After hearing horror stories about teenage girls being groomed online by paedophiles, father-of-six Stuart Thomas* decided that he could not be too careful.
He educated his family about the dangers of talking to strangers online and implemented a strict rule at home for checking his kids’ phones.
But despite his sensible precautions, in June 2014 Stuart was horrified to discover that his stepdaughter Amy*, then 14, had been swapping messages with a 55-year-old predator on Tango, a mobile phone chat app.
Within less than a fortnight of initiating contact, lorry driver Christopher Mills had sent her intimate pictures of himself masturbating, and persuaded her to send photos of herself in her underwear.
Sick Mills had then started begging Amy to meet up with him… even offering to pick her up from school.
So, Stuart, 33, posed as Amy to trap his daughter’s predator. He pretended she wanted to meet up with him then alerted the police instead.
Thanks to Stuart’s actions, in August this year Mills, 55, from Colchester, was jailed for 14 months for grooming Amy.
Stuart, a carer from Essex, said: “When I saw the messages that the pervert had been sending my daughter I felt physically sick.
“Her profile picture showed her school uniform, and she’d told him she was only 14.
“But instead of ending the conversation there and then, he flirted with her and flattered her. It was just wrong.
“My blood was boiling when I saw that he’d been begging her to meet up with him.
“It wasn’t enough to delete the app and save Amy. Who knew how many other girls he’d been grooming?
“That’s when I decided to take matters into my own hands, and I posed as Amy to arrange a meeting that night.”
Stuart had been particularly cautious about internet safety after attending an evening class aimed at educating parents about the potential dangers.
Back at home, he and his wife of eight years Gemma*, 34, started checking their children’s phones at random once a month.
So, one morning he asked Amy to hand over her phone before she went to school.
Stuart said: “I’d usually have a look through Amy’s messages to make sure she wasn’t talking to anyone she shouldn’t be. I’d have a look at her photos too.
“I didn’t want to pry into her life. I just wanted to make sure she was safe.
“We’d had lots of conversations about the dangers of talking to strangers and I trusted her. Checking her phone was just a precaution really.
“Then, that morning I noticed that Amy had downloaded a new app called Tango.
“I’d never heard of it, so I clicked to open it up.
“It was a chat app, and although it wasn’t a dating service it seemed to encourage people to chat to strangers.
“I saw that she’d been speaking to a man called Chris, and as soon as I saw his profile picture I was worried.
“He had grey hair, and although his age wasn’t public I could instantly tell he was too old to be talking to a teenage girl.”
Stuart scrolled back to read all of their messages, dating back a fortnight.
He discovered that Mills had messaged Amy out of the blue, saying ‘You look cute.’
When she replied and explained she was only 14 Mills told her that she looked at least 17, despite the fact her profile picture clearly showed her secondary school uniform.
Then the conversation took a worryingly sexual turn. Mills started quizzing Amy about her sexual experiences and even about her oral sex techniques.
As a shy teenager, Amy kept dodging his questions and trying to change the subject.
However Mills was persistent.
Stuart said: “He’d sent Amy a sick video of himself masturbating, as well as full frontal naked photos.
“I felt sick to the stomach as I saw that she’d sent him photos of her posing in her underwear too.
“He’d showered her with compliments and made her feel special – it was a classic grooming technique. He told her time and time again that she was gorgeous.
“Then Chris had started begging Amy to meet up with him. He even offered to pick her up from school. I was furious.
“Amy would always make up an excuse to get out of the conversation, like that tea was on the table or that she was going for a shower.
“Chris seemed determined to meet her though. It was terrifying how quickly their conversation had escalated.”
After showing the messages to Gemma, together they picked Amy up from school early.
They explained that they knew about the messages, telling Amy that she was not in any trouble but Mills’s behaviour had been very wrong.
But although they had saved Amy from his clutches, Stuart could not shake the fear that Mills could be grooming other teenagers too.
Stuart said: “I decided that I would confront him. I wanted him to see that what he was doing was totally wrong.
“I thought that if I turned up instead of Amy that would scare him into thinking twice before talking to a teenager again.
“So, I signed into Amy’s Tango account and sent Chris a message suggesting that we meet up.
“I wasn’t surprised when he leapt at the chance, suggesting a nearby car park at 10pm that night.
“I set off in the car, rehearsing what I wanted to say to him.
“But as I drove I could feel myself getting more and more angry.
“I pulled over and tried to calm myself down. I didn’t want to physically hurt him – that wouldn’t do anyone any good.
“So instead I phoned the police, and told them about the messages I’d found.”
The police advised Stuart to drive to the nearest police station to make a full report. Meanwhile, they would send out officers to apprehend Mills.
“I drove past the car park on the way to the station, and I could see Chris waiting there in his lorry,” said Stuart.
“The thought that he was waiting for my daughter really turned my stomach. I couldn’t bear to think about what he was planning to do when she arrived.
“I was at the police station from around 10.30pm until 4am, showing them all the messages and making my statement.
“Chris was arrested that night.”
Within days Amy gave a video interview, and Chris was charged.
He pleaded guilty to inciting a child to be involved in pornography and inciting a child to engage in sexual activity.
On August 6 2015 Christopher Mills was jailed for 14 months at Chelmsford Crown Court. He has to sign the sex offenders register for ten years and is banned from having unsupervised contact with any child under 16.
But despite Chris being locked up behind bars, the aftermath of Amy’s ordeal has put a huge strain on the family.
They have now moved 500 miles away to escape the memories.
Stuart said: “Amy just didn’t feel safe anymore.
“She wouldn’t even go to school on her own.
“Before she was bubbly, bright and happy. But after all of this she became really introverted and down.
“She even started self-harming, and now she sees a counsellor.
“Moving away from the area was a drastic step but it was the only thing we could do to help Amy.
“Slowly she’s becoming more like her old self. She’s made new friends and she’s even been teaching them about safety online.
“Thankfully I intervened before anything even more serious happened. However, his perverted actions still destroyed our lives.
“I drove down to court on my own to see him sentenced because I wanted to see if he was sorry. There was no shred of remorse though, even though apparently he’s a family man with grandchildren of his own.
“I’m glad I caught him, but I only did what any other dad would do.”
*All names have been changed to protect the victim, except Christopher Mills.
As told to Helen O’Brien Google