The Guardian, 25th November 2000
by Nick Davies
A little way south of the centre of Bristol, there is a neat and peaceful patch of suburbia called Brislington. In among its redbrick rows of Victorian terraced homes, there is Churchill Road – an ordinary collection of two-storey houses with patches of grass out back and a couple of For Sale signs in the front. The door to number 49 is painted cream.
In October 1997, a woman telephoned the police in Bristol to say that she was worried about her nephew, Ricky. He was 15, he had had some trouble in his family, and he kept going off for a day or two at a time. When he came back, he had new clothes or little gifts and he wouldn’t say how he had got them. Was he stealing, was he mixed up in drugs? It worried her, and all she knew was that Ricky was going to a house at 49 Churchill Road.
As a result of that call, the police opened the cream-coloured door and uncovered a rats’ nest of child abuse – a full-blown paedophile ring. The house was a honey trap, fitted out with a gaming machine, a sauna, plenty of videos and drink and drugs and anything else that might persuade a wandering boy to come in off the streets. Inside the house, some of the boys had been slowly groomed for the sexual pleasure of men who lived there. Others had been simply raped. Some had been given heroin to keep them compliant. Several had been forced into prostitution. Some of the abusers had been busy for 20 years in one location or another.
Three years on, the officers of Avon and Somerset’s Child Protection Team have identified 89 boy victims, aged between 6 and 16. They have run four major trials at which victims have told stories of unmitigated pain and exploitation. Twelve men have been convicted of rape, forced buggery, indecent assault, supplying heroin and living off prostitution. Many of the men admitted their guilt and they have been jailed for a total of 66 years. The police found links between the house in Bristol and addresses in south Wales as well as Holland and France. All this conceals a deeper story.
This other story begins four years before that phone call – with other phone calls, other alarm bells ringing. By October 1994, social services and police in Bristol had been warned repeatedly that vulnerable boys were being sexually abused at 49 Churchill Road.
The loudest warning had come from a gay social worker, whose boyfriend was living in the house. Neither the social worker nor the boyfriend had any interest in child abuse. The social worker was worried about a 14-year-old boy who had run away from a children’s home and returned in an agitated state.
Through the boyfriend, he discovered that the runaway had been staying at 49 Churchill Road and that there were clear signs of paedophile activity there. The social worker went to the social services department. The police interviewed his boyfriend, who told them all he knew about the honey trap and the boys and the drugs and the sexual abuse. Other social workers had reported separately that a 13-year-old boy, who was on their register of children at risk, was believed to have become embroiled in Bristol’s rent boy scene: he was disappearing for days at a time, he was believed to be using strong drugs and he was found to be carrying a piece of paper with a phone number – traced to 49 Churchill Road.
Two other boys who had been living in a children’s home had been reported to be visiting the house; one had been caught up in an earlier inquiry into child pornography. Worse still, a social worker who was based at the children’s home was said to have introduced a vulnerable boy to the men in the house.
On October 7, 1994, Avon’s Child Protection Committee held a special meeting to discuss what they described as “a potential paedophile ring” at 49 Churchill Road. Three social workers and a police inspector reviewed all the clues and agreed to check all their records and to interview the children they believed to be involved; the social workers sent a minute of the meeting to their area manager; the police inspector said he would talk to his superintendent and to the Crown Prosecution Service . . . and essentially nothing happened. Two years later, two more boys made allegations about the house. The rape and seduction and all the rest of it continued unabated.
There is nothing unusual in that kind of failure to uncover and prosecute child abuse. Paedophilia is the least effectively policed crime in Britain. It is grossly under-reported by its victims: like the adult victims of sex abuse, they suffer from shame and the anticipation of disbelief in court; in addition, they are far more easily confused and intimidated by their abusers. Police generally make almost no attempt to go out and uncover unreported abuse: while every police force in the country pours resources into fighting drugs and robbery and burglary, only a handful of the 32 forces have proactive paedophile units.
The operation which finally destroyed the Bristol ring broke through this wall of inaction, not because any-one in the Home Office or the Association of Chief Police Officers finally had the courage to address the scandal, but because of the chance involvement of several unusual individuals.
In the autumn of 1996, a young detective sergeant named Rob Jones had moved to Avon and Somerset’s Child Protection Team. The unit did not investigate cases at all. They just supplied back-up for social workers and advice for families and children who found themselves in police hands. It was no place for a real detective. But Rob Jones is one of nature’s outsiders, a black belt in karate, a discipline which has given him unusual strength of will.
