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Paedophile hunters risking ruining investigations as vigilantes on rise in Kent

A surge in so-called paedophile hunting groups has fuelled stark warnings they could destroy criminal cases and wreck people’s lives.

But hunters have hit back at the police’s claims, saying evidence they gather helps secure prosecutions, amid plummeting police resources.

Paedophile hunters are on the rise Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire
Paedophile hunters are on the rise Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

The war-of-words surfaced as the number of cases involving vigilante groups heard in Canterbury Crown Court has steadily climbed.

In an exclusive interview one former activist, who claims to have helped secure 120 convictions, revealed the mental anguish she suffered speaking to hundreds of suspected predators.

And a new wave of hunters are doing “more harm than good,” allowing suspects to walk free, “because they carry out stings high or drunk or don’t know the law,” she said

Hunters often work by day and then lay in wait on internet chat forums by night, posing as a child complete with a picture, clearly depicting a person underage.

Typically, they will not approach a suspect themselves to avoid being accused of coercion, or employing overbearing tactics, while gathering evidence.

Once a suspected paedophile makes contact an effective decoy will state, often repeatedly, they are underage and allude to parents, school, and innocent activities, usually with the communication skills of a youth.

Hunters must be careful not to incite a suspect with illicit conversation as it could taint the evidence, with a recent example being read in court.

Sean Keeler, 31, of Folkestone, was talking to an undercover police officer rather than a hunter here, but the dialogue gives insight into the murky world.

“I’m only 12, (my breasts) aren’t big or anything,” ‘Ella’ the undercover officer said.

“Can I see, hey hey hey?” he replied.

“Take a picture now, have you got any on your phone?” he replied.

Keeler leaving Canterbury Crown Court
Keeler leaving Canterbury Crown Court

“I don’t want to get in (trouble)” she responded.

“You won’t be in (trouble) if you take them and send them, baby.”

“My mum would go mental if she found out,” she said.

“Can’t you go to the toilet and take them - can’t you take any tonight in the shower or bath?” he replied.

After winning a child or decoy’s trust, paedophiles, usually posing as children themselves, often try peeling their victim away from family and friends, to create a space where secrets can be shared and grooming intensified.

After gathering enough evidence paedophile hunters confront the suspect, often while filming, before handing material to police.


Prosecutors used evidence provided by these groups in more than 250 cases against suspected abusers in 2018.

And the vigilantes, of which there are hundreds in the country and dozens in Kent, claim to have seen a five-fold increase in the number of offenders trying to make contact with children online since lockdown.

A former healthcare worker who calls herself ‘Tilly’ founded Kent-based group Team Impact, she claims they have helped secure 120 convictions with 30 in Kent, before she recently retired.

“Towards the end I noticed a huge increase in the number of people doing it, there are hundreds of decoys now spread across every application you can imagine.

'They are doing stings drunk or on drugs, or getting aggressive which completely undermines the whole investigation...'

“When I first started we’d get a lot of intellectuals, people like lawyers, teachers and people highly regarded in their communities.

“But things changed where later on the suspects were mostly the types of stereotypical lonely old men who were offending.

“I think that’s because a lot of the smarter offenders, basically the more dangerous offenders, have been pushed onto the dark web where they are harder to catch now, and that is a problem.”

‘Tilly’ told how an influx of maverick hunters running roughshod over the law have strained relations with the police and allowed suspects to walk free.

“You’ve got to be so careful in the chat dialogues, you can’t write anything that lures the paedophile in and you’ve got to come across as realistic at the same time.

“It’s a harder balance than people imagine to provide watertight evidence that gets past the Crown Prosecution Service,” she added.

“But I’m seeing stings now where offenders are getting away because the mavericks haven’t done things correctly.

“They are doing stings drunk or on drugs, or getting aggressive which completely undermines the whole investigation.

“I don’t like what it has all become so I quit, it began taking its toll on my mental health.”

‘Tilly’ called for paedophile hunters to be regulated, accredited even, and properly trained to assist police.

“During my time Kent Police were absolutely fantastic, they would always look at my cases, but I can’t speak for how that relationship works with other hunters these days,” she said.

'If the force was able to do its job properly then there wouldn’t be a need for paedophile hunters...'


But some active hunters have brushed off claims their work is amateurish, arguing they provide “an important role for something which the police clearly can’t police.”

