Convicted of Sex Crimes, but With No Victims

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Convicted of Sex Crimes, but With No Victims

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An interesting (and long) article about a sting operation "Net Nanny" going on in cities and towns across Washington State. Imagine the script of the movie "V síti" in the hands of police. What you get is the funny game "to catch a predator", which led to prison sentences for almost 300 men since 2015. This article shows that every coin has two sides:

Jace Hambrick worked as an apprentice laborer during the week, renovating homes around Vancouver, Wash., and at a neighborhood gas station on weekends. Much of the rest of his life was online. He was hard-core, amassing a collection of more than 200 games. People told him it wasn’t smart to be so cut off from reality, but his internet life felt rich. As a dungeon master in Dungeons & Dragons, he controlled other players’ destinies. As a video warrior, he was known online by his nom de guerre and was constantly messaging fellow gamers, particularly his best friend, Simon. Though the two had never met in person, over the last few years they paired up as teammates playing Rainbow Six Siege and Rocket League and grew close.

At 20, Hambrick was still living at home with his mother to save money for college, where he hoped to study game design. He was a voracious reader who could knock off a 1,000-page fantasy novel in two days. People liked him; he made them laugh. When he and his mother lived in places that had board-game clubs, he was a regular. And his kindness could be surprising. He would spend a morning handing out sandwiches to the hungry.

The problem, he knew, was that he was a nerd. Sometimes he was too open with people. As a boy, he took medication for A.D.H.D. His mother, Kathleen, describes him affectionately as her “introverted, sensitive, immature, coddled, nerdy son.” They are very close. She would prod him to get out more, but he wasn’t someone who could meet women at a bar. Online, it was different. Starting when he was 18, a few times a month, he clicked through the Casual Encounters section of Craigslist, looking for sex. There were so many listings, but when he tried messaging, it was rare to get a response. If people did respond, they often went dark after a few emails.

Users had to certify that they were 18 or older, but at the time Craigslist didn’t verify users’ age. People described their appearance in personal ads, then sent photos that didn’t match. Some seemed to enjoy role playing. He once replied to a post describing an attractive 21-year-old, but when he arrived at the address she gave him, an old man answered the door. He got out of there fast. Every once in a while, it worked out: In the past few years, he had sex with five or six women he met this way.

One Friday after work in February 2017, Hambrick came across a Casual Encounters “w4m” (woman searching for man) post that seemed meant for him.

“Jus gamer gurl sittin’ home on sunny day,” it read. “we can chat as long as im not lvling!”

Hambrick emailed back. “Sounds like fun. What game you playin?”

“i am HOOKED on ALIEN ISOLATION,” Gamer Gurl replied.

“forget sex,” Hambrick wrote. “Let me come watch I haven’t gottn that one yet,” adding that he was 20. Fifteen minutes later, Gamer Gurl replied that she was 13.

Hambrick was confused. “why did you post an ad in craigslist if your 13? You mean 23?”

She asked for his cellphone number and they switched to texting, exchanging photos. Gamer Gurl was beautiful, he thought, if he wasn’t being pranked: Big eyes, cute white cap, soft smile, gazing up at the camera serenely with a really nice set of headphones.

They exchanged a few texts about sex. “I can be real bad if your into bondage” he typed. But he was already hoping for more than just sex.

“I don’t get out much,” he texted. “I feel like if we got to talking it might go somewhere. You’re beautiful and a gamer. I have no problem hanging out with you.:)

“that’s kewl,” Gamer Gurl replied. “Wat bout that eatin out stuff :)

“Yes, I will still do that:)”

“Oh my naughty boi.”

Was this an elaborate game? Again she claimed to be 13. The photo seemed to tell a different story, and the gaming chair she was seated in looked too expensive for a kid. She used slang a 13-year-old probably wouldn’t know, like “FTP” — “[expletive] the police” — that originated in ’80s hip-hop. The vulgarities and snide tone seemed too adult. Her texts were full of “lol”s. Was she an immature teenager? Or a sly adult?

Her driving directions seemed too specific for 13.

Hambrick texted that he would be driving a red Prius — his mother’s — and Gamer Gurl replied she would be wearing a gray sweatshirt and ripped jeans.

