Crew members on Jacob Wohl’s Predator DC report assaults during filming

Right-wing activists Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman are known for political stunts, including bizarre attempts to apparently engineer sex scandals around high-profile political figures. They’re facing criminal charges in multiple states over an alleged election robocalling scheme. But in recent months, employees say the pair have also been responsible for a bizarre and dangerous environment on the set of their Washington, DC-based imitation of To Catch a Predator.

Three former Wohl and Burkman employees went on the record with The Verge to speak about the third season of Predator DC, a web series that promised to ensnare high-profile sexual predators with sting operations around the DC metropolitan area. In interviews and on social media, they describe being stranded in a Maryland Airbnb under hellish working conditions, subjected to sexual assault by the show’s targets or physical assault by Wohl himself. When they complained, they allege Wohl and Burkman denied them thousands of dollars in promised payments and harassed them.

Over email, the team behind Predator DC denied the assault claim against Wohl. “Ms. Spealman invented these false allegations as retribution for her dismissal from the show,” said a statement attributed to Wohl.

It’s a bleak reminder of how the new online blend of politics and entertainment can chew up workers and how few options they still have for reporting abuse. In most cases of workplace misconduct, victims’ last resort is going public — but for provocateurs like Wohl and Burkman, all publicity is good publicity.

“They wasted so much of my time. They wasted so much of my money,” says Emma Sirus, an actor hired to impersonate a 16-year-old girl. “They physically put me through hell.”

Predator DC followed the model of the ’00s Dateline NBC series To Catch a Predator, playing off newer QAnon-adjacent fears of pedophilia among political elites. Wohl and longtime assistant Kristin Spealman would impersonate 15- or 16-year-old teenagers online and chat with adults, then invite them to meet at a “sting house” rigged with cameras. (The age of consent in Maryland is 16, but the state has laws against soliciting a minor under the age of 18 for sex.) When they arrived, they were recorded for public shaming and, in some cases, arrested by police.

But where Dateline had a sprawling crew and official coordination with local law enforcement, Predator DC was — like many web series — a shoestring operation. According to Spealman, who co-produced the show, the team hired a handful of employees to carry out each season’s sting operation. For the third season, that apparently included: Sirus (a stage name), who regularly works as an adult performer; IT specialist Ian Beattie (unrelated to the Game of Thrones actor); a freelance director; and three security guards.

It was a risky proposition for a show attempting to lure sex criminals. And while a shorter first and second “season” had apparently gone without significant incidents, Sirus, Beattie, and Spealman all tell The Verge that the third sting operation began to unravel quickly. (The show’s freelance director didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

“There’s a reason,” says Spealman, “there was a staff of like 200 people on To Catch a Predator.

Sirus and Beattie say they were both unfamiliar with Wohl and Burkman’s political operations. They were approached with the pitch of a show aimed at catching pedophiles and shown footage from previous sting operations to prove its legitimacy. And they were told they’d be doing it in a secure, professional production — working with tight security and staying at a nearby hotel overnight.

When they arrived at the sting house in late May, it quickly became clear they weren’t getting what they were promised. “[We were told that] nobody was going to be staying at the house and that everybody’s going to get set up with hotel rooms,” says Beattie. “By the time it came to the filming, everything changed.” There were no hotel rooms, and Sirus, Beattie, Spealman, and the director were all expected to stay in the house full time. Beattie had also accepted a lower rate of pay in a last-minute negotiation — although even that, it would turn out, was overly optimistic.

Spealman says Wohl and Burkman hadn’t budgeted enough money to fulfill any of their promises. Instead, they left the four team members effectively locked in the sting house for five days. The group says they were unable to go outside or regularly order food for fear of alerting “predators,” who they say sometimes scoped out the house for hours. They lived on sporadic meal deliveries and food brought by Wohl and Burkman. Even worse, they say the budget didn’t cover a full-time security staff. At night, they say, the security team departed — leaving them vulnerable to retaliation from angry targets. “If they decided to come back, we were on our own,” says Beattie.

Spealman had worked with Wohl and Burkman for years, and she was no stranger to their ethically shady stunts. But she had seen most of their work as more attention-seeking than dangerous. “I know they didn’t have the best reputations, but they had always been good to me until recently,” she says — sometimes, she recalls, referring to her as their only friend.

As Predator DC filming stretched on, that began to change. According to Sirus and Spealman, Predator DC’s sting operations were motivated as much by Wohl and Burkman’s conservative political activism as the hunt for criminals. “Their whole thing was that they wanted to get a big fish. They wanted a congressman. They wanted Biden,” says Spealman. “That was very unrealistic — you can’t just turn people into pedophiles.”

Wohl’s solution was apparently to hide the age of the show’s fictitious teenagers as long as possible — in some cases, until they were on their way to the house. “What you’re doing borders on entrapment,” Spealman says she complained to Wohl at one point.

To Catch a Predator’s wildly popular run in the 2000s was already ethically fraught. The show was criticized for compromising the normal standards of police work for the sake of drama, culminating in the suicide of a man who chatted with one of the impersonators but refused to meet in person.

