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HARROGATE, England — An Air Force noncommissioned officer, described by authorities as a “predator,” was sentenced to 12 years in prison Friday for raping three Yorkshire teenagers.

Staff Sgt. James Gardner, 34, was serving at RAF Menwith Hill, eight miles outside of this wealthy Yorkshire town, when he raped three girls — ages 13, 14 and 16 — he met at a state-run home for at-risk or vulnerable youth. He was convicted of five counts of rape on June 26.

York Crown Court Judge Paul Hoffman, who sentenced Gardner, also ordered that he be deported upon the completion of his sentence, which he will serve at Hull Prison.

Gardner claimed his innocence throughout the case, insisting he thought all the girls were 16 and that the sex was consensual. But sex crimes detective constable John Bosomworth, who investigated Gardner’s case for the North Yorkshire Constabulary, said he learned a much different story.

“It’s the most serious sex crimes case we’ve had in this office in a number of years,” Bosomworth said.

The veteran investigator with the Vulnerable Victims Unit began an inquiry into Gardner after an official from the state-run home alerted authorities of a suspicious relationship between the airman and the teenage wards of the state.

Gardner met his victims through one another at the home, but court officials and investigators are still unsure how the airman made initial contact with a girl from the home who started the chain of informal meetings. The first girl he met was never sexually abused, authorities say.

“His M.O. was to befriend these girls, ply them with alcohol and ultimately rape them. He groomed them because he knew they were vulnerable,” Bosomworth said. “He’s a predator.”

Each victim was assaulted once, according to Robert Turnbull, chief crown prosecutor for the North Yorkshire Crown Prosecution Service.

“He would tuck them into his bed and say he was going to sleep on the couch. Then he would wait until they were asleep and incapable of defending themselves,” Turnbull said. “They would wake up to find him raping them.”

The crimes were so traumatic that the youngest victim initially refused to discuss her ordeal with English authorities. However, a female investigator with the Air Force Office of Special Investigators forged a bond with the young victim to elicit her story, according to court officials.

RAF Menwith Hill squadron leader Alf Garnett declined to speak about Gardner’s status with the Air Force, pointing all questions to the U.S. Air Forces in Europe officials. USAFE spokesman Capt. Scott Nielsen said the Air Force will soon be working on Gardner’s discharge paperwork and that a convening authority would decide his discharge status after his sentence but before he’s released from prison.

After Gardner is released from prison, the Air Force is responsible for transporting him back to his home of record, Nielsen said.

Turnbull said Gardner is the first American from RAF Menwith Hill convicted of a felony in many years. The 560-acre Menwith Hill complex is run by the Air Force’s Air Intelligence Agency, which manages a joint intelligence gathering operation headed by the National Security Agency. The overwhelming majority of the base’s work is classified.

It’s unclear what Gardner did on the base or what type of security clearance he held.

“One assumes various checks were done on his character,” Turnbull said.

Nielsen said the Air Force would not comment on the level of security clearance Gardner held.

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