The ‘unacceptable’ prison sentence for a predator who kidnapped a little girl from a K-mart and assaulted her in bushland is being appealed.
Sterling Mervyn Free, 27, was jailed for eight years last week as judge described his crime as ‘abhorrent’ and ‘every parent’s worse nightmare’.
But the father of twin girls, from Brisbane, will be eligible for parole from August 10, 2021, just two-and-a-half years after he was first locked up.
On Thursday morning, Queensland Attorney General Yvette D’ath announced in the state’s parliament she would appeal the sentence.
Free (right) worked at Fantastic Furniture and is the father of twins (pictured left)
‘I understand there has been significant community interest in relation to the sentencing of Sterling Free,’ she said.
‘I have now received the advice from the DPP and have considered it thoroughly.
‘I have decided to appeal the sentence on the basis it is manifestly inadequate.’
Free, who pleaded guilty, was not declared a serious, violent offender when he was sentenced earlier this month.
In a statement, read outside court by Free’s defence lawyer Shaune Irving, the vile predator admitted: ‘I took away her innocence and scared her family.
‘I hope that today my sentence provides her and her family some hope for the future,’ he said. ‘I can only ever say sorry.
‘I know that is not good enough’.
The girl’s mother was ‘shaken’ that Free could be back on the streets in less than two years, although she had been warned that could be the case.
Prominent child safety campaigner Bruce Morcombe said outside court: ‘I fear for the children of Queensland and the children of Australia’.
In a letter to the court – that was later read out loud to journalists – Free said: ‘I can only ever say sorry. I know that this is not good enough’
Free leads the little girl away from Brisbane’s Westfield North Lakes, in footage shown to the court
The little girl was searching the toy aisles for a present while her mother stood nearby, when the predator led her away. Pictured: The toy aisle of the K-mart
In delivering her sentence, the judge recalled how the Kmart store was crowded that afternoon in December 2018.
‘The mother waited in the centre while the complainant looked for a toy,’ she recalled.
Meanwhile, Free was there at North Lakes Westfield ‘window shopping’ for Christmas presents.
Security camera footage captured him lurking about the toy aisle for 20 minutes, the judge said.
‘I found this video footage … chilling. (Your behaviour) warrants the description ‘opportunistic and predatory,’ she said.
It wasn’t long until the mother realised her daughter had disappeared. Free later confessed that he had told the victim ‘follow me’ and led her away.
He drove her to remote Pumicestone Passage, where he sexually assaulted her.
The alarmed mother had spoken to store staff, and soon enough a security guard had found vision of the girl being walked out of the shop by Free.
At 2.23pm, a security guard noticed the girl arriving back at the shopping centre, having been dropped off by the T-shirt wearing sex offender.
‘Sometime later her mother noticed two long scratch marks down her back,’ the judge said.
‘The child refused to tell how she got them and wouldn’t tell the police when they tried to talk to her.’
CHILD PREDATOR STERLING FREE’S LETTER TO THE COURT
Child predator Sterling Free wrote a letter to the court, which was read out by his lawyer outside the court complex today
‘I accept full responsibility for my actions against the young girl. I know the enormous pain I have caused her, her family, my own family and children.
‘I today accept without reservation the punishment imposed by the justice system today.
‘I do not wish to cause any further pain to the young victim or her family or delay justice any further.
‘I cannot comprehend the pain that I have caused her. I took away her innocence and scared her family.
‘I hope that today my sentence provides her and her family some hope for the future.
‘I can only ever say sorry. I know that this is not good enough.
‘I’m not looking for forgiveness but only to let you know the harm that I have done, the harm that I have caused.
‘I cannot imagine the pain and fear I have caused. I can’t take that back.
‘To my family, the shock you have had to deal with, the public scrutiny was immense, my children deserve better.
‘They will now grow up without a father and I can only blame myself. I cannot comprehend the damage I have caused. I will seek treatment to ensure this doesn’t occur again.
‘I am committed to using my incarceration to seek professional assistance that I duly require.’
The images were sent out to police statewide, with two officers coming forward to say they recognised him as Sterling Free.
One officer had seen him holding the girl’s hand at the shops, while another believed him to be a previous employee of their father.
In a police interview, Free freely admitted he had noticed the victim and then ‘the urges crept in’. He confessed to what he had done.
He had a criminal history involving property offences but not similar charges to this nature, the judge said.
The judge considered evidence from a psychologist that he had provisionally been diagnosed with a paedophilic disorder and was addicted to online porn.
She also acknowledged he was a victim of child sexual abuse himself, and that victims are more likely to offend in the future.
But, she said, ‘the family (of the victim) continues to suffer anxiety which is easily understood.’
‘It is easy to imagine the mother’s distress in the circumstances and you acknowledged as much.’
The girl’s mother remained composed throughout the sentencing. Several of her supporters appeared upset at the decision.
Anatomy of a crime: Sterling Free (on left) abducted the girl as she milled about the toy aisle at Kmart North Lakes on December 8, 2018, while he was Christmas shopping
Free appeared grim throughout the sentencing, his hands clasped in front of him.
The victim’s family were accompanied by a sizeable police contingent and child protection advocates Bruce and Denise Morcombe.
Mr Morcombe said the mother was ‘shaken’ by the sentence but ‘she was in a space where the advisers had indicated that was probably where (the sentence) was going to sit’.
‘Let’s hope he is cured of this sickness, but I find the sentence inadequate in terms of setting a deterrent.’
By the time of his sentencing, Free has spent 306 days in custody, including five months in solitary confinement.
The girl is receiving counselling and is being supported by her family.
HOME AFFAIRS MINISTER PETER DUTTON BLASTS DECISION
‘I think it is an outrage and I think the State Government needs to take control of these law and order situations in Queensland’.
‘You cannot have a young girl taken and put in a situation that no parent could ever imagine for their child, for a child that’s sexually abused or abducted, for somebody to get a penalty of about two and a half years is unacceptable’.
‘We announced the introduction of legislation that for Federal offences would have minimum mandatory sentencing and in Queensland, they should do the same.’
‘This is grossly inadequate, the Attorney-General Darth should appeal this case. Queenslanders wouldn’t expect anything other than that.’
‘To have this young girl tried the way that she was by this animal is unacceptable. That he wouldn’t go to jail for a longer period of time doesn’t reflect community standards.’
‘The community in Queensland, the ACT, anywhere across the country, expect our most vulnerable to be taken care of. It doesn’t send a message of deterrence to somebody who can assault a young child, an infant or a young girl and not receive an appropriate penalty’.
‘It has to stop. In many of the cases we looked at before we made the decision to introduce the minimum mandatory sentencing for Federal offences, a majority of people weren’t going to jail for sexually assaulting children’.
‘In our country, that has to stop. In Queensland, this case should be appealed and the State Government should announce today that they will appeal it’.