Williamsport, Pa. – At least four Lycoming County arrests in the past three months stem from acts of apparent vigilantism: civilians going rogue to arrange and film incriminating encounters with alleged internet sex predators.
"Vigilante" is defined as "any individual who acts outside of legal authority, often violently, to punish or avenge a crime, right a perceived wrong, etc.," according to the Webster's New World College Dictionary used by the Associated Press.
In Lycoming County, vigilantes use social media to communicate with individuals suspected to be predators – a relatively common phenomenon nationwide, according to the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE).
"As we dug into our research for the Dirty Dozen List this year especially, we’ve come across large communities on Twitter, Reddit, and Discord who are doing this," NCOSE Executive Director Dawn Hawkins told NorthcentralPA.com about the rise of internet vigilantes.
Last month, two unnamed administrators of an anti-pedophilia Facebook page posed as a juvenile boy on Grindr, a social media dating app. According to Lycoming County Detectives, they arranged and recorded a meetup with Todd A. Mertz, 38, of Williamsport. Mertz now faces nine felonies, including criminal attempt – statutory sexual assault.
In February, Lycoming County Detectives alleged that the same two undisclosed individuals posed as a juvenile boy on Grindr and recorded their meetup with George Austin Richner, 52, of Muncy. Richner also was charged with nine felonies, including criminal attempt - involuntary deviate sexual intercourse person less than 16.
The vigilantes in the cases of Mertz and Richner were not criminally charged but another local watchdog is accused by police of going too far. Alyssa M. Fuller, 28, of Muncy, now faces criminal charges including misdemeanor obstruction and hindering prosecution.
In charges filed in February, Muncy Borough Police Officer Raymond Kontz alleges that Fuller involved minors in an act of vigilantism to expose alleged predator Jonathan Michael Kula, 24, of Pennsdale. Kula allegedly used SnapChat to unlawfully communicate with a minor known to Fuller. One of the minors sustained broken hand bones punching Kula during the confrontation, Kontz said. Kula was charged in March with felony unlawful contact with a minor for a different incident date.
Fuller and Kula represent the third and fourth arrests stemming from vigilante activity in Lycoming County this year.
Related reading: Pennsdale man accused of unlawful contact with minor free on bail
Fuller has since positioned herself as an anti-pedophilia activist, creating a Save Our Children (Lycoming County) Facebook page. She's organized a "Kids Lives Matter" protest for 1:15 p.m. on April 9 – 15 minutes before her scheduled preliminary hearing.
Under what conditions does vigilantism arise? Sociologists at Harvard Kennedy School and other institutions link American vigilante activity such as lynchings to conditions of poor state governance and low government legitimacy.
Fuller claims charges were not brought against Kula sooner due to his family connections to authority. Similar allegations exist against Richner.
The National Center on Sexual Exploitation said that they regularly receive emails and calls from "vigilantes" alerting them to things they've found or offering to do research for them. The NCOSE actively dissuades acts of vigilantism.
"NCOSE always encourages them not to seek out this material/behavior, reminds them of the law even if they are trying to shut it down, and shares NCMEC's Cypertip Line encouraging them to report there," Hawkins said.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) maintains a 24-Hour Call Center at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678) and online at CyberTipline.org.
Updated to correct a misspelling of "rogue."