He was joined by two experienced detective constables, Pete Mainstone and Phil Brown, and together they determined to go out and actively look for abused children. It was Pete Mainstone who took the call from Ricky’s worried aunt in October 1997. And instead of merely processing it, he pushed to find out more. He arranged to meet Ricky with his aunt and he checked intelligence records and found that the house in Churchill Road was already suspect. Jones prepared for the possibility of a full-scale inquiry.
Almost every step was a struggle against inertia. Ricky was reluctant to talk, but slowly he agreed to tell what he knew. He spoke of rent boys coming to the house; there was a suggestion that pornographic films were being made; he spoke of a stream of men who visited; he broke down and described eventually how he had been buggered relentlessly by two men; and he named them. One was Christopher Leek, now 44, a costume dresser who had worked on The Bill and who owned the house. He had been using it as a honey trap for years, but Avon and Somerset police had no intelligence on him. The other man, however, was noto-rious: Tony Stevens, now 45, had a long history of abusing boys. He had previously called himself Mark Underhill, but he was better known to under-aged rent boys in Bristol and south Wales as Fat Tony, and, although he had never been convicted in Britain, he had been arrested and jailed in Portugal in 1993 with two other British men after being caught paying local children to make pornographic videos.
Rob Jones knew he was on to something important, but he and the two DCs could work on the case only part time, while they continued with conventional child protection work. They needed extra resources: surveillance officers to watch the house in Churchill Road; technical support so they could video those coming and going; more officers to follow up on the leads which Ricky had given them. Jones managed to borrow three officers from other units, but that was all.
After months of part-time frustration, Jones decided to take a chance: he got a warrant to search the house and persuaded his bosses to give him proper back-up for just one night. He was taking a risk: Ricky had now disappeared without signing his statements, and if they found nothing in the house, the officers would have no evidence with which to charge the paedophiles and they would have squandered the tiny credibility they enjoyed with their bosses. On the night of February 3 1998, Avon and Somerset police finally opened the door at 49 Churchill Road.
They found the whole place had been sanitised: no boys; no drugs; a computer hard disk that had been professionally wiped; photographic equipment stowed away. It turned out that during the months of delay, Ricky had told the men in the house that he had been talking to the police, and they had covered their tracks.
There was no evidence there to justify a charge. But, by sheer persistence, the detectives had managed to track down Ricky only hours before the raid, and he had signed his statements. On that basis, they now arrested Christopher Leek and Fat Tony Stevens. As they searched the house, a boy named Andrew arrived. He started to talk, painting the same picture as Ricky, describing indecent assaults which he had suffered, and crucially he added the names of other boy victims and other men.
Now, Rob Jones had a full-blooded investigation. But he was running it out of a shoebox. He needed more detectives to carry out interviews; he needed an incident room and he needed administrative officers to run it. But all he was given a single terminal and a part-time data inputter. At least one senior officer was actively arguing for the whole inquiry to be stopped immediately. And Jones had a more immediate worry: if Leek and Stevens got bail, he would have no chance of getting their victims to talk. Ricky had told them that the two men had taken him to a solicitor to file a complaint that the police were harrassing him.
At this moment, another unusual individual joined the inquiry. Brendan Moorhouse is a barrister, working for the Crown Prosecution Service in their New Bridewell office in Bristol. He had grown up in apartheid South Africa with a real drive for justice and, when Rob Jones asked for his help, he made it his business not simply to act as a CPS case worker but to guide the police inquiry.
From the first day, he organised a special strategy. They would build a big picture for the jury, aiming where possible to keep different offenders together in the same dock with a collection of their victims as witnesses. It would be much harder work than simply running a sequence of small trials, but it was their best chance of showing the jury the truth. And Moorhouse volunteered to turn up in court personally to take charge of every bail application. His first success was to keep Leek and Stevens behind bars while Jones’ officers tracked down their victims.
For three months, with Moorhouse’s guidance, detectives gathered more evidence. By June, they had 15 victims and a queue of men waiting to be arrested – and no extra resources. And senior officers had made up their minds to pull the plug. They had appointed a new chief inspector to run the Child Protection Team and briefed him to stop the job before it got any bigger.
