The group Scotland Predator Hunters was set up in October by child abuse survivors based in Glasgow who insist they are not vigilantes and claim they work closely with Police Scotland to bring suspected paedophiles to justice.
The husband and wife team have recruited nine “decoys and hunters” from across Scotland who have sexually-explicit conversations before arranging to meet suspected paedophiles. A team of up to seven people then surround the target until police arrive to make an arrest.
In one video a man is circled by a group of hooded and masked hunters, some in army fatigues, who confront him about online messages. He is seen attempting to walk away but the hunters prevent him from escaping. At the end of the 17-minute video police arrive and remove him. The footage shows hunters offering officers a “memory stick” with evidence. An officer is heard to say: “What we’ll do is take him to the police station. Could you meet us there?”
Footage was posted live on Facebook and a later post provided a still image of the man’s face together with his name, his age and the town where he lived – although the group urged no action should be taken against him. However neighbours then gave his full address and viewers wrote comments urging violence against the man.
The video has now been viewed more than 140,000 times. The 72-year-old later appeared in private on petition at Kilmarnock Sheriff Court, meaning the media can’t yet reveal the charges against him.
In another sting hunters confront a man at his house in Fife. He appeared at Kirkcaldy Sheriff Court on December 21 charged with a sex offence. His lawyer objected to the competency of the charge and a Sheriff is expected to deliver a ruling on the matter in January.
Police have warned the group they could “jeopardise ongoing investigations” and urged them not to identify suspects online because it could mean trials collapse.
The Hunters insist they want to help police and will protect suspects until they are handed over to officers, along with evidence they have gathered.
Speaking exclusively to the Sunday Herald, the founder of the group, who goes by the alias Pixie Hunter, because she is under five feet tall, said: “We’re not vigilantes. Vigilantes are thugs. They wouldn’t live stream a sting on Facebook. They’d drag people out of their house and, for want of a better expression, kick the living daylights out of them.”
Several deaths in England have been linked to predator hunters. In October a man died in a suspected suicide days after a confrontation with paedophile hunters in Wickham. A separate sting at Bluewater shopping centre in Kent in April descended into violence and led to the arrests of two so-called predator hunters.
In 2014 a suspected paedophile in Northamptonshire took his own life after he was confronted by a similar group who claimed he had sent sexually-explicit messages and tried to meet what he thought was a 12-year-old girl.
In 2013 disabled Iranian refugee Bijan Ebrahimi was beaten to death and set alight on a Bristol estate after he was wrongly accused of being a paedophile.
Pixie Hunter said: “Our group is inundated with messages from people who want to hunt but we are finding they are people who have previously commented that we should kick their heads in. If a crowd was to gather and try to attack the suspected predator we would protect that guy because our aim is to hand him in to police.”
She also revealed she is currently speaking to more than 50 “predators” who believe they are chatting to children.
Group members and supporters have supplied a selection of pictures from their childhood which are sent to suspected paedophiles who want to exchange images. In return the decoys posing as children are often sent naked pictures of the middle-aged men they are speaking to.
Last month an appeal was launched by the group for pictures of children. A Facebook post on November 24 stated: “Looking for pictures of both boys and girls aged between 10 and 15. The person in the picture must now be over the age of 18 and give full consent for our decoys to use the photos.”
The technique was first used in US reality television programme To Catch a Predator, broadcast by Dateline NBC between 2004 and 2007. It was cancelled in 2008 after an assistant district attorney shot himself when he was identified as a suspect. He exchanged messages and pictures with a programme volunteer he thought was a 13-year-old boy.
Hunter said: “I use 12 websites and three decoys to catch these paedophiles. They message me first and then I state an age. I told a guy last night I was 14 and he immediately said he had his hands down his shorts and started saying sexually-explicit things.”
If users do show an interest the decoys will begin a conversation and will exchange pictures.
Hunter said: “We only send pictures of people under 16 if we have been given permission. They are always selfies, from the shoulders up. There are no explicit photos of children.
“Unfortunately, we do get explicit photos in return. A man I was speaking to the other day asked for a picture of the decoy and I sent a selfie. He then sent a picture of his penis. I said I wanted a picture of his face and he then sent two, which was good because now we know who we’re looking for.
“Some predators will think nothing of sending child pornography to what they believe to be a child. It has never happened to me, thankfully, but it happened to a friend who had a team in Wales.
“He couldn’t handle it. It broke him. I had a grown man in his thirties crying down the phone to me. He closed down his team after that, and he’s only rebuilding now.”
The group “grades” suspected paedophiles based on the perceived threat to “real children”.
