July 2019

Man jailed after being caught by hunting ‘sting’ trying to contact child for sexual exploitation

A man who was caught trying to communicate with a child for sexual exploitation by a vigilante “sting” operation has been jailed for six months.

Dublin Circuit Criminal Court heard that Paul Fanning (59) asked for sexually explicit images from dating website profiles he believed belonged to two teenage girls.

The accounts were decoys set up by a group called Emerald Hunters Ireland in order to find potential paedophiles, the court heard.

Fanning initiated contact with the accounts and in both cases the communication became graphically sexual in nature fairly quickly, Detective Garda David Ganley testified.

On 10 February last year, Fanning asked “Ali”, whose profile stated she was 13 years old, to meet up and go for pizza.

He also suggested she could go back to his place and “have some hot sexy fun with me?”. An arrangement was made to meet the following afternoon in Merrion Square park.

When Fanning went there he was confronted by members of the vigilante group who recognised him from his online profile photograph. He admitted he was in the park to meet the child and this confrontation was broadcast live on Facebook.

The group contacted gardaí and said they were detaining a “paedophile”. The detectives who arrived at the scene were given print outs of telephone text and social media conversations between Fanning and the fake profiles.

Fanning denied his intention was to have sex with “Ali” but admitted he believed the accounts were for underage girls.

Fanning, formerly of Holles Row, Dublin city, pleaded guilty to attempting to communicate with a child for purposes of facilitating sexual exploitation of a child on dates between 30 January and 11 February 2018.

Judge Pauline Codd said that the courts must condemn the type of predatory behaviour and children must be protected.

She noted that loneliness led Fanning to go online at the time while he was recuperating from a heart attack. A psychological assessment places him at a moderate to low risk of re-offending.

Judge Codd said a Probation Service officer had accepted his expressions of remorse and shame as genuine and noted he now acknowledged the distress and harm his behaviour could cause to children.

The judge imposed a two and half year sentence but suspended two years of this on condition that Fanning undergo appropriate therapy.

Oisin Clarke BL, defending, said the type of group who set up this sting were more prevalent in the UK where they had been the cause of some concern to investigating authorities.

He said his client’s name and address were published online by the group and his house was subsequently attacked. His car was damaged and he was threatened.

He has moved out of the home he lived in for four decades and lost his job after 18 years of employment. He said his client had been remorseful from the very beginning and had lost everything.

He said that a psychological assessment stated Fanning was not predatory in behaviour and was unlikely to specifically seek out children. The Badoo dating website used in the sting is a dating website for adults. 

Detective Garda Ganley told Judge Codd that the Emerald Hunters Ireland group used adult women to set up fake profiles on dating websites for girls under the age of 16. He said the group had strict rules of engagement where the profile must state clearly the age and must state they are on the site to meet friends.

He said the “decoys” do not instigate any chats of a sexual nature. The first decoy profile in this case was set up on Badoo in January 2018 and “Holly” claimed to be for a 14 year old girl. Soon after it was set up Fanning began to text to it.

His profile had his photograph, age and a list of hobbies. Detective Garda Hanley said that reasonably quickly the chats became very sexual in nature with explicit graphical sexual references.

He said that Fanning had made the first contact and later invited the “girl” to send him sexual photographs and made sexual suggestions.

The second decoy, named “Ali”, was set up in February and Fanning again made contact and sent requests for sexually explicit images before asking to meet up.

Clarke asked the court to take into consideration his client’s pro-social history and to view this offending as an anomaly.

He said his client deeply regretted his behaviour. He had worked since the age of 14 and provided for his family.

Fanning had a heart attack in September 2017 and was recuperating from this at the time.

Judge Codd said that it was important to state that gardaí were the sole persons with the right to investigate this type of offending. She said there were issues around legality of arrest and fundamental processes around prosecution.

She said that Fanning could have challenged the charges against him as there were complex issues given the fact that no actual child was present at any point in the offending.