NATICK (CBS) – While the pandemic has shut down most of the world, one local man says it has opened the door for him to embark on a personal crime-fighting mission.
This month, Jason Velasquez posted a video on his YouTube channel that captured the attention of parents in Natick. He’s seen confronting a man on the Natick town green. “Who are you here to meet?” he asks. “A young gentleman,” says the man.
It’s one of dozens of videos he’s posted that have attracted tens of thousands of views. In this case, it led Natick police to arrest 59-year-old John Brown for allegedly trying to meet up with a minor. “He didn’t care about the age,” said Velasquez. “He wanted to do sexual things with what he thought was a 14-year-old boy.”
Velasquez said he was a victim himself as a child. Since the 36-year-old was laid off from his construction job due to the pandemic, he’s used the time off to reinvent himself as a crime-fighting vigilante. Working for a group called Predator Poachers, he cruises online chat groups.
Velasquez said when Brown reached out to him on the app Grindr, he answered, “well I’m 14 what u think lol.” That’s when Brown allegedly wrote a message saying, “come and play.”
Velasquez’s video shows them meeting later that day in Natick. “What did you say to the 14-year-old?” asks Velasquez. “What were you going to do?”
“We were just going to play,” the video shows Brown saying. “That’s all. We were just going to play.”
“Although we can appreciate what this group is trying to do, we have rules and guidelines that we need to follow,” said Natick Police Lt. Cara Rossi. “We have to secure evidence; we have to make sure there’s probable cause; we have to get a warrant. So we did all those things.”
Brown entered a not guilty plea during a court arraignment. Part of the police evidence is Velasquez’s video, and something else he’s so proud of, he scrawled it on a message across his face mask. It says, “I got the chat logs.” He explained what that means. “Every time I catch somebody, they always try to deny it, or they’ll delete the chat log,” he said. “So I’m like, don’t worry, I have the chat logs. I screen record everything.”
He showed WBZ-TV his chat logs from another encounter that made recent headlines, the arrest of Stow, Massachusetts Police Chief Ralph Marino, who has since stepped down. Velasquez posted a video of the meeting that he said resulted from the messages. It shows Velasquez ask, “Who you here to meet?” Marino looks up. “What?” “Who you here to meet?” Marino is set to be arraigned June 19 on a charge of enticing a child.
Marlboro Police arrested another man, Stephen Mannas, on the same charge, in addition to sending obscene material to a minor, after Velasquez confronted him. Mannas entered a not guilty plea in court.
WBZ tried to reach all three men who were arrested but got no response.
Former prosecutor Jennifer Roman says vigilante video can hold up in court.
“So long as the perpetrator is made very clear that the person’s being recorded and then turning that evidence over to police in a way that it can be tracked and the authenticity of it can be established, the vigilante is protected from a criminal and a civil standpoint, and the police are able to obtain the evidence they need to prosecute,” she said.
“We more have concern for their safety,” said Lt. Rossi.
Velasquez said he tries to be careful. “I try to do it the safest way I could possibly do it,” he said.
It’s an unexpected result of the coronavirus shutdown that put him out of work, but has now given him a new purpose.
“I feel like I saved a lot of kids,” he said.