It was just before 3 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon last November when a contingent of police gathered outside the home of Louis Conradt Jr., a longtime county prosecutor living in the small community of Terrell, Texas, just east of Dallas. Though the fifty-six-year-old Conradt was a colleague of some of the officers, they hadn’t come to discuss a case or for a backyard barbeque. Rather, the veteran district attorney, who had prosecuted hundreds of felonies during more than two decades in law enforcement, was himself the target of an unusual criminal probe. For weeks the police in the nearby town of Murphy had been working with the online watchdog group Perverted Justice and producers from Dateline NBC’s popular “To Catch a Predator” series in an elaborate sting operation targeting adults cruising the Internet to solicit sex from minors. Dateline had leased a house in an upscale subdivision, outfitted it with multiple hidden cameras, and hired actors to impersonate minors to help lure suspects into the trap. As with several similar operations previously conducted by Dateline, there was no shortage of men looking to score with underage boys and girls. In all, twenty-four men were caught in the Murphy sting, including a retired doctor, a traveling businessman, a school teacher, and a Navy veteran.
Conradt had never shown up at the Dateline house, but according to the police, using the screen name “inxs00,” he did engage in explicit sexual exchanges in an Internet chat room with someone he believed to be a thirteen-year-old boy (but was actually a volunteer for Perverted Justice). Under a Texas law adopted in 2005 to combat Internet predators, it is a second-degree felony to have such communications with someone under the age of fourteen, even if no actual sexual contact takes place. Armed with a search warrant — and with a Dateline camera crew on the scene — the police went to Conradt’s home to arrest him. When the prosecutor failed to answer the door or answer phone calls, police forced their way into the house. Inside they encountered the prosecutor in a hallway holding a semiautomatic handgun. “I’m not going to hurt anybody,” Conradt reportedly told the police. Then he fired a single bullet into his own head.
Standing outside the house with his crew, the Dateline correspondent Chris Hansen said he did not hear the shot that ended Conradt’s life, but did see his body wheeled out on a gurney. Discussing Conradt’s death over lunch a couple of weeks later, I asked Hansen how it made him feel. Hansen said his first reaction was as a newsman who had to cover the story for his network (Hansen filed a report the next morning for NBC’s Today show). Hansen said that on a human level Conradt’s death was a tragedy that, naturally, he felt bad about. But he understood the true import of my question: “If you’re asking do I feel responsible, no,” Hansen said. “I sleep well at night.”