Fingers clatter across an iPad and up goes the internet chat room profile of 14 year old Jess.
A couple of seconds pass and the phone vibrates to indicate a message.
The date is December 14, 2014 and this is the first contact from Peter Hyam in Essex.
“Hello Jess wow you look sexy,” is his opening gambit.
From there his messages grow increasingly sexual. It is not reciprocated.
He’s told straight out, reminded even, that Jess is just 14.
“That’s okay as long as you don’t mind a 56 year old wanting to have you.”
It gets worse, much worse. He tells her what he would like to do her.
Jess tells him that her mum would go mad. Hyam panics.
“We wont tell her xxx if that’s ok xxxx.”
Fast forward a few months and we’re at Hinckley Marina and it’s half-term. I’m here to meet Jess.
In the marina’s restaurant, amid the heavy smell of chips and vinegar, and the noise of feral children at play, I find her; looking tired, distracted, and with a heavy five o’clock shadow. That’s because Jess isn’t Jess – she’s Paul, a 20 something dad of two from Hinckley who, hence the fatigue, works night shifts.
At mention of Peter Hyam, Paul visibly sickens.
Ten days after Hyam made contact with Paul’s internet decoy, he booked a room at a Premier Inn. This is after telling her he will take her to places, buy her things and be her substitute father.
Peter, the grown man from a teenage chat room, was thinking his luck was in.
It’s just this time it wasn’t.
Hyam turned up at the hotel and waiting for him were members of Essex Constabulary, working on a tip off from Leicestershire Police. Who, strangely enough, had been alerted by two county dads who, at the very least, have a very novel way of spending their spare time.
These dads go by the name of Letzgo Hunting.
Letzgo Hunting have made quite a name for themselves since starting out in 2013. Their highly visual modus operandi is simple: They meet men who groom under-age children online, film the surprising encounter, and then post it on YouTube and Facebook.
Their methods have been applauded on one hand for bringing potentially harmful men to the attention of the police. They’ve been criticised on the other for being amateurs interfering with judicial process.
After disbanding last summer – more on that later – the group started up again two months ago.
Which is why I’m meeting Paul and his friend John, Letzgo Hunting’s founder in Hinckley, their home town.
We’d originally agreed to meet at another pub on the outskirts. But Paul works nights in an undisclosed profession and he’d forgotten it was half term and looking after his two kids.
“I live on four hours sleep a day,” he shrugs.
Two months ago Paul was blissfully unaware of how unsafe a teenage internet chat room could be. His first attempt as a decoy was successful within two seconds – Peter Hyam didn’t hang around.
“I try and forget as much as I can,” he says. “Some of the vulgar things [Hyam said]: Asking if she shaves, whether he can do certain things to her. Sending pictures of him naked. Before I started doing this I had no idea things were this bad.
“You don’t know how bad things are unless you’re involved in some way – I’d really like to see the police, or other agencies, get funding to do what we do.”
Before the meeting John, a self-employed builder, emails a transcript of Hyam’s [shudder] conversation with Jess.
“Even we were shocked by that response – it was Paul’s first time,” says John, “and he got someone straight away.”
John, 29, is sat at the table with a computer, two mobiles and an iPad laid out in front of him.
Talk of Peter Hyam inspires him to pick up his phone. He runs his thumb down the screen and photographs of erect penises, dozens of them, cascade past like the wheel of an obscene fruit machine. This is among their evidence. It’s also just plain old surreal on a Monday lunchtime in a family restaurant.
As for Letzgo Hunting, they’re known in Daily Mail journalese as “vigilante paedophile hunters.”
“We’re not vigilantes,” says John quickly, a man who goes by one fake name.
“They say we’re taking the law into our own hands. We don’t. We investigate and we report. The men we meet, they’re not paedophiles, they’re hebephiles, h-e-b-e-philes,” he spells, “they’re sexually attracted to pubescent children.
“And we describe ourselves as covert internet investigators,” he adds. “We push that as much as we can. We want to get away from all that…vigilantes.”
These days Letzgo are changing their tack. They’ve stopped using decoys on social media, it’s just chat rooms now. And when they turn up to meet the men who’ve been grooming young girls, they still film them. It’s just now they blur out their faces. The blur will vanish, they say, once they’ve pleaded guilty or been found guilty.
But what if you get it wrong?
“Those men we film are there to meet under-age girls,” he says, confidently. “And we’re there to meet them.”
