Questions were last night raised about the monitoring of the online activity of sex offenders after it emerged that a convicted rapist was able to use the social networking site Facebook to befriend a vulnerable teenager he then raped and murdered.
Peter Chapman, 33, was pretending he was 19 years old when he convinced student Ashleigh Hall, 17, to be his Facebook friend. Chapman, who had previously received a seven-year prison sentence for raping two prostitutes, collected the girl in his car from her house before driving to a lay-by where he tied her up, raped and strangled her.
Yesterday, after changing his plea to guilty on the first day of what would have been his trial, Chapman was sentenced to life in prison and told he must serve a minimum of 35 years. Police officers also raised the possibility that he was responsible for other, unsolved, sex crimes. But the revelation that he was on the sex offenders' register at the time of the offence – which happened in October 2009 – has raised questions about how, while supposedly being monitored by the police, he was able to use the internet to find a victim for an even more horrific attack.
And it has prompted police to issue further warnings to youngsters highlighting the dangers of using social networking sites to meet people.
Donald Findlater of the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, a child protection charity which has researched how to monitor and manage the sexual activity of sex offenders, said: "When people have committed such grievous crimes then I think one has seriously to consider how better to monitor their lives in the community, and that includes their lives online. We have the technical means and we ought to be using them.
"In America it is typical that sex offenders are given email addresses which flag up if they attempt to register with social networking sites. The internet can be supervised far better now than ever before with the monitoring technology that is available. I know there would be human rights issues, but we already know that police forces can do a good job of monitoring people's online behaviour."
Ashleigh's mother, Andrea, also spoke about the lack of restrictions her daughter's killer faced. She said: "Those sorts of people should be tagged. He shouldn't have been let out."
Mrs Hall also said it was wrong that Chapman, as a registered sex offender, was able to post online by pretending to be a teenage boy. "He took somebody else's photo and put it on the internet and has been posing behind this photo. It is awful to think that there's actually a boy out there and he is using his photo to prey on young girls," she said.
Currently online restrictions are only placed on offenders who are being monitored by the probation services and even then only usually on those who have used the internet to offend previously. Chapman was released from his seven-year sentence in 2001 and his probation ended in 2003. It had no internet restrictions.
While on the sex offenders' register, he had to notify police of any change of address but even failed to do that. Merseyside Police did not have any face-to-face contact with Chapman for more than a year between September 2008 and October 2009, when he was arrested by Durham police for the murder of Ms Hall, from Darlington.
Yesterday at Teeside Crown Court he also pleaded guilty to failing to notify police of a change of address. During his day in court Chapman was subjected to the steely gaze of his victim's mother, who twisted in her seat to stare at him throughout proceedings.
Passing sentence, Judge Peter Fox said: "It appears to me that you are, a very great danger to young women and I cannot foresee your release. This was an evil scheme."
Detective Chief Inspector Mick Callan, head of Durham Police's major crime squad, said: "He is a devious and dangerous individual."
Last night Merseyside Police admitted a lengthy gap in realising Chapman had fled his home and releasing a nationwide wanted notice for him – something which was only issued a month before Ms Hall's death.
He said: "Merseyside Police can confirm that Peter Chapman was a registered sex offender who was resident within the force area from November 2000, and at that time he was assessed as high risk. The last time Chapman was seen at his home address was 29 August 2008, and he was spoken to by a police officer regarding his employment on 24 September 2008."
The case has also prompted calls for teenagers to be more aware when using social networking sites. Chief Supt Andy Reddick, of Durham police, urged all parents to be aware of the potential hazards of their children making friends online. He said: "This murder trial should be a wake-up call to parents and internet companies to ensure that nothing happens to another innocent victim."
A Facebook spokesman said: "This case serves as a painful reminder that all internet users must use extreme caution when contacted over the internet by people they do not know. We echo the advice of the police who urge people not to meet anyone they have been contacted by online unless they know for certain who they are. Nothing is more important to Facebook than the safety of the people who use our site."