‘Sarah’, who works in a school, has been “hunting alone” since her own child was targeted in 2019.

“If the force was able to do its job properly then there wouldn’t be a need for paedophile hunters, you wouldn’t see our cases appear in court, would you?

“Of course, there are some who go in and wreck cases, but there are laws and authorities already in place to deal with those people.

“People feel exceptionally strongly about harm to children and the fact is people will always do this.

“So why don't the police work alongside those who do it properly so we can help protect children?

“For instance, I don’t film my stings or ‘out paedophiles in the community’, I just hand chat dialogues and everything I know over to the police.

“What’s wrong with that?

“What needs to be taken into account as well is that we also act as a deterrent to people who consider offending.”

‘Sarah’ explained that during some nights various decoys can be approached, making her devices “ping like crazy” where “it can just get too much.”

Paedophile hunters have assisted prosecutions but some are riding roughshod over the law Picture: Nikolai Klyga/dcdr
Paedophile hunters have assisted prosecutions but some are riding roughshod over the law Picture: Nikolai Klyga/dcdr

The police

But chief inspector Heather Thompson, who leads Kent Police’s paedophile online investigation team, urged hunters to down their tools.

“The force has specialist detectives who are trained to work in this field and have the skills and resources needed to carry out investigations in the most appropriate way.

“In 2020 they arrested 225 people,” she said.

“We understand crimes involving children and sexual offences are very emotive but I would urge those who have information about alleged offences to contact us and not take the law into their own hands.

“Some people within online child activist groups are taking risks they do not understand.”

She explained how the revealing of a suspect’s identity can give them an opportunity to destroy evidence, even before an investigation takes place.

Amateur ‘stings’ could jeapordise vital undercover work and inadvertently place children at risk, as hunters have no way of safeguarding child victims.

She continued: “Furthermore the actions of the groups can create the need to divert significant resources towards protecting suspects, rather than investigating, and prosecuting them.

“It is also worth noting they could wrongly accuse someone which can have a devastating impact on innocent people and their families.”

Equally troubling, the groups risk putting vulnerable people in harm’s way, she continued.

“Some of the people targeted have had severe learning difficulties and other mental health issues and have been placed at significant risk,” she said.

“When dealing with these groups, the quality of evidence often makes it difficult for police to carry out their duties.

“Groups can fail to provide devices for download and do not capture evidence in the correct manner, which can undermine prosecutions.”

She urged people who suspect a child is being groomed to dial 101 or 999 “meaning there is no requirement to carry out a sting.”

Stings can work

But some paedophile hunters do assist with successful prosecutions, evidence shows.

A member of Predator Exposure helped secure a conviction against brutal paedophile Jake Milner in October.

Jake Milner was snared by hunters
Jake Milner was snared by hunters

Evidence read in court gave jurors chilling insight into how the paedophile first tried to befriend two girls, then slowly turned the conversation over a number of days.

Milner, of Castle Street in Dover, was unanimously convicted of two counts of attempting to sexually communicate with a child and other sex crimes.

Hunter Louise Walton snared Barry Watling who, on his arrest, was carrying pictures of children being tortured.

Police released the offender under investigation only for hunter Louise Burns to catch him trying to meet a child for sex, yet officers again let him walk free.

It was only after a non-group member turned sleuth to discover Watling offending again that he was charged.

Watling, of Coast Road in Lydd-on-Sea pleaded guilty to six non-contact sexual offences at an early opportunity and police apologised for its handling of the case.

But amateur hunters risk steam-rolling through a minefield of legal traps.

Barry Watling has finally been jailed
Barry Watling has finally been jailed

Beware the perils

Groups often confront those they have caught which is fraught with perils - false imprisonment, kidnapping, affray and assault are all criminal offences.

In June 2017, two men were convicted of affray after they attacked a man while paedophile hunters confronted him, KentOnline reported.

And social media accounts typically have tens of thousands of followers, so wrongly identifying a suspect could lead to a defamation case.

Rightly identifying a suspect could lead to a public witch-hunt, or even a contempt of court if publicly identifying a suspect prevented their right to a fair trial.

The offence carries a maximum sentence of two years custody and or unlimited fine.

And such is the importance of the right to a fair trial, the Attorney General ran its #ThinkBeforeYouPost campaign, which outlined those dangers.

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