WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (WGHP) — A new wave of civilians catching accused criminals in the act may be paying off.

A Winston-Salem-based organization called the Minor Defense Force works to get accused child predators off the street. Two men — co-founders Chris Winfrey and Zander Blankenship — pose as children on dating apps to catch potential child predators in the triad.

“We post up on like a dating site or grindr, meet me, we just post a profile. We never message anyone first. That’s one of our biggest rules, we don’t message first,” Winfrey said. 

Thomas James Dibona

MDF’s latest catch resulted in the arrest of 25-year-old Thomas Dibona. He’s accused of soliciting a child by computer to commit sexual acts. The arrest was made by the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office.

Winfrey says he usually submits his evidence to local law enforcement, but this was the first time one of their meet-ups turned into an arrest on the spot. 

Winfrey says he notified the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office before his scheduled meet-up with Dibona, who he had been talking to, posing as a 14-year-old girl online. 

He says investigators asked for all his evidence and decided to be there for the meet-up. Winfrey and his team filmed the entire arrest. 

Since launching in February of 2022, MDF has caught 13 accused predators. MDF’s version of “catching” an accused predator is confronting the person they have been messaging with. They never make any citizens arrests or use violence. Winfrey records every encounter and posts them on his YouTube page. He says the videos are mostly for entertainment purposes, but he’s also looking at the bigger picture. 

“My ultimate goal is cuffs. Arrests and charges.” Winfrey said. 

His passion for the work comes from personal experience. 

“I’ve got friends of mine who’ve got daughters who have had stuff happen to them, I’m a survivor of a sexual assault as a child as well,” Winfrey said. 

Winfrey is hoping this arrest opens the door to more collaborations with other police departments. He says a meet-up on April 23 in North Wilkesboro also resulted in an arrest. 

“If I can go in and be sent to another sheriff’s department and go hey here’s what we’re seeing in our town, here’s what it looks like, I want to help however I can to get these people behind bars,” Winfrey said. 

Most importantly, he hopes to save children from the same experiences he had as a child. 

“I didn’t realize that what had happened to me was sexual assault until about 5 years ago and I’m 34,” Winfrey said. “I don’t want the next generation of kids to have to be 30 years old realizing ‘dude I was sexually assaulted and I didn’t even know it.’ That’s what I’m trying to prevent.”

He says MDF will continue to catch accused predators and continue to try to collaborate with local law enforcement. Thomas Dibona is being held at the Forsyth County Detention Center on a $10,000 secured bond.