Internet groomer faces 30 years

A FORMER US marine faced likely extradition to the United States and a possible 30 year jail sentence last night after he pleaded guilty to abducting a 12-year-old British schoolgirl he courted on the internet.

Demands grew for changes in the law to tackle internet grooming after former sergeant, Toby Studabaker, 33 , appeared at Manchester Crown Court to plead guilty to abduction and incitement to gross indecency involving a girl he met on the internet.

Michigan-born Studebaker admitted the charges more than eight months after he eloped to Europe with the girl, who cannot be named for legal reasons, in July last year. Their disappearance sparked an international manhunt and triggered renewed concerns about the dangers of paedophiles using internet chatrooms to ensnare their victims.

The case became headline news across the world last year after Studabaker, who had served in Afghanistan, developed a love affair with the girl on-line over a year, before travelling to England and eloping with her.

The girl disappeared from her parents’ home in Lowton, near Wigan, on 13 July last year, after Studabaker had primed her to meet him at Manchester airport as he touched down on a flight from Detroit via Amsterdam.

The girl left after tricking her mother into handing over her passport by saying she needed it for a bus pass.

Her family believed she was spending the day with friends, but by 2:30pm the girl had met up with Studabaker and the pair had flown from Manchester to Heathrow. By 5:50pm, they had caught a flight to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport.

At 8pm that night her parents contacted the police, and by the next morning detectives had begun examining the computer on which she spent many hours surfing and chatting, quickly discovering her relationship with Studabaker.

Greater Manchester Police launched one of the biggest investigations in its history, contacting the FBI, which began delving into Studabaker’s background, as well as Interpol and the French police.

FBI profilers discovered that Studabaker, who claimed he was a devout evangelical Christian, had joined the armed forces after two sex allegations involving minors were levelled against him.

In court, Beverly Lunt, prosecuting, confirmed for the first time that Studabaker had "groomed" the girl "so that she would not object to the sexual activity that took place once they were out of the UK".

Ms Lunt told the court that on the first night they arrived in Paris the couple slept in the same room, but in separate twin beds.

She said: "When they woke up early the next morning, they went out for a walk, then went back to the hotel and went back to bed. They got up again at about 10am and went for another walk and, at some stage, bought some vodka, which they took back to the hotel to drink. That evening, they talked for a while and they were kissing.

"They both woke up later on the Sunday night and there was more kissing, and then they had sexual intercourse on her bed."

Ms Lunt added: "From Paris, they travelled by train to Strasbourg on 14 July, and they booked into the Etap Hotel. This room had a double bed and they both had a shower and then went to bed together."

The court was told the pair did not have sex that night.

The following day, the victim saw a CNN bulletin detailing her disappearance and showing a picture of Studabaker. The next day, they took a train to Stuttgart and booked into the Hotel Mack using false names. The victim rang her mother that night and told her she was safe.

Studabaker took the girl to the airport and she flew back to Manchester. Police were waiting to meet her, and she was interviewed about her whereabouts and her history of contact with the former serviceman. Ms Lunt said Studabaker was arrested in Frankfurt on 16 July, and refused to co-operate with the authorities before he was extradited to Britain in August.

According to Ms Lunt, the evidence proved that Studabaker knew the exact age of his victim. She said: "The content of many of the e-mails and chats show that the defendant knew his victim was 12 years old in 2003."

The court was also told that Studabaker had set up a webcam link after being told by his victim that she was getting changed to go to school.

Mr Justice Leveson yesterday said sentence against Studabaker would be deferred until 2 April, but he added that the American would not be sentenced for alleged sexual intercourse with the girl.

He said: "It is important to underline that neither of these offences concerns an act of sexual intercourse."

He said it was not an offence in this country to have sex with an under-age girl in France. In the likely event that Studabaker is extradited to the US, he could face a maximum sentence of 30 years’ imprisonment and a $250,000 fine.

The children’s charity, NCH, called for the legal loophole to be blocked.

John Carr, the internet adviser for NCH, said: "Studabaker did allegedly have full sexual intercourse with the girl, but in Paris. We couldn’t charge him with that in the UK because he is not British. There is a loophole that allows foreigners to essentially rape British children abroad and not get charged with it in a British court.

"What that means is, given the way the internet works and given how cheap international travel is, there is a whole strand of criminal behaviour that could go unpunished. It is like open season."

Parents have faced repeated warnings from the police and campaigners to monitor their children’s use of the internet.

Last night, the girl’s parents expressed their relief that the case had come to an end.

In a statement, they said: "We are very happy with the outcome today, which hopefully sends out a strong message to the public. We feel that this is only the tip of the iceberg, and to stop this from happening again there must be many changes, as we would not like anyone else to go through the things we have."

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