NOTE: A previous version of this story indicated that the television network Investigation Discovery had “bought the rights” to the story of Onision, the YouTuber alleged to have groomed and sexually abused women, some of whom were minors. More precisely, Chris Hansen signed a deal with Investigation Discovery to do a TV series on the Onision story.
It’s February 2004, and Chris Hansen, a scrappy crime reporter from Detroit resembling the nemesis in a John Hughes film, is late for the first investigation of what will become To Catch a Predator, the now iconic hidden camera episodes of Dateline in which horny men, packing condoms and wine coolers, enter a trap house intending to have sex with a t(w)een. Their warped fantasies are dashed, however, when Hansen, a displeased and distinctly voiced fortysomething newsman, enters the room, lascivious chat logs in hand, and invites the men to have a seat, right over there, while a brigade of small-town cops huddle in bushes outside the front door, awaiting orders to pounce.
A ratings sensation for NBC, To Catch a Predator quickly became a cultural touchstone — it was parodied on Mad TV and South Park — and Hansen was heralded as the rock star protectorate of teen millennials. “Predator was unlike anything that came before or after it,” Hansen tells me, recalling being suddenly swarmed by hundreds of fans at a Tigers game in 2005 as the moment he realized the show was different from anything he’d ever done on television. “Wow, why does everyone do that?” his son would ask when passersby jovially instructed Hansen to “have a seat.”
“The time to worry isn’t when they know who you are,” he explained to his son. “Worry when they don’t know who you are.”
The following year, when he walked into a high school graduation party, “it was like Keith Richards crashing my 16th birthday. My sons never cared that their dad was on TV — until South Park did a parody of him.”
To Catch a Predator episodes averaged 8 to 10 million viewers and featured a dozen investigations across the U.S. from 2004 to 2007. It was canceled primarily due to the suicide of Louis Conradt, an assistant district attorney in Texas who was caught talking to and exchanging pictures with a decoy posing as a 13-year-old boy. Conradt had, in fact, refused to come to the trap house, so Hansen and the police took the unusual step of relocating to Conradt’s home. To this day, however, Hansen doesn’t accept any responsibility for Conradt’s death. “Did I put the child pornography on his computer?” he asks. (In 2008, NBC paid Conradt’s family an undisclosed sum to settle a wrongful-death suit against the network.)
Nearly a decade later, in April 2015, Hansen launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund an online reboot of the series, Hansen vs. Predator, which aired one time on the syndicated news magazine Crime Watch Daily. While the lone Hansen vs. Predator sting nabbed 10 men in Fairfield, Connecticut, crowdfunding for the production also led to Hansen’s arrest in January 2019, when he was charged for bouncing multiple checks to pay for promotional materials intended for the Kickstarter donors. It was an embarrassing turn of events for a veteran journalist who has won 10 Emmys, four Edward R. Murrow Awards and an honor from the National Press Club.
None of the trophies were for To Catch a Predator, though — a slight that continues to bother Hansen. “The old guard looked down on us because they were pissy about Predator,” he says. Presumably, their objections aligned with Baylor University’s Robbie Rogers and Sara Stone, who in 2001 wrote a critique, published in the journal Journalism Ethics, titled “Who’s the Predator?” “NBC surrounds criminals with law enforcement waiting patiently outside to record the outcome,” they noted. “This is the reverse of most crime scenes. Justice and the media are both perverted throughout the predatory process.”
But the controversy — and the show — almost didn’t happen. Because for that first sting in Bethpage, Long Island, Hansen had rented a car in Stamford, Connecticut, fearing a perp might run the plates on his Escalade in the parking lot next to the suburban home where everything was supposed to go down. (Ironically, he rented a beige Crown Victoria, a dead ringer for an unmarked police cruiser.) Inching through bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Throgs Neck Bridge, which connects southern Connecticut with Long Island, Hansen received a frantic phone call from Dateline producer Lynn Keller.
“Where are you?!” she asked. “Two guys are already circling the block!”
If they came knocking just as Hansen arrived, it could sabotage the entire investigation (and blow a $50,000 budget).
Meanwhile, Ron Knight, a retired NYPD lieutenant who provided security for To Catch a Predator and Hansen vs. Predator, was in the final stages of securing the house, which was rented from a NYC transit cop for $2,500. For two days, Knight removed kitchen knives, blenders and anything else that could be used as a weapon. “We didn’t want it to be stripped bare but we also couldn’t leave anything dangerous,” he tells me.