In May, 2014, a 29 year old man from Market Bosworth turned up at a Leicestershire recreation ground to meet a 14 year old. Instead he met three blokes from Letzgo Hunting. He was filmed fleeing by the group. Four days later he hanged himself.
The group took the video down and the man’s details for the sake of his family.
How did you feel when you found out?
“It’s difficult you know, I wouldn’t say I was glad he’d done it,” says John, “but it was his choice. He’d been arrested. He didn’t wait for the judicial process. He left two suicide notes. None blamed us.”
The group disbanded in September, but not because of the suicide. It was because of – and seriously, you couldn’t make this up – a competitor, the self-styled The Paedophile Hunter. Who, it turns out, is a convicted arsonist from Nuneaton. He’d taken umbrage at Letzgo’s May time media attention – that’s how Letzgo see it – and so he posted his rivals’ names and addresses online.
“We had people threaten to slit our throats,” reveals John. His partner, the mother of his two kids, became suicidal.
“Since we’ve come back it’s been nice and quiet,” he adds. “When we start getting convictions come through, people,” he says, “will be a bit more respectful.”
Letzgo went back online at Christmas and have since had three arrests.
To date they’ve been responsible for three convictions. There could be more. Once they’ve had their statements taken they don’t always hear back from the police.
“We look through the newspapers to see if there’s any mention,” adds Paul.
“I don’t know if you saw,” interrupts John, “we released another video from Leicester. He was our first return catch in December. He was picked up at St Margaret’s Bus Station.
“We thought we’d make the video a bit more interesting,” says John, without irony, “so we’ve put music on it.”
It is, as Letzgo films go, pretty uneventful. John sums up: “The bloke shows up, the copper shows up, grabs his arm. “Who are you?” Arrests him and puts him in his car.”
That 28 year old was expecting to meet a 14 year old. He’s still on remand pending inquiries.
All of this, you’d think, delivering dangerous men into the hands of the police would be widely applauded. Seen as no bad thing. And for many, it is. Letzgo Hunting have 14,000 Facebook followers. They also have a Go Fund Me page so when the law changes in May, the cash will pay for the private investigator licences they need to continue.
Among their backers is Muhammad Saqib Deen, who’s donated £30. “You guys are superheroes,” he says. “Please don’t stop doing what you’re doing. If you need help promoting the Facebook page or anything let me know. Also, highly recommend getting PayPal on here. God bless :D”
Jessica Ball has given £60. “I believe in you guys so much no amount of money will ever express it,” she comments. “Please never stop what you’re doing, this country needs you more than ever.”
There are others, however, who caution against amateurs getting involved in crime detection. One fear is their work could interfere with the legal process and send dangerous men underground.
Since starting in March 2013, Letzgo have tracked men in eight counties.
Now, they’re hoping to build up enough steam to change the law – they want all people convicted of a sexual offence against a child to serve a custodial sentence. Which you may be shocked to learn isn’t law already. They also want suspects put into custody when there’s strong evidence a crime has been committed.
Going one further, the group have just set up a charity for the victims of child abuse.
“What we’re trying to do now is get recognised as a national organisation,” says John. The Letzgo Hunting name, he promises, will soon be replaced, by what, he doesn’t say.
So how do you class yourselves? Are you providing a public service?
“I wouldn’t say we’re particularly a public service,” adds John, “but it’s something that needs to be done. Not everyone agrees with the police or their methods. But it’s something that’s needed, now more than anything.”
The relationship with the police, says John, is good for the most of it. “They haven’t said we don’t support what we’re doing. They’re more `We will work on any evidence.’
“Since we’ve stopped broadcasting faces and addresses they’re a lot more supportive.”
The other day, says John, he was sat in a car with an inspector. The officer’s phone rings. It’s his wife. Can’t speak now, he says, I’m with Letzgo Hunting. He laughs and hangs up. His wife’s asked him to get her an autograph.
Leicestershire Constabulary release a stock quote when Letzgo get mentioned. They have to walk a careful line.
“As with all intelligence and information provided from any source we will assess this and take proportionate action in relation to the information,” they say.
“The police have to comply with legislative requirements and have a duty of care and therefore investigations and enquiries into potential sex offenders are extremely sensitive and detailed and have to be conducted in a way which ensures that prosecution of an offender isn’t affected.
