A WOMAN jailed for sexually abusing teenage girls “went to astonishing lengths” to groom her victims, Hampshire police say - even duping the girl’s family in one case.

Gemma Watts, 21, dressed up and pretended to be a boy named ‘Jake Waton’ as she groomed the teens through social messaging apps such as Snapchat and Instagram.

The youngest victim was a 13-year-old girl from Hampshire.

Watts told one girl she was 17, and another that she was 15. She maintained this fictional persona - described by one of the victim’s mothers as ‘the ultimate betrayal’ - when meeting the girls in person, and even changed her appearance to look like a boy to maintain her mask of deceit.

Officers from Hampshire Constabulary have since commented on the shocking case.

PC Nicola Benson, from the force’s Missing and Exploited Team, said: “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.

“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.”

Watts was sentenced to a total of eight years in prison at Winchester Crown Court today. A Sexual Harm Prevention Order was also imposed by Judge Susan Evans QC.

Earlier the court heard that one of the victims, from Hampshire, first came across the defendant on a YouTube comment before engaging in contact with her on Snapchat.

The pair met in November 2017, and Watts even met the victim’s parents, staying on the sofa at their house.

Prosecutor Barnaby Shaw said that sexual assaults occurred at the house every night and every morning, and Watts was challenged by the victim over her gender.

He said: “[The victim] challenged Jake over gender, a challenge that had been made before.

“Members of the family remarked that there were particular things said and done that caused them initial concern, but it was apparent by the evidence given by both parents that Gemma Watts was adept at manipulating people and continuing the subterfuge that she did.”

Further enquiries led police to uncover Watts’ true identity.

The court heard that police were made aware of other girls, from Surrey, Devon and the West Midlands that had also been contacted by ‘Jake’ online, and were sexually assaulted when they met the defendant in person.

One girl said she was ‘shocked and disgusted’ when she learned who ‘Jake’ was.

When questioned by police, Watts made initial denials, but at a later point said she did not know why she targeted any girls and saw it ‘as a game’. 

In November 2018, officers from the Met obtained an interim Sexual Risk Order from Stratford Magistrates’ Court which allowed Watts to be closely monitored by officers to prevent her from re-offending until charges were authorised by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in Hampshire.

A final Sexual Risk Order was obtained on May 2, 2019 and Watts was charged on September 12, 2019.

Following her sentencing in Winchester today, PC Maria Carrick, Hampshire Constabulary’s Education and Youth Engagement Coordinator, said: “Young people are vulnerable to exploitation online, and in serious and worrying cases, adults pose as young people to groom and exploit them into engaging in sexual activity online, or trick them into meeting with the intention of physically causing sexual harm.

“This is what makes prevention so important and why we continue to actively work with young people, schools, parents and youth partners in a joined up approach to educate whole communities about the risks children face online, and the impact this can have on them and their families.

“We encourage parents and teachers not to be afraid to talk to children about their activities on social media and explain the importance of privacy, and thinking before uploading content online to help prevent them from becoming victims or perpetrators – this is key to developing young people’s trust and confidence to talk to you, someone else they trust or to report if they’re concerned about inappropriate contact they’ve had online.”

PC Benson added: “I am pleased that Watts has now received a custodial sentence, and I would like to commend the bravery of the girls and their families who found the courage to come forward and make this happen.

“I want them to know that they are not in any way to blame for this, and hope they can now move on from this ordeal.

“I would also like to thank officers from West Midlands Police, Devon & Cornwall Police, Surrey Police and the Metropolitan Police for their involvement in this complex and lengthy investigation.”