Miss America on Catching Online Predators

Last month, Miss America 2007 Lauren Nelson participated in a police sting operation targeting child predators. Because of her concern about Internet safety, Nelson, 20, agreed to help out the Suffolk County Police Department in New York. Also along for the ride: John Walsh of “America’s Most Wanted,” which taped the bust and aired it on April 28. As part of the operation, Nelson posed as a young teen and chatted with alleged predators online and by phone. She arranged a meeting with a group of men at a sting house on April 20. When they arrived, cops closed in and ended up arresting 11 men. But Miss America’s participation didn’t sit well with the Suffolk County District Attorney who labeled it a publicity stunt. To learn more about Nelson’s role in the bust, NEWSWEEK’s Catharine Skipp spoke with the beauty queen. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How long have you been involved with Internet safety issues?
Lauren Nelson: For about two years now I have been speaking on behalf of Internet safety to more than 10,000 kids in Oklahoma, and since being crowned, I have furthered that venture.

How did you first get involved in the sting?
The two offices—Miss America and America’s Most Wanted—got together after I met John Walsh in Washington, D.C. They got together to see how we could work together.

Has the pageant been supportive, or are they now a little leery about the publicity the sting has gotten?
They've been very supportive. They helped arrange it.

What was it like to interact online and over the phone with alleged child predators?
The things that they said in those chats are the most disgusting things I've heard of in my life. I’m 20, so I think about real 14-year-old girls and boys and how they must feel. It made me want to be sick. Sometimes it took a couple of hours before they mentioned sex and other times it was the second or third [instant message]. They would send pictures of their faces and pictures of their privates. At the end of the day I went back and took a really long shower. I’ve always been safe on the Internet, but it made me want to go back and check everything online to make sure I was safe. I had never seen it that up-close and personal.

How did you get into the mind-set to act as a girl online?
[The predators] were all different. In all situations, the police had chatted with them before I got there. They had profiles of the ones they had been chatting with, so I just assumed the characters they were using. One was "Jen." "Annie" was another one. When I was chatting online, police were helping me in the chats. On the phone I concentrated on raising my voice higher, using smaller words and talking like a 14-year-old girl would. It was a little like an acting job.

How many alleged predators did you interact with?
I chatted with quite a few online. I made probably five or six phone calls to different [men]. I met two of them [right before the sting].

Tell me how the sting went down.
The men in the chat room gave a specific time they thought they could show up. Some showed up early to check out the house, some showed up later. There were cameras down the street and all around the house.  One of the two [men] I was involved with rode his bike. He left it down the street and walked up. We knew that it was him, and I went outside and waited on the porch. He proceeded to follow me in the house. Then the phone rings, and I went into the other room to answer the phone. Then John Walsh walks in and talks for a second, then almost immediately the police came out. I was watching from the other room. These men aren’t the aggressive type so I wasn’t scared.

You weren’t frightened?
Of course I was nervous. I was within feet of these predators. The police had said they aren’t violent, but if anything had happened they would have controlled it and it was a safe situation.

It’s been reported that you initially declined to testify in the case against the arrested men then changed your mind. What happened?
Until [Wednesday] at noon I had never been asked to testify. [Wednesday] was the first time I was approached. I had never spoken to the district attorney or the Suffolk County Police Department about [testifying]. I’ve always known my civic duty and always planned to continue and follow through on whatever my civic responsibilities were. There was no changing my mind. I had never been asked.

How have your friends and family reacted to all this?
My parents were always nervous, but all the feedback I’ve gotten has been positive. People have been proud of the work that we’ve done. Not many of my friends knew about it before the show came out.

Do you worry about possible retaliation, given your high profile?
That was one of the concerns before this operation. [Police] explained to me that these men are not aggressive and would not retaliate in any way. I’m not afraid of that in any way at this point.

Does this make you consider working in law enforcement?
No. Absolutely not. I think I would make a better Broadway actress. I think I could play Maria in "West Side Story" much better.

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