Published: 18:25, 09 February 2018
A middle-aged man who hid a schoolgirl in a flat he was renovating while police launched a full-scale search to find her has been jailed for five years.
Thomas Ireland repeatedly told police he did not know where the 15-year-old was during the almost two weeks she was missing.
It was only when paperwork about the flat in Maidstone was found at Ireland’s home that an officer went to investigate and found the girl there.
Her relieved father described it as “the worst experience of my entire life”, not knowing whether his daughter was dead or alive.
A judge said because of the “high level culpability and a high degree of harm caused” there had to be a deterrent sentence.
Maidstone Crown Court heard Ireland, 49, took the girl to the former Coopers Cask pub in Bower Lane which was being turned into flats after she ran away from home at night.
Her father found at note under her pillow at their home in Medway on July 23 last year stating she was unhappy and signed it: “Your disgrace and disappointment of a daughter.”
She took with her clothing and an electronic tablet, but not her mobile phone.
“As you can imagine he was frantic,” prosecutor Ed Fowler told the jury. “He called the police. A large scale operation swung into action in order to find her.
“Friends and family were contacted. No one, it appeared, had seen her.”
Ireland was questioned and he made it clear he had not seen her and said he had no idea where she could be.
He was spoken to on two other occasions and he again told officers he had not seen her.
“But enquiries conducted by police showed that was not true,” said Mr Fowler. “A decision was made to arrest him.”
Officers searched his flat in Derwent Way, Rainham, and found paperwork relating to the building in Bower Lane, where his van had been going.
A police officer went there and saw a child at the window. He went to the door of the flat and the girl opened it.
“He accepted he had taken her to the address,” said Mr Fowler.
“The Crown say although she had apparently left the care of her father this defendant had knowingly taken this 15-year-old girl away from his care and control without any reasonable excuse.”
"You have been convicted on overwhelming evidence... it being an offence of enormous cruelty, it is plain a deterrent sentence can only be expected" - Judge Martin Joy
The teenager had been “grounded” for using her phone at night. When her father checked her phone he found messages between his daughter and Ireland in which they called each other “babes”.
In the note she left for her father she said she had gone away for a while and would be in contact. She added: “I am sorry I had to do this.”
Mr Fowler said Ireland was determined to keep the girl’s location secret.
She was initially upset when the officer went to the sparse flat and saw her. There was a mattress where she had been sleeping.
Ireland claimed in evidence he thought the girl was 16 and would not have allowed her to stay at the flat had he known she was 15.
He also denied knowing about the texts between him and the girl in which he said: “I love you my babes.”
Another said: “I don’t think we should be with each other. Just think about it. They are two different levels.”
Ireland said he had gone to bed at 10pm when he received a text from the girl saying she had left home because of mental and physical abuse and asking him to pick her up.
He did so and took her to the flat. He claimed he told her she could stay for a couple of days after she said she was planning to go and stay with a friend in London.
He said he “felt ashamed” when the police told him the girl was 15.
“I had always known her to be 16,” he said. “If I had known she was 15 I would not have helped her out in any shape or form.”
Ireland denied child abduction between July 20 and August 6 last year, but was convicted today.
Madeleine Wolfe, defending, said: “This was not an abduction against her will and that must be taken into account when imposing the sentence.
"She had a key to come and go as she pleased.
“He simply didn’t understand the gravity of what he had done in taking her to the flat. He didn’t think through his decision to house her as he did.”
Judge Martin Joy told Ireland, who has previous convictions for burglary, assault and criminal damage: “You have been convicted on overwhelming evidence.
"Abduction has been described as an offence of enormous cruelty to parents and children, in this case particularly the parents.
“It being an offence of enormous cruelty, it is plain a deterrent sentence can only be expected.
“It involved some planning after what had become an inappropriate and unhealthy relationship between you. There was a huge age difference.
“You knew at an early stage she was under 16. You knew a major police search was on.
"You lied persistently to the police. Her family had no idea where she was and what happened to her.
“All the while you had hidden her in this flat. The windows were whitewashed. The effect on her father was enormous.”
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