People said to me: ‘Don’t you want to kill them?’ – Interview
Times, The (London), 4th April, 2000
by Moira Petty
As a policeman Michael Hames hunted paedophiles. His work has redefined the way sex offenders are treated. Interview by Moira Petty
Day after day, Michael Hames had to harden his heart as he viewed the terrible evidence of sexual abuse against children. The former head of Scotland Yard’s Obscene Publications Branch (OPB )made it his remit to expose the “spider’s web” network of paedophilia which his work revealed as more sophisticated, covert and depraved than anyone had imagined.
“People always said to me, ‘Don’t you want to kill them?’ But you had to remain objective,” he says. Videos in which children were terrorised and tortured were seized by what was known colloquially as “the Dirty Squad”.
They were analysed frame by frame, each act of perversion noted down, as officers searched for clues to the identity of the adults, almost always men, and the children who they were filmed abusing. Detectives always had one television set tuned to sport or a comedy, so that they could look away from the filth and remind themselves of normality.
There were other techniques. Filing cabinets were punched in anger. The after-work drink was a necessary soporific. And Hames sought the help of a psychiatrist to introduce his team to strategies for coping. It didn’t always work.
“There was one case that really got to us during Operation Cathedral,” Hames says. “A man came into a bedroom filming with a video camera over one shoulder and woke a little boy of about seven or eight, and began abusing him. The child was begging him to stop, shouting that he was squashing him and hurting him. What really got to us was that, in the background, the music from The Snowman was playing. We were all close to tears. I could no longer watch The Snowman and if I hear the music it brings back awful memories.”
Hames retired from the force in August 1994, after suffering a mild heart attack the year before and undergoing angioplasty. His first book, The Dirty Squad, is an account of his career that includes supervision of the aftermath of the 1983 Harrods bombing and a raid on a brothel during which a man in pinstriped suit announced that he was not only an MP, but a minister.
“That was before the end of Communism and, through a politician friend, I informed the PM, Mrs Thatcher,” Hames recalls. “I noticed that the man, a junior minister, was quietly dropped later in a reshuffle.”
There was also a much-publicised arrest of Boy George for possession of drugs. The pop singer was coming off heroin and looked ill, but was witty and cheerful. “I offered to smuggle him out, as the press were waiting, but he said: ‘No. I’ll meet my public.'”
The pinnacle of Hames’s career was a radical redefinition of the work of the OPB. When he arrived as superintendent in 1989, most of the squad’s work was conducted in the field of adult pornography. Hames turned this around so that 90 per cent of its activity was directed against paedophiles.
“I like to fight battles I can win,” he explains. “Adult porn was on such a large scale that it would take two years to get a case to court. We would fill a pantechnicon with all the material. I also felt that there was a lack of will on the part of the public and the government to tackle it.”
Although Hames describes himself as “quite liberal and laid-back”, he does not claim that adult porn is harmless.
“It can harm relationships,” he says. “Marriages break down because of a fixation on pornography. It is addictive and they always want something stronger. We once did an analysis of the customer demand for mail-order porn on one case that we investigated. Sixty per cent of demand was for the most severe sadomasochistic stuff.
“To people who are against censorship and who say, ‘So what?’ I say, ‘And how are you going to ensure that it doesn’t get into the hands of children?'”
While based at Ealing in 1987, Hames investigated a case that opened his eyes to the international networks that fuelled paedophilia. A retired schoolmaster had a huge amount of material – it began with innocent pictures of nude children and progressed to those that showed children with “increasingly puzzled expressions”. When he arrived at the OPB, he knew this was his “chance to make a difference”.
Only a decade ago, little was known about the secretive and insidious nature of paedophilia. Hames and his team developed techniques to build cases that were fit for prosecution. And as they did so, they lectured to police forces throughout the country – a task to which Hames still devotes time today.
When searching a suspect’s house, for example, they knew it was important to retrieve material including diaries and apparently innocuous copies of feature films – “They often hide obscene stuff in the middle” – material that other officers might have overlooked.
Questioning sex offenders required “new terms of reference”. Although Hames asserts that he does not see paedophilia as a mental problem – “A crime is a crime” – he does add that understanding “where they are coming from” is important.
“I once asked a sex offender when he was first abused,” Hames says. “He said he had never been abused. Then I asked when he had first had sex with an adult. He replied that it was when he was ten and it took place in a cinema.”
In the private sector, Hames continues his battle against paedophilia. He runs a company, Integrated Screening Services, which vets people who apply to work with children.
Although the Government’s List 99 register aims to prevent convicted offenders from securing public-sector work involving children, they are free to operate privately – for instance, as one-to-one tutors.
Hames hopes that parents will read his book and become aware of how paedophiles insinuate themselves into a family. “We were called in once by a chemist developing photographs who had found some indecent shots of a little girl,” Hames recalls. “The man concerned used to babysit for the child. To the mother, he was a neighbour and trusted friend. When we called on him, to our astonishment, the little girl appeared from the man’s bedroom. The mother refused to believe us. It was guilt.
“The man later gassed himself in his car and denied the charges right to the end in his suicide note. My view is that, if it had come to court, we would have got a conviction. Parents must be aware that children find it difficult to tell on someone who is seen as a friend of their parents.The world is a dangerous place. Parents must take sensible precautions. You wouldn’t park your brand-new BMW in a field, give someone the keys and walk off.”
Although the register of paedophiles is a step in the right direction – it forces local police to assess the risk of an offender – Hames is incensed at the low priority given to these crimes. He estimates that one in 60 adults has paedophiliac inclinations, although there are only 150,000 convicted child sex offenders.
His last act at the OPB was to fight an initiative to close it down. He mobilised workers in the field, children’s charities and politicians. A group from the House of Lords, where the squad had held an exhibition of its work, wrote to The Times, saying that the unit should remain open. There was a suggestion that the OPB’s work would be taken over by child protection teams. Hames complains: “But they’re reactive and they’re swamped anyway. We were pro-active. You can’t wait around for children to make allegations years later.”
While adult porn was handed over to the West End Clubs Branch, the OPB retained the core of its work and was renamed the Paedophilia Unit. But the team’s number was cut from 16 officers to 13, which Hames describes as “scandalous”.
“The resources put into the protection of drugs crimes dwarfs what is done against paedophilia,” he says. “I’ve sent copies of my book to the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary. This issue has got to go up the agenda.
“I feel like a one-man band but there are people rowing in the same direction. I am unique in that I can see it from a police perspective and I am unconstrained and can speak out.”
One of the problems within the force, Hames says, is that paedophilia is national and international. “Chief officers jealously guard their resources and don’t like it when you go outside your patch. I was always being asked ‘How come you’re always off around the country?'”
In his book, Hames calls for an international register of the images of the unidentified children who appear in pornographic material, just as there is a register of missing art and antiques. He is relieved that, since his book went to press, such a system has been set up. “We had cases where police in four different countries were all looking for the same child,” he says.
The book contains unflinching accounts of the cases he dealt with. Face-to-face, Hames, a genial 55-year-old who announces jovially that he has just lost a stone on a diet, is blunt when it comes to the sordid details.
He admits to being worried that the hardcore nature of adult pornography is influencing that involving children: “We started to see images of children in sadomasochistic set-ups. There was a girl of 11 with needles through her. We saw boys bound, blindfolded, gagged and abused.”
Recent exposes of abuse in children’s homes reflects Hames’s experience that paedophiles seek work with juveniles. In September 1992, West Mercia Police put him on the track of Peter Righton, a national figure within the childcare industry, who turned out to be a founder member of the Paedophile Information Exchange. He had fooled all who came into contact with him but, according to Hames, political correctness had a part to play. “People back off because they’re afraid of being accused of homophobia.”
Hames sent a full-time undercover officer, whom he calls Todd, after a public school music master. “Todd put his life and his health on the line,” Hames says. “While watching a porn film, the teacher masturbated in front of him and invited Todd to join him. Todd was able to get out of it with a clever remark. That evening he had a drink with us and was absolutely devastated.
Later, the teacher’s personal collection of child porn was found in the school music room in a cupboard that contained sheet music. He was convicted and fined. Hames adds: “A few weeks later, still not suspecting Todd, he rang and asked if he could help him get some more porn. This shows the obsessiveness of these people. He later went to work on the South Coast as a private tutor.”
Of the landmark adult porn cases he pursued, Hames recalls Operation Spanner, involving extreme violence and torture. Activists put up posters of Hames, marked “Unwanted”, claiming that he was interfering with private sexual activities. “The judge ruled that these were cruel and uncivilised acts.”
Hames has often turned to his close friend, Spike Milligan, at times of crisis. They met after Milligan wrote to the chief inspector at Harrow Road in the early 1970s – Hames was based there as a sergeant – complaining about dogs’ mess on the footpath. “After a second letter, I thought I’d better go to see him. He’d been in the Army and was a bloke’s bloke. We got on.”
After the Harrods bomb, which killed several of Hames’s colleagues at Chelsea, he rang Milligan. “It was Christmas Eve and the life-support machine of Inspector Steve Dodd had just been switched off,” Hames says. “I felt responsible for the whole station and I was crying down the phone. Spike’s words helped greatly.”
That Christmas, Hames’s first marriage had just ended. He was alone in a freezing flat and had to rely on a policewoman colleague to buy presents for his daughters, then aged ten and 14. After 15 years, he and his wife Jackie, a teacher, had “become strangers”. He says: “Police marriages are notoriously under strain.”
Shortly afterwards, Police Constable Jacqui Clarke invited him for a drink. She was 14 years younger and they moved in together. “That harmed my career,” he admits. “At a promotions board, the first question was ‘Are you still living with that WPC you used to work with?’ I said we had never worked together and were about to marry.”
After five years, during which Jacqui became a presenter of BBC’s Crimewatch, they divorced. “It was sad and I tried to distance myself from the publicity.”
In 1996, he married an old friend, the actress and interpreter Caroline Bullen, 47.
“We first met in 1971 when she turned up at Harrow Road as a Polish interpreter, wearing hotpants and thigh-length boots,” Hames recalls.
“Later, when we were both free, we met again for dinner and four months later we married.”
His father, an Inland Revenue clerk, and his mother, a former parlour maid, had been happily married. Hames, too, is a firm believer in the institution: “You need that stability when you have done a job like mine.”
Remarkably, he has retained not only a sense of humour, but a delight in romance. “Last summer Caroline and I went on a voyage of adventure to Poland where one half of her aristocratic family is from, looking for the five palaces they once owned.
“One of my favourite moments came when Caroline recited a Russian poem in the moonlight. It could well be that I have become all the more romantic because I have seen the seamy side of life.”