Saturday, 9 May 2009

The men who preyed on their friends' kids

The Times, Friday 8 May, 2009

It might have been any working day for Richard Harper, a young IT engineer, as he sat down to mend a failed computer base unit in workshop in Reading. He booted up the machine and began to run tests. Then he stumbled on a folder marked “young boys”, held on a hard drive which had been slotted into the back of the machine. He clicked on an icon. What he found stopped him in his tracks: a shocking, indecent image of a child had appeared on the screen in front of him. Appalled, he called his manager.

This was the moment in August 2007 when the most vicious criminal conspiracy in recent Scottish legal history began to unravel. Over the next 10 months, eight serial child abusers would be picked off by the police, as their casual internet chats and brutal photographic exchanges revealed lives of lurid fantasy and the all-too-real abuse of children and babies.

“It’s a disgusting world they inhabit, a world in which images are a kind of currency, which make the men involved enjoy a kind of wealth,” said Detective Inspector Stuart Hood, who led the investigation for Lothian and Borders Police. “Access to a child is the best currency of all – then they gather round like so many disgusting flies.”

Exposing the conspiracy was to involve an extraordinary international operation, which stretched from police headquarters at Fettes in Edinburgh, and drew in the skills of Scottish and American academics, FBI agents, and Microsoft personnel in San Jose, California revealing on its way a paedophile network which extended all around the world.

But it might never have succeeded had it not been for a single act of forgetfulness by one of the criminal gang. Neil Strachan, the only man among the eight convicted who had previous convictions for sexual assault, worked at the Crown Decorator Centre in Newhaven, Edinburgh. Part of his job was to mix paints on a colour-mixing machine, a computerised system on which he had concealed a portable hard drive.

When his computer broke down, Strachan made his mistake, carelessly delivering it, images and all, into a depot at Haltwhistle in Northumberland, operated by Akzo Nobel, the owners of Crown Paints.

Following the discovery, Strachan himself was among the first to be informed by an outraged manager. With his lover, Colin Slaven, 23, an IT worker, they set about destroying further evidence at their home on Duff Street in Dalry, Edinburgh.

The hard drive, meanwhile, had been returned from the computer service company and despatched to Northumberland Police. Officers confirmed that a significant collection of abusive image images was present, and passed the drive to their colleagues in Scotland. Finally it arrived at Lothian and Borders Police Headquarters. DI Hood of the Serious Crimes Unit was appointed to lead what became known as Operation Algebra, a team of 13 detectives assigned to close down the paedophile network.

As they set about tracing the source of the appalling images they found on his computer, detectives realised that Strachan was at the heart of an internet-based web of child exploitation, trading and manufacturing images of assault, and photographing and distributing his own attacks on children and infants. Just ten days after receipt of the hard drive Strachan was arrested.

He had hidden his identity behind a series of e-mail aliases, most commonly calling himself “marksmith29” or "mark_scott29". Detectives penetrated this secret world, recovering some 7,200 images, a succession of extreme emails and chatlogs which even hardened investigators found deeply shocking. Chief among Strachan’s correspondents was another paedophile, who also disguised himself behind an alias. It soon became apparent that he too was a vicious criminal, a local man with access to a child who had to be caught quickly. That man was James Rennie, 38, a gay rights campaigner.

Rennie led a double life. In public he was “intelligent, articulate, successful”, said Dorothy Bain QC, who led the case for the Crown. In reality he was “someone who had allowed his profound interest in the sexual abuse of children to engulf his entire life, his mind polluted by deviant sexual compulsion.”

As a student he had taken a keen interest in student union politics and when he graduated, Rennie had moved into youth work, rapidly rising to prominence. He managed the Stonewall Youth Project before his appointment as chief executive of LGBT Youth Scotland, an organisation which campaigns for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered young people. Rennie was an opinion former, a mover and shaker. He was consulted by the Scottish Parliament over policy. He met the Queen and went to Downing Street to shake hands with Tony Blair.

In public he seemed whiter than white. Writing in a public sector magazine in autumn 2007, Rennie rounded on the “homophobic bullying” of gay teenagers and said “ignorance is the root of most discrimination”. But at exactly the same moment police had identified "", Rennie’s secret internet account. It contained a vast correspondence revealing how he had used the trusting relationship he enjoyed with close friends to gain access to their three-month old boy.

