REGION — After 18 months of allegedly exchanging messages online with a 14-year-old child, a Leucadia bagel store owner agreed to meet the youth in person.
But when Steve Amster arrived at the parking lot near a Menchie’s Frozen Yogurt on September 11 in Oceanside, he was instead met by a man holding a video camera asking him what he was doing there — a question Amster didn’t stick around long enough to answer.
The confrontation caught on camera was one of the latest videos released by Ghost, an online vigilante who targets sexual predators in San Diego County.
Since 2018, Ghost and his crew, known as Creep Catcher (CC) Unit, have posted 155 videos of individuals caught on video attempting to meet minors for sex in several North County cities, including Carlsbad, Encinitas, Oceanside, Vista and Escondido, in addition to nearby cities of Murrieta, San Clemente and Los Angeles.
“I’ve always wondered how many of these creeps live in the area and I wanted to make a change,” Ghost told The Coast News. “I started looking online where these people troll the internet. It’s crazy how many (sexual predators) there are. It’s ridiculous.”
Ghost’s strategy is to create decoy accounts in online chat rooms by using profile pictures of adults who look like underage teens, but who aren’t actually minors.
Once the profile is created and the trap is set, Ghost waits for someone to initiate contact.
“Every person I’ve caught, they’ve contacted me first,” Ghost said. “I always say, ‘I hope you don’t mind, I’m 13.’ If they are fine with the age, then I continue talking with them. (Eventually), they start talking about sexual stuff and asking for nude photos.”
If a perpetrator asks to meet the decoy minor, Ghost will arrive at the location with his camera rolling and a couple of friends for protection. After realizing they’ve been hoodwinked, the predator typically attempts to flee.
But there is no escaping the internet.
When Ghost first started, he frequently contacted the police, and sometimes law enforcement took a report. In most cases, that was it.
“I stopped calling the police,” Ghost said. “Now, I just upload the video and if the police take an interest, they contact me.”
And they did.
During a four-day sting operation this past June in Los Angeles, CC Unit released a video of a disturbing capture — teacher John Seura of Will Rogers Continuation High School.
After uploading the video, Ghost said he was contacted by the Los Angeles Police Department’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, requesting chat logs and videos of his interactions.
Seura was later arrested in late July and charged with a felony, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department website, but it remains unclear if his arrest was related to Ghost’s sting operation.
In North County, a youth ministry coordinator at St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Parish was suspended and later moved out of the area following the release of a damaging CC Unit video.
Toney Renteria, a former Fallbrook resident, was accused of having inappropriate conversations with a 14-year-old boy and attempting to meet him for a sexual encounter at a Vista grocery store.
Instead, Renteria was introduced to Ghost and his team, who captured the entire interaction on video.
“You never know who you are going to catch,” Ghost said. “These are people who seem like completely normal human beings, average Joes, working 9-to-5 jobs, but they are creeps. You just don’t know who someone is. You can’t judge a book by its cover.”
The ‘big monster’
While the efforts of civilian vigilantes like Ghost and CC Unit have helped expose online sexual predators in the region, the business of human trafficking is booming, with profit margins rivaling those of illegal drug sales.
In a 2016 report by Dr. Ami Carpenter, professor at the University of San Diego, and Dr. Jaime Gates, cultural anthropologist at Point Loma Nazarene University, the illicit sex economy in San Diego County was estimated to be an $800 million enterprise in 2013, which the report suggested was an undervaluation. The study also found that sex-trafficking facilitators make an average of $670,625 per year.
According to District Attorney Summer Stephan, since COVID-19 swept across the region, San Diego County has seen an uptick in human-trafficking activities involving minors — the average age of a victim being approximately 16-years old.
Since many children have been distance learning on computers and tablets due to the current health crisis, their risk of interacting with online predators has grown significantly.
This year, National Center for Missing Exploited Children reported the number of “online enticement” reports from January 1 to June 30 had increased by 93% compared with last year’s national statistics over the same time period.
In a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom, Stephan noted that reports of child predatory behavior to the San Diego Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force have tripled during school closures.
According to Stephan, the number of cyber tips more than tripled in April 2020, the first full month of school closures, and quadrupled in May 2020, the second month of all school closures in San Diego County.
