Vigilantes posed as young girls online to trap Scarborough sex predator Christopher Croucher

An online sex predator has been jailed for three years after he tried to coax young girls into sexual activity on social-media sites – not realising he was walking into a trap set by vigilantes posing as children.

Forklift-truck driver Christopher Croucher, 36, was caught by the decoys after he met them online and started bombarding them with requests to perform sexual acts.

Croucher, a father-of-two from Scarborough, even tried to get one of the under-age ‘girls’ to meet him for a seedy tryst at his flat on North Marine Road, where he planned to have sex with her, York Crown Court heard.

He also sent intimate pictures of himself to the ‘girls’ and asked them to do the same, said prosecutor Dan Cordey.

Christopher Croucher

Croucher was finally arrested after the vigilantes turned up at his home and confronted him with the evidence.

He appeared for sentence on Wednesday, wearing an anti-viral mask, after admitting 20 charges including 14 counts of causing or inciting an under-age girl to engage in sexual activity, five counts of attempting to engage in sexual communication with a child and one count of attempting to meet a girl under 16 after sexual grooming.

The court heard that all five ‘girls’ had social-media profiles with their pictures, ages and made-up names. Croucher had added them on Facebook, Whatsapp and a dating app.

One of the ‘girls’, who gave a fictional name and said she was 13 and from Scotland, started receiving messages from Croucher in April 2018. He had profiled himself as ‘Chris from Scarborough’.

“He said he was laid on a bed; he said he wanted to play the ‘us’ game,” said Mr Cordey.

“He said he wanted it to be a secret and that she wouldn’t get into trouble if she didn’t say anything.”

Croucher asked her for nude shots and when she told him she had homework to do, he sent her a naked picture of himself and gave her “instructions” on how to perform lewd acts.

The debauched messages continued up to the end of June but the chatlogs could not be found when police arrested Croucher because he’d deleted the evidence.

Croucher asked for “naughty pictures” from another ‘girl’ he messaged over a four-week period between April and May 2018. The girl said she was 14 and from Newcastle.

Another ‘girl’ told Croucher she was 13 and from Ireland. He sent her naked pictures of himself and urged her to perform sexual acts.

“She said she didn’t want to get into trouble,” said Mr Cordey.

“He said they would keep it between themselves, asked to be her boyfriend…and said he worked at a local factory as a forklift-truck driver.”

Croucher - who used several profile tags including ‘Chris 24’ and ‘Tom 20 from Scarborough’ - messaged another ‘girl’ on Whatsapp who said she was 13 and “asked her if she had any pictures”.

The vigilantes confronted Croucher at his home on July 11, 2018. When police turned up to arrest him, he “began to cry”.

Officers seized his electronic devices but he wasn’t charged until December last year.

Graham Parkin, for Croucher, said his client had had a “poor life” and suffered from acute depression which had been exacerbated by two relationship breakdowns.

Croucher had never been in trouble before he started pestering the ‘girls’ on messaging apps over a four-month period, added Mr Parkin.

He said that Croucher, who lived alone, had been “open and frank” with his employers about the charges he faced and was a “doting” father.

Judge Simon Hickey said although the ‘victims’ weren’t real children, Croucher believed them to be 13-year-old girls and bombarded them with sordid messages and pictures during “four months of persistent (offending).”

Mr Hickey said that despite Croucher’s mental-health problems and depression following an “acrimonious” relationship breakdown, this “doesn’t explain why you had sexual communication with these ‘girls’”.

Croucher will serve half of the three-year sentence behind bars before being released on prison licence.

He was also placed on the sex-offenders’ register for life and made subject to a sexual-harm prevention order, which will run indefinitely and is designed to curb his internet activity and contact with children.

Following the sentence, an NSPCC spokesperson said: “Croucher’s predatory behaviour highlights the real danger children and young people face every time they go online.

“We must remember the internet wasn’t designed with children in mind. So the announcement earlier this year that the Government was minded to appoint Ofcom as the online harms regulator was a great step towards preventing offenders like Croucher from trying to target, groom and abuse children online.

“However, it’s still crucial that the Government brings in a full Online Harms Bill to ensure companies can be held to account through legislation.”

Children can contact Childline on 0800 1111. Adults with concerns about children can contact the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 8005000.