Kyle Swanson's name has become synonymous with an effort to expose and shame suspected pedophiles, but he's shutting down the organization he founded three years ago.
The decision follows his May 6 indictment by a Madison County grand jury and May 20 arrest on three charges, including two felonies and one misdemeanor, related to a January meeting with a man that resulted in videotaped footage being posted on YouTube.
Swanson said in an interview Sunday that he's taking legal steps to dissolve KTS Predator Hunters, a limited liability company that began as a nonprofit organization in 2018.
"I'm done with it," said Swanson, 30, of Wood River, formerly of Belleville and Alton. "I just have mental exhaustion with all the legal issues (and other pushback)."
Swanson has hired attorney Don Weber, of the Edwardsville-based Craney Law Group, to represent him in the criminal case. Weber is a former state's attorney for Madison and Ford counties, former assistant Illinois attorney general and former Third Judicial Circuit Court judge.
Swanson said he has 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, "Stand with Kyle."
"I dislike (the idea of KTS shutting down)," said fellow leader T.J. Pfleger, 37, an IT specialist who lives in Jersey County. "But I understand why he's doing it, knowing what he's been through and what it takes to do something like this."
Swanson, a U.S. Army combat veteran, said last month that legal problems have worsened his post-traumatic stress disorder.
Support and controversy
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.
KTS: Stop Sexual Assault, one of the organization's Facebook groups, has more than 51,000 followers.
Despite what critics claim, Swanson said, he has made very little money off KTS activities. He works as an auto mechanic.
"We were trying to do a good thing, trying to spread awareness throughout the community," he said. "It kinda sucks that we have to end it this way. It is what it is. ... But it was nice to see the community support and to let people know what's going on out there."
Pfleger said he joined Swanson's effort because he's a father of four and because several years ago a stranger tried to pick up his small son from the front yard.
Pfleger said he and Swanson were more aggressive during meetings with suspected pedophiles in the beginning, but they learned that a calmer approach could be more effective in getting men to open up about their own child abuse and other issues.
"I hate to see (KTS) come to an end," Pfleger said. "I just feel like it was making a difference. ... Even if it keeps one person away from the kids, then that's a success in my mind."
Grand jury indictment
The 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.
The charges revolve around a meeting between Swanson and another man on Jan. 12 at an unnamed location in Madison County.
"(Swanson) knowingly and without legal authority detained (the man), in that the said defendant enticed (the man) into his vehicle under a false pretense and refused to let (the man) exit the vehicle when requested," according to the indictment for Count 1.
"(Swanson) knowingly caused physical evidence to be destroyed, altered, concealed, in that said defendant induced (the man and a woman) to erase digital evidence of a crime contained on a phone," according to the indictment for Count 2.
"(Swanson) engaged in conduct that places another in reasonable apprehension of receiving a battery, in that he threatened to hit (the man)," according to the indictment for Count 3.
Last month, Swanson called the charges "B.S." and a "scare tactic." He said the man, who the BND isn't naming because he hasn't been charged with a crime, entered his car voluntarily.
Swanson turned himself into authorities on May 20. He was released after posting the required 10% of his $40,000 bond.
A preliminary hearing on the Swanson case is scheduled for Friday with Associate Judge Ronald Slemer presiding. Supporters are advertising on Facebook a "peaceful" protest at 9 a.m. outside the Madison County Criminal Justice Center in Edwardsville.
Class 4 felonies can carry penalties of one to three years in prison and up to $25,000 in fines. Class C misdemeanors can carry penalties of up to 30 days in jail and up to $1,500 in fines.
State's Attorney Tom Haine released the following statement about the Swanson case on May 24:
"The Grand Jury's decision here reflects the fundamental idea that when members of a community decide to take justice into their own hands, even for laudable purposes, they can place themselves and others in danger and damage potential cases.
"We have tremendous law enforcement agencies in Madison County, and the public needs to let them do their job. Having a citizenry that is observant of suspicious behavior and criminal activity is important, 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.
"When members of a community decide to take justice into their own hands, they can place themselves and others in danger, damage potential cases, and violate citizen's fundamental rights."
Campaign for sheriff
In November, Swanson announced his plan to run for Madison County sheriff in 2022. His Facebook campaign page includes a badge-shaped logo with an image of him wearing a cowboy hat and his trademark bushy beard.
But on Sunday, Swanson said he plans to move to Florida, where many of his family members live, after the criminal case is over, if he's not jailed.
Friday won't be his first courtroom experience.
A Red Bud man filed a civil lawsuit against Swanson and KTS in September 2020 in Randolph County Circuit Court. Adrian Collins maintained that the organization had wrongly defamed him on Facebook by accusing him of "grooming" a 14-year-old girl for sex in private messages.
Collins filed a motion for voluntary dismissal in December, and a judge granted it on March 22. Swanson declared victory in a Facebook Live chat with followers while leaving the Chester courthouse.
Last fall, Collinsville School District Unit 10 officials expressed concern in a letter to parents that KTS had engaged in one of its sting-like operations in the parking lot of Webster Elementary School.
The target was a Missouri man who allegedly thought he was meeting a 13-year-old girl. Instead, he faced two KTS members, who interrogated and reprimanded him for about 10 minutes as a video camera recorded the scene.
The organization argued that it occurred after school hours, put no child in danger and succeeded in showing the brazenness of some pedophiles.