A man with no previous convictions put himself at risk of a first prison sentence by chatting sexually online with what he believed to be a 13-year-old girl.

But Anthony Lightfoot was inadvertently exchanging messages over three weeks, last summer, with an undercover online child safety police officer who had posted a fake profile of the “girl”.

Durham Crown Court heard that the defendant told the non-existent girl that he wanted to perform sex acts with her and suggested an exchange of intimate pictures of each other, even by Snapchat, as “she” raised concerns they may be circulated otherwise.

Dr Chris Wood, prosecuting, said Lightfoot told her that with the school summer holiday approaching they could possibly meet the following week.

He also told her he would have to be “careful” and they would have to remain a secret until they were older.

Read more: County Durham man caught out by paedophile hunters after sending explicit messages

When he was arrested, in August last year his phone was seized for examination.

Dr Wood, who said the defendant remained silent during his police interview, described the his actions as, “sustained, persistent communication”, with what he thought was a 13-year-old female.

Despite his silence in interview, by the time the 41-year-old defendant, of Copeland Road, West Auckland, appeared before magistrates he admitted a charge of attempting to engage in sexual communication with a child.

His counsel, Tony Davis, said the defendant is of previous good character and wants to address his behaviour with assistance from the Probation Service.

Mr Davis said there was reference in a probation pre-sentence report that the defendant had completed a ‘Safer Lives’ programme.

The probation report author said it is believed he was someone who they could do work with on an accredited programme.

“In the overall circumstances I ask the court whether the recommendation in the report is one with which they could find favour.

“Clearly I can’t argue with the categorisation but he has pleaded guilty at the first opportunity and his determination to address his offending behaviour is particularly important.

“It would give the court confidence his attendance on an accredited programme is likely to be met with some success.

“Significant work has been done already.”

Read more: Man, 20, jailed over sexual meeting with girl in County Durham

Judge James Adkin told the defendant: “You engaged in sexual chat with what was an adult police officer through kik and snapchat and it was made clear from the outset of the 'girl's' age.

“You sent her explicit images of yourself and asked for pictures of her and it was pretty persistent.

“But there was no real child and you have shown significant remorse, having taken steps to address your thought processes”

The judge said having read the probation report, “it seems you present a minimal risk to children”, enabling him to suspend the ten-month prison sentence for two years.

But the defendant must complete 20 rehabilitation activity days overseen by the Probation Service and attend up to 90 sessions with an accredited sex offender group worker.

He was also made subject of a Sexual Harm Prevention Order and registration requirements as a sex offender, both for ten years.

Judge Adkin left Lightfoot with a final warning: “If you do this again, we will meet again and I will send you to prison.”

Read next:

Sex offender spoke to underage girls and swapped numbers at Durham bus stop

Durham pervert thought he was meeting girl, 15, for sex

Durham judge said 'inference' was man was grooming girl for sex

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