Eventually, traffic loosened and Hansen pulled up moments before the arrival of the first predator, a 33-year-old (screen name me4magicny), who came right over when he learned that the 13-year-old he’d been chatting with all day (screen name danni_likes_u) was a virgin who seemed down to let him take her virginity.
Volunteers from the controversial online watchdog group Perverted Justice, stationed in an adjoining dining room, had posed as danni_likes_u and other minors in chat rooms for weeks, luring men online and inviting them to meet in person. An IRL decoy, typically an 18- to 20-year-old woman who looked much younger, greeted the men at the front door before excusing herself “to toss some clothes in the dryer.”
This was around the time when Hansen would pop into frame shaking his head, as disappointed as he was angry. “What are you doing here?” he’d wonder aloud.
Knight had directed Hansen to keep a large marble island between him and the subject at all times. And if the subject advanced, Hansen was to step away in the direction of the dining room. The predator’s back was also always supposed to face the exit, so if they decided to split, they wouldn’t have to get past Hansen. “If he runs, he runs,” Knight reasoned. (The first two investigations didn’t include law enforcement on site, and individuals caught in the sting were allowed to leave voluntarily, though Dateline provided all video and transcripts to the cops.)
Sadly, predators weren’t hard to come by. They were lining up “like planes landing at LaGuardia,” Hansen says of that first episode, recalling a frenzied, disorganized scene in the dining room with transcripts strewn everywhere. To that end, when Steve (screenname SR8219), a 35-year-old father of three wearing a plaid flannel coat and a bandana over his head, walked down the driveway, Hansen mistakenly picked up the wrong transcript to confront him in the kitchen. “It says here that you’re here to meet a 13-year-old girl named Rachel?” he asked.
“No, that’s not me,” Steve responded, prompting Hansen to duck into the dining room to retrieve another transcript.
“A 14-year-old girl named April?”
“Not me either, man,” Steve said, growing impatient.
Hansen returned from the dining room a third time: “A 14-year-old named Beth?”
“Yeah, that’s me…”
Such confusion was typical, Knight says, recalling more than 40 predators in three days. Hansen, though, pressed on. “Chris is the ultimate professional, always one step ahead of the predator,” he says, adding that Hansen is “masterful” at keeping a difficult conversation going. “From a law enforcement perspective, people don’t talk much when they’re in custody. But Chris was always able to bring them back around to the transcript. We had people going on for over an hour, to the point where we’d have to chase them out of the house because the next one would be arriving.”
In the final two To Catch a Predator stings (in Ocean County, New Jersey, and Bowling Green, Kentucky), the decoy, 19-year-old Casey Mauro, all 5-foot-2, 95 pounds of her, mistakenly took on more of an interrogation role. Keller told Mauro to have a conversation with the men, which Mauro took to mean talking to them for up to a half hour. “They were more comfortable speaking to me than Chris because they thought he was my dad,” Mauro tells me. “I could ask them anything. They’d say, ‘I want to do this, that and the other thing with you up in your parents bedroom,’ and I’d play dumb so they’d have to explain to this young, naive 12-year-old girl what they were planning to do, step-by-step.”
She also, though, recalls being comforted by Hansen, who took her aside before each arrival, explaining that he was right around the corner so she could just walk out of the room if she ever felt unsafe and he’d step right in. A forensic science major, Mauro hoped to transfer to New York City to study biology and neuroscience, which Hansen encouraged. “Chris is the reason I moved to New York the next year,” she tells me. “He was just great.”
More than 350 men were arrested over those 12 To Catch a Predator investigations. (Though never a woman: The female predator, Hansen posits, doesn’t like the anonymity provided on the internet, typically preferring the teacher-student dynamic.) Their horrors affirmed the internet panic of the mid-aughts, explains technology and society researcher danah boyd. “From news stories to school assemblies, teens were surrounded by messages about the dangers of predation,” boyd writes in her book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. “To Catch a Predator was often cited by parents as proof that evil men were lurking behind every keyboard, ready to pounce.”