It was a 20-minute drive to the house in suburban Vancouver. After stopping for condoms, he arrived at 7 p.m., three and a half hours after their first emails. She came to the door just as she’d said, in torn jeans and gray sweatshirt, as beautiful as her photo. She didn’t look 13 at all, more like she was in her 20s.

“You made it,” she called out and waved for him to follow, court documents would later show. When he got inside, she disappeared down a hallway. Suddenly two police officers wearing bulletproof vests appeared from a back room, ordered him to lie on the floor and handcuffed him.

“What’s going on?” Hambrick asked.

“We’re gonna advise you you’re under arrest.”

“OK, why?” he said.

“We’ll explain it all in just a moment,” one of the officers answered.

“Is it possible I could talk to my mom?” he later asked.

“That’s not possible right now.”

Since 2015, nearly 300 men in cities and towns across Washington State have been arrested in online-predator stings, most of them run by the State Patrol and code-named Operation Net Nanny. The men range in age from 17 to 77, though about a quarter are 25 or younger. As many as two dozen have been rounded up in a single sting and charged with attempted rape of a child, as Jace Hambrick was, even though no actual children were involved. The emails and texts offering sex are written by undercover officers. The “girls” in the photos are not 13. They are police officers, typically the youngest women on the force.

For law enforcement, stings are an efficient way to make high-profile felony arrests and secure convictions. In June 2016, John Garden, a State Patrol detective, emailed a fellow trooper about joining him on a sting in Spokane. “See if you can come play” and “chat some guys in,” he wrote, according to a court filing. The conviction rate in cases that go to trial is about 95 percent, though most don’t get that far. There is such shame associated with a sex crime, let alone a child sex crime, that a majority of the defendants plead guilty rather than face a jury. At least five of the men have committed suicide, including a 66-year-old caught in the same operation as Hambrick who then fled to California. As the police there moved to make the arrest, the man shot himself in the head.

An analysis of court records in Washington State stings, as well as interviews with police and prosecutors, reveals that most of the men arrested have no felony record. A strong predictor of predatory behavior is an obsession with child pornography, but at the time of their arrest, according to the State Patrol, 89 percent have none in their possession and 92 percent have no history of violent crime. They are nonetheless sentenced, on average, to more than six years in prison with no chance of parole, according to my analysis of the 271 arrests I was able to confirm. (State police calculate the average is just over five years.) Once released, the men are listed on the state’s sex-offender registry for at least 10 years — and often for life. Almost all were caught up in Operation Net Nanny, although the sting in which Hambrick was arrested was a joint venture between the State Patrol and the Vancouver police.

The men caught in these cases can wind up serving more time than men who are convicted of sexually assaulting and raping actual children. While there are no statistics comparing sentencing among different states in such predator stings, Washington’s criminal code has some particularly draconian provisions that result in unusually lengthy sentences. The legal standard for making an arrest in police stings is not high. Washington law allows undercover officers to use “deception, trickery or artifice.” They can fake sympathy or friendship. The police need only demonstrate that their target took a “substantial step” toward meeting the undercover officer. In Hambrick’s case, that step was following the officer into the house. It can also be stopping to buy condoms or even just parking near the sting house.

Jurors who serve in Net Nanny cases often express surprise that the defense doesn’t argue entrapment. In fact, an entrapment defense is almost never successful in sting cases, according to Jessica Roth, a professor of criminal law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York. In most criminal trials, prosecutors present their version of events, and the defense lawyer tries to poke enough holes in their account to produce reasonable doubt in jurors’ minds. But entrapment is an affirmative defense that effectively requires the defendant to admit wrongdoing (“Yes, I wrote those texts that talk about having sex with a 13-year-old”) while at the same time arguing that he was manipulated by the police into doing something he wouldn’t normally do (engage in talk about having sex with a 13-year-old). In entrapment cases, the accused often take the stand to give their side of the story, which rarely works in their favor. “Even the most law-abiding person, subject to cross-examination, can look unreliable,” Roth says. Of the nearly 300 Washington State sting arrests, I was able to find only one case in which an appeals court threw out the charges on grounds of entrapment.

