Michigan man’s video stings snag sex predator arrests

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Grand Rapids — Never before has catching alleged sexual predators been so much fun.

Zach Sweers, 23, seems positively gleeful as he makes videos about his exploits.

He frequently smiles as he poses as an underage girl online, sets up a tryst, records the meeting and posts it on the internet. He mugs for the camera, makes fun of the men’s appearances and, during the encounters, tells inside jokes to viewers.

“I do have to sort of admit I like being challenged,” he said in a March video. “I like the challenge of it.”

His efforts led to the arrests of seven men: Aaron Russell, Zachary Snoeyink, Jered Andrus, Dan Barnes, Jacob Cassiday, Brett Chaffin and Phillip Crawford.

The men, whose ages ranged from 19-58, were charged with accosting a minor for immoral purposes, which is punishable by up to four years in prison.

Russell, 19, was sentenced to one day in jail earlier this month and fined $1,200 after pleading guilty to attempted accosting. The other six cases are pending in Kent County Circuit Court.

But not everyone is pleased with Sweers’ amateur sleuthing.

In May, Snoeyink, 29, filed a lawsuit against Sweers, charging him with slander and invasion of privacy.

Snoeyink’s attorney said Sweers is the real predator, preying on lonely men by engaging in sexually explicit conversation before revealing “she” is under 16, the age of consent in Michigan.

“We have a private citizen who essentially is making criminals out of people who aren’t predisposed to do these cases,” said lawyer Andy Rodenhouse.

Police have asked Sweers to cease and desist, saying his work poses a danger to himself and bystanders.

Kent County Prosecutor William Forsyth sent him a letter last month, stating he wouldn’t use his material for any more arrests.

“I have seen enough in my time as a prosecutor to know that such encounters can be highly volatile,” wrote Forsyth.

Sweers, dubbed the Video Vigilante by the media, said in the recordings he has no intention of stopping. Told by police in March they wouldn’t make any more arrests, he still did another sting April 30.

He normally goes to the meetings alone but, this time, brought his brother, who was armed, according to the video.

After being confronted, the sting target, sitting in his car, drove off while making an obscene gesture at Sweers.

Sweers declined comment for this story, but his mother said she supports what he’s doing.

“I’m proud of my son. He’s trying to make a difference,” Carolyn Sweers told a reporter on the phone before hanging up.

In March, Sweers made a video to answer questions from people who had watched his stings on YouTube.

Standing in a cemetery during a snowfall, he read queries from a piece of paper as snowflakes mounted on his collar.

He is a graduate of Grand Rapids Community College who makes money building websites, he said.

He said he publicizes his exploits to bring attention to sexual predation.

Asked why he seemed so happy during the operations, Sweers explained he treats them like a game. He does so not for amusement but to quell his nerves, he said.

“Some people think that I’m insane, that I’m mentally off,” he said. “I don’t laugh and smile because I’m insane. I laugh and smile to stay sane.”

A crime-fighter since 2013

This is Sweers’ second foray into crime fighting, he said.

The first came in 2013 when, under the name slystinger, he posted videos of two sex stings on YouTube. It wasn’t known whether the stings led to an arrest.

Sweers planned to stop but kept hearing news reports of sexual predators being arrested, he said in the March video.

“Oh, it just drives me nuts, these guys,” he said.

He resumed the stings late last year and found not just alleged predators but a receptive online audience. His new YouTube channel, named Anxiety War, grew from 5,000 subscribers in late March to 75,000 in early April, when police announced the arrests. It now has 158,000. One of the YouTube videos has been viewed 2.2 million times.

Viewers call him a hero.

“This is an awesome act of courage,” said Grand Rapids resident Matt VanderJagt. “We need more people willing to do these things.”

Sweers, who said he isn’t seeking attention, also has set up a website and a Facebook page. He said someone contacted him about doing a show on MTV but he wasn’t interested.

