AN Alton man has been given a suspended prison sentence after grooming what he believed to be under-age girls.

Mark Gaudion, 55, admitted two charges of attempting to engage in sexual communications with a child and one count of attempting to meet a child following sexual grooming, after being stung by vigilante paedophile hunters.

On September 22, Gaudion was sentenced to 15 months’ imprisonment, suspended for two years, and ordered to carry out 200 hours of community payback. He was also put on the sex offenders’ register and is subject to a sexual-harm prevention order.

Winchester Crown Court heard that Gaudion had made contact with the profile of a teenage girl called “Becksy Baby” on the online-dating website Waplog.

But “Becksy”, who was said to be 14, was actually a profile created by vigilante group Predator Hunters.

Gaudion sent 57 messages to the decoy, including an explicit photograph.

In April, having arranged a meeting with “Becksy”, he was confronted in Bordon by members of Predator Hunters, who filmed and shared the encounter online. He was subsequently arrested on Rydal Close.

When police searched his home, they found he had engaged in similar online conversations with another fake profile - 13-year-old Amy - set up by a similar group called Dark Justice.

The court heard that Gaudion was a “vulnerable man” with borderline learning disabilities and a low IQ. His defence said he accepted his guilt, which had been difficult to explain to him.

Judge Jane Miller QC said it was Gaudion’s first offence and acknowledged his difficulties.

He had apparently denied having sexual interest in children, instead claiming the messages had been part of his “wicked” sense of humour.

On the filmed confrontation - which has 209,549 views - Predator Hunters thanked Alton police for “allowing us to continue the sting” while they “sat back and watched”.

Gaudion lived in Buttermere Close, Bordon, at the time of his arrest and has since moved to Borovere Close in Alton.

The practice of “paedophile hunting” is controversial, with groups often accusing and exposing the identities of alleged offenders prior to arrest or charge. Typically an adult sets up a fake account, pretending to be an underage girl or boy, and communicates with would-be sex offenders.

Once a meeting has been arranged, they confront their target - an encounter which they often film - before handing over all collected evidence to the police.

A Hampshire Constabulary spokesman said the force’s position was in keeping with the national guidance set by the Association of Chief Police Officers (now The National Police Chiefs Council), and the National Crime Agency’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command.

Their stance is: “While we understand the public’s desire to protect their children from online abuse, we do not encourage action of this kind, which can compromise ongoing investigations into paedophile networks and could spark an abuser to further harm a child if they feel threatened.

“Those who take this approach to exposing paedophiles could be breaking the law and may find themselves at the centre of an investigation or prosecution.

“Identifying alleged paedophiles is best left to the police who can ensure vulnerable victims are protected. The police rely on the assistance of the public in preventing and detecting crime. Working closely with communities is a vital way in which we gain information, and their active engagement in fighting crime helps us do our job. Cases involving child-sex abuse are extremely serious and have a huge emotional impact - on the victims, whole families and communities in which they take place.

“We understand the desire to protect children but any member of the public who has information about child sexual abuse, online or otherwise, should get in contact with the police so we can investigate and bring people to justice.

“Revealing the identity of suspected paedophiles gives the suspect the opportunity to destroy evidence before the police can investigate them. It also leads to people who have been identified going missing or raising concerns for their safety.

“This can divert significant resources into protecting suspects, which would be better invested in investigating and, where there is evidence, prosecuting them.”

But Predator Hunters remains undeterred by such risks and continues to organise sting operations. The group says it always co-operates with police and “have been commended by them for what we do”. There is plenty of support on social media for its actions, with many strongly vilifying the individuals caught.

One comment in response to Gaudion’s capture reads: “He is not lonely - he’s always out and about in the community doing stuff and tending to the woods and new walkways through the woods. I see him all the time, talking to people/kids. Don’t be fooled.”

Predator Hunters maintains an online persona of law-abiding professionalism, although in response to one comment about Gaudion, Predator Hunters responds with: “Lead between the eyes problem solved.”

An NSPCC spokesperson said: “Gaudion deliberately targeted young, vulnerable girls and it’s clear that he has an unhealthy and dangerous interest in children.

“Treatment is vital as part of his sentence to help lessen any risk he may pose in the future.”