The State Patrol point to the conviction rate as confirmation of Net Nanny’s success: “Those numbers indicate a well-run operation that is legally and structurally sound and very effective in apprehending and prosecuting those intent on causing harm to children.” The online stings have had widespread and positive media coverage throughout the state. News conferences are well attended. News releases are reprinted verbatim, particularly by small-town papers. A KOMO News story said the men faced child rape charges, though the charge was actually attempted child rape. A headline in The Lakewood Patch read, “22 Child Sex Predators Nabbed.” Washington State Patrol news releases describe the men arrested as “dangerous sexual predators,” though they have yet to be convicted of a sex crime. Statistics provided by the state police can also be misleading, creating the impression that hundreds of children were on the verge of being raped. When the police say half the cases of arrested men involve “children 11 years of age or younger,” the reality is that half the fictional children in the scenarios written by the police were 11 or younger.

In a December 2015 email to his superiors, a state police captain, Roger Wilbur, wrote why they should do more stings: “Plea bargains start at 10 years in prison. Compared to other criminal cases that can take a year or longer, may result in a few years in prison, costs hundreds of man-hours and still only result in a single arrest, this is a significant return on investment. Mathematically, it only costs $2,500 per arrest during this operation! Considering the high level of potential offense, there is a meager investment that pays huge dividends.”

Yet most men caught in these raids pose a low risk to the public, according to Dr. Richard Packard, a past president of the Washington State chapter of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, and Dr. Michael O’Connell, a member of the state’s sex-offender policy board, who have examined about three dozen men arrested in cyberstings around the state. They say that relatively few — maybe 15 percent of men they saw — pose a moderate to high risk. Many have addiction problems, suffer from depression or anxiety, are autistic or are, as O’Connell described them to me, simply “pathetic, lonely people.” He went on: “Some are in marriages where things aren’t going great. They’re socially inept, but this is the way of having sex and having a relationship. They’re just stupid and making not very well thought out decisions. They weren’t looking for kids, but there was this one ad that caught their attention.” And a sizable percentage of those arrested are themselves in their late teens and early 20s and may, according to current scientific research, exercise poor judgment because the regions of the brain that control risk taking are not yet fully developed.

During his 40-year career, Packard has worked for both prosecutors and defense lawyers. His testimony was instrumental in preventing the release of Robert Lough, convicted of strangling and raping a woman, stabbing her a dozen times in the vagina and leaving her for dead. He has also done an evaluation of Joseph Nissensohn, who murdered three girls and is now on death row. Packard is, in short, well acquainted with the human capacity for evil, but that is not what he says he sees in most Net Nanny cases. “The vast majority don’t need to be in prison to keep society safe,” he says.

In a national study from 2017, 87 percent of 334 men convicted in such stings had no record of prior, concurrent or subsequent convictions — data in line with Packard and O’Connell’s estimates. Currently, about 150 men convicted in Washington State stings are still incarcerated. If the psychologists’ estimates are correct, as many as 125 of them may not be sexual deviants and pose a low risk to the community.

Some caught in stings are violent predators. Take Curtis Pouncy, 60, whose history of brutal sex crimes included raping a 13-year-old girl he picked up from a bus station as well as a 19-year-old at knife point. In August 2018, after a long term of civil commitment, Pouncy was released under supervision and just six months later arrested in a Net Nanny sting for attempted rape of a child. He is now serving life in prison. The law, however, doesn’t distinguish between the truly dangerous and the low-risk. Without alternative sentencing — which might be a mix of community supervision by a parole officer, mandated therapy, a short jail term and, in some cases, waiving the registry requirement — there is no middle ground.

In April, as Covid-19 spread through the nation’s prisons, Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee, granted early release to some 1,100 inmates. Anyone convicted of a violent crime or sex offense, however, including the men doing time in Net Nanny cases, did not qualify.

After Jace Hambrick was arrested, the police checked his criminal history. He had none. He gave them permission to examine his phone for child porn. They found none. He consented to a search of his vehicle. That didn’t turn up anything either. He waived his Miranda rights and answered all their questions.

They asked how often he masturbated and what he thought of when he did, what his fetishes were and what type of woman he preferred.

“My type is tall, redheaded, sophisticated, educated, bookworm, glasses,” he answered, “outdoorsy, but not, you know, too outdoorsy.”