It has more or less been Hansen’s professional calling card ever since — e.g., his current YouTube program, Have a Seat With Chris Hansen, investigates abuse and harassment allegations inspired by #MeToo. “You do this to remain relevant,” he tells me, seamlessly slipping into the second person (a frequent habit). “People call you ‘the dad of the internet’ and you’ve got to either embrace fame for whatever good you can squeeze out of it, or spend your life running away from it.”
The criticisms of the show and Hansen’s methodology have remained the same, though, too. “Public humiliation has been used at least since the time prisoners were placed in the stocks and the pillory,” explained CBS News’ Brian Montopoli in 2006. But Dateline isn’t the law, he pointed out, and even if you think it’s appropriate for these men to be exposed, should that exposure really be handed out by NBC’s Friday primetime lineup? He likened Hansen’s M.O. to a police officer leaving something valuable in the basket of a bicycle, luring passersby to grab it and then arresting them.
Hansen actually filmed a comparable bike sting in a Dateline segment during New York City’s bike theft epidemic of the early 2010s, using an intern to sell a “stolen” bike to unsuspecting buyers. Knight provided security on the segment and recalls an East Village bike store paying $25 for a $1,700 bike. Like clockwork, that’s when Hansen popped out and said he wanted to talk about the bike that was just purchased. The store owner, however, wasn’t having it, reaching past Hansen and Knight to knock the camera off the cameraman’s shoulder. “Chris is yelling over my shoulder, ‘You bought that bike!’ and I’m going, ‘Chris, I think we’re beyond that!!’”
Was the store owner planning to buy stolen property that day? Probably not, but Hansen put him in a situation to purchase a hot bike and then busted him for doing so in front of millions of viewers. Again, critics argue this isn’t how law enforcement, let alone TV producers, should behave in the U.S.
In early January, I raise these concerns with Hansen while eating lunch at Hatsuhana, a Japanese restaurant in Midtown Manhattan that’s blocks away from his one-bedroom apartment. (He splits time between New York City and Detroit, where he also shares a home with his girlfriend, Gabrielle.) “Entrapment?!” he scoffs. “We didn’t initiate the crime. We performed an enterprise news experiment to see what would happen if we confronted people in the act of committing crimes.” (He’ll also tell me, “[Tom] Brokaw never voiced any concern. [Tim] Russert never voiced any concern. Because they understood its value. People can say that this isn’t traditional journalism, or that we were working too closely with the police, which are both valid for discussion. But in the end, we preserved the legal cases, served social justice and moved the enterprise journalism needle forward.”)
In a checkered shirt, tan blazer and a full head of silver-blond hair, Hansen greets our female server like an old friend, asking about her children’s college plans. Beaming, in turn, she wonders if he has lost weight. “Maybe a little bit,” he replies modestly.
Hansen, now 60, is strikingly handsome, with a perfectly symmetrical face seemingly designed for television in a petri dish. He happily drones on about his daily 45-minute Peloton session. “Pound for pound, I can’t find a better workout I can knock out in less than an hour,” he offers. “Six days a week, I hop on at 8 o’clock and I’m done by 8:45.”
Eating right has been a challenge over the years, he says, and lazy food habits, constant travel and “caveman cooking” have gotten him into dietary trouble. Unhealthy routines were formed early in his career, when he lived on 54th Street between First and Second Avenues. On the way home, he’d pass Connolly’s Pub & Restaurant and pop in for a couple drinks with Paul McCartney (“Sir Paul,” he mimics, tipping an invisible cap), then on to Bobby Vans Steakhouse for a glass of wine or two and fried-chicken niblets at the bar. “I’ve always been athletic, but your metabolism changes and you get to a certain age where you have to pay attention. I saw a dietician who said there are three food groups: plant-based, protein and poison. I changed my routine, and it worked.”
Today, that routine amounts to the “Sushi ‘Jo’ Special,” eight pieces of spicy salmon and one roll. He first came to Hatsuhana 20 years ago to get career advice from Jeff Zucker (long before Zucker served as president and CEO of NBCUniversal), who was on a strict diet following colon cancer. It became Hansen’s go-to, and it’s why a chorus of middle-aged Japanese women greet him like Norm from Cheers. “I work my tail off and take care of people,” he says, separating a pair of chopsticks. “Colleagues, doormen, waitstaff — these people are my family. I take that responsibility very seriously.”
