By Kim Reader
A beauty queen is bravely speaking out about how she was groomed online and sexually abused as a young teen to encourage other victims to come forward.
Danielle Armitage, now 20, was just 14-years-old when she was targeted in the online chat room of a children’s computer game by John Graham Edwards in November 2010.
Edwards, who was 49 at the time, subjected the ‘terrified’ schoolgirl to sexual, physical and mental abuse on four separate occasions, threatening to ‘hurt her family’ if she told anyone or refused to see him.
Following the harrowing ordeal, Danielle’s world fell apart as she turned to self-harm and eventually dropped out of school after being branded a ‘prostitute’ and spat at in the corridors by bullies.
But more than six years on from the horrific abuse, the care assistant and Miss Cheshire finalist is finally starting to rebuild her life and has recently moved in with her partner of two years David Done, 33.
And Danielle has decided to waive her anonymity and share her story to raise awareness of online grooming and encourage more victims to come forward.
Danielle, of Runcorn, Cheshire, said: “I was approached by him on a website. It was like a chat room but on a children’s online game.
“He started grooming me. He told me he was 16 and he was just awfully nice and gave me a lot of attention and affection which, as a 14-year-old girl, I was not used to.
“After about a week of us talking we agreed to meet up. He said he would pick me up just down the road from my school. I believed him when he said it was more convenient to meet there but he obviously knew what he was doing.
“It was a huge shock when I saw him and realised how much older he was but unfortunately it was too late then because I was already locked in the car and he just started driving.
“I asked him how old he really was and he said 25 but I could tell he was older. I knew something was really wrong but I didn’t know what to do. It was terrifying.
“He drove me into the forest and parked up. He told me to take pictures of myself. At first they were just normal photos but then he told me to take my clothes off.
“When I said I didn’t want to, he got really upset and aggressive. He told me he would hurt my family if I didn’t do what he said.
“Afterwards he said if I told anyone my family would be in danger and I would get in lots of trouble. He used the same threats when he forced me to see him again.
“The second time I saw him was when the physical abuse started and every time it got worse. He was so aggressive. He would pin me down by my neck so I couldn’t wriggle around.
“Afterwards he would try to justify himself, telling me he loved me and that what he was doing was okay but I knew it wasn’t. It made me feel physically sick hearing him try to explain it to me.”
Danielle kept the abuse, which spanned a month, secret from her family by using scarves and wearing her hair down to hide the bruises around her throat.
But when the teen’s phone was confiscated by her dad Phil Armitage after she was brought home drunk by a worried friend, the sick crimes Danielle had been the victim of were exposed.
After reading a text message that came through from Edwards, Phil called the police and Danielle woke the next morning to find her home filled with officers and her parents ‘heartbroken’.
Danielle said: “I’ve always been really close to my parents and we have such an open relationship. That was the only secret I had ever kept from them and it felt horrible but I didn’t want anything bad to happen to them or my little sister.
“I completely isolated myself from everyone and I blamed myself for what was happening. I started to self-harm.
“One night I got so drunk my dad had to come get me and he confiscated my phone. When I woke up and the house was filled with police officers.
“I could just see on my dad’s face how completely heartbroken he was and so angry. My mum was the same. It was devastating to see them like that.
“It was so frightening. I was worried they weren’t going to catch him and that he would hurt my family. The first time I felt safe was when I knew he was in custody.
“When I found out he had done the same to other girls I was so angry and upset. I thought I was going to get to face him at trial and show him I wasn’t weak but he pleaded guilty.
“I went to see him get sentenced and his wife was there. It was such a relief to know he was going to be locked up.
“But what happened spread around school and people would call me a prostitute and spit at me in the corridors. Eventually I dropped out.
“For years what had happened to me affected everything in my life. I suffered from depression and anxiety.
“When I first met David I was still really down but he has been so supportive. He’s always there for me and he has made me feel like I am worth something again.
“And finally, in the last year, I feel like I am starting to move on and I’m in a good place psychologically.”
Now Danielle is keen to raise awareness of the risks of online grooming as more and more children are exposed – with the NSPCC reporting that one in five 8 to 11 year olds and seven in ten 12 to 15 year olds has a social media profile.
The survivor is also keen to see more education about sexual abuse in schools in the hopes it will encourage children to come forward before it becomes physical.
One in 14 adults – 11% of women and 3% of men – in England and Wales were sexually abused as children according to a study carried out by the Office of National Statistics in August last year.
Danielle said: “Children nowadays are so much more exposed than I was. Online grooming is never going to stop but there needs to be so much more awareness of it.
“I think there needs to be more education in schools so kids know that they should and can talk to someone.
“I want to encourage other victims to come forward and report abuse because there are people that can help you and you can get justice.
“I want them to know that it is not their fault and in time things will be okay. I never thought I would get to where I am today.
“I want other people to know what life can be like and that they are not alone. It might seem like the end of the world but it’s not.”
Edwards, who was born on May 5 1961 and lived in Elworth, Sandbach, Cheshire, at the time, pleaded guilty to grooming three girls under the age of 16.
He was sentenced to five years in prison for a string of 20 sexual offences – including sexual activity with a female child under 16, making indecent images of a child, and possession of extreme pornographic images – at Chester Crown Court on December 14 2012.