Hunter said: “If it’s an immediate threat I could have boots on the ground tonight. There are some who are slowly grooming so we can plan to sting them in the new year. But my team will work any time. Even if it’s Christmas night, my team will knock on someone’s door.”
Stings are set up after the suspect has tried to arrange a meeting with a decoy several times.
“If it happens once it’s easy for that person to claim they were drinking and didn’t know what they were doing,” explained Hunter, “but if they do it three or four times they can’t blame alcohol.”
In the run up to a sting the group posts ominous messages on Facebook such as “TICK TOCK! I wonder who we will be visiting today!” and “TICK TOCK, IT`S NONCE O`CLOCK!”.
One festive post said: “Jingle bells, beasts in cells, hunters are on their way. Oh what joy it is to know, you`ll be banged up Xmas day.”
She said up to seven people confront targets. After the sting the group hands over evidence to police. “We usually meet the predator, live stream it, then get in the back of a police car or to a police station, give a statement and then go home,” Hunter said.
“The police are more than happy to work with us and are more than thankful for what we do. We have had a couple of run-ins with some officers who ask us to stop what we’re doing. But in general we’ve been received well by the police.
“We don’t shout and scream at the predators. I think the fact we’ve managed to stay calm is something the police appreciate, because they’re not having to deal with a possible breach of the peace on our part.
“It has been suggested to us we’re making more work for the police. The way we see it is if we report a suspected predator and nothing is being done, and we know nothing is being done because they are continuing to talk to our decoys, we have to force the hand of the police. And if we sting the suspected predators the police have to act.”
Detective Superintendent Elaine Galbraith, of Police Scotland, said: “Child Protection is a priority for Police Scotland and we will robustly investigate child abuse in all its forms, which increasingly includes online offending. Police Scotland will always respond when information is received that a child or young person maybe at risk of harm with a focus on identifying and mitigating any risk posed.
“It’s understandable that people want to protect children from harm but we would ask them not to take the law into their own hands. Revealing the identity of suspected offenders can jeopardise on-going investigations and it can give suspects the opportunity to destroy evidence. It can also put children at risk by making it difficult to identify victims or potential victims.
“We want to reassure communities Police Scotland is fully committed to the investigation of child abuse using our resources locally and nationally to protect Scotland’s children.
“If you suspect someone may be abusing children online or offline then please contact the Police on 999 if you think there is immediate risk of harm, or 101.”
A police spokeswoman added: “On December 20 2017, police in Fife charged a 43-year-old man in connection with a report of indecent communications in Kirkcaldy. He appeared at Kirkcaldy Sheriff Court on December 21 2017.”
A spokeswoman for the Crown Office confirmed the second suspect appeared in court on December 4 but added that she is not permitted to provide further details.
MEET THE CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE SURVIVORS WHO BECAME PREDATOR HUNTERS
Pixie Hunter was first abused by her friend’s uncle when she was eight-years-old. The paedophile targeted her for three years and was only exposed after her friend took her own life.
She and her husband, known as Wolf Hunter, who she said was also abused as a child, founded Scotland Predator Hunters in October to expose suspected paedophiles.
The 29-year-old mother of three, from Glasgow, said: “Speaking as a survivor, when you are abused it stays with you for life. My best friend killed herself when she was 15 because she was groomed and sexually assaulted by her uncle. She tried to tell people, but they didn’t believe her.
“I was groomed by the same uncle. At the time we thought it was normal for uncles to want to help you get dressed. Say we were going to a party, he wanted to help us make sure our tights were pulled up and all this sort of stuff. The fact that his hand slipped every now and then, we just thought he had shaky hands.
“It started when I was eight and went on for three years. After my friend killed herself a month before her 16th birthday, they found a suicide note that revealed everything. That’s when I found the courage to speak out. But that predator died three weeks before his trial. He never faced justice.”
She has never sought publicity but Hunter said she is speaking out now to “raise awareness” about the number of predators trying to meet children online.
She added: “I want the message to go out to the predators that we’re here in Scotland and if you’re trying to sexually exploit children we’ll catch you. It might take us some time, but we’ll get you.”
One decoy, who goes by the name Polly Decoy, said she was “trained” by Hunter before she posed as a child online. The woman, who also describes herself as a survivor of child sexual abuse, said: “My training consisted of several weeks of Pixie explaining the levels of depravity these predators will go to and her constantly asking if I’m ok mentally and ready to go out and set up my profile on the various apps we use to catch the predators. I’m just happy to be helping remove these types of people from the streets and saving other kids from suffering like I did.”
Hunter added: “Doing this can be difficult. I’ve got a good support network. My husband is there, I’ve got my mum, and the rest of my family. At night the group gets together for a call on Facebook and we have a debrief. We also try to have a laugh and unwind.”