As for work, Hansen is currently investigating multiple abuse allegations, including the case of fashion executive Peter Nygård, alleged to have impregnated underaged girls so he could harvest stem cells from aborted fetuses and inject them into his veins to stay young. He’s also covering 21 rape allegations against Dahvie Vanity, the former lead singer of the electro-pop band Blood on the Dance Floor. And for months this past winter, he interviewed alleged victims of the YouTuber Onision, who is accused of grooming and sexually abusing underage girls, culminating with a January 9th surprise visit to Onision’s rental house in Washington.
Yet, somewhat surprisingly, Hansen echoes Dave Chappelle’s concern that some #MeToo accusations may be creating “collateral damage,” mentioning former NBC correspondent Linda Vester’s allegations of Tom Brokaw, specifically. (“Tom Brokaw is not a predator,” Hansen says assuredly.) He also knows Matt Lauer well enough to believe that he’s not a rapist, though he probably “took liberties” he shouldn’t have.
While not a sexual abuse allegation, Hansen himself was caught in a hidden camera sting in 2011, when the National Enquirer published photos of the married father of two having dinner at a restaurant with Kristyn Caddell, a 30-year-old NBC affiliate news anchor in West Palm Beach, with whom Hansen had allegedly been cheating on his wife of 20 years. The New York Post, citing anonymous sources, reported NBC exec had planned to name Hansen the new Dateline anchor when Ann Curry began hosting Today, but the supposed affair caused them to reconsider. (“This couldn’t be further from the truth,” a spokesman for NBC News said at the time. Sources close to Hansen patently dismissed the claims as well.)
Nevertheless, many took delight in Hansen being shown the proverbial seat himself, some likening him to the predators he’d so smugly ensnared. Hansen calls the comparison “absurd.” “To equate having dinner with a friend to somebody committing a felony is neither fair nor a conversation worth having,” he continues. “In reality, it was a whole lot of nothing.”
Hansen insists Caddell didn’t factor into his wife, Mary Joan, filing for divorce in January 2019 after 30 years of marriage. They had been separated and living apart for years, he explains, though the divorce was only finalized months ago. The start of 2019 was undoubtedly a dark period, though, when TMZ reported Hansen had been evicted from his Manhattan apartment. According to legal docs cited by the gossip site, he last paid rent in August 2018, but was $400 short and stopped sending checks altogether after that. A judge ordered him to vacate the premises within 10 days.
It was blown way out of proportion, Hansen contends, related to dispute over an attempt to jack up the rent. “The suggestion that I was tossed on the street is simply not true,” he claims. “I moved to another apartment. A better apartment. A bigger apartment.”
TMZ’s inference was supported by the fact that, four days earlier, Hansen was arrested for issuing a bad check in September 2017. According to a four-page arrest affidavit, he asked Peter Psichopaidas, owner of Promotional Sales Limited, for 355 ceramic mugs, 288 T-shirts and 650 vinyl decals, which he planned to give to donors of the Hansen vs. Predator Kickstarter campaign. The total amount due was $12,998.05, according to Barry Lytton, a staff reporter for the Stamford Advocate (who broke the story with colleague John Nickerson and reviewed the affidavit personally).
Psichopaidas said Hansen agreed to pay the entire bill before delivery, Lytton tells me, and Hansen actually didn’t write the check that bounced himself. Andy Russell, the Chief Operating Officer of Hansen News Network LLC, the independent production company for Hansen vs. Predator run by Hansen and Russell, sent Psichopaidas a Hansen News LLC check for the entire amount.
“We were a two-man operation with monies going in and out,” Russell tells me. “We’d just completed our first production and clearly there weren’t enough funds to cover the check. We were going six ways from Sunday getting the production together and all these items fulfilled, and this slipped through the cracks. Chris had worked for NBC for 20 years and didn’t really need to worry about balancing the checkbook, because someone else took care of that for him. In hindsight, we obviously would’ve handled it differently. Peter did what he had the right to do.”
When the check first bounced, Hansen apologized to Psichopaidas and offered to make a partial payment, according to the affidavit. When it was still not paid six months later, Psichopaidas filed a complaint with Stamford police. Hansen then promised his wife would drop off a check, but she never showed up. Investigator Sean Coughlin warned Hansen that he’d been given ample time to pay the invoice, and if he failed to do so, he would be arrested for larceny. On April 27, 2018, Psichopaidas received a personal check from Hansen for $13,200, which bounced three days later, according to the affidavit.
