Ex-Bishop Auckland teacher hid his online activity

A SCHOOL teacher who shared videos of child abuse with “like-minded” individuals was today jailed for 27 months.

It followed a lengthy investigation begun in the USA that led to Robert Johnson’s home in County Durham.

Johnson was head of humanities at St John’s Catholic School and Sixth Form College, in Bishop Auckland, until his offending came to light, in March last year.

An FBI inquiry into distribution of indecent material featuring children revealed seven offending videos found on the iphone of an arrested man in the USA emanated from someone with an Internet Protocol address in Neville’s Cross, Durham, between March and August 2018.

Durham Police were contacted and visited the home of the defendant, in Kell’s Buildings, and removed various electronic devices.

A computer expert was able to reveal that on nine occasions during six days between those dates, the internet was accessed at that address to enable the videos to be shared.

During the course of their inquiries Durham Police discovered Johnson was the author of adult erotic stories, using the pseudonyms Anna Austin and Scarlet Smith, which he sold on the internet through Amazon for extra money, while he admitted using a Virtual Private Network to illegally stream football matches.

In the course of two police interviews Johnson said there were times when he left his computer in sleep mode unattended while he was not there but other people, including workmen, were present.

It led to his innocent wife’s devices being seized and examined by police.

He raised the possibility that he had been hacked, which was also mentioned during his trial at Durham Crown Court and was the subject of pro and counter arguments by respective computer experts for the prosecution and defence.

In opening the case, Anne Richardson, prosecuting, told the jury: “The Crown submits that here is an intelligent, computer savvy man, who has accessed the accounts and websites that have been found to have links to the indecent video links found on the devices in the USA, and that no matter how many coincidences he tries to put forward, this does not explain the hard physical trail of evidence that leads back to him, and only him, as the perpetrator.”

Johnson, 38, who was to have moved to an address in North Shields, denied two counts of distributing indecent images of children, in the two most severe categories.

The jury returned unanimous guilty verdicts on both counts after an hours’ deliberation on the fourth day of the trial.

Johnson’s counsel, Michelle Healey QC, said the police investigation had caused “dreadful upheaval” for his family and himself, including the loss of his teaching career and reputation.

Since leaving teaching he has worked from home as a self-employed proof reader.

Jailing him, Judge James Adkin told Johnson that despite his attempts to mask his online activities: “I have no doubt you uploaded that material.”

He said a reasonable inference was that those sharing material would have access to other people’s images and videos, as some sort of, “quid pro quo.”

Judge Adkin said the videos, more than an hour-long, featured real children being sexually abused.

He said those who circulate such videos across the globe, “encourage the viewing and collection of these images by others and by doing so indirectly promote more abuse.”

The judge said: “For, without the market for it, encouraged and promoted by that distribution, the children who are victims would be less likely to be abused and filmed and fewer vulnerable children would be subjected to the long-term suffering that judges frequently see that such child abuse engenders.

“Offenders who encourage and promote abuse should face deterrent sentences.”

Johnson was also made subject of a Sexual Harm Prevention Order and registration as a sex offender, both for ten years.

A statement issued by St John’s school after the hearing said: “Robert Johnson began working as head of humanities at St John’s Catholic School and Sixth Form College in January 2015.

“He was suspended in March 2019 immediately after his arrest and did not return to the school again.

“The school co-operated fully with the police who confirmed that his illegal activity took place at his home and not on school premises or property.

“The school’s HR providers will support the school in following the appropriate employment procedures and make any necessary referrals to the statutory bodies.”

Senior Crown Prosecutor Robert Fothergill, of the CPS North-East, said during the FBI investigation, agents identified links between Johnson’s home computer IP address and a file sharing site being used to distribute indecent imagery.

It was referred to the National Crime Agency in the UK who then picked up the investigation alongside Durham Police.

Mr Fothergill said: “Robert Johnson made a significant attempt to protect his identity while using a cloud storage site to share indecent videos.

“He employed a number of pieces of sophisticated privacy software, including the use of a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to hide his IP address so that he might try to avoid detection.

“This has been a complex case involving multiple digital devices, ‘dummy’ email addresses and an array of privacy software.

“However, by piecing together the excellent work of Durham Police and digital forensic experts investigating this case, the Crown Prosecution Service has built a robust case to show the chain of links between Johnson and the indecent material shared online.

“I would hope that this case serves as a warning to those involved in criminal online activity that, while you may try to avoid detection, the digital trail you leave may well lead the police to your door.”

* The judge commended the work of PC Anna Pittam, who works with Durham City CID, during the investigation.

The Northern Echo | Durham