Life has been complicated lately for Cougar Joanis. One year out of high school and the Prineville man fears for his safety and doesn’t leave the house without wearing body armor. He’s in a battle with the district attorney and police chief, and two weeks ago, a group of angry people tracked him down at his job at McDonald’s to do “God knows what” to him, he says.
Joanis, the boyish face behind Crook County Creep Catchers, a “To Catch a Predator”-style undercover online vigilante effort, spends his free time posing as a minor on dating apps, scheduling meetups with adults he says would harm children and filming the ensuing confrontations. Joanis and several associates claim to have “caught” more than a dozen “creeps” on videos viewed thousands of times on social media.
The effort has led to zero arrests, but it has won Joanis ardent praise.
“You all are amazing and fearless,” one Facebook commenter wrote.
“This site sure is making me keep a closer tab on my grandchildren!!” wrote another. “Thank you!!”
But Joanis has many detractors, including the subjects of his videos and their families, some of whom have succeeded in getting him to remove videos from the internet.
Also not fans: local police officials and the district attorney, who worry about mob justice and Joanis compromising ongoing law enforcement operations.
“We have made it expressly clear that we have no intention of using his information in criminal prosecutions,” Crook County District Attorney Wade Whiting said. “I am not sure why he continues to engage in these activities.”
Last year, while using dating apps, Joanis noticed how easy it is for users to lie about their age. He started setting up profiles on Tinder and Grindr, hiding his age and telling people who contacted him he was 14 years old. The majority of adults at this point would “drop it.” Some even reported him. But he said he was shocked at the prevalence of older men who only grew more interested.
He devised a nickname for his group — Crook County Creep Catchers, called “C-4” for short — and one for himself — Delta — so he could remain anonymous.
He’d always dreamed of assisting law enforcement, not competing with it, he said.
“I wanted to show the flaws in those apps and how they can affect people,” he said. “I wanted to become a resource for the police to use to actually get the bad guys.”
In February, he posted a video of his first “bust” on Facebook. The next day, he walked into the Prineville Police station with copies of his chat logs and the video.
Officers weren’t impressed.
Sgt. James Peterson said the Prineville Police Department is worried someone could get hurt — Joanis, one of the subjects of his videos or an innocent bystander.
“He’s going out there and aggressively confronting people in public and causing a scene,” Peterson said. “This is a huge liability for him, and we’ve told him, our concern is you’re doing this stuff in a very risky manner, which is most important for law enforcement.”
The department has one criminal detective with more than 30 cases on her caseload, ranging from assaults to sexual crimes. What the department doesn’t do with investigations is “play catch-up” with someone else’s evidence, Peterson said. Beyond that, the department doesn’t have the resources to dedicate to major operations such as undercover child luring stings.
“It’s possible it could maybe be a collaborative effort, but we would not do it the way he’s doing it — outing them in a public place, causing a scene and posting stuff that is unsubstantiated,” Peterson said. “Also, how does he know we aren’t already working that case? He could get them to commit another crime like assault or flee during the investigation.”
Crook DA Whiting worries about the integrity of the criminal justice system. He said his office only pursues criminal cases investigated and submitted by properly trained law enforcement officers.
“I am concerned if Mr. Joanis continues with this behavior that he will interfere with a legitimate police investigation or create a situation that places himself or others at risk of harm,” Whiting said. “To my knowledge, Mr. Joanis has no formal police training and has been asked to stop engaging in this behavior.”
For now, Joanis is committed to continuing Crook County Creep Catchers, whether the DA likes it or not.
“I understand I am not helpful because I make predators on edge,” he said. “I am sending a strong message about the area we live in now and the way social media and dating apps can impact kids.”
Joanis’ idea isn’t unique. The group Perverted Justice pioneered the ambush-style confrontation, a concept it made famous in partnership with Dateline NBC, which ran its successful “To Catch a Predator” series for six seasons. The group claims responsibility for more than 600 convictions, though its tactics have been criticized.
Lacking the polish of NBC’s baritone newsman Chris Hansen, Joanis’ encounters with his subjects are usually tense but awkward.
At the end of one filmed confrontation, the subject is told to “get outta here.” He remains seated, confused.
“Hey — I don’t know, what — what was the point of this?” the man asks Joanis.
Often, subjects tell Joanis they just want to hang out with the child as friends or help them score pot. Some use the line, seen often in these encounters, that though they weren’t interested in harming the child, they wanted to warn the child such people exist.
Though they haven’t led to arrests, Joanis’ videos have inspired hatred. Many commenters apparently harbor dim views of humanity and Prineville’s supposedly seedy underbelly.
One commenter wrote: “There are what, 11 or 12 on this page alone that you caught in the last few months? I think we need to ask the PD the very real question ‘Why are you potentially letting them hurt other children?’”
One month shy of his 19th birthday, Joanis has faced some recent setbacks.
Though he worked with friends on his earlier missions, internal “squabbling” has meant he now rides solo. One compatriot showed up for a bust with a gun.
Facebook has banned Joanis temporarily in response to complaints and made him remove several videos. A recent video caused outcry when the subject was revealed to be 16.
Perverted Justice recently announced it was dissolving.
Joanis’ crusade has cost him his job — he got fired after the people confronted him at work — and sense of security, but he’s undeterred in his mission to protect his community. He says he doesn’t want to hinder the cops but he’s already seeing a positive impact — creeps on dating apps are more on-edge, aware that a creep-catcher is out there, Joanis said.
“I never claimed to be good at what I do,” he told one Facebook commenter. “I’m simply the only one doing it.”