Employees say that in Predator DC, the hunt for “big fish” and drama seemingly overshadowed the physical safety of the crew, particularly Sirus. Frustrated by targets who ran when they arrived at the house, she says, the team told her to draw them in with small talk, a task she hadn’t agreed to do. They demanded she wear more revealing clothing, making her even more vulnerable — a trailer for Predator DC on Instagram appears to show her in a bikini. And while security was in the house, they left her mostly on her own.

“Emma was promised a security detail making sure that she was going to be safe and taken care of through everything,” says Beattie. “And she didn’t get any of that.”

The results, according to Spealman, Sirus, and Beattie, were horrific. Men kissed or hugged Sirus, who was afraid to break character while trying to fend them off. At least one groped her. Sirus says security guards had been told to hang back instead of defending her, intervening only once she’d managed to leave the scene, and other crew members confirmed that she was left without personal protection around targets. The team called the police on the worst offenders, including the man who’d groped her — but they didn’t make changes that could have protected her as the show went on.

“They did nothing,” she says. “They didn’t care.”

Spealman says nothing comparable happened in previous seasons. It’s not clear whether that’s because the team was better equipped to protect their actors — this season’s targets, she says, were unusually aggressive — but she acknowledges that the team should have kept a closer security detail on Sirus. “She should have been protected as soon as she opened the door,” she says. “There should have been security right there with her.”

The combination of stress and irregular eating took its toll. Sirus says she woke up one day shaking and crying uncontrollably, her blood pressure dangerously low. “They were considering having to take her over to the hospital,” says Beattie. “It was just Jacob was right there — pushing, pushing, pushing for more.”

Wohl allegedly pushed her to take an unidentified pill that he claimed would raise her blood pressure — but made her lethargic and heavy-limbed. (Spealman corroborated the story about the pill, saying Wohl claimed to her it was a placebo.)

Spealman says she finally confronted Wohl about his treatment of the staff and doubts about whether the team would be paid. He became violent, she says, throwing a chair at her, breaking a clipboard she’d been using for scheduling, and tackling her onto a bed to grab an iPad from her hands. (The Verge reviewed pictures of a report she made to police describing the claims and confirmed the report’s existence in Maryland’s court system.) Sirus says she didn’t witness the attack firsthand but heard screaming and banging from the floor above her while she was in the sting house — and says she was told about the details when Spealman came downstairs, sobbing. Beattie said he didn’t witness any violence or hear anyone get physically hit, but he recalls Wohl “yelling at the top of his lungs” at Spealman and hearing things “getting knocked around” in the room where they fought.

Filming was ultimately cut off after a conflict with police and nearby residents, who weren’t happy with their neighborhood hosting a sex crime sting operation. But as the shoot collapsed, the team says Wohl and Burkman pushed to negotiate their rates downward — and after leaving the house, the money never came through. The Verge reviewed copies of invoices and text messages provided by Spealman and Sirus, indicating Sirus charged $12,000 based on a verbal agreement — but there’s no evidence any of the bills were paid as owed.

At this point, getting any legal or financial justice may be difficult. Sirus posted about her experience on TikTok and spoke with a creator on the platform who goes by TizzyEnt, which raised the profile of her story. But when she tried to report her experience to the police, she says she was shuttled between jurisdictions. (Court records indicate a criminal case against one of the alleged “predators” referenced in a Predator DC Instagram post, who Sirus says assaulted her, is ongoing.) Spealman says in addition to filing her assault complaint against Wohl, she’s sought a restraining order against harassment but that she wasn’t able to get one because the incident happened more than 30 days prior.

Reached via email, the Predator DC team claimed Spealman had falsified her accusations after being fired from the show in late June, around two weeks after Sirus had already contacted The Verge. “Spealman’s accusations against Mr. Wohl are false, as proven by surveillance cameras that captured everything that happened on June 3rd along with eyewitness accounts from the many crewmembers present during the sting,” said Wohl. Neither Spealman nor Wohl provided video footage corroborating their respective accounts. The statement did not address the claims Sirus made on TikTok or complaints that employees hadn’t been paid.

Wohl and Burkman’s financial situation is far from clear. The duo is fighting ongoing legal battles, including felony charges in Michigan and Ohio, where prosecutors claim they fed false information to potential voters through a robocalling scheme. (A trial in Ohio is set for October.) “I don’t think they have the money,” says Spealman. “Even if they did have the money, I don’t think they have any intention of paying.”

It doesn’t help that Wohl and Burkman have a history of staging false incidents to fool reporters; in 2020, they briefly tricked The Washington Post into reporting on a fake FBI raid. Sirus says they encouraged her to sue for her payment, reasoning that the case would raise the profile of Predator DC, and pushed her to talk to media — but only if it promoted the show.

Sirius says that attention-seeking is just one more point of frustration. “I wish I was lying about all the frickin’ stuff they did to me,” she says. “My life would be a whole lot simpler right now if none of that had happened.”

Originally appeared on: TheSpuzz