“Peter… I truly thought I had this covered,” Hansen wrote in an email the day the check bounced, the affidavit continued. “I am scrambling to get it done. Please give me till the end of the day. I sold a boat to cover the rest of this and need to pick up the payment this afternoon.” (Hansen says he doesn’t remember anything about a boat, explaining “a lot of stuff was said, and not by me,” and dismisses the whole incident as “small-town hubbub.”)
As Lytton wrote for the Associated Press that week, one corner of the web was unsurprised by the criminal charges levied against Hansen: The comment section of the Hansen vs. Predator Kickstarter page was filled with people who were owed T-shirts, stickers and mugs. (Backers of the show contributed an average of $73 and were promised a mug for a $20 contribution, a signed photo for $40 and a T-shirt and personalized mug with their name next to Hansen’s “Have a Seat” tagline for more than $45.) For many, though, the swag never came:
- “Couldn’t even be bothered to send out a signed photo,” sighed Kickstarter contributor Timothy Harris nearly four years after he made a donation. “Lol can’t believe I got scammed by Chris Hansen.”
- “Between the mistresses, the mounting debt and the bank repossessing his home, I guess he was probably too busy,” snarked fellow donor Hey Hey Hey.
- “To see Hansen fall from grace would be the cleanest, best pleasure,” added Jason Cole, borrowing a famous line from To Catch a Predator arrestee Cody Green, who predicted sex with a 13-year-old girl “would be the cleanest, best pleasure.”
Lytton and Nickerson concluded that Hansen was broke and struggling to keep up with a lifestyle beyond his means. “He was running on fumes from the previous show and trying to put everything that he could into the next show while keeping up with his lifestyle in the nicest part of Stamford,” Lytton suggests. In July 2018, tax records show that U.S. Bank Trust took ownership of Hansen’s $963,000 colonial in Stamford. Hansen tells me he took “a significant hit” during the recession of the late 2000s, like millions of other Americans. “I was hit by a perfect storm, and it took eight or 10 months to sort through it. People wanted to ‘get the gotcha guy,’ and fine, whatever. But it was never a destitute situation.”
Moreover, according to a civil complaint, in 2015, American Express sued Hansen for $57,900, claiming he refused to make payment on the balance due on a Platinum Card. In the spring of 2018, records show Ally Financial brought a suit claiming Hansen stopped making payments on a 2014 Corvette. (Court records obtained by a U.K. tabloid revealed that Hansen also owed $126,356.35 to TD Bank; $1,078,164.73 to U.S. Bank Trust; and more than $250,000 in back taxes.)
When I ask Hansen how the evictions, foreclosures, repossessions, infidelity claims and larceny arrests impacted his mental health, he takes a deep breath and shrugs: “I could’ve done without it.”
But he refuses “to get into every specific detail of that very difficult year,” pointing again to a “perfect storm” of personal changes. “You spend your entire life doing things for other people, raising two successful young men and working very hard in a craft that takes up a great part of your life. But they don’t write about you when you pay your mom’s mortgage or her grocery bill every month, only when you have things collide into a perfect storm.”
He vows, too, that 2020 looks “extraordinarily bright” from a professional standpoint (despite a harassment claim by a former producer of Hansen’s YouTube show, who Hansen fired in January due to behavior he “could not condone,” including alleged racism and homophobia). Some say it’s more important to be on YouTube than television, Hansen tells me, envisioning his new development model to be incubating stories on YouTube before bringing them to television. (So far, so good in that regard: Hansen says he signed a deal with Investigation Discovery to do a series about the Onision story, and the Nygård investigation is moving forward at a major network.)
From a personal standpoint, Hansen says he “doesn’t know how it gets much better than this,” given two healthy, happy sons — Connor, a 26-year-old reporter for the Oklahoma City FOX affiliate, and Chase, a 29-year-old director of photography in Brooklyn — and a “marvelous” relationship with girlfriend Gabrielle. With his assorted criminal and civil cases largely behind him (minus the harassment suit), the dogged reporter from Detroit is now dusting himself off and pressing on.
“To the tabloids that want to chip at a short period of time where you had some personal challenges, have at it,” he says. “The minute they do 10 percent of what you do for people, on and off camera every day, we can have a debate. Until then, you have to be you, and they have to be them.”