Using social media and dating applications, Musa Harris claims to have exposed 44 child molesters to date — people he says have shown up for sex after he identifies himself as an underage kid.
“You get a lot that say, ‘No, you’re too young for me.’ But you get them certain ones that like, they’re cool with the age. It don’t bother them. Those are the ones I put right on (Facebook) Live,” said Harris, 40. “It’s not just like weirdo-looking people. It’s people that you might not have ever thought would be like this. Those are the ones I really be wanting. The ones that’s not on Megan’s Law, stuff like that. People you trust right with your kids.”
Harris has been at it since early this year, but it wasn’t until a former police officer showed up for a meeting last weekend that his work went viral, with a video that hit more than 1 million views on TikTok. Text messages Harris posted along with the video indicate the man — whom The Citizens’ Voice is not identifying because he has not been charged — had been discussing having sex with a 15-year-old boy.
Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis has said her office is investigating that case, along with others. She declined to comment further Thursday.
Despite opposition from law enforcement — some have described Harris as a “vigilante” whose actions could hurt the chances for prosecuting child predators — he has strong support online. His Facebook group has more than 27,000 followers, and he said his TikTok account has almost 70,000.
Harris, of Wilkes-Barre, said he decided to get started as a predator catcher after hearing repeated stories about people being abused.
“I just was getting tired of hearing the stories about it,” Harris said, adding that he began watching videos of other predator catchers. “I seen people doing it, and I’m like man, I’m about to do it too. You can’t get arrested for doing it. I’m about to do it too.”
Harris, who is an unemployed father of four, said he spends hours on various social media and dating applications, many of which require users to be at least 18 years old. But he noted that kids often claim to be adults just so they can access the apps.
“I’m looking at it as, if my daughter can do this, how many other kids can do the same thing my daughter is doing and grown men are jumping out in their inboxes?” Harris said. “Something’s gotta give.”
During the conversations, he claims to be a minor, either a boy or girl around 14 or 15, he said.
“Once a child tells an adult that they’re 15, that should be the end of discussion right there,” Harris said.
Those who don’t end the conversation end up in front of a cellphone camera live-streaming the encounter to social media.
“My adrenaline just be pumping. Like, I’m ready to video them,” Harris said. “I’m like, ‘Do you know that person you was actually talking to was me and it wasn’t that little girl?’ I know I said I was 15 years old. You wouldn’t be on live right now if I didn’t say I was 15. You wouldn’t be getting exposed right now.”
While many of the comments on his posts support his mission, Harris said he has faced backlash as well.
Back in March, Wilkes-Barre Twp. police issued a Facebook statement referencing the videos, discouraging “vigilantes” from conducting such operations.
“For your own safety we recommend you do not make contact with these individuals,” police said. “You do not know what any of these individuals maybe capable of in person or retaliatory speaking, afterwards. It is best to contact law enforcement should you encounter adults seeking contact with minors. By not doing this you circumvent safeguards in place to track/monitor these individuals and potentially risk compromising means of prosecuting them.”
Harris said he has also faced personal attacks from individuals.
“I’ve done got so much crap from what I’m doing,” he said. “Harassment all over Facebook, people putting out lies on me.”
He acknowledged having a pending resisting arrest case from Kingston — he says it stemmed from his possession of prescribed medical marijuana — as well as several drug convictions in cases from 2009, but said they have nothing to do with what he is currently doing.
“That’s like 12 years ago,” Harris said.
Harris said he doesn’t plan to stop his work, and that he hopes the police will be able to make cases against the people he has highlighted.
“I hope that every person I got gets charged,” Harris said.
Despite Harris’ intentions, experts say prosecutors could have trouble with his cases. The statute defining unlawful contact with a minor — a law frequently cited in online child sex stings — says the offender needs to be “intentionally in contact with a minor, or a law enforcement officer acting in the performance of his duties who has assumed the identity of a minor.”
Legal experts say the law does not establish a crime in cases where a civilian is posing as a minor, even if working at the behest of police.
John Hakim, attorney administrator for the Luzerne County Department of Conflict Counsel, questioned whether the procedures and techniques being employed during an investigation conducted by an untrained civilian would hold up in court.
“People seem to think like, ‘Oh this guy’s a hero. They should be arresting these guys,’” Hakim said. “But I don’t know that any of that evidence is admissible because it’s not a law-enforcement officer. He’s not even acting under color of a law-enforcement officer, like a (confidential informant) would in a drug case.”
Sgt. Kenneth Bellis, commander for the Pennsylvania Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, said police need extensive training regarding everything from what pictures they can use to what they are allowed to say while conducting sting operations.
“We actually have rules that we have to follow to try and prosecute the offenders,” he said.
As a result, the task force will not work with civilians conducting their own investigations.
“We strongly discourage any civilians who are not affiliated with law enforcement from engaging in vigilante activities,” Bellis said. “They may have good intentions, but it’s just too dangerous and harmful to the investigation.”