MURPHY, Texas – A sting in which police teamed up with "Dateline NBC" to catch online pedophiles was supposed to send a flinty-eyed, Texas-style warning about this Dallas suburb: Don't mess with Murphy.
Instead, it has turned into a fiasco.
One of the 25 men caught in the sting — a prosecutor from a neighboring county — committed suicide when police came to arrest him. The Murphy city manager who approved the operation lost his job in the ensuing furor.
And the district attorney is refusing to prosecute any of the men, saying many of the cases were tainted by the involvement of amateurs.
"Certainly these people should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, but the fact that this was all done for television cameras raises some questions," said Mayor Bret Baldwin.
It is the first time in nine "Dateline NBC: To Catch a Predator" stings across the country in the past year and a half that prosecutors did not pursue charges.
"Dateline" has made prime-time entertainment out of contacting would-be child molesters over the Internet, luring them to a meeting place, and videotaping their humiliating confrontations with reporter Chris Hansen.
"Dateline" works with an activist group called Perverted Justice, which supplies adults who troll Internet chat rooms, posing as underage boys and girls, and try to collect incriminating sex talk.
City manager Craig Sherwood approved such an operation in this well-to-do community of 11,000 after being approached by "Dateline" and Perverted Justice, but he never informed the mayor or the City Council. He said secrecy was necessary for the sting to be effective.
Over four days in November, 24 men were arrested at a two-story home in one of Murphy's newer neighborhoods after allegedly arranging to meet boys or girls there.
Some other suspects contacted Perverted Justice decoys online but never showed up at the house. Among them was Louis Conradt Jr., an assistant prosecutor from neighboring Kauffman County, who allegedly engaged in a sexually explicit online chat with an adult posing as a 13-year-old boy.
As police knocked at his door and a "Dateline" camera crew waited in the street, Conradt shot himself.
His sister, Patricia Conradt, told the City Council that police acted as "a judge, jury and executioner that was encouraged by an out-of-control reality show."
Then, last month, Collin County District Attorney John Roach dropped all charges. He said that in 16 of the cases, he had no jurisdiction, since neither the suspects nor the decoys were in the county during the online chats.
As for the rest of the cases, he said neither police nor NBC could guarantee the chat logs were authentic and complete.
"The fact that somebody besides police officers were involved is what makes this case bad," said Roach, who was informed of the sting in advance but did not participate. "If professionals had been running the show, they would have done a much better job rather than being at the beck and call of outsiders."
As details of the suicide emerged, Murphy's mayor, City Council and most of its residents learned for the first time that potential molesters were being luring to their city. Many were furious.
"They can chase predators all they want, but they shouldn't do it in a populated area with children, two blocks from an elementary school," said Lisa Watson, 33, who lives down the road from the sting house and has three children and another on the way.
Bryan Whorton, who lives with his wife and baby across the street from the house, said his neighborhood was put in danger. Cars sped up and down the street and police sprinted from hiding spots, guns drawn, to arrest suspects, he said. One suspect dropped a bag of crack, Whorton said.
"This is a family community. It didn't look kosher at all," he said.
Two weeks ago, the City Council voted to buy out the city manager's contract for $255,000.
NBC's Hansen said Murphy is the only place the show has encountered such resistance.
"I don't want to get involved in the DA's business or the police business," he said. "I can tell you in the other locations, these issues did not come up."
Eric Nichols, a Texas deputy attorney general, said that when law enforcement authorities pull an Internet sex sting, officers posing as decoys follow strict rules. Detailed chat logs are kept to ensure that "sex talk" is initiated by the potential predator. That way, a defendant cannot claim entrapment.
Eric Chase, a defense attorney specializing in sex crimes, said stings are the job of police, not TV crews. "Police should not be abdicating a very important function to either private organizations or entertainment organizations," he said.