A paedophile who attacked two 13-year-old girls after making contact via an internet chatroom was jailed for three years yesterday.
Michael Wheeler, 36, an electronic engineer from Cambridge, will serve half the sentence if he behaves well and - because he has been in custody for seven months - is likely to be free within a year.
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) and the police said the case highlighted an anomaly in the law relating to the sexual abuse of girls.
Had Wheeler had sex with the girls when they were 12, the maximum sentence a judge could have imposed would have been life imprisonment. But the law says the maximum sentence for the offence of unlawful sex with a girl of 13 is two years' imprisonment.
Judge Philip Curl, who jailed Wheeler at Norwich Crown Court yesterday, said senior judges had already highlighted the problem, although the law had yet to be changed.
The NSPCC said legislation due to come into force in the autumn would give judges greater power when dealing with offenders like Wheeler and introduce a specific offence relating to the "grooming" of children on the internet. Wheeler admitted to 11 offences. He admitted unlawful sex with the first 13-year-old girl three times and admitted indecently assaulting her three times. He also admitted having unlawful sex with the second girl twice and indecently assaulting her three times. Judge Curl handed down a total of three years' imprisonment.
Neither of the girls can be named for legal reasons.
Prosecutors said Wheeler had made contact with the first victim via an internet chatroom in 2000 when she was 11. He had used the sign-on "hero" and pretended to be 19. The girl, who claimed to be 16 on the chatroom, was "groomed" during online chats, said John Farmer, for the prosecution.
Mr Farmer said Wheeler arranged to meet the girl when she was 12. Shortly after her 13th birthday he began to sexually abuse her and the abuse lasted for nine months. The second girl was a friend of the first victim. Wheeler got to know her through the first girl. Mr Farmer said he waited until after her 13th birthday to have sex with her after "grooming" her. On a number of occasions, friends of the first girl watched her having sex with him.
Mr Farmer said Wheeler was arrested in October 2002.
Detective Inspector Neil Smith, who led the investigation, said: "He knew the law and he knew what he was doing ... Wheeler is a very calculating and dangerous man."
A spokeswoman for the NSPCC said: "He was very, very clever. There have been cases like this before but I can't recall one that highlights this sentencing anomaly."
The victims told police how the abuse had affected them. The first girl said: "I feel I have lost my innocence. I cannot concentrate in school ... All my friends have fallen out with me. I don't relate to boys."
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