BELLEVILLE — About a dozen supporters of a "predator hunter" who is facing criminal charges in Madison County showed up to protest Friday at a golf tournament sponsored by State's Attorney Tom Haine in Alton.
The small turnout, combined with temperatures in the 90s, turned the protest into more of a rap session under a shade tree, where the metro-east residents shared stories of children in their families they say have been sexually assaulted by men still on the loose.
They see Kyle Swanson, founding leader of an organization known as "KTS Predator Hunters," as a hero.
"People like Kyle are exposing these (pedophiles) to where our babies are protected," said Natasha Jones, 32, of Alton, who was notified recently that authorities aren't going to prosecute a man in connection with the sexual assault of a child in her family due to lack of evidence.
Jones was carrying a sign that read, "I stand with KTS!!!"
She and other supporters are upset that Haine has charged Swanson, 31, of Wood River, with a misdemeanor and two felonies, including one count of unlawful restraint, as a result of a Jan. 12 meeting Swanson had with a man he suspected of being a pedophile.
The meeting was broadcast live on Facebook, according to KTS leaders. Swanson has called the criminal charges "B.S." and a "scare tactic."
Lori Murray, 47, manager of a low-income apartment building in Granite City, said she began following KTS three years ago. She had been looking for such an organization since the late 2000s, when a child in her family was sexually abused. That perpetrator was caught.
Destiny Silkwood, 25, a stay-at-home mom in Mascoutah, said Swanson exposed a man she knows as a pedophile, prompting her to keep her two young sons away from him.
"I see pedophilia as a huge problem," she said. "Even if I wasn't a parent, I would see it as a problem. These children can't advocate for themselves."
The KTS protest originally was planned for 9 a.m. Friday outside the Madison County Criminal Justice Center in Edwardsville, where Swanson was due to appear for a preliminary hearing.
The protest's time and location were changed Thursday after Swanson's attorney, Don Weber, asked Associate Judge Ronald Slemer to postpone the hearing. It will be held on Zoom at a time to be determined, according to the Madison County circuit clerk's office.
The protest was moved to Spencer T. Olin Community Golf Course in Alton, where a golf fundraiser for Haine was being held Friday afternoon.
Swanson supporters blamed the protest's poor turnout on confusion over the location change. They said it will be rescheduled for late June.
"I'd be out here if it was 120 degrees," Murray said. "I support Kyle. He's the voice that we've all wanted to be."
KTS Predator Hunters is a limited liability company that Swanson founded in 2018 as a nonprofit organization. One of its Facebook groups, KTS: Stop Sexual Assault, has more than 51,000 followers.
Last week, Swanson said the organization is being dissolved in light of his legal problems.
"I'm done with it," he said, vowing to fight the criminal charges and eventually move to Florida. "I just have mental exhaustion with all the legal issues" and criticism he has received.
KTS leaders posted photos, videos and other information on Facebook to expose and shame people they suspected of being pedophiles. They sometimes posed as underage girls online and lured men to various locations, presumably to have sex; videotaped the confrontations and broadcast them on YouTube.
KTS leaders say their undercover operations have led to arrests, but they've also been criticized by law enforcement for vigilantism that can interfere with investigations and prosecutions.
Grand jury action
A Madison County grand jury reviewed evidence on May 6 from an Illinois State Police investigation before indicting Swanson on one count of unlawful restraint and one count of obstruction of justice/destroying evidence, both Class 4 felonies; and one count of assault, a Class C misdemeanor.
Swanson is accused of enticing the man he met on Jan. 12 into his vehicle under a false pretense, refusing to allow him to exit and threatening to hit him.
On May 24, Haine stated in a news release that people who take justice into their own hands, even for "laudable" purposes, can place themselves and others in danger and hurt prosecutions.
"Having a citizenry that is observant of suspicious behavior and criminal activity is important," Haine stated.
"But citizens must utilize the existing law enforcement channels to ensure that true justice is pursued, where criminals are caught and exposed but with sufficient evidence that can hold up in a court of law and sustain a conviction, all the while respecting each individual's right to presumed innocence under our Constitutional system."
Friday's protest was advertised by a Facebook group called "To Save a Hero," which was created after Swanson's arrest on May 20. As of Friday, it had more than 1,800 followers.
Weber, Swanson's attorney, didn't respond to a request for comment Friday. He's affiliated with the Craney Law Group in Edwardsville. He's a former state's attorney for Madison and Ford counties, former assistant Illinois attorney general and former Third Judicial Circuit Court judge.
Swanson said last week he had reached a fundraising goal of $10,000 for his defense, including more than $8,000 from a GoFundMe campaign and $2,000 from sales of T-shirts that read, "We Stand with Kyle."
As of Friday, GoFundMe proceeds had reached $10,447. That includes a $1,000 donation from one man.
"I donated because as a PROUD SURVIVOR of abuse and Father of 2 little girls, I believe in the work being done to seek out and reveal the identities of those DOING harm to our children," he wrote. "Doing the work that law enforcement cannot get done. Thank you Kyle! Now go beat those trumped up charges and get back to the good work you are doing."