2 June 2022

Ethics-studying child sex offender accused of grooming boys in AIS pool change rooms

| Albert McKnight
AIS pool

Benjamin Hugh Smith, 37, has been refused bail after allegedly grooming children at the AIS pool. Photo: AIS.

A registered child sex offender, who is finishing a master’s degree in Ethics and Legal Studies, has been refused bail after being accused of grooming two boys in the change rooms at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) pool.

Court documents say the father of the boys, who were both aged under 10, called police in March 2022 and alleged a man had tried to groom his sons while they were at the AIS’s aquatic centre for swimming lessons.

Police said they arrived, saw 37-year-old Benjamin Hugh Smith from Chifley leave the change rooms and approached him outside, where he was visibly nervous and told them “he didn’t see anything”.

While they were speaking to him, they allege he discreetly tried to dig a hole in a garden bed next to him and tried to put an iPhone inside it, but they spotted the phone and seized it.

They also spoke to a staff member at the aquatic centre who told them Smith had used 19 visits out of a 20-visit membership, but over the course of a month, she hadn’t seen him enter the pool once, despite being there for a long time while swimming lessons were being held for children.

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The father told police his sons claimed Smith had been in the change room at the same time as them for about the last four weeks. He alleged Smith had been trying to groom his children because he was very friendly with them and had been naked in the showers with the boys twice on the same day.

On the second occasion, he allegedly saw Smith standing naked next to one of his sons.

One of the boys told police how he found a dollar coin in the showers and Smith allegedly told him, “let’s have a competition to see who wins it”, while no one else was around. The game involved putting the coin on their elbows and catching it with their hands.

The next week, the boy said he was in the showers again and Smith allegedly taught him tricks with his hands when no one else was around.

“He’s never seen this man outside the showers,” police said.

When Smith, who in 2017 had been convicted on one count of having sex with a person between the ages of 10 and 14, was interviewed by police, he allegedly refused to give them the passcode to open the iPhone they seized from him.

He was charged with two counts of grooming a young person as well as single counts of providing a false name or address, failing to report a change of personal details and failing to comply with an order and entered not guilty pleas to all five in the ACT Magistrates Court on Thursday (2 June).

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Anastasia Qvist of Fortify Legal, appearing as an agent, applied for him to be released on bail. She said he had been in custody for about a month and it was his first time behind bars, as he had been given a suspended sentence for the 2017 case. It had been a “hard period for him”, she said, partly due to the recent COVID-19 lockdown, being in protection and he hadn’t been given his reading glasses.

She proposed a series of “onerous” bail conditions, including not going near any young person or pool, and warned he could be in custody for some time as his case moved through the courts.

But prosecutor Tahlia Drumgold said bail conditions could not ameliorate the risks of him being released from custody, noted the “brazen nature” of his alleged behaviour and said the allegations involved “classic grooming behaviour”.

She alleged he’d given false information to staff at the AIS in an attempt to conceal his identity, with court documents saying he gave his birth year as 1994 instead of the correct year of 1984 when he started his membership.

Magistrate Jane Campbell said she agreed with the prosecutor’s submissions and refused bail, saying her concern was for the protection of the community and children in particular.

The matter was adjourned to 14 July.

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