AN Ellesmere Port man engaged in sex chats with what he thought was a 13-year-old girl online – but was actually an undercover police officer.

Fergusson Mitchell, 69, of Lilac Grove, Whitby, had previously pleaded guilty to attempting to cause a child to watch a sex act and attempting to engage in sexual communication with a child.

When police searched through his home address in April 2020, they also discovered two indecent photos on his laptop and eight extreme pornography images.

At Chester Crown Court on Friday, May 14, the defendant – who had no previous convictions – was handed a suspended sentence.

Prosecuting, Andrew McInnes said a police officer as part of Operation Stronghold, used a false profile of a 13-year-old girl, in chat rooms to track down paedophiles, using the websites and apps Chat Avenue, Kik Messenger and Whatsapp.

In early April 2020, the defendant – under the pseudonym Andy Marshall, said to be from Chester, aged 48, began chatting to what he thought was the 13-year-old girl 'Jess' on Chat Avenue.

He asked her if he was too old, while 'Jess' said she was from Preston.

The defendant asked for her Kik Messenger details, and after exchanging messages there, the defendant sent over a picture of him lying on the bed, topless. 'Jess' replied with a selfie.

The defendant said he worked in the aerospace industry and was "a little excited" sexually, before sending a picture where he had exposed himself.

He also messaged about a game of 'truth or dare', asking her what type of underwear she was wearing, and said when lockdown was over he could "be naughty" and "head over to Preston".

The officer received further Kik Messenger requests from other profiles the following day – 'OldguyUK', named as Tony from Blackpool, aged 42, 'Charlie2234', said to be 'an old guy', and 'Andrew Marshall' – all linked to the same profile, that of the defendant.

Police arrested the defendant at his home address and seized an HP laptop and a Motorola mobile phone. On the laptop were two indecent images of 10-year-old girls. One of the two images was assessed as 'category A' – the most serious type of indecent image.

Also found on the device were eight extreme pornographic images.

When interviewed, the defendant admitted the usernames were his and the images he had sent to 'Jess' were of himself.

Mr McInnes said there was an element of grooming behaviour.

Defending, Jack Troup said the defendant was of previous good character, a history of hard work and "being an upstanding member of society", and was being supported.

He had taken steps to address his offending behaviour by engaging with the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, a child protection charity, and had responded positively.

The origin of the offending had come from a number of family bereavements, and being unable to attend a funeral because of the Covid pandemic.

Mr Troup added of the defendant's subsequent behaviour: "He accepts that was the wrong approach," and said there was genuine remorse for his actions.

Honorary Recorder of Chester, Judge Steven Everett, sentencing the defendant, said: "The strange thing about this case is what on Earth got you into this situation that put you before the court?

Honorary Recorder of Chester Judge Steven Everett. Picture by Andrew Price / View Finder Pictures

Honorary Recorder of Chester Judge Steven Everett. Picture by Andrew Price / View Finder Pictures

"I am sure you will understand that over 130,000 people who have died through the pandemic and people have suffered through not being able to attend funerals, but that does not mean they go on the internet and contact someone who they believe is a child, with sexual motivations.

"The indecent images are disgusting and could not have arrived [on the laptop] by accident. The same for the extreme pornographic images.

"It's important you understand about this type of behaviour, downloading indecent images, is you are watching a child being sexually abused. It's not a made-up photo; that was a child. Goodness knows what happened to them.

"You inadvertently encourage people to do these terrible things. This is not watching something on the television, this is real life, happening to a real person."

The defendant was sentenced to four months in prison, suspended for 18 months, and must complete 30 days of a rehabilitation activity requirement.

He was placed on the sex offenders register for seven years and handed a seven-year Sexual Harm Prevention Order, preventing him from using internet-enabled devices without keeping police informed, and is prohibited from using any software which deletes or disguises his internet usage. He was also prohibited from deliberately contacting children aged under 16 unless in the presence of, and with the approval of, a parent or guardian.

The laptop and phone were to be forfeited and destroyed.