A MAN has been jailed for three years for committing sex offences with a girl he befriended over the internet who turned out to be only 12 years old.
Leeds Crown Court heard during their four month chatroom and text message exchanges the girl told Mark Talbot she was 17.
It was only after they arranged to meet in Manchester he appreciated she had not told the truth and she was under age, and it was only after she went back with him to Wetherby and the offences had occurred that her true age came to light.
Talbot, 29, recently of Grove Park Terrace, Harrogate, admitted rape and sexual assault in August last year and possessing 95 indecent images of children.
He was ordered to register as sex offender indefinitely and banned from working with children.
Sentencing him Judge Stephen Ashurst said the case highlighted some of the dangers of entering into a "virtual relationship" over the internet exchanging intimate and personal details.
The judge said it was no defence that the girl had consented to what happened and because of her age, one month short of 13, the oral sex she performed was classified as rape.
"The protection of children from themselves has to be the pre-eminent consideration."
Michael Smith, prosecuting, said Talbot and the girl made contact through an MSN chatroom. She did not tell him her true age and told her mother she was in contact with a 14-year-old boy in West Yorkshire.
Tim Stead, for Talbot, said he had not been searching for indecent images but showed a "reckless indifference" to them and thought he had deleted them.
Although well liked he was an isolated individual with few close friends which led to him making contacts on the internet. He realised the girl was under age when he met her but had no idea how young she was and was ashamed of his actions.