Investigation into sex offender who targeted boys online continuing, police say | #childpredator | #kidsaftey | #childsaftey

An investigation into a prolific sex offender who targeted dozens of boys by posing online as a teenage girl is continuing, police have said.

Officers revealed how a routine blackmail case quickly turned into an investigation into child sexual abuse that spread across Northern Ireland and beyond.

Detectives from the PSNI Public Protection Branch said Gerard Murray, 35, posed as a teenage girl on social media to entrap his victims.

Murray, originally from Strabane but whose address was given as Maghaberry Prison, was last week sentenced to 10 years at Dungannon Crown Court, with five to be spent in custody.

He pleaded guilty to more than 150 child sexual offences, including multiple offences of inciting a child to engage in sexual activity and sexual communication with a child.

The court was told that more than 100,000 abusive images were discovered on Murray’s phone, with judge Brian Sherrard stating the court was “stunned” by the number of victims in the case.

The court was told that 37 victims had been identified, all but one of whom were boys under the age of 18.

Transcripts of conversations between Murray and victims on social media seen by the PA news agency reveal him urging young boys to send him images and offering concert tickets in return.

Detective Constable Rebecca Irvine said the probe into Gerard Murray began as a blackmail investigation (Liam McBurney/PA)

Detective Constable Rebecca Irvine said: “This originally started off as a blackmail investigation in 2020. He was involved in the blackmail of an adult.

“Whenever police arrested Murray his devices were seized and examined. Upon examination of those devices there were indecent images.

“We have teams of specially trained officers who examine these phones and from an early stage it was identified that there were indecent images of children on these phones

“Murray was arrested and remanded in custody in January 2021 and we put forward phase one to the Public Prosecution Service.”

Detective Chief Inspector Lorraine McCutcheon said they discovered that over a five year period, Murray had been targeting young male children, aged between eight and 17.

She said: “He had a couple of different ways in which he did that. It could have been that he posed as a female child of a similar age to that child online.

“Or indeed he was meeting children in person.

“He was very much grooming these children, very much obsessed and controlling those children. That was the nature of his offending.”

She said that he used social media platforms to reach out to and target his victims.

“He would have used other online or app devices in which to record any engagement with the children so that he would have them stored on his devices to go back at a later time.

“Some of the offences are contact offences in which he did meet children.”

Detective Chief Inspector Lorraine McCutcheon said Murray had been targeting boys as young as eight (Liam McBurney/PA)

Ms Irvine said: “He was a young man. He is a very manipulative person. He is very obsessive. He put a lot of time into building a rapport with these children, getting them to trust him, getting them to engage with him.

“That is what we find with predators like this, that they are obsessive in their nature, they are manipulative and they gain these children’s trust through Snapchat or other social media platforms and they build up such a rapport with them that the exchange of images comes very naturally, unfortunately.

“He was posing under different aliases, but essentially pretending to be a teenage girl.

“These children believed they were speaking to a teenager roughly around the same age when it was Murray behind the screen.

“He had an app on his phone which essentially recorded or kept an image of the child. He was using that for his own sexual gratification.”

While the majority of the offending took place around the Strabane area, it also spread further afield.

Ms Irvine said: “It was really all over the province and there were victims in the south of Ireland and in England.

“He really has targeted children from all areas.”

Detective Constable Rebecca Irvine (left) and Detective Chief Inspector Lorraine McCutcheon said the investigation into Gerard Murray would continue  (Liam McBurney/PA)

Ms McCutcheon said: “It was very complex given that he was very technologically advanced.

“I think the key was taking time to get the evidence correct.

“Murray provided admissions in his first interview, but we didn’t just necessarily accept that.

“It was really important that we delved into the nature of those admissions and really what we established was that was only the tip of the iceberg.

“In line with his manipulative character, he was always trying to manipulate police in the suspect interview environment.”

Asked if there could be more victims who have not come forward, Ms McCutcheon said: “We continue to investigate. The investigation remains ongoing.”

Ms Irvine added: “We want to highlight to parents, to guardians that if you believe your child is a victim of this sort of abuse, if they are disengaging, if they are becoming emotional, if there are issues at school, it is really important to have that conversation with them.

“Unfortunately, we are seeing a rise in this sort of abuse and it really is highlighting to parents and to guardians just to have these conversations with their children at an early age to try and bring these offenders to justice and to stop this cycle.”

Asked if it was among the most serious cases she had dealt with, Ms Irvine said: “It is certainly up there.

“It was a very large investigation. There were a lot of victims involved and the offending is serious.

“Unfortunately we see it day in, day out, where this sort of offending is becoming more and more common.

“A lot of children are spending time on Snapchat or spending time on Facebook.

Police officer shot in Omagh
Gerard Murray was sentenced at Dungannon Crown Court (Peter Morrison/PA)

“In this investigation the victims who have come forward, they have shown tremendous bravery.

“The courage they have had to come to the police, to talk to us and to tell us what has happened, that has to be commended.”

She added: “These children will live with this for the rest of their lives.

“They will be carrying around an awful gut-wrenching feeling about what he has done, he has invaded their privacy, they will find it very hard to trust people and they are going to have to live with the psychological effects of that for the rest of their lives.

“No sentence will make up for what he has done to them.”

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