A former casual employee of the Okanagan Skaha School District is on trial this week in Penticton on charges of luring a child.
Stephen Hughes, who was a Summerland resident at the time of his arrest on June 17, said in a video recorded statement taken by the RCMP’s Integrated Child Exploitation Unit (ICE) that he knew he wasn’t online chatting with a 13-year-old girl in a Yahoo chat room and was expecting a knock on his door from the police someday.
“I knew who I was talking to right from the beginning but you always push the envelope,” said Hughes in the video statement. “I took it way too far, I was playing with fire.”
An RCMP constable working with the Surrey ICE unit created the persona Vicki Cooper, a 13-year-old girl who went by the screen name GorgeousVicki1998 when a conversation was initiated by Hughes. The chats between the two lasted months, before ICE members obtained a search warrant for Hughes’ residence and arrested him.
The ICE team member, who preferred her name not be published as she does undercover work, said to set up an online persona you have to be 18 years old but the age is not verified, other than the user clicking on a box saying they are that age. In the video statement she indicated Hughes had been told several times that the Vicki Cooper persona he was chatting with was a 13-year-old girl. She also said Hughes was counselling Vicki how to masturbate.
The ICE constable told Hughes that the laws for luring a child are different in Canada than what might more commonly be known in the U.S. because of the Dateline program To Catch A Predator where busts are set up of adults meeting with teens after they have chatted online. In Canada, she said, when things turn sexual within a chat it is considered child luring and they do not have to physically meet. Hughes said he would never hurt a child and he knew the person he was chatting with wasn’t 13 years old because of what they were saying and the sentence structure they used.
“I knew I was making a mistake when I started and I knew halfway through … I’m sorry to everyone,” said Hughes in the statement.
Earlier this week defence counsel Emmet Duncan cross-examined the man’s wife who he is now separated from. During the questioning, Judge Gale Sinclair heard that the couple had moved to Summerland from Slave Lake, away from Hughes’ family and friends. The wife said Hughes did not have any friends in Summerland, had lost self-confidence and grown lonely as she had worked long days while he sat waiting for work as a casual certified education assistant replacing those taking sick days or away for other reasons. She also said her husband was extremely stubborn when it came to researching a topic, or was out to prove something.
Hughes said part of the reason he kept chatting with the person he knew as Vicki Cooper was that he liked that somebody would “pay a little attention” to him, and because he dealt with kids, that it was easy to talk to them because “they don’t judge.”
Wendy Hyer, superintendent for the school district, told the Western News at the time of Hughes arrest that he had been hired late in the school year, had undergone a criminal record check and he was never in charge of class. Educational assistants provide instructions to students who require extra help learning tasks and work under the supervision of the classroom teacher.
The trial is scheduled to wrap up today.