and enticed men to meet them in sting houses, where police would swoop in to make an arrest as a camera crew recorded the encounter.

The show ultimately ended its run after a 2007 confrontation led a man to shoot and kill himself as police and a film crew forced their way into his home. The family sued NBC, claiming that the studio “steamrolled” police and pressured officers to make an arrest without taking proper precautions. A U.S. district judge said the evidence in the case might convince a jury that the network had “crossed the line from responsible journalism to irresponsible and reckless intrusion into law enforcement.” NBC eventually settled the suit in 2008 with an undisclosed payment.

Similar concerns that Swanson’s live-streamed confrontations could lead to violence have prompted local law enforcement to condemn KTS Predator Hunters.

On Jan. 12, Swanson convinced a man to meet him in a parking lot in Madison County, Ill., and “enticed” him to enter his car under a “false pretense,” according to the grand jury indictment. Prosecutors did not describe the incident in detail, but said that it was related to Swanson’s KTS Predator Hunters activities.

As Swanson confronted the man, he asked to leave but Swanson refused to let him exit the vehicle, according to the indictment. At some point during the encounter, Swanson allegedly threatened to hit the man.

Prosecutors allege that because of Swanson’s ambush, the man deleted evidence of a crime from his phone, which interfered with a possible criminal investigation.

“When members of a community decide to take justice into their own hands, they can place themselves and others in danger, damage potential cases, and violate citizen’s fundamental rights,” Haine said this week when he announced the criminal charges against Swanson.

The St. Louis-area group charges fees for fans to subscribe to bonus content on its website. KTS Predator Hunters has posted dozens of videos for tens of thousands of followers on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube.

After Swanson’s arrest this week, the group also began promoting a fundraiser on GoFundMe to pay for his legal fees.

Swanson declared in December that he plans to run for Madison County Sheriff in 2022, and began selling campaign stickers online. On his campaign Facebook page, KTS Predator Hunters said the group had temporarily shut down while Swanson deals with the “ridiculous charges” against him.

After spending the past two years publicly shaming others in videos and photos online, Swanson said the negative publicity from his own arrest had been a strain.

“Past few days have been hell for me,” Swanson said in a Facebook post on Wednesday. “Nothing like getting up, opening your phone and seeing your mug shot everywhere. I know it’s not just me, but I feel like my picture is every third post on my timeline.”

Fueled by anti-lockdown protests and child abuse conspiracies, QAnon has taken a new direction in Britain over the course of the pandemic. (The Washington Post)