In all, the YouTube channel has nine videos. While the earlier ones focused on the stings, the more recent ones center on Sweers talking about himself.

In one, he refers to a TV reporter known for using stings to nab suspected sex predators.

“By the way, I’m not a hero, I’m not a legend, I’m not Chris Hansen Jr., and I’m not,” Sweers paused and smiled broadly, “going to stop doing this.”

Contact starts on Craigslist

The YouTube stings, which occurred between December and April, begin with Sweers responding to personal ads on Craigslist.

Posing as a 15-year-old girl, he talks with the men online for weeks or even months, he said in the March video. When they ask for a photo, he sends a picture of a woman he found online.

Some men are very cautious.

A married man told Sweers not to wear perfume and refused to describe his car, saying he would text Sweers after “she” arrived for the meeting.

Several admitted they knew what they were doing was wrong.

“There is a big risk for me because you are younger,” wrote one man. “I don’t want to get into trouble.”

Sweers sometimes continued the ruse in person, putting himself in potential danger.

In a March video, he posed as an underage boy while meeting a man. Shaving his face and hands, he wore oversized clothes to look smaller. During the meeting, he hunched over and spoke in a high pitch.

Still posing as a boy, he got into the man’s car and, once inside, realized he couldn’t get out because the door handle was broken.

“It’s a trap, it’s a trap,” he squealed jokingly.

Sweers, who was never threatened by the man, eventually left the vehicle by opening the door from the outside.

Another time, Sweers described entering the home of a blind man after chatting with him online.

Inside the home the man showed Sweers his hunting knife and unloaded shotgun.

Sweers, who wore a dress, said he told the man it was good to be armed in case he ever had a visitor who “isn’t exactly who you think they are.”

The visit ended with him and the man taking a selfie together.

Confrontations videotaped

Most meetings involved Sweers going as himself and confronting the men with photos and texts they had sent online.

The confrontations usually occurred in the parking lot of a Taco Bell near Sweers’ apartment in Grand Rapids.

While the men sat in their cars, waiting for a girl, Sweers walked up, wearing oversized sunglasses equipped with a video camera.

With Andrus, 37, a massage therapist, Sweers tried something different.

Walking up to Andrus’ pickup at Taco Bell, Sweers said he was lost and needed directions. He said he had a map and prepared to show it to Andrus.

The “map” actually was a sheet of paper that read “You’re being filmed right now!!! BUSTED!”

During the confrontations, Sweers does most of the talking, speaking over the men. He frequently repeats himself, telling them they’re guilty and should be ashamed of themselves.

The men’s responses range from resignation to anger. One fainted. Another cried. Two of the 11 just drove away, said Sweers.

In the videos, some come clean, admitting everything. Others deny everything, pleading their case.

Snoeyink told Sweers the only reason he set up the rendezvous was to talk to the girl about the danger of what she was doing.

“In all honesty, I really wanted to have a face-to-face, heart-to-heart,” Snoeyink said in the January video. “I would never in 100 million years do something like that.”

When Sweers mentioned the online conversation where Snoeyink repeatedly discussed having sex with the girl, Snoeyink said that was the only way he could get the girl to agree to meet.

Most had clean records

In February, Sweers gave Grand Rapids police copies of the texts and videotaped confrontations with the men.

Most have clean records. One exception was Chaffin, 24, who was charged with possession of marijuana in 2010, according to court records.

Snoeyink was so embarrassed by his arrest that, whenever he leaves his house, he disguises himself by wearing hats and extra clothes, said his attorney.

Andrus’ ex-wife filed an emergency request to change his custody of their three children, according to court records. A judge denied the bid, saying the children wouldn’t suffer irreparable harm by being with him.

As for Sweers, he’s rarely home these days, said neighbors.

Besides reporters, he’s also being sought by a process server connected with the lawsuit against him.

The hunter of alleged sexual predators has become the hunted.


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Twitter: @francisXdonnell