A man who believed he had arranged to meet a 15-year-old “escort” for sex, was left crestfallen when he was greeted by police officers at the rendezvous point.

Joseph Lee sought a liaison via an online site which was advertising 18-year-old females available for escort services.

Durham Crown Court heard that having selected a suitable profile, at the outset of their online conversation he was told the “escort” was aged 15.

Following an exchange of messages Lee agreed to make a booking and although the precise nature of the sexual activity desired was not stipulated, it was confirmed he wanted penetrative sex during his recent trial at court.

The Northern Echo: Joseph Lee, inset, jailed for arranging a meeting with what he believed was a 15-year-old 'escort'

Jon Harley, prosecuting, told the court Lee was given the directions to Framwellgate Moor and duly drove there in his van, only to be greeted at the location by police officers from the North East Regional Crime Unit (NEROCU) and the Durham force.

Lee’s mobile phone was seized and it was found to be the device on which her had made the initial contact, while a search of the defendant revealed he had £600 on him.

Mr Harley said Lee denied having made the call or planning to meet a girl.

He claimed he went to the location to pass information on to the police in the hope the “girl” would be, "saved".

The 46-year-old defendant, of Drum Lane, Chester-le-Street, denied a charged of arranging or facilitating the commission of a child sex offence, but was found guilty following a trial on October 30.

His sentencing hearing, today (Monday November 20), was told he has six convictions on his record for eight offences, although none of them was of a sexual nature.

Dr John Brown, in mitigation, said his client has some learning needs, which upon investigation, may be found to have coloured what his intentions were on the day of the offence, April 26, last year.

“He said that over the years he has been contacting escorts even though he’s married with children.

"He comes from the Travellers’ Community and this has caused some difficulties over his closeness to families.

“Although bailed to live at an address, he’s been living at a hotel and he was not sure how long he could live there.

“The Probation Service believes they can manage him in the community.”

Dr Brown said there was not the ongoing targeting of a website by his client, as it was a, “one-off” incident.

“If given a community order he could learn from his failings to help put him back on the straight and narrow.”

But Judge Jo Kidd told Lee: “The trial jury found the purpose of your communication with the undercover officer, once you were told the 'prostitute' was 15, was to carry out penetrative sexual activity with someone you believed was 15.

“You have some previous convictions, but nothing relevant in respect of sex offending.

“But, in this, your behaviour was made worse by the significant disparity in age between you and the person you believed to be a 15-year-old prostitute, a gap of 30 years.

“You believed that was a child prostitute.

“Had ‘she’ existed, she would have been more vulnerable than any other 15-year-old.”

Judge Kidd agreed to reduce the sentence on Lee by 20-per cent to reflect the fact it was an undercover operation and no child existed.

Imposing a five-year prison sentence, Judge Kidd also made Lee subject of a Sexual Harm Prevention Order and registration as a sex offender, both to run “indefinitely”.

NEROCU detectives were said to have worked alongside officers from Durham Police’s Online Child Abuse Investigator Team, to carry out the operation in April, last year.

A NEROCU statement said: “Thanks to the partnership, Lee is no longer an immediate danger to children."

Speaking after the sentencing, NEROCU Detective Inspector Leonard, said: “This is another great example of police partners working together to protect children from predators like Lee.

“This type of work will not stop here, as, under the banner of Operation Sentinel, we will continue to work with our partners to tackle online child abuse and sexual exploitation.

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“We would urge anyone who has been a victim of this type of offending, or has concerns about someone’s behaviour, to come forward and talk to police.”

Anyone with concerns about child abuse or seeking to report a crime should contact their local police force via its website, or by calling 101.

The advice, in an emergency is to always dial 999.