An international manhunt was launched last night for a convicted paedophile who fled to the Philippines with his internet bride to avoid being jailed.
Former teacher Ronald Heron sexually abused four Northumberland children between the ages of 11 and 14 during the 1970s and 80s, but left the country through Durham Tees Valley airport last Wednesday evening.
Heron, 57, formerly of Stakeford, near Ashington, was half-way through his trial at Newcastle Crown Court, where jurors yesterday found him guilty of one count of serious sexual assault, one of attempted sexual assault and 10 of indecent assault on three boys and a girl.
The keen amateur pilot interfered with one of his victims in the cockpit of his plane, and was adored by others he abused. He was jailed for nine years yesterday for what Judge Tim
Hewitt said was a clear breach of trust.
But Heron, who used to work at what is now the Duchess High School in Alnwick and Cramlington High School - none of the victims were pupils at the schools - was already out of the country
He is believed to be in the Philippines where his wife is originally from. The Journal understands he married her last year after meeting her on the internet.
Northumbria Police issued a warrant for his arrest on Thursday, but this could not be reported until yesterday when he was found guilty to avoid it influencing the jury's decision.
Heron is understood to have driven his Fiat Punto car to Durham Tees Valley Airport on Wednesday evening with his wife, and the car is thought to have stayed there for several days.
Although there is no official extradition treaty with the Philippines, the Government can request the return of fugitives. For that request to be fulfilled, the offence committed must be illegal in the country where the fugitive is, as well as being a serious charge.
Heron was on bail throughout the two week-long trial. Defendants do not normally have their passports confiscated while on bail, unless "it appears that [they are] unlikely to remain in Great Britain".
Penny Moreland, prosecuting, told the court: "The information we have received is that on Wednesday night he flew with his wife to Manila, and has not been traced."
Heron's barrister Martin Bethel QC said he was content for the jury to retire to consider their verdict, adding: "We haven't had any contact with him."
Judge Tim Hewitt only told the jury earlier in the day: "You will see Mr Heron is not with us - he has voluntarily absented himself from this trial. You must decide the case in terms of the evidence presented to you."
But after the jury had returned their guilty verdict, Judge Hewitt added: "He is presently a fugitive from justice.
"All I can say is that my experiences are that the arm of the law is very long and fugitives that have escaped justice normally do not escape for very long."
The senior officer in charge of the case for Northumbria Police was not available to comment last night. All a spokesman said about Heron was: "Inquiries are continuing into his whereabouts".
The Home Office last night declined to comment on the specifics of the Heron case, but said: "We don't have a treaty with the Philippines but we can make a request. Whether that request is processed depends on the law of the country."
There is also the possibility that people can be told to leave the country by immigration officials if it is said that their presence is "not conducive to the public good."
A spokeswoman for Heron's former employers, Northumberland County Council, added: "Northumberland County Council understands that these crimes are historic in nature and do not relate to his employment within schools in Northumberland. We wholly condemn his actions."
Pervert lurked behind a friendly façade
Ronald Heron befriended his four child victims when he worked as a music teacher at two North schools during the 1970s and 80s, and became a trusted family friend.
Newcastle Crown Court heard during the course of the two-week trial that Heron would take them for rides in his Rolls-Royce, and took at least one for a ride in his plane, based at Eshott Airfield near Morpeth.
He was said to be "adored" by the girl he abused - now in her 40s - who told the court he "gave me a cuddle like no-one had ever given me a cuddle before".
During the course of his evidence, Heron, previously of Stakeford, near Ashington, now living in Forge Howe, Bilton-in-Ainsley, near Wetherby, North Yorkshire, admitted having three-in-a-bed sex with one of his victims, but claimed this was only after the boy was 18.
He told the court the pair would also engage in sex acts together. But the jury found him guilty of sexually abusing the boy when he was years younger.
Heron started receiving threats in the 1980s when he worked as an insurance salesman in Cumbria from the father of one of the victims, who said he knew what the former teacher had done.
But Heron was only arrested last year, after one of the victims, suffering from relationship difficulties which he blamed on the sexual abuse, went to the police. The court heard the other three had decided to suppress the attacks from their minds.
Judge Tim Hewitt, sentencing Heron to nine years, said: "He has abused the obvious trust they had with him and the enjoyment they gained by spending time with him by his repeated sexual assaults.
"Three of the complainants were happy to internalise the abuse, but for the [fourth victim], it started to affect his family life.
"This happened a long time ago, when the defendant was in his 20s, but he must be punished for it."
'He was a fantasist'
One woman who knew Heron in the mid-seventies described him as "a bit flaky, a bit of a fantasist."
The woman, a 48-year-old schoolteacher who asked not to be named, said she was still "absolutely stunned" to hear about his perverted secret life.
"There was something odd about him, you couldn't always believe what he told you. He was vague about his music qualifications, for example" she said.
The suave Heron was popular with students, offered them flights in his plane which he flew out of Eshott airfield, and also drove a Rolls Royce.
But his former acquaintance said: "You never really felt you could trust him, he always seemed too glib. But I certainly didn't think he would go around abusing children, I didn't think he was perverted, and I am absolutely stunned to hear about this.
"He was a very talented musician, he played the piano and he would enthusiastically organise school concerts.
"From what I remember I didn't really trust him.
"The last I heard about him was around 15 years ago, I think he had recently been divorced and he was popping around to see an old school friend of mine.
"I warned her against having anything to do with him, so I must have had an instinct that there was something not quite right about him."