They pressed him on why he wanted to have sex with a 13-year-old. He answered, repeatedly, that he didn’t believe she was 13: Her picture didn’t look like she was 13; he thought she might be a grown woman engaging in role play; people online lie all the time, so he went to see for himself; when a woman who appeared to be in her 20s opened the door, he followed her inside for sex.

“I do not believe that you came here to verify if this girl was 21,” the detective said. “You couldn’t help yourself.”

“If she was 13, I was going to turn around and walk away,” Hambrick said.

After the arrest he lost both of his jobs. During the 15 months he awaited trial, he rarely left the house. It was all but impossible to explain to people what had happened.

In May 2018, Hambrick had a bench trial and took the stand on his own behalf. Among the witnesses were undercover police for the Vancouver Police Department. Detective Robert Givens, a middle-aged man, testified that he had written all the Gamer Gurl emails and texts. Officer Heather Janisch, dressed in her police uniform, told the court that she had posed for the photo and invited Hambrick into the house. At the time of the photo, she testified, she was about 24 — four years older than Hambrick.

Hambrick and his mother were so confident that he would be acquitted that the two celebrated over coffee during a court recess. When the judge announced the verdict, they went numb: guilty on both counts, attempted rape of a child in the second degree and communication with a minor for immoral purposes. Based on the emails and texts, the judge found, “the defendant clearly expressed by words and conduct that he intended to have sex with a 13-year-old.”

Hambrick’s first thought was, He’s joking. “For the first time, it really dawned on me, I was going to prison,” he said later. “I looked around, and I saw my Aunt Maureen crying. And my Aunt Sally crying. I saw my mom crying. And I just broke.” Before being led away, he was permitted to give his mother a hug. She rubbed his back, as if he were a little boy, their sobs filling the courtroom.

He was transported to the Clark County jail, strip-searched and dressed in an orange jumpsuit. “I sat in the corner of the cell, knees to my chest, hugging them, and I couldn’t stop crying.”

The judge later sentenced him to 18 months to life and a minimum of 10 years on the sex registry. Under Washington law, the parole board has the option of extending the incarceration of offenders like the Net Nanny defendants indefinitely.

Within weeks, Kathleen Hambrick, now 55, rented her house and purchased an R.V., which she paid a family to keep parked in their backyard minutes from Washington Corrections Center in Shelton. She is fiercely protective of her son and rarely missed a visiting day. “I chose to have Jace,” she says. “I was 30, I wasn’t married, I didn’t have a boyfriend, so I picked a man to father a child.” Kathleen has made a career as a computer programmer, a job she has been doing for 35 years and could do from the R.V. She has been married and divorced three times. Mother and son traveled together to Morocco, Central America, Mexico and all over Europe. Though not religious, she preached kindness.

After Jace’s trial, Kathleen started a blog she calls Lady Justice Myth, writing about the unfairness of the legal system, linking to court cases and news stories. Many of her blog entries rant against prosecutors and the police. Others beg, “Please do not ruin my son’s life with lifelong registration and prison.” After more than two years, the blog had 141 followers. The only voice for change has come from a small band of middle- and upper-middle-class parents of young men arrested in Net Nanny stings. They share legal information and attend the trials of one another’s sons. Kathleen Hambrick met Dan Wright on a Florida website dedicated to challenging the state’s sex-offender laws. Wright, an engineer, and his wife, Joylyn, a nurse, are one of at least six families of young soldiers stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma, Wash., who were arrested in the stings. All faced discharge from the military and years in prison.

The Wrights’ son, Ezra, was a 20-year-old Army private when he was caught in a sting in 2016. “Ezra is a good person, but he’s not a leader,” his father told me. “The military needs people who are good at following.” Wright followed the undercover detectives’ texts to the sting house and in January 2019 was convicted of attempted first-degree rape of a child.

Citing his clean record and military service, his lawyer asked the judge to grant him an alternative sentence that could have included suspending a prison term in favor of probation. In Washington, there are several criteria to qualify for an alternative sentence, and Wright easily met four: He had no previous conviction for a sex crime; no previous conviction for a violent crime; the offense did not result in substantial bodily harm (in this case, no bodily harm); he qualified for a sentence under 11 years. The stumbling block? To be eligible for the alternative sentence, defendants must also have “an established relationship with, or connection to, the victim.”

