A MAN who believed he was having sexually explicit chats with three young teenagers but was in fact communicating with members of a so-called paedophile hunter group was, on Wednesday, ordered to complete a three-year probation order and made the subject of a Sexual Offences Prevention Order for the rest of his life.
Harold Samuel Burke (60) appeared at Antrim Crown Court.
Judge Donna McColgan QC warned him if there is “any breach whatsoever, and I mean any breach, you will be brought back before me and you will be sentenced to a custodial sentence.”
As well as the probation order, the judge also imposed a lifelong Sexual Offences Prevention Order.
The case against Burke is a legal first in the Northern Ireland justice system as it is the first time that a case investigated by paedophile hunters has been dealt with in the Crown Court, the Irish News reports.
At an earlier hearing Burke, from the Quilly Road near Coleraine, entered guilty pleas to three counts of attempting to incite a child to engage in sexual activity on dates between June 25 and July 22 2018.
Opening the case prosecuting counsel told the court how three paedophile hunters from a group calling themselves Decoys Central and using the monikers Fiona, Zoe and Angel, created fake online profiles where they pretended to be 13 and 14-year-old girls.
Calling himself “Hal,” Burke “instigated conversations with who he believed were under-age girls” said the lawyer adding that when the group reported the offences to the PSNI, they produced transcripts of “sexually explicit conversations with the decoys.”
Describing the online chats as “extremely sexualised and extremely explicit,” the prosecutor said the conversations followed a basic modus operandi where Burke told the ‘girls’ they would have a “fantastic experience” before directing them to undress on how to perform sex acts on themselves.
In relation to conversations with ‘Zoe,’ the court heard that Burke was “asking to meet her for sex” and the prosecution lawyer submitted that a feature of the explicit chats was “an element of a degree of recruitment where the defendant asks the decoy, or underage girl, to try to recruit others to create, I suppose, a network.”
There was also, he further submitted, a “certain amount of pre-planning” as well as grooming by Burke who has a previous conviction for having indecent images of children.
The lawyer told the court given the nature of the investigations, “it’s a rather unusual case” but that the features of grooming, “recruitment” and Burke’s previous conviction aggravated the case.
The guilty pleas however were a mitigating factor, conceded the lawyer adding that while there was no victim as such, “it’s a serious matter.”
Defence counsel described Burke as a “desperately lonely and isolated individual” who had been drinking heavily around the time of the offences as a result of his elderly mother dying.
He told the court that while Burke “has tried to start a new life….he had been shunned”.
Judge McColgan, who told the court it was the first so-called paedophile hunter case to reach the Crown Court, said while the offences did “cross the custody threshold” she was mindful of the fact that Burke had served seven months in custody on remand.
“On the basis that he is prepared to engage with probation, I will give him a probation order for the maximum period I can pass which is three years,” said the judge.