Three teenagers posed as boys on a popular dating app and invited overtures from adult men seeking sex.
That led to an exchange of encrypted messages, some containing lewd photographs of the men. The teenagers, acting as a self-deputized predator patrol, then asked to meet at a Walmart in Alabama.
When it came time for the face-to-face meeting in the electronics section of the store in Anniston, one man they had arranged to meet turned out to be a school music director.
The confrontation this month was captured in a YouTube video titled “He Ran From Us!,” which showed the teacher trying to cover his face with his jacket as he retreated from the store.
“He came here to meet an underage kid,” one of the teenagers shouts in the video. “He works for Calhoun County Board of Education.”
The teacher, Bradley White, 27, was charged on Thursday with distribution of obscene material to a student and violating a state law that prohibits teachers from having sexual contact with a student under the age of 19, Matthew Wade, the Calhoun County sheriff, said on Sunday. Both charges are misdemeanors.
Mr. White was not the only person ensnared by the sting led by the teenagers, Dillon Busby, Jackson Lewullis and Cody Waller, three friends who gave themselves the nickname Hive.
David Fox Jr., 23, was charged with electronic solicitation of a child, a felony, after the same group of teenagers posed as a 14-year-old boy on Grindr, a gay dating app, and lured him to the same Walmart just a few hours earlier, the sheriff said. The age of consent in Alabama is 16.
In addition to those charges, there are three outstanding felony arrest warrants for Mr. Fox for possession of child pornography, which Sheriff Wade said was discovered on Mr. Fox’s cellphone after he was released on bond.
It was not immediately clear if Mr. Fox had a lawyer and there was no phone number listed for him.
Mr. White’s lawyer did not immediately respond to phone and email requests for comment on Sunday.
Mr. White resigned from his teaching position last week, according to Sheriff Wade, who said investigators were looking into his abrupt departure from another school district in Alabama in 2018 and that there was a subpoena for those records.
The Calhoun County school superintendent, Donald Turner, did not respond to an email requesting comment.
The three friends, each of whom is 18, said they told Mr. White “multiple times” in different chats that they were either 14 or 17. Mr. White, they said, went to the Walmart after they posed as a 17-year-old.
They got the idea for their amateur sting from watching a YouTube channel known as Predator Poachers. Their version is called Hive vs. Predator and opens with a heavy metal guitar riff.
The techniques used by the trio recalled “To Catch a Predator,” a reality television news show that aired more than a decade ago with Chris Hansen luring men to homes where they were confronted on hidden camera and then arrested.
The teenagers said they hadn’t given much thought to the potential danger of their actions.
“I think during the moment that never really crossed our mind because of all of the adrenaline that was pumping,” Mr. Waller said.
Mr. Lewullis said he had a young nephew who was molested at a day care center and seeing a family member go through that made him want to “out” sexual predators.
The teenagers said they created similar fake profiles on other dating apps, such as Tinder and Bumble, where they also posed as girls. Even though they communicated with Mr. White and Mr. Fox on Grindr, they said it was not their intention to draw attention to anyone’s sexual orientation.
A Grindr spokeswoman said on Sunday that the company was internally reviewing what happened.
The teenagers said Mr. White revealed that he was a teacher in instant messages, which they turned over to the sheriff, along with those that they received from Mr. Fox. Anniston is about an hour east of Birmingham, Ala.
Sheriff Wade said the teenagers played a key role in both arrests but cautioned other would-be sleuths to let professional law enforcement handle such investigations.
“We identified two child predators and we were able to arrest both of them,” he said. “But it was a very dangerous thing that they were doing. We would prefer that people who find things out turn it over to us as soon as they know so we get a successful prosecution.”
Sheriff Wade said civilians don’t have the same knowledge of due process as law enforcement officers and that he would hate for the men to avoid prosecution because of a technicality.
“That would be a travesty,” he said.
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