Groups such as Letzgo aim to catch out sex offenders, but the UK justice system is there for a reason.
“We’re not here to hurt anybody. We are here to get an explanation.” So says ‘Scumm Buster’ the leader of the self-proclaimed “paedophile hunting” group, Letzgo Hunting when speaking to the BBC earlier this week. Welcome to vigilante Britain, 2013.
Yes kids, it’s time to dig out those pitchforks and dust off those torches because we’re off a’paedo hunting. Now, before we start can everyone just double check they know the difference between pedophile and pediatrician – we don’t want to be making the same embarrassing mistake of desecrating the house of a children’s doctor like we did in 2000.
Last week a coroner recorded suicide in the case of 29-year-old Gary Cleary, who killed himself after Letzgo Hunting filmed him supposedly trying to meet up with a 14-year-old girl. Having been taken in by police and questioned, Cleary was released on bail without charge, but four days later was found hung at his home. The group has since denied that they are to blame for Cleary’s death.
But Letzgo are far from the only vigilante group like this in the UK, aiming to bring suspected sex offenders to their own special type of ‘justice’. Stinson Hunter is another individual who uses similar techniques to Letzgo to catch out would-be offenders – pretending to be underage girls and arranging meetings with men which are then filmed, and the footage often handed over to the police. Unfortunately, despite their similarities and apparent shared cause, the two groups do not have an amicable relationship. When I contacted Letzgo for an interview they replied:
They then went on to call Stinson Hunter a “fame monger and a thug” [sic].
But aside from these rather amusing insults and accusations, there is a much more serious problem with these kind of vigilante groups. When I asked the NSPCC what they thought of such groups, Jon Brown, head of strategy and development at the charity, told me that, “Tracking down sex offenders must be done by the proper authorities. It’s possible that people could get hurt or that a delicate and complex on-going investigation could be jeopardised and children put at greater risk.” His sentiment is echoed by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) who also pointed out that these kind of vigilante groups have no official vetting process, or regulations for members so there is a risk that, “groups such as these [could be] infiltrated by the very people they are trying to identify.” What the police strangely failed to mention was the very serious concern that these people are essentially taking the law into their own hands, and there is a very real potential for an innocent person to be victimised by these groups too. ACPO refused to comment on these potential issues though, merely re-directing me to their previously published statement.
People are uncomfortable condemning the actions of these vigilantes in case it is misconstrued as support for paedophiles, which of course it is not. Two sisters who criticised Letzgo this week have since been targeted online, including receiving tweets such as the following: “U will feel the love that paedophiles get, because, by condoning their actions and condemning ours, you are equal!” FYI, vocalising concern about the effect these videos have on people is not equal to sexually abusing children.
Speaking out about these concerns is not the only problem. The police response to acts of vigilante ‘justice’ is at times worryingly lacklustre. In July this year, Bijan Ebrahimi, a disabled man from Bristol was beaten and burnt to death, following rumours that he had been questioned by police about sex offences concerning children, something that his family vehemently deny. Although exact details of what happened in the days before his death have not been released, what is known is that there is now an Independent Police Complaints Commission investigation being made regarding his contact with the police before his brutal murder.
Three police officers Ebrahimi was in contact with have since been suspended from the force, and an inspector, constable and sergeant who dealt with him have also been served notices of gross misconduct. Did the rumours surrounding Ebrahimi affect the police’s treatment of him? Would more have been done if he had not been tainted by the suggestion of his involvement in crimes against children? The public, and indeed his family, will perhaps never know. I called Avon and Somerset Police for more information but was told that, “Until the IPCC investigation has concluded we are unable to provide any further details.” However, at least in this case the perpetrators have been found and convicted – Stephen Norley and Lee James were charged with Ebrahimi’s murder this July.
In 2008, convicted paedophile, Andrew Cunningham was hacked to death in his caravan in Wandsworth, in an attack where his genitals were reportedly removed. During the inquest following his murder, it was heard that the CCTV at a nearby pub had been turned off at 4pm on the afternoon of the murder and only came on again at 11am the next morning. Four samples of DNA were found on the blinds and oven in the caravan but as of yet no match has been found and no one has been convicted.
Finishing his BBC interview, Scumm Buster gave no indication that Letzgo would be slowing down any time soon: ”We are vigilantes, definitely. We’re not working within the law… I would like to warn paedophiles we are coming for you and we will do our best to catch you.”
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Images: lucyburrluck via Flickr