A Watsonville man who last year arranged a meeting for sex with someone he believed was a 14-year-old girl was sentenced Thursday to two years of probation and a 120-day suspended jail sentence.
Valentin Rodriguez, 63, must also register for life as a sex offender.
Rodriguez, who taught diesel mechanics at Hartnell College until his arrest in June 2022, pleaded no contest to two charges of arranging a meeting with a minor with the intent to engage in sexual conduct.
He was caught on video by a citizen vigilante who runs the YouTube channel “Creep Catchers.” The video was posted to YouTube, where it garnered thousands of views before the channel was taken down.
Santa Cruz County Superior Court Judge Denine Guy appeared sympathetic to Rodriguez’s failing health, since he has end-stage renal failure. She also said he likely does not pose a danger to the community, pointing to his low score on the Static-99R, a test that determines sex offenders’ risk of reoffending.
Guy also pointed to the public attention the case got via the news and social media, and the fact that he lost his career in the aftermath of his arrest.
“That no doubt has affected his health,” she said. “His life has changed, but he has also dramatically changed.”
Rodrigez’s attorney Gary Thelander said that he relies on a dialysis machine.
“He is on the machine for 8-10 hours a day, or he will pass away,” he said. “There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it.”
Santa Cruz County Assistant District Attorney Nick Sympson said that it was clear from Rodriguez’s chat log taken from his phone that he believed he was going to meet a 14-year-old girl when he arrived at the pre-arranged meeting place at the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf.
Rodriguez also had a key to a local hotel.
“He was clearly planning to have sex with her,” he said.
Rodriguez did not say anything during the brief hearing, but claimed he believed he was chatting with a 25-year-old bartender from Monterey.
The man who runs Creep Catcher, who goes by the name “Ghost,” said he was inspired by television journalist Chris Hansen and his show To Catch a Predator.
He now has a team of 10 people, many of whom pose as young adolescent kids in chat rooms, wait for suspects to make contact, acknowledge their age and arrange a meeting.
Since he started the channel in 2018, he has scored 381 “catches,” which have led to numerous arrests and more than 50 convictions.
“It’s just something I do on the side to help out the community,” he said.
Ghost said that he sometimes gets pushback from law enforcement officials and prosecutors, but that he makes his catches the right way.
“There are other groups out there that don’t do it as clean or as solid as we do,” he said. “Before we go and confront someone we make sure we have really solid evidence.”
The Santa Cruz meeting was not the first time Rodriguez has tried to arrange a meeting with a minor, Ghost said. About two years ago, he backed out of a meeting in San Diego with a decoy posing as a 12-year-old girl.
“I guess he got scared or spooked,” Ghost said.
Ghost and his channel that is now hosted on the website Locals.com, is one of many so-called predator catchers that have grown in popularity over the years, all of whom have their own signature styles of confronting them.
“I think the reason they’re doing it is because they are fed up with how lenient the laws are with these guys,” Ghost said. “If the laws weren’t as lenient, and if these guys really got what they deserved, there wouldn’t be a CC Unit, there wouldn’t be creep catchers doing what they’re doing.”
Sympson said that cases arising from vigilante actions make him nervous. Defense attorneys can easily challenge certain evidence taken from them.
“You never know what you’re going to get,” he said. “Most of the time when these are private citizens, that can be a dangerous situation. These are significant crimes, and there are significant consequences for them. Encountering someone could be a traumatic situation.”
Law enforcement agents, Sympson said, get specialized training to conduct sting operations.
Still, the case against Rodriguez was bolstered by the “good digital footprint” provided by CC Unit.
“I was very nervous until I got to look at the electronic evidence and assess the merits of the case.” Sympson said.