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A British woman who police say disguised herself as a teenage boy in order to prey on teenage girls online and sexually assault them will be spending eight years behind bars.
Gemma Watts, a 21-year-old resident of Enfield, was accused of sex-related crimes involving at least four minor girls, according to BBC News. Watts posed as a 16-year-old boy named “Jake Waton” on social media sites like Snapchat and Instagram and pursued underage girls between the ages of 13 and 16, in some cases trading personal photos and then meeting up in person with the children and sexually assaulting them, the outlet reports.
Watts pleaded guilty in November to one count of assault by penetration, three counts of meeting a child following sexual grooming, and three counts of sexual assault. The aforementioned charges relate to four girls, according to the outlet; one 13-year-old, two 14-year-olds, and one 16-year-old. She was sentenced on Friday at Winchester Crown Court to eight years behind bars, the Metropolitan Police said.
Watts, who has long hair, kept her hair pulled back in a bun and wore a baseball cap and baggy clothing in order to get away with the charade in person. She was even able to successfully fool some of the parents of her victims. Watts' victims all believed that "Jake" was real, and did not know that she was a woman until authorities informed them of the truth, according to the BBC.
The news, which one victim said made her heart “explode,” led to suicide attempts for two of the victims, per the BBC.
“In this particular case, Watts targeted her young victims on social media platforms and duped them into believing they were entering into a relationship with someone whom they could trust,” Detective Constable Phillipa Kenwright said in a release issued by authorities. “She then went on to form physical relationships in which she spun a web of lies and deceit, giving her the opportunity to commit sexual offences."
One victim, a 14-year-old from Hampshire who’d been bullied in the past, said that she loved “Jake” before she knew the truth, The Guardian reports. Watts lied to her, explaining away her breasts as “man boobs” and using rolled-up socks in her pants to make it look as if she had a penis, according to the outlet. But Watts was also violent toward the girl, threatening her on one occasion with a knife and trying to push her in front of a car at another time.
During sentencing, Judge Susan Evans accused Watts of specifically targeting young girls for their naivety, the BBC reports.
“Their youth, as you plainly knew, made them more naive and made you more likely to get away with your deception,” she said.
Watts’ plan began to unravel in April 2018 after a medical professional in Hampshire shared concerns with police regarding a patient who was seeing an older boy and who had reported being sexually assaulted, prompting an investigation and the eventual discovery that “Jake” was actually Watts, police said.
After police obtained a search warrant in July 2018, Watts was arrested for various sex-related crimes and later admitted to grooming the victims while posing as “Jake.” She “partially” admitted to some of the assaults, police said, but was released on bail; however, she continued targeting young girls while out on bail, and she was arrested in October 2018 when authorities found her with a 15-year-old girl who’d been reported missing and who later said that Watts sexually assaulted her.
During sentencing, the judge called Watts’ behavior while out on bail worrying, according to The Guardian.
“It seems that nothing deterred you,” she said.
Watts would often use flirtatious language when communicating with her victims, referring to them as “babe,” The Guardian reports. After one of her arrests, she reportedly told police that she viewed what she was doing as a game, and said, “I was only trying to cheer them up.”
Investigators with the Metropolitan Police believe that there could be many more victims — between 20 and 50 — who have been taken in by Watts but who don’t know it yet, according to the outlet.
Police Constable Nicola Benson, from Hampshire Constabulary’s missing and exploited team, called the case an example of how risky social media activity can be.
“The level of manipulation and deceit used by Watts to snare her victims in this case was truly shocking. Children are particularly vulnerable to exploitation online with increased use of social media apps, and there is a real risk that any contact with a stranger online can lead to a child meeting an offender in person,” she said. “This case demonstrates the stark reality of that, and it is astonishing the lengths that Watts went to, to ensure she could abuse these girls.”
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