A self-styled pedophile hunter snared a man who thought he was meeting a teenage girl he had groomed online.
Mark Lee Smith arranged to meet the 14-year-old, known as Lou, after grooming her on an online dating site, but instead he found himself face-to-face with an undercover journalist using the alias “Danny Catcher” who detained the 28-year-old father of one and called the police.
Swindon Crown Court heard Smith – who had previously pleaded guilty to charges between June 19 and 23 of causing or inciting a child to engage in sexual activity and attempting to meet a child following sexual grooming – thought he was meeting the teenager in Swindon Town Centre on the afternoon of June 22 this year.
Prosecutor Tessa Hingston said: “We know the defendant was encouraged to engage in some sort of sexual activity. We know this girl was 14 years old and wished to engage in some sort of sexual activity.
“On the flip side Mr Smith did say ‘if you don’t want to do anything I won’t push you’. He does on several occasions say he wants to engage in sexual activity despite already knowing her age.”
Smith admitted to police he had contacted the girl online and accepted he had arranged to meet her outside Primark to tell her he had changed his mind, the court heard.
Tony Bignall, defending, said: “The author of the pre-sentence report does not describe him as predatory. This is a man who is facing his demons and is ready to work with the Probation Service.”
Recorder Richard Onslow imposed a three-year community order with 25 days’ rehabilitation and told Smith, of Mulberry Grove in Swindon, to attend a sex offenders’ treatment programme. Smith was also placed on the sex offenders’ register for five years and given a sexual harm prevention order for five years.
Recorder Onslow said: “Lou was not a 14-year-old girl but a character created by a man who set up to find those that trawl the internet, such as people like yourself and people worse than you.
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“I have no doubt that your hopes of having sexual intercourse with a 14-year-old girl were high, although you said she didn’t have to if she didn’t want to.”
He told Smith that it was only because he was prepared to undergo rehabilitation that he had not been sent to prison.
“If you do anything like this again you know where you will be going,” he added.
Speaking after the case, Danny Catcher said: “I think it sends a strong message to people thinking about talking to or meeting children online.
“There is always a risk that the child could be a pedophile hunter and I sincerely hope my work stops people risking meeting to or talking to children online.
“Although it is welcome that this defendant has received a sentence for these offences it is not custody and that is highly disappointing.
“I hope that Mr Smith does change and never attempts anything like this again in his entire life.”