At this point, Jones’ team had two strokes of luck. First, the new chief inspector, Ian Appleton, turned out to be a man who understood what they were doing, and he got them their own incident room and even some cars. Rob Jones assembled a “dirty dozen” officers, begged and borrowed from uniformed work or CID teams. Operation Panorama was born. The second stroke of luck was the arrival of a new chief constable, Steve Pilkington, who agreed to support the inquiry in a way that some of his predecessors and many of his contemporaries would not. On July 7, 1998, Jones’ team co-ordinated a series of dawn arrests. Now, they had a total of 10 men in custody.
Following the grapevine of victims, they traced a 26-year-old Welshman named Wayne, who had first be-come a victim of Fat Tony Stevens 14 years earlier, when he was only 12. Wayne told them how he had grown up in south Wales and how, when he was six or seven, he had joined a stamp club run by an adoles-cent boy called Alan Williams. Wayne was not to know that Williams was to grow up to become one of the most ruthless abusers in Britain, a rapist and child pornographer known in the paedophile world as the Welsh Witch.
Wayne described how Williams asked him to stay behind after stamp club and introduced him to an old man, who smelled bad. They took it in turns to bugger him. Then they threw him out, and Wayne recalled how he wandered off in panic. Wayne never even tried to tell what had happened. He knew no one would believe him if he did.
From that day, Wayne became a plaything for Alan Williams and his adult friends. They told him, if he ever betrayed them, they would kill his dog and hurt his sister and tell his family he was queer. Sometimes, they gave him cannabis and LSD. If they wanted him during the day, they would send the school forged letters from his parents to justify his absence. This had been going on intermittently for four or five years, when Alan Williams first introduced him to Fat Tony. Wayne said he was coming out of school when Williams came up beside him in a car with a man. They gave him some dope to smoke and some Pernod and drove him to a house in Roath on the edge of Cardiff. Fat Tony was waiting there, and all three of them now went for him at once. When he eventually got home, his father beat him for being so late back from school. Wayne took to sniffing glue; the more delinquent he became, the more vulnerable he was. Fat Tony and the others abused him in chalets and caravan parks, and in each other’s houses. They took him to other paedophiles and swapped him for their boys for the night.
It was clear that not all the men who lived at 49 Churchill Road were involved or even aware of the child abuse there. The house became a magnet for Fat Tony and his friends – Army John, Rob the Van Man, Kevin the Gerbil, Gerry the Dog, Peter the ice-cream man, who was too obese to act out most of his fantasies, a 61-year-old dope dealer called Alan Tanner, and Alan Williams.
Chris Leek, who owned it, rented out rooms, many of them to men looking for young boys. Fat Tony himself eventually took one of them. Leek spent hours down on Anchor Road in the middle of Bristol, where the old public toilets were the main market place for the city’s rent boys.
Sometimes the rent boys sold themselves willingly. Other times, they were raped. The men also targeted boys from two local schools and picked up runaways from children’s homes, offering them the safety of a bed in Churchill Road. One was picked up hitchhiking and raped at knifepoint.
Older boys were just as vulnerable. One boy described how, as a 17-year-old, he had fled from his family home, where his father had been using him for sex. He stayed with a friend, had a row about the rent and found himself homeless. One of the men from Churchill Road found him and offered him safe haven.
The police found that Leek had been reaping a financial and sexual bonus by forcing some of the boys to sell them selves. One 13-year-old made the mistake of asking him for cannabis: Leek gave him heroin to smoke, got him addicted, forcibly buggered him and then later put him to work in the toilets in Anchor Road under threat of cutting off his supply.
The boy who had run away from his father’s abuse was eventually paid £14,000 compensation. Chris Leek persuaded him to invest it in a building society in their joint names and then spent almost all of the money himself.
The Operation Panorma team soon found themselves in an ever-increasing web of alleged offences. By the beginning of 1999, they had some 80 possible victims and more than 60 suspected abusers – and only 10 of them had been arrested. Some of those who were still at large were prolific paedophiles. The man who was known at Churchill Road as Army John turned out to be John Gay, now 49, whose history of abuse went back even further than Fat Tony Stevens’. Police discovered that he was a close friend of Alan Williams, and that he had been abusing Wayne when he was only six or seven.
With 10 men in custody awaiting trial and 60 more waiting to be investigated, this had become a big job. A perpetrator claimed to have been raped by one of the men in custody when he was only 13 and agreed to press charges. At the CPS, Brendan Moorhouse was working in an office which had lost more than a quarter of its lawyers through funding cuts. It was a full time job simply dealing with the 10 men who had been arrested. And he was juggling this with some 250 other cases. His determination to hold all the defendants together to make a big picture for the jury made the job even more complex.
