AN Alnwick man has been jailed for grooming and sexual offences against an underage girl.
Michael Saunders, 22, was sentenced on Friday at Newcastle Crown Court to two years in prison after a string of offences against his 14-year-old victim, who cannot be named for legal reasons.
He pleaded guilty to two charges of sexual activity with a child.
Saunders, of Windsor Gardens, also pleaded not guilty to two counts of rape, but the prosecution offered no evidence on either of these.
At a previous hearing, he had pleaded guilty to another charge of sexual activity with a child and one of meeting a child following sexual grooming.
Speaking after Saunders’ sentence, the girls’ parents said they were ‘devastated’ at what had happened and their daughter was receiving counselling.
Her father said: “It has completely ruined our lives. She has been affected at school, missed a lot of school and her grades have slipped. It is all down to his actions.
“It is not easy. It is not the end of it for us. There was no joy or satisfaction that he has been sent to prison. There was no celebration, there is nothing to celebrate.
“He has ruined his own life, he has ruined his parents’ lives and he has ruined our lives and that will continue for some time to come.”
The court heard how Saunders and the girl had begun to chat online and the pair developed an internet friendship.
But James Adkin, prosecuting, said it was clear that things became ‘abusive’ in the new year of 2010.
He said the girl – who Saunders knew before they started chatting online – ‘trusted the defendant’ as they had spoken for so long and ‘felt she could tell him anything’.
The court heard that Saunders made comments about her clothes, asked her to send him naked pictures of herself, made sexually explicit comments and, in what Mr Adkin described as a ‘more disconcerting reference’, Saunders asked: “Can I come up and rape you?”
It was after months of online chatting that Saunders persuaded her to meet him.
Mr Adkin said that the defendant had asked her to visit him at his address, but told her to be careful as she approached the house and make sure that she wasn’t seen.
The court was told the first time she visited him, nothing happened but the second time she visited his house, Mr Adkin said that Saunders asked her to perform a sex act on him and the pair engaged in sexual activity.
After this, Saunders made more sexual comments to his victim.
Mr Adkin said that sexual references became ‘intensely graphic’ both ‘before and after’ the sexual activity.
Saunders’ crimes only came to light when the victim’s father found messages on his daughter’s computer.
Mr Adkin said: “By pure chance, her father discovered what was going on between the defendant and his daughter.
“Her laptop computer was left on and he went on to the computer and looked at the graphic conversations that had been going on between her and the defendant. He was shocked by it.”
The court heard that the victim’s dad confronted Saunders, who claimed he had been drunk, and the matter was reported to the police, where he admitted the sexual activity and that he knew she was in high school and had told her about his sexual fantasies.
It later emerged that sexual activity had taken place on two more occasions between the pair before her father had become aware of it.
In defence, Julie Clemitson told the court that Saunders had believed his victim was 15 years old and said that it was ‘consensual behaviour’.
She said: “They (the messages) began as banter. There was no serious intention behind it when they began.
“He didn’t set out to identify a potential victim, a young girl who he could desensitise and, over the course of time, prepare for sexual grooming. It evolved from conversations which were banter to start with, albeit ill-judged, unsavoury banter.”
Miss Clemitson said that Saunders had become ‘more and more embroiled’ in ‘this world of his own making’ and he had ‘allowed himself to get carried away without any conscious thought of where this was going’.
But she told the court that Saunders had allowed the ‘private corners of his mind to be acted out on this young girl’ adding: “These thoughts and feelings became actions, rather than thoughts and feelings.”
She said that in this case, the greater public interest was to depart from the normal sentencing guidelines and the court heard that Saunders – was said to be living with the ‘shame and disgrace on a daily basis’ – could undergo therapy.
“This type of offending can’t happen again. Unless what is going on inside of his mind is addressed, the court cannot be confident that he can deal with these issues himself,” she said.
In sentencing, Judge Michael Cartlidge told the court that he had to approach the case with the way the material had been presented to him and on the basis of the plea presented to him and accepted that the ‘child’ was consenting.
“The defendant is a man of good character and all of the testimonials I have read say this defendant is a decent, honest, trustworthy person,” he said, “but what I have to sentence him for suggests there is another side to him where he is not trustworthy and he has betrayed a child and her family.
“It is not difficult to imagine the stress this has caused for a relatively small community like Alnwick.”
He said that while it might be in Saunders’ interest to undergo ‘three-years of intensive therapy’ he told the court that he had ‘other obligations’ and children needed to be ‘protected’.
Judge Cartlidge said that he was to make Saunders’ time in prison as short as possible and added that he hoped Saunders would receive supervision or an agency who could offer it to him.
After the hearing, the victim’s father spoke about the dangers of internet chat-rooms.
He said: “I would like to warn other parents to be aware of what their children are up to on the internet. We tried to educate her time and time again about the dangers of this sort of thing but it is very difficult when it is somebody that you know. She didn’t see him as a stranger.”
Saunders also received a six-year Sexual Offences Prevention Order and will have his details put on the sex offenders’ register.
DC Katie Anderson of Northumbria Police’s Rape Investigation Team said: “This sentence shows the severity of Saunders’ actions and that this sort of behaviour is simply intolerable.
“It has been a very difficult time for the victim and her family and we hope the outcome allows them to move on with their lives.”