He was in his 20s, looking to have sex with a 15-year-old girl he’d met on a dating app. He arrived at their meeting spot carrying a 15-pack of Miller Lite and had condoms.
"She" wasn't who he expected.
The real person behind the teenage girl’s online dating profile turned out to be “Mr. 17540,” a self-styled vigilante who confronts could-be child predators in his spare time and shames them before his massive social-media audience.
And this bust was just one of nearly three dozen he’s conducted since 2018.
The online detective work of 33-year-old Justin Perry has been shared on Facebook, the social media platform he uses to livestream his confrontations. It's also made him somewhat of a local celebrity; the “17540” in his social media handle is the ZIP code of Leola, his hometown.
More importantly, the text and video evidence he’s assembled over the past two years has prompted criminal charges and, in at least one case, a conviction — cases that have been covered in this and other regional newspapers and on TV news.
Nonetheless, law enforcement doesn't endorse Perry’s tactics. They point out the potential dangers to untrained and unarmed citizens.
So why does Perry, a single dad who has a child of his own, put himself in harm’s way?
Becoming Mr. 17540
A few years ago, Perry was scrolling through Facebook and came across a post about a man who posed online as a young girl to catch pedophiles. He found the videos mesmerizing.
“I could do that,” Perry thought.
Perry said his curiosity turned into action because of the young people in his own family. His 8-year-old son lives with his mother and has a 15-year-old sister.
“When I look at her, I don’t even think that she’s 15. She’s still an 8- or 9-year-old to me,” Perry said.
Perry said he was never a victim of sexual abuse. Just the thought of predators preying on children like them was enough for him to want to take action. So he created the persona Mr. 17540. It’s also tattooed on the left side of his neck, but he got it when he turned 18.
Perry first confronted a predator at a Rutter’s in April 2018.
“I was really just flying by the seat of my pants. I had no idea what to expect. So I just went with it,” he said.
Perry said he’s embarrassed now by the way he confronted the target — in a loud and obnoxious way. “But I did it more and more, and found my niche,” Perry said.
His style hasn't changed much. He’s still brash and unapologetic.
Professionally, Perry works as a line cook — but only part-time, to give him time to care for his father, Arnold, 75, who has dementia. His mother, Barbara, died in January.
People also have delved into his past; he’s had convictions for theft, forgery, DUI and marijuana possession.
Perry said those days are behind him.
Still, he said, “I didn’t expect any of this.”
The in-person encounters have led to criminal charges for several of the men in his videos, but also for himself: A child pornography charge was filed in August 2018, but dropped a week later.
Perry said he didn't have child pornography and he cooperated with investigators. His phone and computer were seized, but returned. Prosecutors declined to say why the charge was dropped.
Perry said he thinks the charge was brought about by someone upset at his vigilante activities.
The ‘Predator Phone’
Perry estimated he’s interacted with thousands of men using a spare cellphone he’s dubbed the “Predator Phone.”
“Now, some of these guys really are just guys looking for women. You tell them you're 15 ... boom, see you later” — they’re not interested, he said.
“There has to be sexual intent. Because it’s not illegal to show up and meet a 15-year-old. There has to be something sexual in the conversation, and it has to start with them.”
About half the time, he said, the person is interested in sex, at least to a degree.
“I’ll talk to them for a little bit, then I'll tell them, ‘Hey, I’m 15.’ If they want to continue the conversation or not, that’s on them. A lot of them will ask for pictures,” he said. Naked, or in underwear.
He doesn’t send pictures, but he’ll ask if the man wants to send one.
“I don’t describe what kind of picture. Any kind,” he said.
Most often, it’s an inappropriate picture, Perry said.
Perry tried posing as a teenage boy a few times early on, he said, but too many men sent pictures he found too graphic. (No one has sent him child pornography, he said; if that happened, he would call police.)
Most of the time, things don’t pan out. The man might get cold feet, or a meeting can’t be arranged. There are many no-shows.
It’s like fishing: A lot of casting. But every now and then, a fish will take the bait.
No one, however, has realized they’re talking to a man posing as a child, he said.
Sometimes, Perry arranges to meet at a nearby convenience store, but he’s traveled to Atlantic City, New Jersey, and the farthest he's gone is to Ocean City, Maryland, during senior week.
That encounter led to the man being charged with violating Megan’s Law.
Perry’s method follows a format: He or his adult nephew drive to a meeting spot while Perry tells viewers about the target.
Once he confirms his target, he approaches and says he's the 15-year-old girl.
Perry launches into the men, often in profanity-laden, accusatory rants. The men seem dumbfounded, fumbling through protestations of innocence.
After several encounters, Perry hit upon his catchphrase: Remember my face, because everybody’s gonna remember yours.
He just blurted it out. Now, a slight variant is on T-shirts he sells.
He often ends his Facebook Live encounters by telling the person: “Get the (expletive) out of my city."
Little time, money involved
Perhaps surprisingly, Perry said no one has threatened him. He does wear a bulletproof vest, which was a gift from a fan. Along the way, he also upgraded from holding his phone to record encounters to wearing a used GoPro, another gift. The GoPro is a video camera mounted on his body to show the encounter from his point of view.
Thousands of people have watched his videos, with viewers commenting locally, from other states and even from the United Kingdom. Many of his top fans are women.
His hobby doesn’t take much time or cost much money.
“Think of how much time people spend on their smartphones a day. Instead of me doing that, it’s just me on the Predator Phone” searching for men looking for underage girls, he said.
His cost is basically gas. He tied his furthest trips to other activities.
If he could, Perry said, he’d somehow make a career out of what he does.
That’s not possible, in part because of the time he spends caring for his father.
“My dad’s my best friend. My everything,” he said.
His father recently had a leg amputation and some other health problems that have forced Perry to scale his activities back a bit.
Vigilante confrontations, law enforcement
But Perry also has no desire to formally pursue a career in law enforcement.
“My job is easy. (The police are) the ones that got to sit there and do all the paperwork ... I’m creating work for them, but at the same time, you can’t really complain about what I’m doing if I'm doing it the right way," he said.
Local law enforcement is aware of Perry.
The Lancaster County District Attorney’s office used one his videos to help convict Thomas Wise, 37, of Columbia, of solicitation to commit statutory sexual assault and related crimes in September.
Wise was sentenced to parole for about nine months, probation for five years and must register under Megan's Law for the rest of his life.
While the office credited “citizen’s work” in helping win the conviction, it would prefer Perry contact police instead of confronting people.
“Confronting an individual in this manner carries risk, because there is no telling what the other person will do,” said Brett Hambright, a spokesman for the office.
The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office, which runs a child predator unit, had similar advice.
“Doing undercover work to identify child predators and hold them accountable is best left in the hands of professionally trained law enforcement. This type of civilian investigative work can be extremely dangerous,” the office said in a statement. “Anyone who has information about child predators is encouraged to contact the Attorney General’s Child Predator Section at 1-800-385-1044 rather than take matters into their own hands.”
Perry said he understands the reluctance of law enforcement to endorse what he’s doing.
“If they give me their blessing, then anyone would be doing this,” he said.
Nonetheless, Perry doesn’t plan to stop.
“If you want to meet with a 15 year old, I’m gonna find you,” he said.