Sterling Free abducted a seven-year-old girl from a store at Westfield North Lakes. Picture: Facebook
Sterling Free abducted a seven-year-old girl from a store at Westfield North Lakes. Picture: Facebook

Sexual predator’s ‘dark urges’ draw sentence outrage

A SEXUAL predator who kidnapped a seven-year-old girl from a suburban shopping centre and molested her in bushland for his own sick pleasure had watched child porn in the lead up to the horrific kidnap, a court has heard.

Sterling Free, 28, was last year handed a head sentence of eight years' jail after pleading guilty to taking the child for an immoral purpose from Kmart at North Lakes in December 2018.

But, after serving 306 days on remand, Brisbane District Court Judge Julie Dick set his parole eligibility date in August, 2021, despite him telling police a "dark urge" took over and he could not control himself when he abducted the child.

The sentence last year caused mass outrage from the community, politicians and child justice-advocates, including Daniel Morcombe's parents and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton.

Today, the State Attorney-General appealed the sentence on the basis it was manifestly inadequate.

Sterling Free abducted a seven-year-old girl from a store at Westfield North Lakes. Picture: Facebook
Sterling Free abducted a seven-year-old girl from a store at Westfield North Lakes. Picture: Facebook

In the Queensland Court of Appeal on Friday, Crown Prosecutor Carl Heaton QC argued the parole eligibility date had been set too early and the community expected courts to order longer periods in jail for those who abuse children in such a horrific way.

He said a psychologist report showed Free had a long history of struggling with a lack of impulse control.

He said this lack of self-control, a pornography addiction and a diagnosis of paedophilia caused him to act on his urges, even though he knew it was wrong and later told police that.

"It increased his vulnerability to engage in impulsive and reckless behaviour with no consideration of the consequences," Mr Heaton said.

Mr Heaton also said the psychologist report showed impulsive traits, ADHD, a lack of intimacy with his partner had contributed to Free's offending against the child.

"... Mr Free appears to have increasingly viewed paedophile imagery or struggled with such ideation prior to the offence... before spontaneously acting on impulsive ideation," he said.

Footage of Sterling Free leading the little girl out of the shopping centre.
Footage of Sterling Free leading the little girl out of the shopping centre.

The court heard the sentence handed down last year did not "send a clear message to the community" that punishment for this charge would result in jail time behind bars, not on parole.

Mr Heaton also said the fact Free identified he was attracted to children but also had difficulty with impulse control, made him a greater risk to society.

Meanwhile, defence barrister Angus Edwards, who acted pro bono for Free, said there were "powerful mitigating circumstances" that meant his client should not serve more time behind bars.

These included having no criminal history, returning the girl to the shopping centre following the depraved incident and cooperating with police, Mr Edwards argued.

He said there were many factors that made Free a good candidate for rehabilitation, including his remorse for the offending.

"The community is best served by his rehabilitation...," Mr Edwards told the court.

Free was sentenced for luring the tiny child away from her mother during the busy Christmas rush at Kmart North Lakes by gaining her trust.

Mr Heaton today said he "stalked" the girl for 20 minutes before "manipulating her vulnerability".

The State Attorney-General has appealed Sterling Free’s sentence on the basis it was manifestly inadequate.
The State Attorney-General has appealed Sterling Free’s sentence on the basis it was manifestly inadequate.

On his own admissions to police, Free was window shopping for presents for his own baby girls when he spotted the seven-year-old innocently looking at toys and "the urges just kicked in".

Free told officers he drove the tiny girl to bushland 30 minutes away before taking her hand and leading her into the scrub, convincing her they were "looking for something".

When they reached a secluded spot, he removed the child's clothing and shoes and touched her vagina before ejaculating in his pants.

Then, he told the girl to get dressed, carried her out of the bush and returned her to the shopping centre.

In sentencing Free, Judge Julie Dick said the offending was "every parent's nightmare".

The Queensland Court of Appeal has reserved its decision.