IT IS a controversial subject but paedophile ‘hunting’ groups are growing increasingly active in Gwent.
Some call it internet vigilantism bordering on entrapment; others have suggested the groups be trained to act as a volunteer army of ‘digital detectives’.
The issue was first widely publicised when a documentary calledThe Paedophile Hunter aired in 2014.
It followed Stinson Hunter and his associates as they posed as children online to catch potential sexual predators.
Since then, more than 10 groups are understood to have sprung up across the country, with scores of snares, and – significantly – successful prosecutions based on their evidence.
A number of police forces have since written to groups asking them to stop, while legal teams have argued evidence gathered diminishes the integrity of the court process and that the groups should be regulated.
But stings persist, and so do prosecutions.
And in April a judge ruled there was no reason to subject the actions of these groups to control, despite acknowledging that the groups may be creating crime where it might not otherwise have occurred.
Gwent has seen four such cases recently, and three this month alone – including one involving a 92-year-old man.
Ivor Gifford, of Princess Street, Abertillery, was jailed for 18 months after being found guilty of two counts of attempting to incite a child under 13 to engage in sexual activity, and one count of attempting to meet a child following sexual grooming.
When he arrived for a rendezvous at Llanhilleth Railway Station in December last year, he was confronted by members of the group The Hunted One. The girls did not exist.
Christopher Lane, of Highmead, Pontllanfraith, meanwhile, was jailed for more than two years after he admitted contacting two separate accounts on a dating app – girls he believed to be 13 and 14.
He pleaded guilty to one charge of attempting to meet an underage child following sexual grooming, and three charges of communicating with an underage child to obtain sexual gratification.
Jason Benger, of Arail Street in Six Bells, Abertillery, was jailed for two-and-a-half years after he pleaded guilty to six counts of attempting to incite a child under 13 to engage in sexual activity, following a further operation by The Hunted One.
While Alan Mullen, 66, of Court Farm Road, Cwmbran, was handed a 14- month prison sentence, suspended for two years, after he pleadeding guilty to grooming. He was confronted by members of the group Patronus.
The men and women behind the groups are often former victims of abuse themselves.
Mark Creswick, not his real name, said it was for this reason that he set up the group Creep Hunters UK.
“I was an abused child and when I later watched a programme about abuse it opened my eyes,” he said.
“It made me want to protect the children in our society, who could fall victim to paedophiles.”
He also said he does not believe the actions of the group are controversial.
“We’re just doing this to protect our children and we’ve had a lot of success,” he added.
“There are lots of ways of doing our job.
“One of those ways is going onto chat sites and chatting to different people, to see the responses that we get.
“Usually I pose as a 13 or 14-year-old child.
“When we’ve found someone interested in an underage person we then arrange a meet-up.”
Mr Creswick said the group used this ‘chat site strategy’ to bring Christopher Lane “to justice”.
“I set up a fake account on a chat site and Lane started talking with me,” added Mr Creswick.
“The conversation quickly turned sexual.
“When any paedophile agree to meet, the person is expecting to see a child but that doesn’t happen.
“We turn up and record the suspects, to use it as evidence.
“Once the police arrest the suspect then we know we have done everything we can.”
Lane was snared in a dual-group sting, which also involved Creep Catchers UK.
Rob Hunter, its leader, also not his real name, described the case as “one of the worst” his group had dealt with.
Mr Hunter, also a victim of abuse, said: “It’s pure satisfaction for me in that it’s getting another off the streets. We’re doing a good deed
“I was abused myself so it’s my way of giving something back.”
Detective Superintendent Leanne Brustad, who is in charge of public protection for Gwent Police, has urged caution by groups operating in the region though.
“We rely on the assistance of the public in preventing and detecting crime,” she said. “Working closely with communities is a vital way in which we gain information, and their active engagement in fighting crime helps us to do our job.
“Cases involving child sex abuse are extremely serious and have a huge emotional impact not only on the victims, but on whole families, and the communities in which they take place.
“We understand the desire to protect children but any member of the public who has information about child sexual abuse, online or otherwise, should get in contact with the police so we can investigate and bring people to justice.”
Detective Brustad She also warned of the various dangers involved in ‘hunting’ activity.
“Revealing the identity of suspected paedophiles gives the suspect the opportunity to destroy evidence before the police can investigate them,” she said.
“It also leads to people who have been identified going missing or raising concerns for their safety. “This can divert significant resources into protecting suspects, which would be better invested in investigating and, where there is evidence, prosecuting them.
“Vigilante groups also risk committing offences themselves whilst dealing with these suspected paedophiles, which our officers then have to deal with.”
“If the public has any concerns about grooming they should call 101 or, if a child is at immediate risk of harm, 999.”
An NSPCC Wales spokesman also voiced concern.
“While we have every sympathy for people concerned about suspected abusers, there are risks when members of the public take the law into their own hands,” he said.
“It can run the risk of driving offenders underground, jeopardise on-going and complex police work or result in innocent people being harassed – all of which may put more children at risk of harm.
“We would urge everyone to leave it to the proper authorities to identify and investigate offenders.
“If anyone has concerns about children, or adults, contact NSPCC on 0808 800 5000 or email email@example.com”
But Creep Catchers UK leader Mr Hunter, who lives in Merseyside, said the aim was to help the police.
“There are a lot of these predators and they don’t have the resources,” he said.