The housewife who catches child sex groomers

By Linda Serck
BBC News Online

image copyrightChelsea Hunter
image captionChelsea Hunter spends her evenings messaging online predators on her mobile phone

On a typical evening Chelsea Hunter* collects her children from school, makes them dinner and puts them to bed - and then poses as a girl to chat to men. She has been speaking to the BBC about the murky underworld of online grooming.

Abderraouf Qutteineh thought he was about to meet a 14-year-old girl for sex. The 74-year-old had befriended her online and sent hundreds of increasingly explicit messages over the space of two weeks.

As he waited at a railway station for his prey to arrive, he was confronted by his correspondent - a mother waging a crusade against groomers.

Ms Hunter, 35, was able to hand all of her evidence to the police, who promptly arrested Qutteineh, a grandfather from Windsor.

At his sentencing at Reading Crown Court, it emerged Qutteineh had been spending his spare time naked in front of a phone camera for someone he thought was a girl young enough to be his granddaughter.

Because he hadn't been in trouble before, and because there hadn't in this case been a child victim, the judge decided to pass a suspended sentence.

For mum-of-four Ms Hunter, though, it signalled another victory in her battle against online sex predators.

media captionA sex offender being confronted by a self-styled paedophile hunter

Ms Hunter, from Kent, has spent nearly a year living a double life. By day she's busy with domestic chores and looking after her children. By night she becomes 14-year-old Chloe.

"I get up, get the kids up, get them off to school, and then just do normal housework, catching up on washing and hoovering," she says of her daytime routine.

"I'm a housewife, I've got my own children. Being a decoy who is 14 means they think I'm at school during the day.

"I jump on when they believe that I've finished school to tell them I've got to do my homework and have dinner, so I can sort my own children out."

Ms Hunter, along with her husband, is part of Shadow Hunters, a group of adults who pose as girls on social media and then travel the country confronting those men who arrange to meet up.

They hand over all their evidence to police, who are often able to make an arrest on the spot - although police discourage such groups from these activities, arguing they can jeopardise ongoing investigations into grooming networks.

The evidence collected by Shadow Hunters consists mostly of reams of chat logs in which the groomer shares his explicit fantasies of underage sex.

image copyrightChelsea Hunter
image captionMs Hunter says she wanted to do something to help

Explaining what motivates her, Ms Hunter says: "It was always something I wanted to help with.

"I'm a housewife and, apart from the usual stuff, I didn't really do much, so it was just something I wanted to do to help.

"Until you become a decoy, you have no idea how many online predators there actually are out there.

"Some of them are good-looking, and I think 'what are you doing'?

"They just come through and I think 'please just block me', but they just carry on."

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe Shadow Hunters say their work helps to divert abusers from spending time grooming children

The predators range from men in their 20s to ones in their 70s such as Qutteineh, who was the oldest groomer Ms Hunter has dealt with.

"We didn't think he'd turn up because of his age," she says.

"You get to know these people inside out; they pour everything out to you.

"It wasn't anger when I confronted him... you just feel so guilty for the family, as [he told me] his wife had just come out of hospital from an appointment.

"Their family, half the time, are oblivious. The next thing they know they've got the police turn up at their door to take all their devices, so you feel guilty for the family because they're victims in this as well."

Since starting her crusade in August, she has chatted to more than 50 men who said they wanted to meet up for sex.

image copyrightShadow Hunters

"The first one I got, I came home and I cried," she says. "It was awful. There were just so many emotions all in one - relief, anger.

"You build yourself up knowing you're going to be face to face with someone that believes you to be a child.

"With it being my first one I didn't know what to expect, but then you're faced with the reality of what they actually do, and you feel annoyed because they're standing there and try and lie to your face.

"I was nervous, I was shaking, but then the adrenaline kicks in, especially when you see him at the meet point."

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She says the first time she was "groomed" online it took some getting used to.

"You go from not doing anything at night, just watching telly and that, to your phone constantly going off with messages.

"At night it's a completely different life I lead."

But now, after nearly a year, her double life is almost second nature.

"It sounds silly," she says, "but I'd probably be bored now; if I wasn't doing this, I'd be lost.

"I still watch all my soaps, if the kids need me I can still do that - you just make up an excuse [to the groomer] and say your mum's calling and you'll be back in a minute."

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionAlthough their evidence has helped to convict many men, police do not endorse the activities of the Shadow Hunters

She also gets plenty of support from her fellow Shadow Hunters, whom she describes as her "second family".

