AN EX-ARMY officer who arranged a sex hook-up with a 14-year-old girl in Selby Park after being caught out in a sting has avoided jail.

Paul Handley, 56, formerly of Seaside Road, Aldbrough but now of Littlethorpe Close, Strensall, near York, arranged to meet the ‘girl’ after being tricked by a local newspaper reporter posing as a teenager on a social-networking site.

The ‘girl’ claimed to be 18 years’ old in a bogus profile, but during online chats told the married father-of-two she was in fact 14, prosecutor Christine Egerton told York Crown Court.

Handley,a “highly-decorated” ex-army man, drove from Hull to meet the ‘girl’ last August but instead found an undercover reporter waiting for him who took pictures of his car.

He sped off but was arrested at his home 12 days later. A dossier of evidence showed a large number of men had instantly started messaging the fake online account in an attempt to groom the ‘girl’ for sex. Other men had been arrested and prosecuted resulting from a nationwide police investigation.

Handley admitted attempting to meet a girl under 16 years of age following sexual grooming and attempting to cause ‘her’ to watch an image of sexual activity.

Rob Stephenson said in mitigation he was a man of previous good character who had served the army and Ministry of Defence for almost 40 years.

He said the internet forum was for adults and Handley “didn’t (initially) go looking” for child sex, and had never acted in this way before.

But Judge Paul Batty QC told Handley: “It’s difficult to conceive of a more squalid and indeed a more criminal act, given your age and the perceived age of your victim.

“Until the commission of these offences… you led a blameless life and you had served your country for 28 years, reaching the rank of warrant officer and leaving the forces with exemplary military conduct upon discharge.”

Handley was given a two-year jail sentence, suspended for 24 months, and ordered to do 200 hours’ unpaid work and attend a 30-day rehabilitation course.