'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
Arts and Entertainment
filmPoldark production team claims innocence of viewers' ab frenzy
Life and Style
Google marks the 81st anniversary of the Loch Ness Monster's most famous photograph
techIt's the 81st anniversary of THAT iconic photograph
News
Katie Hopkins makes a living out of courting controversy
people
News
General Election
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders