My Story: I Was Groomed

261 weeks ago I took a terrible risk. 260 weeks ago, I found out exactly why it was so terrible. 5 years on, I’m ready to share my story.

Depressed, suicidal and starving. That was my life at the beginning of 2011. My friends didn’t wanna know. They’d turned on me, filled my formspring with so much hate that I began to hate myself. I still have the scars I made on the day when this all started…

When I was a teenager, I was groomed by a paedophile. In fact, I was 16 so under the law it doesn’t technically count as grooming. ‘Zac’, was a 17-year-old from Folkestone who lived with his Mum and his sister. It all started with a follow that turned into messages and then phone calls and eventually meet ups, but here’s the thing – the guy I met was the guy in the pictures, and there were picture of him with the people he claimed were his friends. The plan was intricate, and I was fooled. My parents were skeptical of Zac from the start, from the first time my mum noticed me skipping around the garden on the phone to him to the very end when I’d gone down to visit and ‘Zac’ had disappeared.

Before you read on, if you’re looking for some juicy gossip or rape story there isn’t one, give up here. I am simply sharing the experience that haunted me for so many years. It’s a long read, so brace yourselves.

I have refrained from writing about this for so long out of fear of looking like the stupid girl. I was stupid, but I was also preyed upon when I was vulnerable

The first red flag was when Zac told me he loved me after about 3 days of talking, but I just ignored it. He’s probably lonely. I was too, and I wasn’t about to stop a fit boy declaring his love for me.

The next red flag was his birthday. April 21st. He’d told me he was 17 when we first started talking, but on his birthday he said that was the age he was turning. I put it down to a typo at the time, but months later when the truth came to light I realised that unlike on my iPhone, the 6 and 7 were nowhere near each other on a blackberry.

For months we talked. We’d constantly text and spend hours at a time on the phone. It was the spring/summer of year 11, so I spent a lot of time at home on study leave. The only thing is, I wasn’t studying.

We liked the same music. We both loved N-dubz (although Rihanna was his first love). I was so excited to learn he was going to the same N-dubz concert my cousin was taking me to, but due the all the people and being in different areas, we decided it would be too busy to meet. I later realised how thankful he probably was I said this.

I can’t remember exactly when it was when I first went to Folkestone to meet him. We’d had an argument (something we often had, often caused by him for no reason). He could be very aggressive when he argued. His tone and words used to frighten me at times. At first, I’d bend over backwards to try and resolve things. To this day I hate arguing with people, it really fucks with my anxiety. This was one of the times. I was so insistent on finding out exactly what the problem was and fixing it, I jumped on a train to Folkestone. I’d never been on a train on my own, much less on a train journey where I needed to swap trains. I was terrified, but determined.

When I got ther he was nowhere to be seen. He wasn’t on BBM, he wasn’t replying to my DMs or answering my calls, he’d ghosted. I walked around and contacted his ‘cousin’ who came to meet me. She brought baby Jayden with her and took us to a cafe. I appreciated the gesture, but I was eager to find Zac. After an hour or two she took me to a Lidl car park and a car pulled up, driven by a balding man with white hair. The back door opened, and out stepped the guy in the pictures.

Relief flooded over me as the anxiety left. He didn’t carry on arguing. In fact, he didn’t really say anything. After a conversation of about 4 awkward sentences, he got back in the car and left.

His cousin Leanne walked me back to the station. I messaged Zac asking him what was with all the awkwardness. He told me he was shy. Fair enough, I thought. I kinda was too.

We went on as we were, constantly talking every day for another few months. Back then, I thought I loved him. I didn’t understand how you could fall in love with someone over the internet, but I thought I had. I mean, if you constantly talk to someone you’re bound to develop feelings, right? Especially at that age. I’d never had a boyfriend before. Out of all my friends, I was the least interested in guys and dating. Of course, in hindsight I now understand why I wasn’t interested in guys, but something about the way Zac made me feel was addictive. I was always a bit of a loner. I had friends, but after the bullying I’d moved into a new friendship group, and it’s like I was still on probation. I didn’t connect on the same level the others did, apart from with my best friend. Zac made me feel wanted, and in the space I was in (being bullied and trying desperately to not hate myself), I clung to that. I’m not the prettiest girl in the world. You might look at me now and tell me I’m pretty, but at the age of 16 I looked boring. Boys didn’t want me or give me a second glance, so when a fit guy tells you you’re gorgeous when everyone else sees you as a nerdy little mess then it sticks with you. He gassed me up enough for me to be comfortable talking to him and trusting him. If he did any good, it was rebuilding my confidence after my ‘friends’ destroyed it. I was damaged goods and it’s like he was sellotape, not enough to fix me, but enough to hold me together while I fixed myself (until he broke me down again).

I got more confident as time went on, and a lot of that was down to Zac. The more confidence and self-worth I had, the less I stood for his bullshit. I tried to end things with him multiple times, but he’d blow up my phone until we made up. I didn’t have the heart to block him. Over the summer I’d spent more time talking to him than with my friends, it felt like he was all I had.

During this time, his cousin Leanne and baby Jayden came up to Maidstone to visit. I even brought her back to the house and she met my parents. My mum said she couldn’t come back.

GCSE results day came and my Dad was convinced I’d done badly since I didn’t study. I cared, but probably not as much as I should have. At the time I wanted to be a body piercer (something I’m now pursuing) and I didn’t need grades to do that. I never thought I’d fail. I mean, we’re talking about the girl who retook an exam because she got a B. In GCSEs years I was quietly arrogant about my academic ability. I couldn’t fail, and I proved myself right. I let Zac know about my 8A*s and 3As, but instead of being happy for me he told me not to send him texts I sent to other people (I sent the same message to my family and there were no kisses on the end). That annoyed me, and I tried to focus on my friends for the rest of the day.

Oh, and if you’re wondering why I didn’t see him often now that it’s summer, he supposedly had a job. I never doubt if he was real, he sent me picture often. When his facts didn’t add up or he was having trouble with technology, I just put it down to my intelligence being far superior than his (which it was, especially given that he was actually much older. Also, have you seen his grammar???).

A couple weeks later on a Friday I had not heard from Zac all afternoon. He’d just suddenly stopped replying. After a few hours I started to worry and I asked Leanne where he was. It’s hard to remember exactly what she said, but he’d been arrested for assaulting someone (I just can’t remember who she said he assaulted, in reality is was Leanne he’s assaulted). My heart sunk.

Zac was released on bail but the police had kept his phone for evidence. The next day I went to find out the whole story. I went to his home address. His ‘sister’ Jodie told me he wasn’t there. She was 19. I’d spoken to here many times on the phone. She let me walk out of that house searching for Zac.

I went to Leanne’s flat to continue my search. While we were talking, the old man that pulled up with Zac in the Lidl car park before pulled up across the road. He looked at me, and expression in his eyes that I didn’t recognise at the time. Leanne referred to him as her Dad, and asked him where Zac was. They said his mum had made him go and stay in Dover. Leanne gave me an address on a scrap of paper, and I set off for the bus station. He ‘Dad’ had his eyes fixed me the whole time.

A woman in her late 40s answered the door. When I asked for Zac, she was no use. Of course, the Zac she knew had done nothing to be punished for. I eventually gave up and found my way home. I’d given up with Zac.

On Sunday morning (28th August 2011) I received a text from an unknown number claiming to be Zac. We spoke briefly. It was either a friend’s phone or a friend had gotten him a new sim (i believe it was the former and the latter happened later) and he was just letting me know he was okay. I was going to Lakeside with my parents. I can’t remember if my brothers came. The whole day is a blur in my head.

Before we left I got a phone call. It was Zac. I went into the lounge and answered it. It wasn’t Zac. The unfamiliar voice told me he was the friend. I’m going to call him Sam for the sake of this article. Sam told me there was something I needed to know. My heart raced and my stomach dropped. Had Zac been arrested again?

My Story: I Was Groomed

I was not prepared for the shock I was about to experience. Sam explained that Zac is not Zac. Zac was actually a 56 year old man called Keith Westgarth. I suddenly recognised the look in the old balding man’s eyes. It was lust. Sam went into a little more detail, but I still hadn’t really processed the reveal. I went shopping but I wasn’t really interest and my mum could tell.

When we got back home I called Sam again and asked him questions I’d accumulated throughout the day. He gave me the answers. I went with what I had and headed for the police station. It was about 6pm on the Sunday before August bank holiday. I called my closest friend from the friendship group I’d left on the way. Her dad was a police officer and I had no idea if going to the police station was how I was supposed to report this crime.

When I got there it seemed empty. I pressed the intercom buzzer and an officer let me in after I anxiously explained what had happened. He took notes in a little reporters notebook as I told him all I’d learned that day. He told me Keith was a ViSOR nominal, a word I now know refers to a dangerous person. In this case, a previously convicted sex offender.

The next day a friend was having a barbecue sleepover. I went but I wasn’t fully there mentally. I persisted to ask Sam questions and I eventually learnt more and more of the truth. By Tuesday, I’d heard no news. I went back to the police station. Keith had been texting me from a new sim. I told them everything. I was there for hours as we wrote detailed statements of Keith’s crimes.

  • Zac was actually Keith
  • Jodie was actually his daughter, not his sister
  • Ryan was his son, not his best friend
  • Leanne was his girlfriend, not his cousin
  • Baby Jayden was actually his son he had with Leanne, Zac
  • The guy in the pictures and the guy I met is real, but not the guy I’d been texting

I should probably mention here that Leanne was only 21 at this time. That’s the age I am now, and there’s no way in hell I’d date a 56 year old sex offender. To add to everything, Keith’s previous conviction was for having sex with a minor. On top of being a registered sex offender, he was banned from using online aliases.

It was at this point, the matter of signing the statement became an issue. I hadn’t given an official statement before and had not realised I couldn’t officially sign it off without an adult at the age of 16. Reluctantly, I called my Mum. I hadn’t told my parents the truth because I knew it would prove their suspicions right, and I didn’t like to be wrong. I thought I’d be able to report and handle everything without them knowing.

They wanted to take my phone. Ever since the Zac thing started, being without my phone has caused me tremendous amounts of anxiety. If I didn’t answer, he got angry. I’m still glued to my phone to this day for fear of something bad happening if I don’t check it constantly. I was not prepared to give them my phone. I was due to travel to stay with my cousin until I needed to register for 6th form on Friday. They arranged to have me come back in another day and copy it while I waited, so long as I didn’t reply to Keith at all. I backed up my phone afterwards too, just to be sure.

Friday came and I (reluctantly) registered for 6th form. I’d been talking to Sam the whole week, and we’d arrange to meet so he could show me hard evidence that I could give to the police. Sam was on tag, so reluctant to go to the police himself.

I was wearing a new top I’d bought at Lakeside the week before. This top’s significance to me would only grow as time went on. I’d wear it every time something major happened or Keith was in court.

I was very nervous going back to Folkestone. Sam had agreed to get me from the station, but to get to his we’d have to walk past the house where Keith’s family lived. Yes, after falling into the trap of a paedophile I agreed to go to a stranger’s house. I was stupid. Sam could have easily been helping Keith, but luckily he wasn’t.

Sam’s house was full of teenagers. He fired up the computer and proceeded to show me Facebook pages. The first was of the guy I’d met in Lidl, the guy from the pictures. For the sake of this article, I’m going to call him Garry. You see, Gary is not as mentally able as most people, which is why Keith could get him to meet and talk to me. The fact it was a different person also explained the awkward conversation in the car park – he knew nothing about me. Garry was Ryan’s friend, which is how Keith had been able to show me pictures of ‘him’ and Ryan (who he claimed was his best friend). He showed me Ryan and Jodie’s Facebook profiles before moving onto Leanne and her sister. I noted everything down. When I got back home, I looked everyone up again, researching and screenshotting everything that could be used against them before they changed it.

Luckily, I am the kind of girl that screenshots cute things. While I didn’t have evidence to fill in the whole six months of the ordeal, I had the messages Keith was sending me now and the messages from when we’d first started talking backed up in my iPhoto on my mac. I even had a screenshot of him telling me he was 17 which I found and submitted later, after Keith was arrested (see above). I put everything on a USB and went to find my Dad. I told him I’d been to see Sam and what I’d found out. He drove me to the station.

I gave them the USB, making another statement alongside it, and they took a copy of my phone.

It was at this point that I told my head of year and my best friend (who will be referred to as Lily for the sake of this article). That week I got both a police update and a text from Keith saying he’d been near my school (which is also extremely close to wear I live and me and Leanne walked past it when she visited). My parents were furious, not only at Keith, but at me too. By bringing Leanne back to the house, I’d unintentionally put my little brother in danger, something I never meant to do. I hated myself for it.

I alerted my head of year immediately. He was very supportive, as was Lily. On the 16th September 2011 Keith Westgarth was arrested. Unfortunately, he had given his phone to one of Jodie’s friends (we’ll call her Jane) to get rid of. Keith was prepared, in all the excitement that was happening in a small town, Sam had teased him about what was coming to him, despite not wanting to give a statement for the case. He knew what was going on the whole time, but unlike Ryan and Jodie he didn’t have the means to contact me until Keith used his phone. It’s not uncommon for Keith to be talking to young girls, so no one in the whole social circle really batted an eyelid when I went down to find him.

From then on I was prohibited from contacting any of the other witnesses involved. It broke me. I ached for answers. Was it him at the N-dubz concert? How does this person play into it? Was this person really who you said they were? etc etc. Keith knew so much about me and my life but everything I’d know for the past 6 months was brought into question. I hated not knowing what was what.

Despite pleading guilty in the run up to Keith’s hearing, he withheld his plea. I was heartbroken all over again. I just wanted everything to be over.

Eventually, Jane handed his phone in, and several other phones with messages to several other girls were found. Both Jane and Sam gave statements of 19+ pages, but the defence lawyers were insisting that Keith was simple. They said he had a low IQ child like nature, which was reflected in his love for N-dubz and Rihanna and his inability to work his phone half the time. However, he came up with this intricate plan, and not for the first time in his life. He used to use Ryan’s pictures in the past with other girls until Ryan got sick of it. Seriously though, how many paedophiles have you heard of that actually let you meet the person in the pictures to give you a false sense of security? Not many.

The next few months were torture. I was completely suicidal and self-harming even more than I was before I met him. My mum went into hospital to have spinal surgery in November and did not return home until 2012. Confiding in my best friend helped, but the depression, stress and lack of answers caused me to lash out. I wasn’t the same Aysh, and part of me feels like I never have been. I didn’t know what was what and I felt like I had to start life again. Only my mum understood, but not having her around was really hard. It was so hard that I lashed out at her when she came back home. She was adjusting to her new disability, but with the unfortunate result of her operation came a whole new mentality. I needed the strong mum I knew and loved, but that wasn’t who she was anymore. I lashed out, selfishly only caring about my pain rather than hers. If anything, the thing I hate Keith most for is putting me in the mental state to ruin my relationship with my Mum because it has never been the same.

I remember coming across the term ‘ambiguous loss’ while watching Pretty Little Liars. It fitted what I felt exactly. It was almost like going through a break up with no closure and all these questions but no one to ask. I don’t think I will ever know the full truth of everything that happened.

During this time I was in contact with another victim who hadn’t come forward, but while the answers I fed her provided her with some closure, she couldn’t relate to how I was feeling having met him and reporting everything to the police. I envied how she was able to distance herself from the situation and get on with her life. After all, it wasn’t her he’d come looking for. It wasn’t her he’d stared at lustfully. It wasn’t her that had based a huge part of her life on a lie.

