For the first time – the story of one man’s crusade to unmask those who prey on our young. His name is Rich Warner, and he’s known as the Adelaide Pedo Hunter.
To his many supporters, Rich Warner is an effective – if not unorthodox – weapon in the war against paedophiles. But to law enforcement, he’s a reckless vigilante.
Emboldened by his supporters and with the police refusing to act, Rich does his own detective work. He even uploads his citizen’s arrests to YouTube. He’s been repeatedly cautioned for taking the law into his own hands, and recently he was prosecuted following two stings where he posed online as a 14 -year-old boy.
“I walked up there with authority and told him, ‘Show me your phone,'” Rich tells Sunday Night’s Steve Pennells. Rich has also called he police, but they’re taking their time responding, so for the next 75 minutes, Rich makes sure the man stays close by.
“He knows why he was there and I know why he’s there,” says Rich. “I want him to come to a realisation – your life is gonna be turned upside down now because of your actions. And it needs to be.”
Rich believes that under the law, he is entitled to stop the man from leaving.
When the police finally arrive, the man admits why he’s at the train station. “I was on Grindr, which as you know is a gay website,” the accused man tells them. “There was a guy I was chatting to, and we arranged to meet here. Nothing was going to happen. He was an underage guy. I knew that.”
The police refuse to arrest the man because they say Rich’s evidence won’t stack up in court. Instead, they charge Rich with assault.
“The police arrested me,” explains Rich. “That’s bad. But the community has supported me. Thousands of people all over the world and throughout Australia and Adelaide have supported me. They’ve paid for my legal fees. A lot of people donated. I think it was something up around $8,000.”
The assault charge against Rich was eventually dropped, but he was found guilty of publishing his target’s identity online, prior to the man being convicted.
“He made a lawful citizen’s arrest, and the trouble for him was the posting online which identified the person,” says defence lawyer Michael Woods, who defended Rich in court. “It’s that behaviour that may have led to vigilantism.”
While the police are vehemently opposed to Rich’s guerrilla tactics, it’s a different story out in his local community. Rich has devoted much of his life to teaching young people to defend themselves.
“It’s humbling with all the support I’ve had,” Rich says. “I don’t deserve it, and there’s a lot of beers that I’ll be taking a lot of people up on.”
Rich is intensely emotional when he talks about his drive to catch online predators. That’s because he has a personal stake in bringing paedophiles to justice. When Rich was a 12-year-old on holiday in England, he says, he was abused by a family friend.
“I was embarrassed to talk about, very much ashamed,” explains Rich. “It happened to me. It’s a fact of my life, and I’ve tried to deal with it as best I can and survive.”
“A minister friend of my father’s took me for trips where I was raped and abused by that family friend, yeah, paedophile.”
“[Looking at him] makes me feel sick. As a child, [you] had to really block [it] out of your mind. 30 years of blocking out, it does affect somebody forever. So seeing the face, it does bring every emotion.”
Rich just wishes there had been someone out there in the community protecting him when he was growing up. “I wish this was around when I was a kid. Maybe it wouldn’t have happened.”
Rich believed he’d tracked down a paedophile. But police refused to arrest the man, even though he admitted that he had gone to the train station to meet a 14-year-old boy.
“They are way behind the times,” complains Rich. “Way, way, way behind the times – in their mentality, and in the application of law.”
So two days later, Rich sets up another sting – once again posing as a 14-year-old on a dating app. The man arranged to meet Rich at this shopping centre. As a precaution, Rich alerted centre security to what was about to happen. They called the police, and the police shut the whole operation down.
“They took the mobile off me,” explains Rich. “[The police] did not allow me to make any further conversations, and they put six uniformed officers walking up and down where the predator was about to meet what he thought was a 14-year-old in the specific intent to make sure the paedophile got away.”
Sonya Ryan knows better than anyone just how devastating online predators can be. Her daughter Carly was just 15 years old when she was raped and murdered by a paedophile she met on the internet.
“Carly was groomed online by an online predator posing as a young boy,” Sonya says. “It’s really up to the police to be managing and arresting and investigating these kinds of perpetrators and criminals.”
