Warning: This story contains details of sexual assault

It was a bustling summer Saturday like any other at a Brisbane Westfield when a mother took her seven-year-old girl shopping for Christmas gifts.

It couldn't have been a more of a normal scene — as millions of families around the country were doing the same — but their day out at the shops ended with memories that would haunt them for the rest of their lives.

It was around lunchtime on December 8 and they made their way through the crowds towards Kmart at the North Lakes shopping centre, on the northern outskirts of Brisbane.


Once they were there, they headed where every young girl wants to go — the toy section.

Footage from inside the store shows how she was milling around, looking at the colourful products on the shelves, news.com.au reports.

Every now and then, she would return to her mother as she slowly wandered the aisles lined with bright pink plastic toys.

But, as she pottered away from her mother for a final time, she was approached by a man in black who had been lurking in the toy section for around 20 minutes.

That man was 27-year-old Sterling Free, who told the seven-year-old: "follow me".

She listened to him and began to walk alongside the stranger, who was wearing sunglasses, a baseball cap and a large necklace, through the crowded shop towards the exit.

Once she had followed the father-of-two all the way out of the shopping centre, he told her to jump in the passenger seat of his car.

He then drove her bushland near Pumicestone Passage — a narrow waterway between Bribie Island and the mainland — about 30 minutes away and found a sheltered area away from the passing cars.


It was there that he undressed and subjected the young girl to a disturbing sexual assault.

Back at the supermarket, her distraught mother had no idea where her child was.

As she was frantically filing a lost child report at the service desk, her little girl was being driven back to the supermarket by the predator who snatched her just over an hour before.

It's claimed that on this journey Free "snapped out of it" and broke down in tears — "feeling horrible" about what he had done and how the girl's mother would react.

The Courier Mail reports that the confused young girl turned to him at that point and asked her attacker if he was OK.

The court heard Free was a porn addict with a pedophilic disorder. Photo / Supplied/Facebook
The court heard Free was a porn addict with a pedophilic disorder. Photo / Supplied/Facebook

Arriving back at the shopping centre, Free pulled up outside a car wash and helped his victim cross a road towards the entrance, where she wandered in to find her distressed mother waiting at the service desk.

The mother embraced her child, totally unaware of the horrors her daughter had been subjected to.

It wasn't until later she discovered two long scratch marks down her child's back and asked where they had come from.

However, she refused to say and the mother decided to call the police.

It was only two days later Free was arrested and charged with deprivation of liberty, taking a child for immoral purposes and indecent treatment of a child under 12.

During his sentencing on Friday, Judge Julie Dick said what happened on that December day was "every parent's nightmare".

The court heard how Free was a porn addict with a pedophilic disorder who had trouble controlling his impulses.

His defence argued he was merely "window shopping" for Christmas presents that December day, when he saw the girl and lost control.

"He didn't go there to offend, but then the offending has taken place as a result of his own conduct," Free's lawyer, Shaune Irving, told reporters outside court this week.

However, Crown prosecutor Judy Geary labelled Free's offending brazen, determined, deliberate and predatory.

The incident has had a "significant impact" on the girl, Ms Geary said.

"He used her for his own sexual gratification," she said.

On Friday, Judge Julie Dick said Free's crimes were "predatory and opportunistic".

She sentenced Free to eight years' imprisonment with a parole eligibility date of August 10, 2021.

The 306 days Free had spent in custody counted as time already served.

Outside court, Free's lawyer Shaune Irving read a statement from his client apologising for the "pain I caused her (the victim), her family, and my own family and my children".

"I today accept the punishment imposed upon me by the justice system," the statement read.

"I do not wish to cause any further pain upon the young victim, her family nor delay justice any further."

"I took away her innocence and scared her family. I hope that today my sentence provides her and her family some closure," the statement read.

"I can only ever say sorry. I know this is not good enough. I cannot imagine the pain and fear I've caused. I can't take that back."

The girl's mother said in a statement before the hearing no sentence would ever make up for the trauma to her daughter.

"My tiny innocent girl was well aware of stranger danger, however this person was friendly to her and tricked her into following him," she said in the statement.

"No child should ever have to go through this type of trauma, and no sentence will ever be long enough to make up for the ongoing effects this will have on her."

Child safety advocates Denise and Bruce Morcombe read a statement on behalf of the girl's mother outside court, saying she was "shaken" by the sentence.

"While disappointed with the sentence, my daughter and our family are moving forward," the statement read.

Mr Morcombe also said he believed the sentence was inadequate in terms of being a deterrent.

"The bar needs to be sufficiently high to say to these other people, these other creeps that are out there that have fascination about our kids, don't go there or you'll be locked up for decades," he said.

"I'm not sure this sentence does that."