MURPHY, Texas - The show was an instant success. It lured would-be child-sex predators to a public shaming delivered by a handsome host. Ratings, awards and even praise from members of Congress followed.
But now “Dateline NBC’s To Catch a Predator” series is taking heat. And so is the police chief of the Texas town that hosted it eight months ago.
The troubles stem from the show’s visit to Murphy, where more than 20 people were arrested but escaped prosecution because of evidence problems. Also, a former district attorney ensnared in the sting shot himself.
A lengthy Esquire magazine account of the episode hit newsstands this week. It assails “Dateline” for overstepping the bounds of newsgathering, and quotes Collin County District Attorney John Roach blasting Murphy police for being there “like potted plants, to make the scenery.”
The article follows other recent pieces questioning the “Dateline” program, including reports by WFAA-TV and The Dallas Morning News.
Now a “Dateline” competitor, ABC’s “20/20,” is investigating. A film crew cornered Murphy Police Chief Billy Myrick last week for an interview in the City Hall parking lot.
Along with the media scrutiny, “Dateline” is the target of lawsuits. In one, the dead prosecutor’s sister blames the show for her brother’s suicide. In another, a former “Dateline” producer accuses the network of firing her because she questioned the show’s ethics.
“Dateline’s” executive producer, David Corvo, says criticisms of the show are dwarfed by its accolades. Host Chris Hansen “could make a living just going to children and parent safety groups to receive all the awards he’s been given or offered,” Corvo said.
Murphy’s police chief said he set out only to put criminals in jail and doesn’t understand the negative backlash.
“It’s a tragedy on so many fronts that a lot of things have come out of this the way they have,” Chief Myrick said.
“Dateline” launched “To Catch a Predator” in 2004. It filmed a group called Perverted Justice, whose volunteers posed online as children to expose would-be sexual predators. They chatted with those who sent explicit messages, then invited the men to a decoy house. When they showed up, Hansen confronted them in front of cameras.
In the first sting, set up outside New York City, 18 men arrived in less than three days. In future episodes, many more showed up, and “Dateline” invited police to make arrests. NBC began paying Perverted Justice as a consultant.
In 11 stings, the show has exposed more than 250 potential predators, many of whom have been convicted.
In November, “Dateline” producers brought the show to Murphy, a town of about 13,000, where police arrested more than 20 men during a four-day sting.
Officials say that one man who was sending sexually explicit messages to a supposed 13-year-old boy was former Kaufman County District Attorney Louis “Bill” Conradt Jr.
When he couldn’t be lured to the home, police obtained a warrant for his arrest. When he didn’t answer his door or his telephone, police forced their way into Conradt’s home. But before they could arrest him, he put a handgun to his temple and fired.
This spring, Esquire magazine sent a reporter to Murphy for a three-month investigation into Conradt’s death. The resulting article accuses “Dateline” of manipulating the Murphy police.
The magazine also accuses Murphy police of rushing search and arrests warrants to accommodate “Dateline” and includes criticism of the police for entering the prosecutor’s home.
Prosecutors have since said they could not prove they had jurisdiction over many of the cases - that either the Perverted Justice decoy or the suspect was in Collin County when the crime was committed.
And according to Esquire, prosecutors believed the arrests may even have been illegal. In each case, police had done little or no investigation prior to the men showing up at the house. Instead, Esquire said, they simply arrested the men who emerged after receiving a signal from the “Dateline” crew inside.
According to Esquire, Roach said: “The Murphy Police Department was merely a player in the show and had no real law enforcement position. Other people are doing the work, and the police are just there like potted plants, to make the scenery.”
Roach could not be reached last week for comment.
“Dateline’s” executive producer shrugged off the criticisms in the Esquire story.
“The premise, the notion, that’s been floated that Chris Hansen or his producers somehow could have controlled or manipulated a police department, prosecutors or the whole law enforcement organization is ridiculous,” Corvo said.
Chief Myrick, who has led the Murphy police since 2005 in his first job as a city chief, said he has been caught him off guard by all the criticism. “Like coming around a corner and hitting a brick wall.”
Esquire portrays the 49-year-old as a bad leader, eager to please “Dateline” and greedy for the vehicles confiscated in the sting. The article mentions a sport utility vehicle that Murphy police seized in a previous investigation with Perverted Justice.
“Chief Myrick, who would eventually use that Ford Expedition as his ride-around vehicle, was hooked,” Esquire wrote.
The chief, who declined to speak to Esquire, said that the Expedition was not some shining prize, but a nine-year-old vehicle he drove for several months while waiting for his current vehicle, a standard police-issue Crown Victoria.
“Oh my goodness,” Chief Myrick said, leaning over his desk and shaking his head when told of the allegations in Esquire. Though the article has been available online for days, he had decided not to read it, he said.
“We’ve all been through enough,” he said.
The chief declined to refute the account point by point, citing the litigation over the prosecutor’s death.
“I’m surprised and very saddened that things have gone the route that they have,” he said. “We performed strictly what we believed to be a valid law enforcement operation.”
Patricia Conradt, sister of the dead prosecutor, has filed a $105 million federal lawsuit against NBC. In the suit, Conradt said the show’s host and producers are more interested in “sensationalizing and dramatizing the Predator series for profit than in news reporting.”
The lawsuit said the circumstances around Conradt’s arrest - such as television cameras outside his house and a blocked-off street - and his position in the legal community made his suicide “reasonably foreseeable.”
A former “Dateline” producer is also suing NBC. Marsha Bartel’s suit alleges that the network fired her because she questioned the show’s ethics.
She accuses “Dateline” of engaging in an unwritten quid pro quo with police, trading access to equipment and videotapes in return for dramatically staged arrests.
“NBC has crossed the line,” the suit says, “and has acted as a privately funded law enforcement agency rather than a news caster reporting the news. By allowing its reporting work to be routinely seized and employed by law enforcement agencies to use in seeking convictions, NBC has also made itself a material witness.”
NBC officials declined to comment on the lawsuits, other than to say they have no merit and the network intends to vigorously defend itself. NBC is very proud of the show, Corvo said. “So if we have to tolerate some inaccurate accusations now and then, we’ll do it.”
He said there are no plans to change the show’s format. “Dateline” has expanded the methods used in “To Catch a Predator” to suit other topics, such as identity theft and illegal adoption.
“I think it’s an advance in television investigative journalism,” Corvo said. “Certainly it’s a very ambitious form of reporting.”
Meanwhile, “Dateline’s” competitor, ABC’s “20/20,” is working on its own investigation into the prosecutor’s death.
Paige Capossela, a spokeswoman for ABC, called the story “a work in progress” with no air date.
Myrick said a 20/20 film crew pulled up in unmarked cars for an ambush interview early last week, as he was on his way to a Murphy City Council meeting.
“I answered what questions I felt like I could answer with them,” the chief said.
“I didn’t like their tactics.”