For more than a year he had assaulted the baby – referred to as Child F throughout the trial - broadcasting one attack over a mobile telephone to one of his perverted friends. He invited these same men to join him in the abuse and published pictures of the attacks in emails to other offenders at on-line galleries he opened at the Photoisland and Photobucket websites.

Rennie’s identity was revealed only after DI’s Hood’s team had invoked the International Mutual Assistance Treaty, which enabled Scottish investigators to request assistance from their American counterparts. An intervention by the FBI enabled the Edinburgh detectives to place a "preservation order" effectively freezing all the contacts, chatlogs and emails recorded on kplover’s email account at the Microsoft offices in San Jose. That one action has since enabled police forces to follow up 70 leads around Britain, half of which have led to arrests, and already some convictions. It also exposed a sinister link between Rennie and Matthew Grasso, a notorious sex offender in Salem, Massachusetts, who was indicted in 2007 for having 150,000 images of child abuse in his home. Rennie had further connections to 300 child abusers in United States, Australia, Germany, Holland and Poland.

In late 2007, detectives were closing in on kplover. But Rennie was sly. From his home computer, he moonlighted on insecure broadband accounts held in nearby houses, so when police believed they had finally traced his computer’s address, they arrived instead at the homes of two of Rennie’s innocent neighbours, who lived streets away from his flat.

Further information from San Jose proved crucial in his arrest. This demonstrated that the kplover account had been used on a handful of occasions by someone who had access to the LGBT Youth premises in Edinburgh. Police then consulted Damian Newrick, a specialist in radio transmission with the Child Expoitation and Online Protection Centre in London. His expertise revealed that Rennie’s home address at Marionville Road would enable him to hotspot onto the insecure wireless networks which had been identified as a source of his account. Police now had two locations for kplover, united by a single criminal. Rennie was arrested on 17 December 2007.

In the weeks after Christmas two more arrests followed, as police follow up leads from the kplover internet account and Rennie’s mobile phone. These conspirators were Ross Webber, 27, a bank clerk from North Berwick, 25 miles east of Edinburgh, and Craig Boath, a slovenly 24-year-old insurance worker from Dundee.

By now more shocking evidence of the relationship between Rennie and Strachan had emerged. On 3 December 2005, Strachan e-mailed Rennie to tell him that his boyfriend, Slaven, “has told me he is into the same as me, so now I have a bit of access”. The Crown would prove that Strachan had meant he had the opportunity to commit an assault on a child, and share images of his attack among his paedophile circle.

Strachan and Slaven preyed on two young children who were occasionally left in their care, who became known in court as Child JL and Child B. The boys’ mother and father who assumed their friends were just a conventional gay couple, a misapprehension which was to have devastating consequences.

Shortly after New Year, Strachan sent Rennie a photograph which became known in court as “the Hogmanay image”. It showed a man assaulting an infant. Though the head of the attacker was not in the frame, Dr Sue Black, a forensic pathologist at Dundee University, identified Strachan through 13 points of similarly on his thumb, which was visible in the photograph. Another photograph showed Strachan abusing the baby’s sleeping elder sibling.

Further expert evidence was called in to convict Strachan, who continued to deny all charges against him. Professor Hany Farid of Dartmouth College, New Hampshire and Dr Miroslav Goljan, of Binghamton University, New York extracted computer data from the images. This established that the Hogmanay image had been taken on a Sony Cybershot. Crucially, the two scientists found that in one of his few “normal” transactions, in which Strachan had sent an image of himself to another worker at his company under his own name, he had used the same Sony camera. With typical charmlessness, the picture he had sent to shock a female colleague showed his body disfigured by shingles scars.

The cases against Glaswegians Neil Campbell, 46, a church elder, 40-year-old civil servant John Milligan and John Murphy, 44, the last man rounded up, emerged from the wealth of chatlogs and e-mails in police possession, and from the numbers on Rennie’s mobile phone. A ninth man, Lachlan Anderson, were arrested by police, co-operated fully with their enquiries, and has already received a 4-year jail term.

There is no doubt that Milligan – who had 75,000 images of sexual abuse - along with the other conspirators will face many years in prison. Murphy and Campbell’s caches of images were smaller, and like Slaven they will be jailed for the lesser crimes of making and distributing images, though police are hopeful that the judge will apply the highest possible tariff.

These sentences will be passed next month. For the families of Child F, Child B and Child JL, there will be no release.

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