THREE men who abused four girls in a sordid child exploitation ring run from a city hotdog shop have been jailed.
The girls, some just 14, were groomed with offers of free food and the promise of a lucrative modelling career.
It culminated in the youngsters being taken to a Preston hotel room and plied with vodka, cannabis, sweets, whipped cream and strawberries, before being encouraged into sexual acts with their abusers, which were filmed.
Ringleader James Ruehle, a married grandfather who ran the now-closed JR Chicago Hotdogs in Fishergate, Preston, shook his head throughout his sentencing as he was jailed for 10 years and four months.
The 68-year-old, of Whinfield Lane, Preston, pleaded guilty to three counts of sexual activity with two of the girls, one of attempted sexual activity with a child, a specimen count of sexual assault of another girl.
His former employee, Michael McDougal, 31, of Ashworth Street, Preston, pleaded guilty to three counts of sexual activity with a child under 16 relating to two of the girls and was jailed for nine years.
Kert Birtwistle, 21, of Arundel Place, Preston, pleaded guilty to one count of sexual activity with a child under 16 received four and a half years in a young offender’s institution.
All had admitted taking indecent photographs.
Judge Heather Lloyd said: “These teenage girls were quite clearly giggly, young and naive and thus vulnerable to flattery and to the false promises you made to them.”
“The girls were aged 14, 14 and 15 at the time. They were easy targets for your lies and your sexual appetite.”
She slammed the trio for initially denying their guilt, before pleading guilty on the day of their trial - dragging out the ordeal for the girls.
The young victims sat in the public gallery with their families supporting them as the proceedings took place at Preston Crown Court.
Prosecuting, Sarah Johnston told Preston Crown Court some of the girls had first come into contact with them at the takeaway in 2014.
She added: “This case involves the luring of young and vulnerable females into a workplace.
“The defendants, led principally by Ruehle, had arranged on one occasion for three teenagers to go with them to a hotel in Preston with the sole intention of having sexual intercourse with them and filming those acts.
“The footage was retained by Ruehle and recovered by police.”
The court heard two of the girls came into contact with Ruhele after enquiring about a job aged 14. Ruehle took one of the girls downstairs into the basement and invited the second girl downstairs, where she saw her friend was in her underwear.
Ruehle told her she could “be a model” and took a photo of her.
After the girls left, one youngster pulled out cash from her pocket he had given her and told her friend and another girl about “becoming models” and being paid to be photographed in their underwear.
The girls had believed one of the defendants was a professional photographer.
Ruehle booked a room at a Preston hotel. The defendants arrived equipped with a video camera and the girls, who were all wearing dresses and makeup believing they were supposed to be doing modelling, were taken straight upstairs.
Miss Johnston said: “It is a farcical set up where the girls are asked to go on camera, state their name and say they were over 18 and wanted to be glamour models. It was farcical because the defendants knew full well these girls were children and aged 14.”
The court heard one girl was promised “thousands of pounds” with a career as a model.
Ruehle is overheard on footage promising men would buy them cars, jewellery and “anything they wanted” if they carried on.
The crimes came to light when one girl confided in her mum in November 2014.
A fourth girl, who was abused in a separate incident in the basement of the shop, was the first to approach the police about Ruehle’s behaviour.
Defending Ruehle, who has been married for 49 years, Mark Stephenson said his client was sorry for any difficulties he had caused the girls and his family. He said the girls had already had difficulties before the offences were committed and their current circumstances could not have “flowed fully” from these offences.
The court heard his wife had allowed him to use prostitutes.
It emerged McDougal, himself a father, has previous convictions for sexual offences against boys in Scotland.
Speaking after the case Rob Jackson, Lancashire Area Director for The Children’s Society, which has been providing support to one of the victims in the case through its Street Safe Lancashire service, said: “No young person should ever have to go through the horrific ordeal that is child sexual exploitation.
“We want all children and young people to feel able come forward and report abuse and this case shows how important it is for what they say to be taken seriously so that perpetrators can be brought to justice.
“It also demonstrates the value of the independent one-to-one interviews The Children’s Society offers to children who go missing, which helped one of the young victims in this case to tell someone about her awful experience for the first time.
“But victims also have to live with terrible consequences, and it has been estimated that 16,500 children and young people across the country are at risk of sexual exploitation.
“That is why The Children’s Society wants therapy to be made available for all girls and boys who have been scarred by such appalling crimes.
“Essential services for vulnerable children and young people need to be fully funded so that all children are protected and helped to recover from the trauma they experienced.”
If you or someone you know needs support in relation to risks around child sexual exploitation, or going missing from home, you can contact The Children’s Society’s Street Safe Lancashire service free on 0800 0856324 or at email@example.com