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American courts have long recognized the right of police to invent ruses. Courts and lawmakers become less and less scrupulous about basic fairness.The more frightening and reprehensible the threat, the more license and latitude are given to the police.Shortly before six o’clock on the evening of Monday, September 19, 2005, Deery went to work in her cave, logging on to Yahoo and expertly navigating its public chat rooms.

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For this account, both Deery and J were willing to speak openly and at length; transcripts of online chats and police interrogations have also been made available.

The story reflects what they said about themselves and their actions, and presents two very different points of view.

This leads unavoidably into the gray area of thoughts, intentions, and predispositions—and into the equally murky realm of enticement and entrapment.

It is a way of conducting police business that, without extreme care, can itself become a form of abuse—in which the pursuer and the pursued grow entangled in a transaction that takes on a gruesome life of its own. Dick in his classic short story “The Minority Report,” and in the Steven Spielberg movie based on it, in which an official government department of “Precrime” identifies, charges, and jails people on the basis of anticipated actions.

As a fantasy, her come-on seemed overbaked—not one daughter, but two!

It is doubtful that such a woman exists anywhere, and yet men fell for it. The bulletin board over her desk displays mug shots of her catches, very ordinary-looking men, facing the camera wide-eyed with shock, staring at the fresh ruin of their lives. One of the stunned faces in that array belongs to a man I will call “J,” who would spend a year in prison after taking Deery’s bait.

For a variety of reasons, few of them valid, the child-molester has become the pre-eminent domestic villain of our time. In 1998, in response to growing fears of sexual predation online, Congress provided funds for the Department of Justice to create the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC ) task force, which among other things provides federal grants to local police departments for programs to find and apprehend online predators.

In practice that means looking for people who potentially fit the mold—people who seem as if they might be poised to commit a crime even if they have not yet done so.

One of the many false identities Deery has assumed online is something truly rare, even in this polluted pond—that of a middle-aged mother of two pre-pubescent girls who is offering them up for sex.

Baiting her hook with this forbidden fruit, she would cast the line and wait to see who bit. Men began vying for her attention the minute she logged on, night or day.

He imagined it was like a colorful lure on the surface of a pond.