Unfortunately for Wright, there was no victim in his case, or in any of these cases. In Washington, a man could be caught fondling his niece and potentially qualify for an alternative sentence, but if he sends lewd texts to an undercover detective, he does not. The judge in Wright’s case noted that while the law might be problematic, it was up to the Legislature to change it. The alternative-sentencing law was last amended in 2009, long before Operation Net Nanny. One high-ranking state prosecutor told me that it might well be that “if it was brought to the attention” of the Legislature now, “they might do something about it.” Coreen Schnepf, a county prosecutor based in Tacoma, sees it differently. She says people who are willing to victimize children unknown to them are more of a danger to the community than those who victimize children they know.

The Wrights are conservative, religious people. Their pastor sat with them for part of the trial. While the jury deliberated, mother, father and son waited in a nearby park. “We hugged Ezra before we went back in,” his father wrote in a note to himself, “and prayed for strength.”

The jury found him guilty. Ezra was sentenced to 50 months to life and will spend a minimum of 10 years on the sex-offender registry.

After his son’s arrest, Wright scoured the internet for court records, building an Excel sheet that documents most of the nearly 300 Washington State sting cases. Wright was the first of the parents to figure out how long the average prison sentence was.

The story of how Washington toughened its body of law targeting sex offenders goes back more than 30 years to a man named Earl Shriner and an appalling crime. Shriner had an I.Q. in the 60s, and from a young age he exhibited the earmarks of a violent sadist. When he was 16, the state declared him a “defective delinquent” after he choked a 7-year-old girl and led authorities to the body of a 15-year-old girl who disappeared months earlier and had been tied to a tree.

In 1977, Shriner was convicted of kidnapping and assaulting two teenage girls and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He once told a cellmate, according to an account in The Los Angeles Times, that he fantasized about customizing a van with cages so he could pick up children and molest and kill them. In 1987, having served his entire sentence, he was released from prison. Some authorities still considered him too dangerous to live in the community and attempted to have him confined on a locked psychiatric ward. State officials noted that he had violent fantasies and planned to carry them out. But he did not meet the legal criteria for involuntary commitment, which required a diagnosis of mental illness. Shriner went home and lived with his mother.

On May 20, 1989, 7-year-old Ryan Hade was found in Tacoma standing in the woods near his home. He was in shock, naked. Shriner had raped and choked the child and cut off his penis.

Less than a year after Shriner’s arrest, in a unanimous vote, legislators passed the Community Protection Act, creating one of the first sex registries in the country. It included a civil-commitment law that made it possible to keep offenders like Shriner confined to a psychiatric ward even after they completed their sentences. Washington became the first state to pass a three-strikes law, mandating life sentences after a third conviction for certain felonies. A few years later, it was reduced to two strikes for some sex offenses. Over the next decade, a series of new laws and revisions to existing law significantly reduced the likelihood that sex offenders would qualify for lighter or alternative sentences. At the same time, it expanded the number of sex crimes that could result in a life sentence. Offenders were spending more time in prison, and the number of offenders on the sex registry increased.

In Florida, sentences are often shorter. Peter Aiken, a Florida defense lawyer, has represented 45 men arrested in stings. In 23 cases, he was able to get charges reduced to a non-sex offense, like unauthorized use of a computer. His priority is keeping these men off the sex registry: “Once they’re on the sex registry, landlords won’t rent to them. They can’t get jobs. For all practical purposes, their lives are ruined.”

Only a handful of people arrested in Washington sting cases have been acquitted at trial. Prosecutors have used a criminal code that stemmed from the desire to contain an Earl Shriner to win long or even life sentences and lifetime registration for men picked up in Net Nanny operations. Schnepf, the prosecutor in Tacoma, says that in cases involving real children, she will sometimes settle for a lesser plea rather than risk further trauma by having them testify. Operation Net Nanny cases are different: The witnesses are all adults, mostly undercover officers, and the evidence they collect makes it easier for her to take a case to trial and secure a longer sentence. “Where we don’t have a victim,” Schnepf says, “it allows us to be able to prosecute child predators in a different fashion.”

