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Breach probation and I will jail you, judge tells pervert Harold Burke, who was caught up in paedophile hunters' sting

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Harold Burke at court in Antrim yesterday

Harold Burke at court in Antrim yesterday

Harold Burke at court in Antrim yesterday

A man reported to police by paedophile hunters has walked free from Antrim Crown Court.

Harold Samuel Burke thought he was having sexually explicit chats with three young teenagers over the interent when he was in fact speaking to three adults.

Ordering the 60-year-old to complete a three-year probation order, Judge Donna McColgan said: "(If there is) any breach whatsoever, and I mean any breach, you will be brought back before me and you will be given a custodial sentence".

The judge also imposed a lifelong Sexual Offences Prevention Order.

It means Burke will need approval from his designated risk manager over where he lives, having a mobile phone or other device capable of accessing the web, using social media, having access to children and entering into a relationship.

The case against was a legal first in Northern Ireland in that it was the first time an incident investigated by paedophile hunters has been dealt with in the Crown Court.

At an earlier hearing, Burke, from Quilly Road in Coleraine, entered guilty pleas to three counts of attempting to incite a child to engage in sexual activity on dates between June 23 and July 22 in 2018.

Opening the case against the defendant, prosecuting counsel Mark Farrell told the court how three paedophile hunters from a group calling themselves Decoys Central and using the monikers Fiona, Zoe and Angel, created fake online profiles and pretended to be 13 and 14-year-old girls.

Calling himself Hal, Burke "instigated conversations with who he believed were under-age girls", said the lawyer.

He added that when the group reported the offences to the PSNI, they produced transcripts of "sexually explicit conversations with the decoys".

Describing the online chats as "extremely sexualised and extremely explicit," Mr Farrell recounted how the conversations followed a basic modus operandi where Burke told the girls they would have a "fantastic experience" before directing them to undress and perform sex acts on themselves.

The lawyer read sections of the conversations in court record, much of them too explicit to quote.

In relation to conversations with 'Zoe', the court heard that Burke was "asking to meet her for sex".

Mr Farrell submitted that a feature of the explicit chats was "an element of a degree of recruitment, where the defendant asks the decoy, or underage girl, to try to recruit others to create, I suppose, a network".

There was also, he submitted, a "certain amount of pre-planning" as well as grooming by Burke, who has a previous conviction for having indecent images of children.

Mr Farrell told the court that given the nature of the investigations "it's a rather unusual case", but that the features of grooming, recruitment and Burke's previous conviction aggravated the gravity of the offence.

The guilty pleas were, however, a mitigating factor, conceded the lawyer, adding that while there was no victim as such, "it's a serious matter".

Defence counsel Aaron Thompson described Burke as a "desperately lonely and isolated individual" who had been drinking heavily around the time of the offences as a result of his elderly mother dying.

He told the court that while Burke had "tried to start a new life... he had been shunned" by his family and made a social pariah by those who are aware of his convictions.

"There's been a fair amount of sharing of this and the world and their wife know about this," said Mr Thompson.

He revealed Burke had been in jail on remand for eight months before being freed on bail.

He submitted given that "significant period of time in custody", coupled with a probation recommendation for rehabilitative work, "I hope you do not have to send him back to custody... and the court must look at punishment and rehabilitation as it must always do".

Judge McColgan, who told the court it was the first paedophile hunter case to reach the Crown Court, said while the offences did "cross the custody threshold, I am mindful of the fact that he has served seven months in custody in real terms".

"On the basis that he is prepared to engage with probation, I will give him a probation order for the maximum period I can pass, which is three years," said the judge.

As well as the probation and Sexual Offences Prevention Order, the defendant was ordered to sign sex offenders' register for five years.

Burke declined to comment as he left the court a short time later.

Belfast Telegraph