“This was a sophisticated and premeditated deception over several months. You clearly have an ongoing sexual attraction to teenage girls. Your risk of re-offending has been assessed as ‘high’.” – Judge Adele Williams

On the 16th March 2012 Keith Westgarth was sentenced for harassment and failing to comply with notification requirements of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. He got 2 years and 4 months imprisonment with 179 days on remand, 10 years Sexual Offences Prevention Order, 10 years on the Sex Offenders Register and was disqualified from working with children for life. Considering I was above the age of consent, never sent him any nudes and was not raped, I was surprised he was even sentenced to any more time than the time he’d even been in jail. I was thankful for the freedom. I could finally get the answers I so desperately wanted.

I didn’t get most of them. The police warned me that the prosecution witnesses may resent me (one of his children apparently testified against him too, my guess is Ryan). I resented them too. Keith’s kids had spoken to me privately on numerous occasions and not once told me the truth. Jodie, a mere 3 years older than me, had let me walk out of her living room knowing I was searching for a sex offender. How could you do that to a fellow female?

In the spring of 2012 I began to notice news articles appearing. Only Lily knew what had happened, if any of my other friends read them they’d know the truth and I wasn’t ready to be ridiculed. I contacted the websites to have them taken down. They warned me that I’m taking away the chance for other girls to be warned, but I was the one out of everyone to put him away. I’d done enough for other girls, I had to focus on me. The only article left is this one. I wasn’t in court. They wouldn’t let me. I wanted him to look me in the eyes and see what he’d done. I wanted Jodie to acknowledge the risk she’d put me at when she’d let me walk away, but I couldn’t see them. When I read these articles I was horrified to see how many facts and part of the story had been told wrong. I did not spend hours explaining and making statements about the relationship between all those involved for it to be presented incorrectly.

As time went on, I started to move on with my life, but the damage the ordeal had done to my already suffering mental health was done. This time I lashed out at my best friend. Except it wasn’t just this time, it was many times, and I eventually lost her. I’ve not had a fully functional or fulfilling friendship with a female since.

I didn’t finish 6th form and after my relationship with my mum got worse I moved to London at the age of 17. Living alone with depression and a still unresolved eating disorder (I’d only started eating again when I was talking to Zac) is a lot harder than I thought it’d be. The freedom is great, but freedom won’t fill your belly or help you get washed and dressed. In 2013, everything was made worse by more heartbreak, but eventually I met a guy who loved me enough to let me love myself again (with time), and even though I’m no longer with him I am grateful that with his help I was finally able to push through the majority of the debris Keith left behind in his wake. I learnt to trust people again, but I’m still cautious and wary of how convincing lies could be and that anyone could tell them, no matter how much they claimed to care about me or how great they seemed to be. There’s often times I’ve felt I can’t be loved. Only a sex offender wanted me, and even then he wanted many other girls as well. The Keith ordeal was a huge catalyst for my already existing insecurities that I had when I first followed him on Twitter, but five years on and I’ve managed to combat most of them. He doesn’t haunt my nightmares like he used to, but from time to time I still see his face painted on the underside of my eyelids. I still flinch every time I see an old balding white man in case it’s him. I still can’t put my phone down without being swamped with anxiety, but I eventually used that to my advantage and became a social media manager. I am trying to rebuild myself and my relationships and get back to how I was before he broke me. I know I wouldn’t be who or where I am if it hadn’t happened. I’d have probably never moved to London, never met the friends I have now and probably wouldn’t be trying to run three businesses at the tender age of 21. However, after all this time I felt it was important to tell my story.

Now I’ve told it, I’d like to thank the people close to me for all the support they gave me during the aftermath.

*It should be noted that my parents, especially my mum, were suspicious from the start but I refused to listen. They never knew when I’d gone to Folkestone until I’d come back, and for the most part they had no idea what was happening in conversations and I often took my calls outside or in someone’s car. They both worked full time at the time so were not aware of what I was up to during study leave. I rebuked their claims with aggression and violence, that is how much this man got into my head, and there is nothing more they could have done. I have never been one to confide in my parents*

Update: It was Jodie who spoke to the police, not Ryan as I first thought.