In 2017, David James Wallace of Lopez Island, Wash., pleaded guilty to second-degree rape of a child, for sexually assaulting a 13-year-old over the course of a year. He also admitted, during a psychological assessment, to molesting two siblings. The judge sentenced him to a minimum of seven and a half years. That same year, Schnepf took Kenneth Chapman of Tacoma, a 32-year-old with no previous felony convictions, to trial in a Net Nanny case. Chapman had been arrested after sending texts about having sex with an 11-year-old to an undercover officer posing as the girl’s mother and then driving to the sting house. While the star prosecution witness, Sgt. Carlos Rodriguez of the Washington State Patrol, had extensive documentation of the text messages, he failed to record phone calls with Chapman and a key part of his testimony was contradicted by a fellow trooper. Nevertheless, after deliberating for just a few hours, the jury found Chapman guilty of attempted first-degree rape of a child, attempted commercial sex abuse of a minor and communicating with a minor for immoral purposes. He was sentenced to a minimum of 10 years.

Schnepf declined to comment on the Chapman case but said a 10-year sentence in these situations is appropriate. She said that the people rounded up in Net Nanny stings were just as dangerous as the ones charged with assaulting children; they just hadn’t been caught yet. Children may be afraid to speak up, she said, and when they do, adults often don’t believe them. “When you look at the criminal history, it really doesn’t give a full picture of who these people are.” A State Patrol spokesman said in an email that Operation Net Nanny represents the work of serious professionals: “Our undercover personnel must pretend to be a part of a dangerous, reckless and uncaring community of sexual exploitation to affect legally grounded, ethically executed, and morally imperative arrests.”

Rodriguez, a 27-year veteran of the Washington State Patrol, brought the idea for Operation Net Nanny to state-police officials in 2015. He wrote many of the texts used to “chat the guys in” to sting houses, scheduled stings, organized logistics and coordinated with local law enforcement. In court, he was often the main prosecution witness. He was repeatedly featured in the media and invited to speak at law-enforcement symposiums. When interviewed by reporters, Rodriguez often struck a somber tone. In July 2016, after 13 people were arrested on charges related to attempted sex crimes in stings in Spokane County, Rodriguez told a reporter, “There’s really only one way to say it: They’re raping children.”

One of the reasons many of the men were arrested in sting operations in and around Tacoma was because Rodriguez had his office there. “It’s easy for them to do operations here,” Schnepf says. The state-police officials may have approved Operation Net Nanny, but they did not initially allocate a lot of resources to it. At first, Rodriguez was one of just two or three full-time detectives involved. Washington law, however, permits the state police to solicit donations to underwrite sting operations, and Rodriguez, in addition to running them, was a fund-raiser. Most donations came from local residents and were in the $25 to $100 range. But one donor stands out. In 2015, Rodriguez approached Operation Underground Railroad, a nonprofit group based in Utah and California. O.U.R. describes itself as an anti-child-trafficking organization made up of former “C.I.A., Navy SEALs and Special Ops operatives” who travel the globe rescuing young victims and assisting local authorities in prosecuting predators. O.U.R. has a full-time staff of 17 and claims 4,122 rescues since it was founded in 2013. Critics have described it as a cowboy rescue operation that often takes along media, as well as celebrities — Tony Robbins, the “Walking Dead” star Laurie Holden, Chelsie Hightower of “Dancing With the Stars” — on international rescue missions. Much of the O.U.R. website is devoted to fund-raising activities: invitations to join the Abolitionist Club (a minimum of $5 a month); a clothing line; news of the annual golf tournament and of celebrity galas.

Between 2015 and 2018, O.U.R. donated more than $170,000 to Washington State Patrol’s Net Nanny operations, according to the most recent public tax records. The Washington State Patrol is the only state-police agency in the country that O.U.R. has given to. The O.U.R. donations paid for additional detectives, hotels, food and overtime. Rodriguez helped arrange positive media coverage for the organization. Yet O.U.R.’s strong religious and political bent make it an odd partner for a public agency like the Washington State Patrol. The founder, Tim Ballard, who earned more than $343,000 in 2018, is a former special agent for the Department of Homeland Security and a practicing Mormon. He once told a reporter that he started O.U.R. after God told him, “Find the lost children.”

