A group of “sexual predator hunters” has vowed to continue confronting suspects in Northern Ireland – despite the apparent suicide of a man in Co Antrim on Tuesday.
The 50-year-old was the subject of a doorstep encounter with ‘Silent Justice’ at his home in the Ballymena area on Sunday night.
An hour long video of the confrontation was posted online but later removed.
A spokesman representing Silent Justice said the footage was withdrawn in response to a request from the dead man’s family.
The secretive grouping has been mainly active in England since it was formed in March, but claims to have carried out 21 similar “citizen’s arrest” UK-wide operations already.
Police have confirmed they are investigating the sudden death of a man who was arrested on Sunday and later released on police bail pending further enquiries.
“At this stage the death is not being treated as suspicious,” a PSNI spokesman said.
A member of Silent Justice who asked to be identified as Gary Shields (not his real name) said they created Facebook profiles of fictitious 11 to 14-year-olds, and then engage with any adults who make sexual advances towards the dormant accounts – recording the details for an evidence dossier which is then handed over to the police.
He claimed they do not initiate contact with anyone.
In a statement, Mr Shields said his group existed to “create public awareness and to help parents protect their own children against these people,” and added: “We are in no way responsible for [name withheld] death (if that is the case).”
Speaking to the News Letter on Thursday, he claimed their method of using dormant accounts meant they could not be accused of “entrapment”.
He said: “I have a lot of decoys – people who pose as children as I do myself – and we are probably talking to 500 people across the UK and Ireland who are grooming, between us.
“We are all in it for different reasons – some people in our teams have been groomed and some have been abused. We have had a lot of people locked up and we have a lot of people on remand at the minute,” Mr Shields claimed.
“We are not vigilantes – we are child protection enforcers. All of my teams are polite. We are not out to humiliate these people, bully these people or call them names.
“We are respectful, and we want our videos to be used in court.”
Defending the use of video cameras, he said: “We let them know we are live streaming for the protection of the person, and for our own protection, as evidence, and for public awareness.”
Commenting on whether the group was gathering evidence on anyone else in Northern Ireland, he said: “You will be seeing a lot more of us.”
Former senior PSNI officer and child protection specialist Jim Gamble told the Irish News he had “deep concerns” about the methods used by “unregulated” groups like Silent Justice.
The former chief executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) said: “If this man was guilty he should have been brought before the courts.
“We have to go through the due process and apply the principles of the law.”
Mr Gamble said he understands the “frustration that draws people to become involved” with groups like Silent Justice, but added: “It’s fundamentally unregulated and not integrated with law enforcement and often more about promoting the activities of the group than making sure due process is followed.
“We are not far away from an accident happening or an innocent person being accused.
“They don’t have the capacity, sophistication and policies in place to deal with these issues effectively,” Mr Gamble added.
A spokeswoman for Facebook said they “do not tolerate bullying or harassment” and that anyone can report content they believe violates its policies.
“Having looked into the group [Silent Justice], we can confirm that page and content don’t violate our bullying and harassment policies.”
The spokeswoman added: “As this query is linked to sexual predator hunters and alleged sexual offenders I also wanted to point out that we have zero tolerance for child exploitation on Facebook. This illegal behaviour is immediately removed and reported to relevant law enforcement agencies when it is detected.”