The FBI has previously named San Diego as a high-intensity child prostitution area, with Oceanside and Escondido holding the highest concentration of human-trafficking activity in the county.
Social media websites and messaging apps, such as Instagram, Facebook, Kik and Snapchat, remain notorious hunting grounds for online predators.
“From everything I’ve seen, I really think that social media websites should not be used at all by younger children,” Stephan told The Coast News. “I think they are a recipe for trouble. We know predators roam Instagram looking for statements by a child that they are lonely or mad at a friend or parent, and they use that as their opportunity.”
Stephan said that unlike other crimes that are localized to a particular region, human trafficking travels, which increases the difficulty of locating victims and arresting facilitators. Large events attracting out-of-town visitors invariably raises the demand for prostitution.
“For ComicCon, we would see a lot of visitors from out of town, which is an opportunity for traffickers to sell human beings for sex,” Stephan said. “A victim might reside in North County but the place she is being sold for sex could be in Mission Valley. That is the big monster to overcome human trafficking.”
Due to this vast and transient criminal network, a multi-agency task force was assembled in the region, which consists of law enforcement investigators from around the county and state, including the California Department of Justice, San Diego Police Department, San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and San Diego County District Attorney’s office, with multiple substations across the county.
The task force also includes Willow, a two-year-old English Labrador and the first electronic scent detection dog in Southern California trained to sniff out cellphones, thumb drives, memory cards and other electronic data storage devices.
When it comes to civilian vigilante groups, Stephan said she understands the frustration within the community but asks that concerned residents allow police and task forces to handle these crimes.
“We understand people want to help us. But we don’t want civilians to do their own investigations because it can do harm to them and compromise cases,” Stephan said.
Local resources for victims
Once a child has been rescued from sexual slavery, the road to recovery can be difficult, but there are organizations offering services and resources to help them reintegrate back into society.
Girls Rising Above Child Exploitation (GRACE) in San Diego is a volunteer-based organization that helps victims of child exploitation receive access to food, shelter, clothing, toiletries and therapeutic services. Leah Watson, founder and president of GRACE, is a survivor of abuse who has used her personal experience to help others cope with the trauma associated with exploitation.
Since 2017, the nonprofit has relied on volunteers and community advocates to educate and mentor exploited, trafficked and at-risk youth. GRACE offers several programs, including weekly therapeutic art sessions, job skill training and resume writing services and outdoor field trips.
By next year, the organization hopes to launch a new housing program, in partnership with different churches, asking families to receive training and host a youth to live at their home.
Watson said one of the ways to combat sexual slavery is simple – don’t support it.
“It’s a basic business concept, supply and demand,” Watson said. “Stop buying. If people weren’t buying sex, it wouldn’t exist.”
Watson said she always tells parents to monitor their child’s social media access on their home computers and cell phones.
“If your child has a smartphone, a trafficker has direct access to them,” Watson said. “There is so much hazard online. And it doesn’t take much. Traffickers are smart, they‘re businessmen and they know how to lure, groom and appeal to troubled youth.”
Another misconception is that traffickers are adult men with no relation to the victim. However, Watson said this is simply not true.
“Sometimes they are older men but sometimes they are peers,” Watson said. “A lot of cases involve boyfriends. Guys who (the victim) think are their boyfriends are actually the ones manipulating them.”
There are also cases of familial trafficking — the victim’s own parents selling and exploiting them for drug money or just to pay the bills. And Watson believes some form of trafficking — exploitation, grooming, prostitution — occurs on nearly every school campus.
Both Stephan and Watson agreed on the need for more conversations about the harm of buying someone for sex.
“No one says, ‘I want to (be a prostitute) for a living,’” Stephan said. “We have to talk to our boys and men about the demand side of this.”
For more information about GRACE, please visit www.girlsrisingabove.org. Instagram: @girlsrisingabove.
National Human Trafficking Resource Center: Call: 1-888-373-7888; Text: BeFree (233733).
Victims of human trafficking can be anyone, including men, women, children, adults, foreign nationals, or U.S. citizens. If you believe that you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, help is available. It is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Making that phone call will provide you with help, referral to services, training, and more general information.
REMINDER: If you or someone else is in immediate danger, CALL 911 or YOUR LOCAL POLICE.