'You haven’t been speaking to a 15-year-old girl, you have been speaking to me': The rise of the online vigilante paedophile hunters

Police criticise vigilante group as man accused of grooming a child commits suicide after confrontation

The face is pixelated, but the man’s stammered denials during an unexpected and unwanted meeting in a park make clear his state of mind. “You have arranged to meet her, go to a hotel and offer her sex,” says the accuser who confronts him from behind the camera. He brushes off the man’s protests. “Can I just explain, you haven’t been speaking to a 15-year-old girl, you have been speaking to me.”

This is the conclusion of an operation by Letzgo Hunting, a self-styled anonymous online group of  “paedophile hunters” whose vigilante tactics have been criticised by senior police officers following the suicide of Gary Cleary, 29, from Leicestershire, after he was confronted by the group.

Letzgo Hunting expressed sympathy for the family but defended itself and said it would not change tactics after a man it accused of grooming a child over the internet was found hanged following his arrest by police.

Members of the group – founded by a man who goes by the online name of “Scumm Buster” – pose as young girls on social networks and engage with adults who contact them for sex.

Members of the group – which was inspired by a US crime television series – arrange meetings and then film the encounters, or the chase if the unsuspecting target flees. The footage is then handed to the police and also shown online.

The group claims that it has led to at least 12 arrests, including that of Gary Cleary, who was found hanged several days later in May. A coroner last week recorded his death as suicide but did not refer to his encounter with the group.

Jim Gamble, the former head of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, said: “I can understand the frustration of people going online and taking part in vigilante behaviour, but it’s simply wrong.

“When police engage with a potential predator they will take into account the likelihood that person might become suicidal. Forces will have policies in place for that.”

Police warned that paedophiles could infiltrate such groups, covert police operations could be disrupted or such poor-quality evidence could emerge that the chances of prosecution were slim.

One paedophile hunter claimed that he had received advice from police on gathering evidence. “I’m a bit of a nightmare, my evidence is all over the place,” he told The Independent. The man, who declined to be named, drew a distinction between what he called paedophiles – serial offenders that he told police about before he filmed them – and “nonces” whom he did not. “You can gauge what a person is like, we can read them,” he said.

In an interview with Radio Five Live earlier this year, Scumm Buster said that the group would cease operations if someone was attacked as a result of what they were doing in exposing the identities of potential paedophiles.

“We’re vigilantes definitely,” he said. “We are not there to hurt anybody but we are there to get an explanation…. We will never hurt a single person.

“I would like to warn paedophiles we are coming for you and we will do our best to catch you.”

Other “paedophile hunters” dissociated themselves with Letzgo Hunting, which has declined to reveal their identities or details other than that they are all parents, and that the founder has a background in “security”.

None of their claimed arrests has so far resulted in a prosecution, but the activity of another group has resulted in a guilty plea. Maurice Ingram, 66, pleaded guilty to attempted sexual grooming in July after he was met by a vigilante called Stinson Hunter, instead of the teenage girl he expected.

Darren Martin, an IT expert from Church Gresley, Derbyshire, was charged this week with attempted grooming over another sting by Mr Hunter who posted the confrontation online. Police considered whether Mr Hunter, who says he inspired Letzgo Hunting, could be charged with any offence, but prosecutors said there was no realistic prospect of conviction.

A spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers said: “Those who take this approach to exposing paedophiles could be breaking the law and may find themselves at the centre of an investigation or prosecution.”

The groups have similar methods, and seek public support for what they are doing. One, Daemon Hunter, advertises for area co-ordinators and “paedophile baiters”.

In an apparent sideswipe at Letzgo Hunting, Mr Hunter – who works with three other men and said he had been doing it on and off for three-years – said in a statement that he was considering stopping his actions because of the “irresponsible actions of other groups”.

He described the current situation as a “complete shambles” and added: “All we ever wanted was to change the way the police work, make parents be more vigilant… now it seems to be getting lost in suicides… and blurred-out videos,” he said.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee