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YouTube vigilante on mission to expose sexual predators faces his own sex assault charges

Chase Johnston's YouTube channel has thousands of views from videos in which he confronts people he views as sexual predators. One Minnesota county has declined to follow up on his reports. Another has decided to pursue charges. In all of this, Johnston has been charged with multiple crimes against two of the men he's accused, including one accusation of sexual assault.

Chase Johnston
Chase Johnston.
Contributed / Chase Johnston
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ROCHESTER, Minn. — Chase Johnston began his crusade to hunt down alleged child predators earlier this year.

The Rochester man, 28, taking a cue from the now-defunct NBC show "To Catch a Predator," confronts men who he believes are potential child predators, luring them to a location and filming their responses after being confronted. Each of Johnston's videos have garnered thousands of views as he and his vigilante group confront individuals.

His group, Midwest Predator Catchers-Rochester, aggressively goes after people they believe are trying to lure children in for sex. They pose as children in online forums.

"I got online one day and I think within an hour I had a guy respond and offer me $400 for sex, and when I told him I was 14, he had no cares at all," Johnston said in an interview. "He just wanted to take advantage of this 14-year-old girl."

Comment after comment on his YouTube videos show signs of encouragement.

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"VERY educational and entertaining catch. You guys did well," reads one comment.

"You guys are awesome keep up the great job exposing these creeps," reads another.

But Johnston's and his friend's tactics during these videos differ dramatically from the calm and collected way "To Catch A Predator" host Chris Hansen approached his marks.

Johnston's videos often include threats of violence against the people he's filmed.

"We don't assault them," Johnston said. "We do want to scare them a little bit sometimes, but we don't want to physically hurt them."

Johnston said at least one of the people who comes along for the stings has a license to carry a firearm.

Complaints from targets

In an ironic twist of events, Johnston was charged with sexually assaulting one of the men during a May 2022 confrontation in a Rochester gas station.

The YouTube video on Johnston's channel shows Johnston and his friends berating and threatening a man they accuse of trying to lure a 15-year-old boy for sex. The criminal complaint in that case alleges that Johnston struck the man in the genitals and face.

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"I'll never plead to those charges," Johnston said. "I'll take this all the way to trial."

The judge ordered Johnston not to have any contact with minors, according to Johnston.

"I said, 'Well, that's not going to be problem for me, judge. The only person that has a hard time staying away from minors is the alleged victim," Johnston said.

The man told law enforcement that he had been chatting electronically with someone he thought to be a 15-year-old male. He told the juvenile he did not want to do anything sexual with him and that they were talking about the juvenile having issues coming out as gay to his family.

In the complaint, a Rochester police officer confirmed that account fairly reflects the content of the exchange of messages.

Johnston, however, insists that the man had sexually explicit conversations with the decoy juvenile. That man, however, has not been charged in connection to any activities related to the video taken by Johnston and his team.

Law enforcement concerns

The Rochester Police Department and Olmsted County Attorney's Office issued a joint statement regarding Johnston's efforts.

"RPD investigators have talked with Mr. Johnston several times and informed him that the best way to file complaints is through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. NCMEC properly handles evidence and works closely with law enforcement," the statement reads in part.

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In 2021, Rochester Police received 21 tips from NCMEC and worked on 22 cases with Internet Crimes Against Children, a national network of task forces dedicated to investigating, prosecuting and developing effective responses to internet crimes against children.

"Mr. Johnston’s aggressive nature is also very problematic. For the safety of all parties, RPD strongly discourages confrontational practices like the ones used in the videos," reads a statement from police.

Johnston said that law enforcement hasn't done a good job at following up on his accusations against multiple people. He accuses some law enforcement of just not wanting to pursue charges.

"I have a lot of respect for cops and stuff, but their response has not been very good and hasn't been very professional," Johnston said. "They haven't really gone through these videos, and they tell me to just report it the center for exploited children, blah, blah, blah, but it's like, if you guys aren't doing anything about it now when I'm getting these guys to admit to this on tape and to you, what makes me think that anything's going to be done if I simply report it?"

From video to arrest

One of Johnston's sting operations has led to charges. Thirty-year-old Joseph Lee Carlson is charged in Dodge County with a felony for allegedly soliciting someone he believed to be a child. Carlson was the subject of a sting in September 2022 in Dodge Center.

"I'm glad that somebody is finally being held accountable for their actions," Johnston said. "I'm thrilled to find out that my work helped bust this guy."

In the criminal complaint against Carlson, one of the witnesses is alleged to have spit on Carlson.

"Dude, we can turn the (expletive) camera off right now and I'll show you what assault is (expletive)," a man can be heard saying to Carlson in the video.

Johnston also faces a misdemeanor assault charge related to the incident.

Joseph Lee Carlson
Joseph Lee Carlson
Contributed / Olmsted County Sheriff's Office

However, Carlson faces more severe charges for his part in the incident.

"Text messages submitted to Investigators show the group discussing a number of times that they are a 14-year-old male. Carlson solicits the child for sex explaining that having sex with a 14-year-old is a big fantasy of his that he never gets to complete," Dodge County Sheriff Scott Rose wrote in a news release about the incident.

"Carlson stated that he would meet at North Park, positively identify the party and if he was truly a juvenile, then he would turn him away as he did not want to get into any trouble," reads part of the complaint against Carlson.

In the criminal complaint, it is noted that Carlson has a previous conviction as a juvenile for felony second-degree criminal sexual conduct while being armed with a dangerous weapon. Carlson is also facing charges related to possessing child sexual abuse material, as part of an investigation by the Department of Homeland Security.