For senior officers at Avon and Somerset police, the big problem was the Home Office, which now steers police activity with a list of “best value performance indicators”, on which each force is judged. There are 37 of them. But there is nothing anywhere in any of them about child abuse. By diverting resources into Operation Panorama, Avon and Somerset was risking its corporate neck.
At current strength, Operation Panorama could just about cope with prosecuting the 10 men. At one point, they lost their incident room, when a murder squad pushed them out. Under this pressure, there was no chance of Panorama being given extra resources to deal with the 60 new suspects, all of whom remained at liberty more than a year after the last wave of arrests.
Instead, the Panorama officers ran a risk assessment on them, singled out Gay and Tucker as the two most dangerous, and looked forward to the moment they could spare officers to start investigating them. Alan Williams had escaped justice by dying in a mess of heroin and Aids during the delay. Dozens of other suspects were put on the back burner.
In September 1999, the Panorama detectives began three linked trials at Bristol crown court. By December, without a single word of national publicity, all 10 defendants had pleaded guilty or had been convicted by a jury. Most of them were jailed – Christopher Leek for 12 years, Tony Stevens for eight. The judge commended Jones and his team.
By the time the trials were over, John Gay and Lee Tucker had been arrested, and the Panorama team were ready to gather more evidence on them and to get to grips with the long queue of up to 60 other suspects. But their time was running out. Avon and Somerset police had by now ploughed huge resources into the inquiry, on a scale unsupported by the Home Office.
The Bristol detectives could pursue all the loose ends effectively only by setting up a full-time paedophilia unit. But the pressure from Whitehall was to focus resources on the 37 performance indicators. Senior offic-ers regretfully told Rob Jones’s team that they must look for an “exit strategy”. Six of their 12 officers and an administrator were taken.
On this limited basis, they launched Operation Parallel. They drew up a list of priority targets, weeding out those whose offences were historic and/or minor. In this way, they discarded some 40 suspects. Jones’s reduced team was given a dozen extra detectives for a single week in March this year, to arrest and process the dozen or so suspects still on their list.
John Gay and Lee Tucker were convicted last month at Swindon crown court. After 20 years of unremitting abuse, Gay was finally sent to prison for 12 years for two counts of buggering Wayne when he was under 16, seven counts of indecently assaulting Wayne and two other under-aged boys, four counts of supplying drugs, and one count of forced buggery on the boy who had been addicted to heroin by Christopher Leek.
Lee Tucker was jailed for eight years on nine counts of buggering and indecently assaulting under-aged boys as well as administering them stupefying drugs. Tucker, however, had been given bail so he could be treated for the HIV virus, and three days before the verdict, he vanished.
By the time their work was over, the Bristol Child Protection Team, with the support of Brendan Moorhouse in the CPS, presented a model for the investigation of child abuse – a 100% conviction rate against serious and unreported child abuse. They had torn the heart out of a network of abusers who had flourished for up to 20 years.
And yet, none of this is standard practice in the rest of the country. Almost without exception, Child Protection Units continue to operate passively.
The difference between Bristol and the standard approach was revealed when they agreed to hand over to South Wales the prosecution of five offenders who lived there. The prosecution of child abuse cases is notoriously difficult but the fact is that using procedures and strategy routine throughout this country, South Wales lost every single case.
The political reality is that the Home Office continues to steer police resources into dealing with reported crime. In its major 1996 inquiry, Childhood Matters, the NSPCC concluded: “The legal system, designed to provide justice and redress for victims of abuse, is failing to do so consistently.”
That warning has been repeated by Lady Justice Butler-Sloss, who wrote the report of the Cleveland child abuse scandal; Alan Levy QC, who investigated the pindown scandal in Staffordshire; and Sir William Utting, who conducted two searching reviews of child abuse.
The Home Office’s own research, commissioned in 1995, concluded that it needed “a radical improvement in the investigation and prosecution of offenders”. The Home Office has no more heard these urgent warnings than the adults around Wayne heard the six-year-old’s screams when he was being raped.
Rob Jones is still working in the Child Protection Team in Bristol. Last year, he devised his own package of proactive child protection to safeguard children from abuse, particularly in the world of sport. He called it Child Safe. His chief constable supported him. It was the only such scheme in the country and he set out to spread it to other forces and recruited footballing stars, including Gary Lineker and Kevin Keegan, to help him. Some forces have adopted it. Others are not so keen. They say it’s women’s work.
To protect their privacy, names of all victims in this story have been changed