"I'd be lost without my team," she says. "We have group calls, we have a laugh. When we need to be serious we get the job done, but we're all really close and get together, have Christmas parties.

"If one of us gets [an indecent] pic that is slightly odd looking or funny then it goes straight in the group chat and we all have a laugh about it. That helps, it lightens the mood."

Ms Hunter, whose Facebook profile shows a photo of a teenage girl, says there is a clear set of rules she needs to abide by to make sure any evidence she gathers will stand up in court and cannot be seen as entrapment.

"We do not add anyone; they come through to us and ask for friend requests," she says.

"We accept them, but we do not message them first. The first thing a decoy will say to them is their age and check that it's OK.

"As a rule we tell the decoys to get their ages in at least three times in the first eight to 10 messages.

"We don't lead them on, we just have a normal chat and the men incite the sexual chat, and they incite the meet. It's their choice and we don't encourage anything."

Ms Hunter has shown the BBC a selection of screen grabs revealing how quickly the chats become sexual. Most of them are too explicit to be published here.

image copyrightUK Paedos Exposed
image captionPeter Sean Hicks had 18 previous sexual offences dating from 1988

One of offenders the group has caught is Peter Hicks of Stadhampton in Oxfordshire.

The 48-year-old, who had a string of previous convictions for sex crimes, troubled Ms Hunter.

"Peter Hicks was awful," she says. "I've had nightmares about him. The things he wanted what he believed to be a child to do were just unimaginable.

"It made me feel sick as a grown woman, knowing that he thought there was a child on the other end of the screen."

Ms Hunter knew Hicks had a history of child molestation, and he became a key paedophile to try to catch after the mother of a girl he had contacted posted a warning about him on social media.

"It was when I knew a real child was involved that it really affected me. I spoke to the child's mum and I promised her that no matter what I would get him."

image captionMs Hunter says she is part of a close team

Although it took a long time, she says he did eventually contact her on Facebook.

Eventually, Hicks was confronted by the Shadow Hunters in Stadhampton after not showing up on three previous occasions.

Appearing via video-link at Oxford Crown Court, he was sentenced to four years.

During the sentencing hearing Judge Peter Ross made a point of highlighting his distaste for paedophile hunters, saying they had had "no business" confronting Hicks.

But this is an attitude the Shadow Hunters shrug off; they believe the police need their help in catching those engaged in online grooming.

"It is obviously the police's job but they've only got so much power in how they can deal with it," Ms Hunter says.

"They've even admitted to us that they can't do it the way we do it. We can leave it to the police but until you become a decoy you have no idea how many online predators there actually are out there."

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionCriticism of the activities of Ms Hunter's group will not deter her from targeting groomers, she says

A Freedom of Information request to Thames Valley Police showed that in 2017 the force recorded 10 times more crimes of "attempting to meet a child through sexual grooming" than in 2015 - from nine to 90.

Recently, the BBC reported that evidence from self-styled paedophile hunters was used to charge suspects at least 150 times last year.

Ms Hunter says: "We aim to work with the police, not against them. Basically, we're giving the police a full case; everything is done for them - every single bit of evidence they need."

A Thames Valley Police spokesman said: "We do not encourage action of this kind as we must be very careful there is not a compromise to ongoing investigations into paedophile networks."

Children's charity the NSPCC agrees, saying paedophile hunters "run the risk of driving offenders underground, endanger ongoing police work and the legal process, or result in innocent people being targeted".

Last year Chief Constable Simon Bailey, the national lead for child protection at the National Police Chiefs' Council, said vigilante groups were "putting the lives of children at risk".

None of this deters Ms Hunter, however.

"The ones that criticise us, I just hope to God that their kids never have to go through being groomed," she says.

"The things these men write would just ruin a child.

"I feel the police are not doing enough to get them; they don't use the platforms we can use to get them.

"If I can make a difference I will do this for as long as I can, whether the police like it or not.

"I do this off my own bat. It's not a huge buzz, it's more relief that the predator is off the street.

"I'm just glad it's me they're talking to, then at least it's one real child they're leaving alone."

image copyrightGetty Images

If you're worried a child is at risk, you can contact the children's social care team at his or her local council. You can choose not to give your details.

You can also report any suspicions online to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection command, or call the NSPCC 24-hour helpline on 0808 800 5000 for advice.

Children and young people can call Childline free on 0800 1111 where trained counsellors are available 24 hours a day, every day.

*Chelsea Hunter's name has been changed.

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