The Dodge County Sheriff’s Office wants to remind the public that the actions of groups like the Midwest Predator Catchers, regardless of any good intentions, can be dangerous and problematic. Their aggressive behavior towards their alleged suspects and willingness to confront these subjects without involving law enforcement could easily result in someone getting injured or worse. Also some of their tactics can and have resulted in the inability to charge these alleged offenders. If you believe someone is soliciting juveniles, please contact your local law enforcement and let them conduct the investigation.

Investigators allege that they found in Carlson's possession hundreds of images of at least 47 different juveniles in various states of undress and performing sexual acts. Carlson is also charged with trying to solicit two more juveniles. The images depict at least one juvenile that was an infant, according to the complaint.

During a hearing in Dodge County District Court on Friday, Oct. 21, Carlson's bail was set at $250,000. He is currently in custody at the Olmsted County Adult Detention Center.

The Dodge County Attorney's Office declined to comment about the case and charges.

Problematic investigations

The Rochester Police Records Department is processing a request by the Post Bulletin for all incident reports related to contacts with Johnston in the last six months.

"It is incredibly important for prosecutors that investigations are done by trained forensic investigators," Olmsted County Attorney Mark Ostrem wrote in a statement to the Post Bulletin. "NCMEC and ICAC provide the integrity necessary for successful investigation and prosecutions. Lay persons should report their concerns to the appropriate authorities and allow them to investigate."

Johnston said police departments have told him they don't have the manpower to do these types of stings. That frustrates him as a father of a newborn daughter, he says.

"Somehow I've got the manpower to do that, which makes no sense to me," Johnston said. "So I can't morally stop doing this if there's nobody else doing it."

The legality and ethics behind Johnston's aggressive tactics remains in question.

"It could look like they are purposely raising the heat of the encounter so it looks like a good film," said Dr. David Schultz, law professor at the University of Minnesota and Hamline University, after viewing one of Johnston's YouTube videos. "I thought, 'This has got a Jerry Springer look to it.'"

Schultz viewed a video in which Johnston and his crew accuse a man of trying to meet up with an underage juvenile for sex. In it, people threaten the man and push down his motorcycle.

Schultz said charges against Johnston for his aggressive behavior may be warranted, and that a defense attorney has grounds to get any charges against the men Johnston targets dismissed.

While talking to a juvenile about sex might be considered immoral or wrong, it's not really a crime until further action to initiate actual sexual contact is taken, according to Schultz.

"It looks like they're setting somebody up to harass (and) embarrass the person, to try and expose them and say, 'Here's a potential child molester or a person who is potentially committing sex crimes,' when, in fact, there's no evidence that the person has done anything wrong," Schultz said.

Mistakes on tape

In one video, Johnston and his crew bang on a man's door in the middle of night. They accuse him of trying to have sex with a juvenile. Johnston's crew later learns that they were at the wrong house.

In another video, Johnston's crew accuses a man of trying to seduce a juvenile into a threesome with him and his wife. The man's wife denies any knowledge of the incident. Johnston's crew reassures the woman that her face and her child's face will be blurred. The video is currently uploaded to YouTube with the faces of both the woman and her child clearly visible.

"There's a little bit of a rush that goes along with it," Johnston said. "Trying to figure out what exactly might happen; is this person gonna flip out on me or is he going to pull out a gun or a knife or something like that, and I think about my daughter and her future."

Some people in Johnston's videos mention struggles with mental illness or disabilities, but Johnston said he doesn't let that get in the way.

"Certain people have a sob story, and it kind of gets me in my feelings a little bit and I'll start to feel for that person for a second, but then I remember exactly what they're doing and what they might have done to a child," Johnston said.

One of the subjects of his stings filed a harassment restraining order against Johnston. It was initially denied by a judge, but was subsequently granted following a hearing. The restraining order mentions Johnston uploading videos to social media accusing him of being a pedophile.

Chase Johnston Facebook post
A screenshot of a Facebook post that links to a video of a man who was granted a harassment restraining order against Chase Johnston. The Post Bulletin has edited out the man's name because it is the newspaper's policy not to identify people who have filed restraining orders without their consent.
Screenshot of Chase Johnston's Facebook page post

The man who filed the restraining order did not respond to a request for comment from the Post Bulletin.

Johnston admits that his earlier videos were aggressive and that his crew let their emotions get the best of them, but says they have since become more professional.

"We might make fun of them and clown on them, yell at them a little bit, but we are passionate about what we do and we are trying to serve a community in a way," Johnston said.

His YouTube channel was initially named Prisoners vs. Predators — a reference to Johnston's own personal history that includes drug and theft crimes, and a pending guilty plea for assault — but Johnston said he's a changed man and just wants to do something good in this world.

"We served our time and now we're trying to be productive members of society," Johnston said.

A troubled past

Johnston has a long history of drug and theft charges, and he was civilly committed last year for six months due to his drug addiction.

"I've struggled with heroin addiction on and off since I was about 19 years old," Johnston said. "I'm actively working on staying sober and being a better person."

Johnston is currently facing charges in Olmsted County related to a June 2022 incident in which he allegedly assaulted the mother of his child and threatened to kill her family members.

He has submitted a plea agreement in the case in which he will plead guilty to one misdemeanor count of domestic assault in exchange for other, more serious charges being dismissed. The plea deal calls for him serve probation.

"We got into an argument. The argument became heated and I was upset. I pushed her and caused her head to hit the wall," reads a part of the deal submitted by Johnston.

Johnston told the Post Bulletin that he's being held accountable for his actions, and that he wishes police would do the same for others.

"Me and my girlfriend are very much in love, and we are sticking together through all of this and we're going to come through on the other side stronger than we were before," he said.

Mark Wasson has been a public safety reporter with Post Bulletin since May 2022. Previously, he worked as a general assignment reporter in the southwest metro and as a public safety reporter in Willmar, Minn. Readers can reach Mark at mwasson@postbulletin.com.
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