Steven Bowers has been praised and criticized for his decision to go after online predators who target minors for sex.
The praise comes from parents and much of the general public who see his efforts as valiant, while others wonder if it crosses the line into vigilante justice.
Bowers, 33, grew up in Dublin and now lives in Hico with his wife and two children.
By day, he works in IT and manages a restaurant.
By night he sets out to catch men looking to have sex with local underage boys and girls.
“I got interested in this while following the Jeffrey Epstein case,” Bowers said. “I did some research and came across other people (setting up stings). I started watching YouTube videos on ways it could be done.”
Since January, Bowers has confronted seven men he met online using apps like Grindr and Skout.
Posing as a minor, Bowers says it takes mere minutes to get a bite after casting the bait.
“The men reach out to me in minutes, that’s all it takes,” he said.
Some send lewd photos while others work to gain trust before suggesting they meet for sex.
Bowers said he never initiates contact and makes it clear that the person he is pretending to be is only 15 years old.
“People would be surprised at the number of registered sex offenders living in our small towns,” Bowers said. “Many of them are from the big cities. Our law enforcement agencies just don’t have the resources to keep up with all of it.”
SURPRISED, THEN CAUGHT ON VIDEO
After setting up meetings with the alleged predators, Bowers uses his cell phone to video the exchange.
“I video everything so I can educate the public and protect them and myself,” he said.
Pretending to be a 15-year-old male, Bowers’ first sting on Jan. 21 involved a 73-year-old man from Comanche he met on Grindr.
Grindr promotes itself as the world’s largest social networking app for the gay community.
“He started saying how I need to be careful (on Grindr) and how I shouldn’t talk to anyone I didn’t trust,” Bowers said. “Then he started getting pushy and talking about sex.”
The man gave Bowers his phone number and within a couple hours the two made plans to meet at a gas station in Hico.
When the man arrived, Bowers was waiting.
The video begins with Bowers walking up to the man’s car and knocking on his window. The man rolls down the window, smiles and asks “Are you Toby?”
Bowers replies, “Yeah. Why are you coming here to meet a 15-year-old?”
The man appears rattled and says he was there “just to talk,” but Bowers doesn’t let him off the hook, confronting him about explicit text messages he sent and threatening to call police.
“I got everything I need to turn you in buddy,” Bowers tells the man. “I won’t call any of the cops now if you explain why you’re here.”
After three minutes, the man stops the conversation and drives away.
The video was posted on Facebook and has been shared 845 times.
On Tuesday Bowers started his own Facebook page called “Predators Become Prey” and has received more than 1,400 likes.
WHAT LAW ENFORCEMENT SAYS
Bowers is not a licensed peace officer but said he has experienced some support from the law enforcement community.
“I’ve had pretty good support from law enforcement,” he said. “But they have told me it could be dangerous and have given me some advice.”
Bowers says he turns over names, license plate numbers and video to the appropriate law enforcement agencies so they can pursue charges.
But Erath County Sheriff Matt Coates said it’s not that simple.
“There are rules of evidence that apply, which does not allow a citizen to conduct these or any other investigations,” Coates said. “Mr. Bowers’ heart is in the right place, he just needs to have a law enforcement agency take the lead on the investigations so they can be properly documented and filed in the appropriate court.”
Stephenville Police Chief Dan Harris agrees.
“I’m concerned for his safety,” Harris said. “Whenever law enforcement deals with the criminal element, there is always a potential for danger. I admire what he is trying to do, but I have great concern that this evidence is not something we can use.”
Bowers said he has received some negative feedback and has been threatened with lawsuits.
“I’ve had a couple of people tell me they will sue me and that I’m committing a hate crime, which really bothers me,” he said. “But I’m not going to stop doing this because I want to raise awareness for parents and encourage them to monitor their children’s behavior a little closer.”
Bowers said he set up the Facebook page so the public can see what’s happening and get involved. He has also teamed up with a wrestling foundation that raises awareness about pedophilia.
“My main goal isn’t necessarily to expose these guys, but to educate people that this is happening in our small towns. It’s a harrowing issue,” he said. “We are not going to tolerate this for our children and we are not scared to call you out.”