‘Was my dad a paedophile?’

By Andy Smythe and Catrin Nye
BBC Victoria Derbyshire programme

  • Published
Media caption,
Lesley's father took his own life in the UK after he was pursued by "paedophile hunters" - then she says she received rape threats

At least eight men have killed themselves in the UK after being labelled child sex offenders on social media by so-called paedophile hunters, the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme has found. One of them was Michael Duff. For the first time, his daughter Lesley explains the enduring trauma of hearing about the claims against her father, via Facebook.

"I loved him to bits. He was a born entertainer," says Lesley, remembering her father Michael Duff.

"We would chat about anything and everything. He was the person who, if I was upset, I'd go to - all I wanted was a cuddle from my dad."

Lesley - whose surname we have chosen not to use - had always adored her father.

She had never suspected he might have another side, which might lead him to contact a child, aged 15, online - and arrange to meet them in person.

Image caption,
Lesley was alerted to a video on Facebook, claiming that her father was a paedophile

But in June 2015, while at home with her daughter, she was alerted to a video of him being confronted by a paedophile hunter, that had begun circulating widely on social media.

The 15-year-old girl her father thought he had been contacting, was actually someone using fake profiles to try to attract and expose potential child sex offenders.

Find out more: Watch the full film here. or listen to an interview with the story's producers about how it came about on Beyond Today's podcast here.

Lesley breaks down in tears as she recalls how the news was broken to her.

"My friend said, 'look, I don't really know how to say this to you Lesley, but there's a video going round on Facebook - it's your dad'.

"I just sort of sat in shock," she says.

"It was on Facebook and I could already see mutual friends had viewed it, so there was nothing I could do.

"I must have been screaming because my daughter was upstairs... she could hear me screaming, and she asked me what was wrong."

Image caption,
Michael Duff killed himself shortly after the video appeared online

She told her daughter, then also aged 15, that "your grandad's a paedophile".

She showed her the video, something she says she also deeply regrets.

Mr Duff handed himself into police that day and had his computers confiscated.

He was released after questioning and two days later killed himself.

Shocked and angry, Lesley had not spoken to him since the allegations were made.

'Keep the public safe'

This is the first time Lesley has spoken publicly about her father.

She has decided to talk so that "paedophile hunters" can understand the wider ramifications of their actions.

The Victoria Derbyshire programme has found that at least seven other people have killed themselves after being confronted by paedophile hunters within the last six years.

The majority of the men took their own lives within days of being filmed, and named and shamed on social media.

But those behind the sting operations claim they are performing an important service - saying they help keep the public safe.

Jamie Lee, 29, a prolific paedophile hunter - or "child protection enforcer" as he calls himself - wanted to take on the role after he was a victim of abuse.

He shows a video of one of his stings, on a middle-aged man named Robert - whose surname we have chosen not to use - who thought he had been speaking to a 14-year-old boy online.

In fact, he had been talking to Jamie.

Media caption,
Jamie says his goal is for men to admit what they have done

"Robert approached me," explains Jamie, who says he always waits for men to contact the children first, "and after around two weeks he got quite graphic, telling me all sorts of vile stuff he was going to do to me."

In the video, Jamie confronts the man as he gets out of his car, asking him to hand over his keys so he knows he will not flee.

"If you find young boys in school uniform attractive what are you?," he asks, to no reply.

"Do you like young boys?," he tries again.

"Yes, but I've never been with one of them," the man replies.

The video was being streamed live on Facebook, with the man identified.

Image caption,
The video was being streamed live online

"You see his face change," Jamie remarks, watching the video back. "The colour drains from his face. He knows that he's in trouble.

"It's slowly sinking in that this good life he's got is about to come to an end.

"He admitted everything once he realised that he'd been caught red-handed."

Robert went to prison for a few months after the sting - he pleaded guilty to attempting to engage in sexual communication with a child.

He killed himself when he got out.

Jamie says he "never expected" that to happen.

"My goal is for these men to face what [they've] done.

"I was devastated when I found out Robert had killed himself, more so for his family.

"I'm still telling myself it's not my fault - I just feel slightly guilty that a man has lost his life because of the way I approached it."

He adds: "We're not doing it to incite violence, incite hatred - we're doing it because if they were living next door to me I'd want to know."

'Robbing victims of justice'

On some occasions, police do work with so-called paedophile hunters.

But the National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC) says such individuals can undermine police investigations with poor evidence.

They are also worried about vigilante retaliation and suicides.

Mr Duff's suicide meant Lesley has been left without answers regarding her father's potential guilt, and the scale of his actions.

"This could have been a one-off thing where he's done something stupid.

"I know people would say, 'well the thought was there', but the reality is he may not have actually committed any crime at all.

"We don't know, because as soon as he [took his own life] the case was closed.

"I don't know what was on my dad's computer, if anything, and I'm never going to know because somebody deemed to put it all over Facebook rather than letting police deal with it."

Lesley feels like she has been left to deal with the consequences of her father's actions.

"I've had threats - threatening to rape me, rape my daughter," she explains, as she tries to speak through the tears.

She was not able to hold a funeral for her father because of fears that vigilantes might turn up. The inquest was closed for the same reason.

Her father was instead cremated hundreds of miles away.

His death, however, did not stop the social media videos.

Someone she knew posted a video of him being carried from his house to an ambulance in a body bag on Facebook.

For Lesley, the video is just another example of the vitriol she has received, which she says she has done nothing to deserve.

So is it right for alleged child sex abusers to be "exposed" online?

Jamie believes it is important for people to know "what they're capable of".

But he is sympathetic to the view that some paedophile hunters behave erratically, and do not always act with the primary intention of bringing people to justice.

"There's a big lack of responsibility in the whole community," he says.

"There's a lot of [people wanting] 15 minutes of fame and that winds me right up.

"They've took something that was meant to be great and reasonably responsible and it's not any more - it's a circus, it's embarrassing."

He has subsequently decided to stop paedophile hunting, having met Lesley during filming for the Victoria Derbyshire programme, and wants to go into schools to educate children on the dangers of online grooming.

'I didn't want to tell my story'

Lesley is strongly opposed to alleged abusers being named online, saying it has become nothing more than "parading" individuals for others to judge.

"I didn't want to ever tell my story," she says, "because I didn't want to bring it all back on myself.

"[But] it's getting to a point now where people do need to know that when they've posted that video on Facebook, while that's where it ends for them, that's not where it ends for us [the families]."

For Lesley there has been no justice, no answers - only questions about who the father she adored really was.

"How did my dad do anything like that?" she asks.

"How was my dad associated with anything like that - the dad that I grew up with, the dad that I loved?"

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