You’d expect Sonya to be a cheerleader for Rich Warner’s aggressive brand of justice, but she doesn’t believe vigilantism is the answer.
“I see this man’s drive and I see his passion for protecting children, and I admire that,” she explains. “You know essentially all he wants to do is protect children from harm. I just think there are better ways of doing that.”
Rich Warner won’t change his tactics. He’s struck out twice, yet he’s determined to confront police with evidence they just can’t ignore. So he gets back on his phone, once again posing as a 14-year-old. He starts a conversation with a man who calls himself Trey. Rich repeats several times that he’s 14 – but that doesn’t stop the man from sending him graphic sexual images and messages.
“He knows I’m underage,” Rich claims. “I’ve told him a couple of times I’m 14, and he’s just said completely explicit stuff after that. Disgusting, disgusting stuff this guy sent me.”
This time, Rich wants to make sure the police can’t ignore the evidence. He decides to confront the man at his home. “I wanted to make sure that I had a full confession before the police even showed up. This bust was different, it wasn’t in a public location, I was committed to going to this guy’s house.”
“There’s a lot of things that can go wrong, and I want to try and control the situation as much as I can and make sure that obviously everything’s done within the law.”
When the 28-year-old man opens the front door, he claims he is not Trey, the man Rich has been speaking with online. Rich shows him the text conversation on his phone. When he sees it, he confesses.
The man is so scared of the police and of the public shame. “He pleaded with me to beat him up and to be a vigilante, as opposed to handing the evidence to the police,” Rich reveals. “He admitted everything that he did. He admitted that he had a problem in this area.”
“I don’t feel any sympathy. He’s actually pleading for me to bash him. He’s saying, ‘Just hit me, just hit me.’ He’s shaking in fear. He wanted me to be a vigilante. He wanted me to take justice into my hands, and I think it’s really important to point out that that’s not at all my intention.”
Wanting to put pressure on police, Rich immediately posts the video of the bust – with the man’s address – on YouTube.
This time, the police make an arrest. The man is charged with communicating with a person he believes to be 14 years old for the purpose of engaging in a sexual act.
Still, Rich isn’t exactly happy with the result. “Finally, we got somebody charged, and it’s a sad endowment that we have to do so much for the police to do so little.”
The man is found guilty. But he doesn’t go to jail; instead, he’s placed on a bond.
The man’s home was vandalised soon after Rich’s YouTube post. He fled to stay with family. Yet Rich doesn’t have any regrets. “The parents, the neighbours, everybody in that community was now given information as to who lives there, and are very much grateful for it because now they can protect their children.”
Paedophile-busting vigilantes are now a worldwide internet phenomenon. Some are even posting busts live as a kind of entertainment. In the UK, there are dozens of outfits.
Adelaide Pedo Hunter Rich Warner models himself on Scott from Newcastle’s Dark Justice. Scott’s team posts its citizens’ arrests of paedophiles online, comparing what they do to Neighbourhood Watch. It’s an argument police in Australia and in the UK flatly reject.
Dark Justice does have one strict rule – it only posts its videos after the court case is done and dusted. “If the jury members have seen the evidence – the video – that could mess up a whole trial and could end in a suspect walking free,” Scott explains. “That’s not what we want.”
So Scott is critical of the way Rich named and shamed his targets online, without any thought of the legal consequences. “I understand where his passion is and why he does it, but I personally think he will get in a lot of trouble for naming them before conviction, and it might be worth waiting off.”
Rich’s form of vigilantism is relatively new – and police are struggling to work out how to manage it. Yet he doesn’t have much faith in the system. “I have zero confidence. I’ll do it again and again and again to enforce the point that we do have a problem.”
Campaigner Sonya Ryan understands the police frustration. She views Rich as well-intentioned but misguided.
“I see suffering in him and I have empathy for him,” says Sonya. “I would like to see him channelling that passion for child protection into potentially becoming a police officer, putting his energy and emotion into an area where he could make such a difference.”
Reporter: Steve Pennells | Producer: Michael O’Donnell