by Brian Lamar, Assignment Editor

It’s 3 a.m., Josh is lying in his bed staring up at the ceiling. He can’t sleep.

Sleep eludes Josh because he knows every minute he is sleeping, every minute he is doing something else besides trying to track down and expose the truth, someone’s child is being stalked or groomed online by a pervert hoping to take a child back to a hotel room or a darkened parking lot.

“You would not believe the number of people who have contacted my decoy page looking for sexual encounters with children just within the last week,” said Josh.

As Josh draws a ragged breath filled with the crushing gravity of his passion, his phone dings with a notification that he has received a message. The faint blue light fills the room and Josh is back at his computer strategizing on the fly. His main goal is to expose a would-be predator.

“My biggest mission is to protect children. These people praying on children is a bigger problem than what law enforcement can handle. It is much more prevalent than what most people realize,” said Josh.

According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, protective services substantiates or finds evidence for, a claim for child sexual abuse in the United States. The problem is much bigger than Mississippi, but Josh is working day and night to even the odds for children across the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Josh and his team of anonymous accomplices have established their own unique standard operating procedure for catching perverts in the act.

The team developed a decoy social media footprint with pictures of an adult member of their crew who looks very young. On this decoy social media account, Josh pretends to be a 15-year-old girl.

“We have a small team of volunteers. No one gets any compensation. This is completely voluntary. We have a member on our team that provides pictures of herself. She is an adult, but her pictures make her look like she could pass for a younger girl,” Josh explained.

On Jan. 26, after Josh and his crew went live with the decoy page, a flood of perverts started attempting to reach the girl to lure her from her home for sexual purposes.

“It was overwhelming at first. The amount of messages we started getting was unreal. The decoy is just sitting there we simply just wait until they reach out to us. We do not message them first. Within the first five messages, we tell them that we are under the age of consent,” said Josh. “Many of them get very sexual. We don’t play back with the sexual conversation. We let them initiate and take it where they want to,” he said.

Inevitably, the wanna-be Romeo on the other end of the keyboard needs more than texts and photos. They want to meet. Once they establish that they want to meet up, Josh agrees on a meeting place. Instead of a little girl, Josh is waiting in the shadows with a camera and uses it to expose them for what they are by posting a video of the encounter from the start of the conversations online to the supposed meet-up.

“Once they are caught, the reactions are different. One person let me know that he had a weapon with him. One person was pleading and begging me to take his truck so I would take the youtube video down,” Josh said.

Surprisingly, Josh has only been active with his group Gulf Coast Predator Catchers for one week. In that short amount of time, Josh has been able to catch and identify six different alleged child predators in the act.

Although Josh turns over all the information that he has posted online to law enforcement, the primary goal isn’t necessarily arrests.

“We want justice to be served and we will do anything for law enforcement to help. My main mission is to stop or slow down sexual predators who prey on children in our community by exposing them and creating public awareness,” said Josh. “I hope to start a prevention process. If they know we are here and if we make it that much harder for them to do what they do, then hopefully they will stay away from our community,” said Josh.

Josh, who has a close family member who was a victim of a sexual predator is hopeful for the future of Mississippi and hopes that this movement will help in other areas to protect children. According to Josh, the laws need an overhaul.

“I want to get convictions and I want to try to fight to change the legal age of consent in Mississippi from 16 to 18. I want to fight for harsher sentences for sexual predators. Right now, you get more time for getting caught with a little bag of drugs than trying to have sex with a child,” said Josh.

There are several things parents can do to help protect their children. The first is to monitor not only phones but also any devices that connect to the internet.

Josh is an advocate for a Norton app on cell phones that allow parents to monitor websites children go to. Restrictions can be set up within to app as a firewall to hopefully stop predators from reaching children as easily.

To be a part of Josh’s cause or to simply just gain awareness of the problem of sexual predators, go to his Facebook Group Gulfcoast Predator Catchers at https://www.facebook.com/groups/711691899494030.

If you feel you have been sexually assaulted or know a child who has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at (1-800-656-HOPE).