Kmart predator Sterling Free lured a little girl from the Kmart toy aisle and raped her in secluded bushland. He will be sentenced today
It is judgment day for the Kmart predator who abducted a little girl and raped her in the bush – as a prominent child protection advocate reveals he fears ‘copycat attacks’.
Brazen sex offender Sterling Mervyn Free, 27, will be sentenced on Friday for the abduction of a seven-year-old girl from a Brisbane shopping centre last December.
The girl was milling about the toy section of the store, near her mother, when the opportunistic, Christmas-shopping predator led her away, a court heard.
Free took the child to his car, drove her into secluded bushland, assaulted her and then dropped her back at Westfield North Lakes about 90 minutes later, where she reunited with her mum.
Bruce Morcombe, the well-known father of the abducted and murdered boy Daniel Morcombe, told Daily Mail Australia he hopes Free’s sentence today will serve as a ‘resounding deterrent’ to predators.
‘It needs to be loud and clear – hands off our kids,’ Mr Morcombe said.
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
‘That’s what it needs to be: “Sterling, mate, you’re going to jail for a long time.”
‘It needs to send a message to all Queenslanders who have a fascination with our kids: don’t go there, because you’ll be doing a long stretch.
‘We cannot get a slap on the wrist here because there will be copycats.’
Mr Morcombe has a strong personal interest – not just because of what happened to his own son – as he has met the victim and her ‘very loving and strong family’.
A ‘brazen and predatory’ crime: What the judge must consider
The victim’s family watched on in court this week as Free faced sentencing proceedings, almost a year after confessing his crimes to police.
Free – a father-of-two and Fantastic Furniture worker before to his arrest – formally admitted to three charges at the state’s District Court.
He pleaded guilty to taking a child for immoral purposes, deprivation of liberty and indecent treatment of a child under 12.
On Tuesday, prosecutor Judy Geary told Judge Julie Dick to consider that there was a ‘brazen, determined nature (to Free’s offending)’.
Ms Geary told the sentencing hearing that Free’s behaviour ‘can only be described as predatory’.
She said that Free had ‘preyed upon (the victim’s) naivety and trusting nature’ to lure the girl away.
Free leads the little girl away, in footage shown to the court. The court heard Free lurked in the Kmart toy section corridors before telling her to ‘follow me’
Free worked at Fantastic Furniture and is the father of twins
There were tears in the court’s public gallery as the judge was shown CCTV footage of the girl being led out of the shopping centre.
The prosecutor said the victim would have been left feeling ‘completely helpless’ as he took her to secluded bushland at Pumicestone Passage, about 30 minutes drive away, and assaulted her.
Defence barrister Angus Edwards told reportedly the court his client’s actions were appalling but said Free had demonstrated ‘genuine’ remorse.
Mr Edwards said his client had confessed his crimes to police, had pleaded guilty early and cooperated with authorities.
His client had an online porn addiction, a paedophilic disorder and poor impulse control, the judge was told.
Prosecutors called for Free to be handed a 10 year jail term, while Free’s solicitor has said he hopes for a six-to-nine year term.
The maximum penalty is 20 years’ imprisonment.
‘It’s the simplicity of it, that’s why Australians reacted to it’
Bruce Morcombe and his wife Denise became child protection advocates after their son Daniel was kidnapped and killed in December 2003
In an interview, Mr Morcombe said he was hoping the judge will hand down a sentence at the ‘upper end’ of the range.
‘Will it be adequate and meet public expectations?’ he asked. ‘Or (will it be) an inadequate sentence that causes a lot of anxiety in the community, that this person may well be walking the streets in to few years?’
There is little doubt Free’s heinous actions shocked the community.
After his arrest, Free was kept in isolation because of a barrage of threats to his safety that were posted online.
A local court magistrate also initially limited details that could be reported about the case in the press.
The circumstances of how Free snatched the victim – at a shopping mall not far from the girl’s mum – had disturbing echoes of other infamous abductions, such as Mr Morcombe’s own son, Daniel.
(Daniel was snatched by predator Brett Peter Cowan near a bus stop in December 2003.)
Mr Morcombe said: ‘It’s the simplicity of it, I think that’s why Australians reacted to it … the brazenness of it.’
But no matter what sentence the judge hands down today, the child protection campaigner said there is one thing he is certain of.
‘The youngster (Free’s victim) is being well cared for and the family is very strong and focused on putting their lives together,’ Mr Morcombe said.
‘She is surrounded by help both within the family unit and is receiving counselling.
‘She’s in good hands.’
WAYS TO PROTECT YOUR KIDS: BRUCE MORCOMBE’S TIPS
Mr Morcombe recommends setting up a ‘family password‘ with your kids, when they are mature enough, so they know only to go away with people who know ‘the password’.
He also warns parents to be aware that predators may use devious tactics, such as telling children their parents have been hurt, and that the stranger will take them to their mother or father.
For more resources about keeping kids safe, visit the Daniel Morcombe Foundation website.