STEF HALL speaks to a grandmother who launched a paedophile hunting group that helped net an online predator from Blackpool. Just don’t call them vigilantes...
As her granddaughter snuggles up next to her innocently watching You Tube on her tablet, Maggie is on her laptop chatting to a paedophile who believes she is a 12-year-old girl.
Maggie isn’t a trained police officer or private detective - she is a 49-year-old professional who has joined a growing generation of self-styled paedophile hunters.
She says: “We are not vigilantes.
“The Government are peddling this idea but it isn’t true. Government funding does not enable police forces to do what we can do.
“We are constantly told it is dangerous - but every time I get in a car and go on the road it’s dangerous.
“Because we aren’t governed by the same regulations and red tape as the police, we can bring these people to book a lot quicker and get them in court.
“We aren’t bound by as much legality.”
With the help and support of friends and family Maggie launched the Innocence Keepers, a group of predominantly female volunteers who help net online groomers using decoys purporting to be children.
The 10 strong team is from a wide variety of backgrounds.
Some are unable to work physically, some are single parents, another works in a petrol station by day, another works in a hospital security role.
She says: “We are like a little family which is why it works so well, all supporting each other.”
Despite only launching at the end of April the group has confronted 21 predators who have either been dealt with at court, are on bail or are pending further enquiries.
Mark Aaron Presley, 49, of Edmonton Place, Bispham, is facing sentencing on January 8 for attempting to meet a child following grooming.
Police were contacted by Maggie’s group when he attempted to meet someone he believed to be a child on North Pier – marking their first Lancashire hit.
Another Lancashire man, this time in Morecambe, is also among their growing figures.
The group’s first sting was a man who travelled from Hemel Hempstead to Leeds to have sex with a youngster.
Maggie, from Leeds, recalls: “We felt amazing. It was mixed emotions because the day after the sting we had a big bereavement.
“I’m just a little old lady sat in a flat and all of a sudden we’ve caught 21 paedophiles.
“We have travelled length and breadth of the country. Four stings were in Birmingham.
“We have handed chat logs over for a sting in Morecambe.”
She claims the number of such groups in the UK has doubled since April when there were around 10, to more than 20.
She adds: “All the teams do work together.
“One team might catch someone but seven others might have also been corresponding with that person and share the information.
“We work with anybody we need to work with.
“One team in the Midlands acted as security for us as we are mostly female.
“If we get a sting in Scotland we might pass it on to a group in Scotland who are closer.
“I was very shocked at the scale of what I’ve found. My old job involves working with families and I’ve had to hand my decoys over because I couldn’t cope with it.
“We have an 11 and 12 year old decoy and you wouldn’t believe some of the things these people say to them.
“I take my hat off to my team because some of the stuff in those chat logs is horrendous.”
Maggie became interested due to new laws that came in this year in regards to online grooming.
She explains: “The fact I have five grandchildren makes me more determined particularly when someone is grooming me, while my granddaughter is at the side of me watching You Tube.
“You are so angry all the way through the chat, and on the way to the sting but when you lay your eyes on them it turns to outrage and disgust – especially when they stand there and say ‘I was hacked.’”
One national newspaper reported in 2016 more than 44 per cent of cases of meeting a child following sexual grooming used evidence gathered by paedophile hunters.
Despite this, there are fears by others that confrontations and the public shaming that follows them could wreck innocent people’s lives, with claims some people have lost their jobs and families after being mistakenly targeted.
A man committed suicide days after being accused and “named and shamed” of being a paedophile by Letzgo Hunting, an Internet-based anti-paedophilia group based in Leicestershire.
Such stings are diverting “significant resources” into the protection of suspects, some police chiefs claim, and revealing their identity could give suspects the opportunity to destroy evidence before the police can investigate them,”
But others have led to convictions including the case of Presley, who, in a bid to detract from his perversion, actually followed their Facebook page.
Fortunately, Maggie was not fooled. She says: “They’re so blatant but then claim they weren’t going to do anything and that they see it as a fantasy.”
Elvis obsessed Presley sent her a video and songs of his idol, believing she was 13, before the conversation turned sexual.
She said: “He was a bit of an unusual one because he actually followed all the anti paedophile groups Facebook pages, including us, and even wrote on our wall saying:’How can I help?’
“It was a blatant attempt to make it look like he supported our cause.
“Lancashire Police were really good with us.
“Our evidence is solid – we don’t just knock on people’s doors and point cameras at them.”
Another hunter, Stinson Hunter, who shot into the spotlight in a Channel 4 documentary on his work to expose paedophiles, and later moved to Preston, was involved in a sting on two men in the city in 2015 who were later arrested.
Police’s stance on hunters
Lancashire Police says it doesn’t encourage the public to entrap offenders.
A spokesman adds: “Lancashire Constabulary would always encourage members of the public to report any illegal activity relating to child exploitation which they identify by normal online activity.
“We do not encourage the public, however, to act as “Agent Provocateur“ in order to entrap offenders.
“While we understand the concerns regarding the internet activity of paedophiles and subsequent dangers that they present to children, we can assure members of the public that we are committed to targeting dangerous offenders be it online or elsewhere.
“The police act both covertly and overtly to identify online criminality on a daily basis, as well as working work closely with partners to ensure that children are educated regarding the risks posed online.”
Further information on staying safe online is available at http://www.ceop.gov.uk/ http://www.thinkuknow.co.uk/ and http://www.getsafeonline.org.uk/