AN Alton man has been sentenced after admitting that he groomed dating-site members he believed to be under-age girls.

Mark Gaudion, 55, formerly from Bordon, 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, in a sting set up by vigilante paedophile hunters.

On Friday, 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 made the subject of a sexual harm prevention order.

Winchester Crown Court heard that Gaudion made contact with a profile of a 14-year-old girl called “Becksy Baby” on the online dating website Waplog created by vigilante group Predator Hunters.

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

He was confronted in Bordon by members of Predator Hunters in April, having arranged a meeting with the “girl”. The group filmed encounter and shared its online. He was subsequently arrested in Rydal Close, Bordon.

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

The court heard that Gaudion is a “vulnerable man” with borderline learning disabilities and has 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 denied having sexual interest in children and claimed the messages had been part of his “wicked” sense of humour.

On the filmed confrontation, which to date has 209,549 views and has been shared 1,679 times, Predator Hunters thanked Alton police for allowing them to continue the sting while they observed.

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 then communicates with would-be sex offenders. Once a meeting has been arranged, they confront their ‘target’ in an encounter that they often film before handing their evidence to the police.

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

This states: “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 victims are protected.

“Police forces have reported these cases to CEOP and work with them to investigate the allegations.

“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, not only on the victims but on whole families and the 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.”

However, Predator Hunters remain undeterred and last week asked for volunteers to join them. They say they always co-operate with police and “have been commended by them" for their actions.

There is plenty of support on social media for their actions, with many vilifying the paedophiles they trap.

The group’s online presence insists they are law-abiding, buy their desire for retribution occasionally shines through.

When a comment on Mr Gaudion’s video criticises the vigilantes for mocking him and wonders whether he might be “ill”, Predator Hunters respond: “Lead between the eyes problem solved... They have no place in society.”

An NSPCC spokesman 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.”