The former owner of a children’s petting zoo has categorically denied sexually assaulting a teenage girl who saw him as a ‘father-figure’.

Mark Hebdon is accused of pushing the girl onto the ground and forcing her to perform a sex act on him while on the farm premises, which he no longer owns.

The 55-year-old was spotted kissing the teenager in 2019 by at least one witness but denies the abuse claims he faces, Teesside Crown Court heard.

Jurors heard how the defendant had suffered from meningitis in 2006 and the illness had impacted on his hearing and ability to respond quickly to information and questions.

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During his evidence, Hebdon told the jury that he thought of himself as a ‘father-figure’ to the teenager and categorically denied having any sexual activity with her.

The Northern Echo: Mark HebdonMark Hebdon

Tania Griffiths KC, representing the defendant, asked Hebdon: “Were you having an affair with her?”

He replied: “No.”

She continued: “Have you have had any sexual contact with her?” He replied: “No.”

She asked: “Have you ever engaged in a sex act with her?” He replied: “No.”

The defendant told the jury that he lost his phone on the day police arrived to speak to him.

He said: “I saw a duck with a bloodied leg and tried to catch it. I slipped on the bank and I fell in and lost it.”

Under cross examination from Paul Abrahams, prosecuting, the accused refuted claims that he had groomed the teenager by showering her with an iPhone and money while grooming her.

Mr Abrahams asked: “Did you dispose of the phone because you thought the police were coming and they might find out what was on it?”

The defendant replied: “No.”

The barrister continued: “It is just a coincidence that it was lost whilst chasing a lame duck?” He simply replied: “Yes.”

Hebdon was asked about the mobile phone and cash that he gave to the complainant. Mr Abrahams said: “Were you doing that to manipulate and groom her?”

The defendant replied: “No, I wouldn’t do that.”

Earlier in the trial, jurors heard how a number of messages between Hebdon and the complainant were found on the teenager’s mobile phone but the defendant’s phone had never been recovered from the pond on the farm.

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And the alleged victim told detectives how the defendant had abused her over a period of a year when she says he forced her to carry out a sex act on him on a number of occasions.

In her video recorded evidence, the complainant told officers how they were having an affair despite their age difference and that Hebdon had promised to leave his wife for her.

Hebdon, of John Street, Great Ayton, near Stokesley, denies three charges – sexual activity with a child and two counts of sexual activity with a child.

The trial continues.