If someone isn’t “comfortable praying,” he said in a 2015 interview with Foreign Policy, “they’re not going to be comfortable working with us.” In early 2019, when Democrats in Congress were fighting President Trump’s plans for a border wall, Ballard repeatedly appeared on Fox News, including shows hosted by Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, to defend the wall as a way to reduce sex trafficking, citing his experience as a former federal agent. And at a February 2019 White House conference aimed at shoring up political support for the wall, Ballard was seated beside Trump.

In February 2016, according to a court filing, a Justice Department official cautioned members of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, or I.C.A.C., a national network of federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies, against “being involved in, assisting or supporting operations with” Ballard’s group. Capt. Michael Edwards, the commander of the Washington branch of the task force, relayed the message to state and local police in an email. According to Edwards, the Justice Department official stressed that O.U.R. had no affiliation with the task force and that no task-force group should partner with O.U.R. or provide O.U.R. with “any resources, equipment, personnel, training.”

Ballard’s representatives repeatedly pressed Rodriguez for news coverage. In a 2016 email, one asked for “a more firm commitment that we will be able to do joint news releases and media appearances.” Rodriguez replied, “I do not see there being a problem whatsoever with the media.” A few weeks later, in an interview with The Spokesman-Review of Spokane, he urged the public to donate to O.U.R. A Justice Department official cautioned Rodriguez’s superiors, according to the court filing, but he told them he had been misquoted. If so, he never requested a correction, says Chad Sokol, the reporter who wrote the story. In August 2019, Rodriguez was transferred to one of the State Patrol’s elite units, running the personal security detail for Gov. Jay Inslee. “Sgt. Rodriguez has performed honorably, admirably and legally in his development coordination and support of Operation Net Nanny,” a patrol spokesman said in an email, adding that he gave “27 years of exemplary service to the state of Washington and to the cause of justice.”

In June, Rodriguez retired from the State Patrol and a few weeks later went to work for O.U.R. as the domestic coordinator. O.U.R. continues to advertise its connection to the state police, posting news releases on its website that are credited to the Washington State Patrol but are actually reworked by O.U.R.’s web editor. They feature a joint logo with the emblems for O.U.R. and W.S.P. linked, urging people to donate to O.U.R. An O.U.R. spokeswoman told me in an email that “there was some initial caution on the part of I.C.A.C., but once they saw how O.U. R. operated, they became partners in the fight.” In 2017 and 2018 O.U.R. donated more than $470,000 to the Utah branch of the federal task force.

It was not possible to independently verify O.U.R.’s claim of 4,122 rescues or the 31 by the State Patrol. The identities of children are protected in sex-offender cases. Among the 271 Net Nanny arrests I was able to verify, however, none involved physical contact with a real child. Martina Vandenberg, the president of the Human Trafficking Legal Center, a national organization that trains lawyers to provide pro bono services to victims of real-life traffickers, is critical of operations like Net Nanny. “These stings are tricking guys into showing up,” she says. “Law enforcement can get dozens like a conveyor belt, and when you see who’s arrested, it’s kind of pathetic. In states where prosecution numbers are low for actual human trafficking, what a godsend! But you have not helped release one victim or child. My feeling is they should be doing real cases with real children.”

The number of men who have gone to prison, however, is measurable. Of the 193 Net Nanny cases resolved to date that I was able to document, 137 ended in guilty pleas. Of the 42 that went to trial, 40 resulted in convictions.

If one reason the men take guilty pleas in such cases is to avoid near-certain conviction, another is the expense. Jace Hambrick’s mother spent $50,000 in legal fees, emptying her savings and borrowing from family. Brenda Chapman, whose son Kenneth received the 10-year sentence in 2017, is a manager at Boeing. While most of the men and their families rely on public defenders, she sold her Boeing stock, borrowed from her 401(k) and mortgaged her home to hire a trial lawyer, Myles Johnson, whom the judge praised for doing a great job, and a top private appeals attorney, Jason Saunders. In March 2019, a state appeals court dismissed the two most serious charges on which Chapman had been convicted, writing in their opinion that he should have been allowed to argue entrapment, a first for a Net Nanny case. The judges noted that even though Chapman cut off all contact with the fictional woman proposing an incestuous encounter with her fictional 11-year-old daughter, Rodriguez, who was writing the texts, kept going back to try to lure him.