“Consideration also has to be given to any threats and harm to anyone involved in the investigation, plus family and friends of potential offenders.”
John and Paul are now joined at the table by another Letzgo member. Alan, in his late 40s with spiky hair, arrives and sits down.
“I’m Jack,” he says, extending a hand.
“We said you were Alan,” says John. Paul laughs.
“Oh, I’m Jack now.”
I tell him he should have gone for George or Ringo instead. Jack/Alan looks confused.
John says his reasons for hunting dodgy men on the internet is two-fold. The first is because 13 years ago he helped put a paedophile in prison.
“And he was a friend of mine. Living in my house. He asked me to fix his computer.”
And so he did and saw the search history.
“On there I saw some search terms,” and it got John wondering, “What the hell is that?”
John clicked open a file of internet downloads. It was named PTHC. At the time he didn’t know what it stood for.
“PTHC,” says John, “stands for Pre-Teen Hard Core.”
“I saw five to six thumbnail size images,” he says, “there must have been thousands, because I could see the size of the scroll bar.”
John rang the police. “We’ll send someone round as soon as possible,” said the call handler. A police officer turned up a week later.
“I had to try and be his friend for a week. Those thumbnails are burned into the back of my mind until this day.”
But when the police arrived John was arrested.
His friend, the one with the sexual taste for children, had said the images were John’s. John’s computer and laptop were confiscated. They were returned eight months later, when the investigation concluded.
“I’ve got a passionate hate for child sex offenders,” John reiterates.
The second reason is less complex: he saw the high-jinks American TV programme To Catch A Predator, and thought how he’d like to have a go at capturing dangerous men.
“The adrenaline rush is incredible,” he admits. “You’ve got the tension. The build up. You know they’re going to get arrested. They’re caught: they’re not going to abuse anyone else. It’s an amazing buzz. You can’t see me on camera, but when they show up I’m smiling like a Cheshire cat.”
Speaking of being on camera, John wants to get one thing clear.
“We’ve been called chavs, we’re not chavs,” he says. “We’re in trackies when we go to meet them if we’re in a park, recreation ground. We were suited and booted for another interception. It’s whatever the situation calls for.”
A tracksuited encounter involving a man from Barwell can currently be seen on YouTube, adds John. The man admits on camera why he’s there. He’s also tried three times to get YouTube to take the video down. They do. And then Letzgo reduce its file size and repost it. Letzgo currently have 23 videos on YouTube.
Now it’s time for us to part. John, after two plus hours in conversation, comes across as sincere. There’s no filter: he doesn’t pause when answering questions. He says that he’s out of pocket by £700 for pursuing online offenders across the country.
Paul is slightly distracted as he’s keeping an eye on his kids. The one who calls himself Jack has an annoying habit of using my name as a full stop. He constantly interrupts John and Paul’s quotes. He also claims to understand the psychology of perverts, and, repeatedly bear hugs Paul, as if this is all a bit of a jape.
“If you write a negative article about us,” he threatens, after a long and frank discussion with mostly Paul and John, “you’ll never hear from us again.”
Yes, just like Keyser Söze.
What would you like this article to do? I ask John, as we part ways.
“Make people realise we’re decent people,” he says, and then a flurry of frownlines appear on his forehead. “I hope it comes across to you,” he smiles, “that we are decent people.”
Immediately I think of Peter Hyam, who, having admitted two counts of arranging the commission of a child sex offence, will be sentenced at Basildon Crown Court in April.
An article similar to this was printed in the Mercury in 2014. This is a rejig.
In April 2015, Hyam was sentenced at Southend Crown Court to 32 months in prison after pleading guilty to arranging to facilitate the commission of a sex offence and making indecent images of minors.
And those messages sent to Jess? Should you visit their website – letzgohunting.co.uk – to read the revolting online transcription of Hyam’s messages, you soon realise that Paul deserves some sort of Oscar.
I contacted John to let him know I’d put this article online and he gave me an update on Letzgo’s activities.
The man arrested at St Margaret’s Bus Station – Jafar Adeli – a 32 year old asylum seeker from Afghanisatan was sentenced to 27 months imprisonment for grooming a 14 year old for sex in April 2015.
A 28 year old man from Leicester was sentenced to eight months in January 2016 for making indecent remarks and sending indecent images to a fictitious 13 year old girl.
Further, another four men are expected in court this spring having been found by Letzgo Hunting to be grooming underage females online.