As yet another self-styled “paedophile hunter” finds himself convicted of falsely accusing a man to “groom” teenagers, things are beginning to look grim for the vigilante-style paedo-hunting industry.
Stephen Dure of Southampton, also known as “Stevie Trap”, was convicted Friday and will be sentenced Monday for accusing Paul Farhad of Eastleigh of being a “violent psychopath” and a “menace to society”. As a result of these false allegations, Farhad lost his job, had his door spray-painted, and had a brick heaved through his window, he told the court.
Alfred Underwood, defending, said Mr Dure accepted that Mr Farhad was not a paedophile, which was “nowhere suggested” in the Facebook message read out in court.
The victim then produced a screenshot of the post on his mobile phone.
It showed the words “grooming teenagers” had been deleted from the original published message at some stage.
Mr Dure then changed his plea to guilty.
Do paedophile hunters help children?
In April 2018, a BBC investigation found that evidence gathered by paedophile-hunter groups had been used to charge suspects in at least 150 cases in 2017—so on the surface of it, it certainly appears that when carried out responsibly, paedophile hunting can have a beneficial effect:
Each police force in England and Wales was asked by the BBC to say how many people had been charged after evidence was given by paedophile hunters, with 29 out of 43 able to give three years’ worth of figures.
The supplied data showed a greater than seven-fold rise in two years – from 20 in 2015 to 150 in 2017.
Of the police forces that responded, almost half (47%) of the cases of the crime of meeting a child following sexual grooming used evidence from so-called paedophile hunting groups in 2017.
The data only confirms that the evidence was used in some part. It does not suggest that the vigilantes’ actions were solely responsible for charges being brought.
Nevertheless, the National Police Chiefs Council has stated that paedophile hunting carries “significant risks”.
For example, when paedophile hunters confront an alleged paedophile (which they usually do with cameras live-streaming the “sting” to Facebook or other social media sites), they may unwittingly be interfering in longer-term undercover police investigations.
Such groups run other risks, such as harming the people they confront—stings are often done with groups of people swarming their prey, with the result that people have been injured or even killed.
Even in instances where alleged paedophiles are confronted, police are called, and charges are laid, subsequent court cases may be fouled if it’s found that the defendant was entrapped, or evidence was not gathered appropriately.
What’s the attraction?
While British vigilante groups such as Dark Justice boast large numbers of supporters for their activities, some question the motivations of people who join and support paedophile-hunting groups.
According to the website South Wales News Service, members of the Wrexham group “Huntz 2 Exposure” failed to notice that their “head of security” was a convicted sex offender, Michael Terry. Terry had been described by a judge as a “dangerous sexual predator”, yet the group was unaware that they were harbouring the very sort of person they alleged to be hunting.
A woman named Gemma Cowell joined “Huntz 2 Exposure” thinking that with her experience as a trained child counsellor she could make a real difference in the lives of children. According to an article in the Daily Mail last June, Cowell discovered that the reality of paedophile hunting was quite different to what she expected:
When she signed up with the group Huntz 2 Exposure this year, after seeing footage of a ‘sting’ on Facebook, Gemma joined a growing army of amateur paedophile hunters whose operations stretch across the UK. …
Admitted to their private message groups, where around 20 of them ‘chatted’ using online aliases, she looked on in horror as they appeared to treat their activities as a sick game.
They mocked innocent people, sometimes obviously mentally ill, egged each other on and openly admitted they were desperate for a ‘result’.
Some fantasised about ‘slicing and dicing’ offenders, while another bragged she ‘wouldn’t stop until she saw blood’.
And instead of intercepting organised grooming gangs in the act, they seemed to be entrapping vulnerable men with premeditated, sexually-loaded questions Gemma wasn’t comfortable with.
The stings themselves seemed to do more harm than good.
‘Families are often attacked, children are bullied or their houses smashed up. They seemed to be putting children and families at risk rather than protecting them,’ she said.
Noting that the questions “decoys” were told to ask seemed extremely leading and provocative, Cowell said they seemed designed to entrap the target into giving an incriminating answer—which would give the group an excuse for a sting.
Gemma also noticed a pattern in the type of men who caught the attention of the hunters: fat, old, hairy ‘dodgy-looking’ men, non-native English speakers and those from overseas who wouldn’t be familiar with our culture.
‘To me they seemed to target those you might think “look” like a paedophile.
‘Younger-looking men were instantly dismissed. In some conversations, it wasn’t clear if there was a language barrier or the target had learning disabilities.
‘One guy I spoke to was clearly autistic. Some were not even capable of looking after themselves, let alone arranging to travel somewhere for sex with a child.’
As one ‘hunter’ complained: ‘I’ve got one who’s obsessed with tickling . . . another who’s been speaking to me for ages, but not in a sexual way. I think one of them is one sandwich short of a picnic — he keeps telling me he’s my best friend.’
Another griped she was talking to one ‘who just wants to be my big brother and take care of me. Doesn’t want to f*** me and it’s getting very frustrating.’
According to Professor Liz Yardley, a criminologist at Birmingham City University, hunters often have less than noble aims. In the Daily Mail article, she stated,
‘Child sexual exploitation is obviously a very serious crime but they would be better getting behind the legitimate campaigns of the NSPCC and others.
‘It is interesting to look at the kind of people involved in this. They are not high-achieving professionals with fulfilling family lives and careers.
‘They are people looking for opportunities to be “somebody” and become “something” and this defines them.’
These groups still seem to attract a wide online following, and their exploits are often treated as a kind of folk heroism.
However, with the warnings of police in mind, and an understanding that these groups are not only unregulated but operating outside the law, perhaps it’s time for a hard look at their legal status.