Chapman was released after having spent two years in prison, but the Kitsap County prosecutor’s office said it would retry the case. After nine months of pretrial advocacy from the Chapmans’ defense team, the prosecuting attorney’s office reversed its position, agreeing to drop the two most serious charges. The third charge, however — communicating with a minor for immoral purposes, which carried a three-month jail term — stands. Chapman must still register as a sex offender for at least 10 years. To date, Brenda Chapman has spent $160,000 in legal fees.

In Washington State, new inmates carry processing papers identifying them by their crimes. Sex offenders have what are known as “dirty papers.” They are shunned, threatened, beaten, sexually assaulted. Gang leaders make no distinction between “attempted rape” and “rape.” They don’t think “police sting” when they see “attempted rape of a child.” As new prisoners are led into the Shelton state prison, Jace Hambrick recalled, inmates lean against the gate at the front of their cells and yell. “You’re hazed,” he said. “You hear ‘fresh meat.’ They holler questions from the tiers. It’s like an inquisition.”

When Hambrick faced the other inmates, he panicked and said he was in for “Assault 1,” a mistake. His sentence wasn’t long enough for an Assault 1 conviction. The other men shouted, “Suspect, suspect!”

“My cellie said, ‘Is your paperwork clean?’” Hambrick recalled. He told him he’d broken a beer bottle over a guy’s head and then stabbed him. He said that his sentence wasn’t longer because of “mitigating circumstances,” mentioning his A.D.H.D. The cellmate asked to see his papers. “He said, ‘The only people who don’t show their papers are murderers and sex offenders; which one is it?’” This time, Hambrick told the truth, recounting the Gamer Gurl sting. “For some reason, he believed me,” Hambrick said. “He understood I was an idiot, but everyone has their moments.”

Hambrick acclimated. He earned a certificate in carpentry, joined the Toastmasters club, read voraciously, played lots of Scrabble, made friends and did not get a single infraction. When a white nationalist stole his headphones, he kept quiet. His first Christmas in prison, he gave each man on his tier a packet of instant coffee and two fireball candies. Last fall, he finally met his best friend of five years, Simon, who traveled from Indiana to visit him in prison.

Hambrick says it was his mother’s visits that saved him. “They made the week go by fast, they made the time more bearable. Oh, my God, without them, I probably would have got into fights, been more agitated. Just to be with someone you really care about or someone just not in prison, a connection to the outside.” He went on, “My mother was the light in all the darkness.”

In January this year, Hambrick was released after serving almost two years, one of the lightest sentences among the 177 convictions that I was able to confirm in these cases. His mom took him to IHOP for his first meal as a free man. She’d bought him a new fleece coat, and he pulled off the prison sweatshirt, leaving it outside on a newspaper box.

“Should we donate it?” she asked.

“Someone will take it,” he said.

Sure enough, when they came out after breakfast, a homeless man was wearing it. “This all right?” the man asked.

“That’s why it was there,” Hambrick said.

The next day, he was up well before dawn; on the tiers, the lights came up early for the morning count. The first order of business was checking in with his new parole officer.

As a paroled sex offender, Hambrick had a long list of restrictions. He couldn’t be anywhere children congregated. No malls, no movie theaters, no ballgames. He wasn’t allowed to walk the family dog in a park. He was not allowed to drink a beer, even at home. Before beginning “romantic relationships,” he has to get permission from his parole officer, and before having sex, he is required to inform his partner that he is a sex offender. Each month he is required to pay a $40 fee to cover the cost of his parole officer’s work and up to $200 more for state-mandated counseling. If he follows the rules for the next 10 years, he can apply to be removed from the registry.

Hambrick’s appointment was for 9 a.m., but he got there at 7:45 to be safe. Afterward, he went to the local sheriff’s office to register and be fingerprinted. When it was his turn, he walked through a door with big black letters that read: Sex Offenders Monday to Friday.

Hambrick has appealed his convictions. In March, he enrolled in an online software-coding course. After months looking for work, he was hired for a weekend laborer’s job. Other than that, he rarely leaves the house.