Gordon Rowe told one of the staff that he loved the residents at his homes. He said: 'I have spent my life looking after people, and I love them.'

'I think he probably meant it,' said the staff member. 'But later that day he slapped one of them, quite hard, and the boy cried.' That was in the autumn of 1992. In the following weeks staff at his homes for the mentally handicapped saw him kick a young man, who had the mental age of a child, in the stomach; force-feed a 47-year-old woman suffering from Down's syndrome; and hose down with freezing water in mid-winter a 39-year-old man who had incontinence.

In total, Mr Rowe has had 40 allegations of assault levelled at him by 13 people. His wife, Angela, is also accused of abusing residents. In June a confidential report by Buckinghamshire County Council disclosed allegations that residents in the Rowes' two homes were sexually as well as physically assaulted during the 10 years they ran them. One resident claimed he had been videotaped being made to have sex with animals. (There is no proof that Mr Rowe was personally responsible.) Mrs Rowe was allegedly seen masturbating a resident.

Since the Independent published extracts from the report last month, distraught and angry social workers, former employees at the homes and relatives of residents have demanded to know how systematic abuse on such a scale could have been allowed.

Gordon Rowe is not a charlatan who set up private sector homes with few qualifications and no background in social work. Perhaps one of the most troubling aspects of his career is that he is a product of the social work profession. Throughout his career he was dogged by complaints, but was still able to persuade the authorities in Buckinghamshire that he should be trusted with the welfare of 60 mentally handicapped adults.

He started his career in the mid-Sixties, when he trained as a psychiatric nurse at Broadmoor, the top-security psychiatric hospital. For the rest of his career he would remain closely attached to the hospital.

After completing his training he moved to Brighton where, between 1967 and 1974, he worked, it is thought, as a mental disability care worker for the local authority. In 1974, his job was transferred to East Sussex County Council, which he left in 1978. It was during this time that he met his future wife, Angela, who was a babysitter for Mr Rowe and his first wife.

In 1978, after a short period in Gloucester as a social worker, Mr Rowe returned to Broadmoor. He told colleagues he had graduated at the University of Sussex as a social worker. University records show that he did attend an undergraduate social work course, but not that he graduated.

One former colleague at Broadmoor said last week: 'Rowe was somebody who had been brought up in institutions. I do not mean as a child, but as a social worker. He had learnt in Broadmoor as a young man that there was a life in which you could have cheap housing, free beer, somebody to cook your food and wash your clothes. After the breakdown of his marriage he had been on the outside and wanted to come back to the security of institutional life. Somewhere he didn't have to do the washing and the ironing.'

Mr Rowe arrived back at Broadmoor at a time when the hospital was notorious for the cruelty and corruption of its regime.

'It was very brutal,' said another Broadmoor colleague. 'You know, if somebody misbehaved then you really did put scouring powder on his dinner.' Mr Rowe became well known for using his expenses to supplement his income. 'He would put in for visits to Truro and Brighton and invite everyone for drink at the British Legion in Crowthorne (near Broadmoor). It was a legend and something of a joke.'

By this time Mr Rowe was single, having separated from his first wife, but he managed to obtain married quarters on one of the staff housing estates. He told his employers that his wife would be joining him, but she never did. This house entered the folklore of Broadmoor because once a week he would invite other nurses to watch pornographic films, charging 50p admission.

His relationship with his employers was not always easy. He was investigated following the theft of some gold rings from one of the residents, but there was no evidence of his involvement and the police were not called in. He left in the early Eighties to work as director of a private home for the mentally handicapped in the Mendips in Somerset. He spent less than two years there, and this time the police were involved. A resident made allegations of sexual abuse against him, but no charges were brought.

In 1983 Mr Rowe moved to Stoke Poges and sought a licence from Buckinghamshire County Council to open his own homes. It is understood that officers from Avon and Somerset police travelled to see Buckinghamshire social services to advise against his registration. Despite this, the council did not seek references from the owner of the Somerset home.

However, an old colleague from Broadmoor gave him a good reference. Ieuan Williams, former chief education officer of the hospital, wrote to Buckinghamshire County Council in 1982 stating that Mr Rowe 'was regarded with great esteem by my colleagues and was popular and well-liked by all the patients with whom he came into contact'. Mr Will-iams had paid a visit to the Somerset home and commented: 'I found on my visit that Mr Rowe is idolised by the boys and girls who are resident there.'

Former employees at his Buckinghamshire homes, Stoke Place and Stoke Green, describe him as a cruel, manipulative man. 'He tried to so hard to be a civilised man, full of airs and graces,' said one. 'But he had a very fierce temper and would hit people for nothing, as long as he found it funny.' He had no charisma, but he did have charm, another man said. Relatives visiting his homes recall how he would fuss over them.

One former Broadmoor colleague said: 'He was a bit of a rogue, but he was arrogant and self-centred and, to be honest, not at all bright.'

Long after he left, Mr Rowe still had influence at Broadmoor. During his time there he had befriended one of its most dangerous inmates, Donald Hume, who stabbed a business associate and then scattered his dismembered body across the Essex marshes from a light aircraft. In 1985, two years after Mr Rowe was granted his registration by Buckinghamshire social services, he persuaded the Broadmoor authorities to allow Hume to be brought under escort to Stoke Poges. Mr Rowe asked Broadmoor to discharge Hume, to allow him to move to the Buckinghamshire home as a resident. He apparently confided to a friend that he believed Hume had stashed away money following a bank robbery in Switzerland. Hume did not come, and in 1988 he was released from Broadmoor but only into a secure hospital for low-risk mental patients.

By the late Eighties Mr Rowe was making substantial sums of money and was indulging an enthusiasm for home videos. In his Somerset home, he had told a local paper that the young residents 'love acting and we have a video camera to record and play back what they do. Naturally their own productions are as popular as big screen films when they sit down to watch television.'

Last week police raided his properties in Slough and found sophisticated video equipment capable of copying cassettes and producing still photographs. Police are investigating allegations that hardcore pornography was produced at the homes.

This may be the end of a career that has brought Mr Rowe and his family considerable wealth. He started with nothing, and was only able to open the Buckinghamshire homes because he borrowed the money from a friend. The company which owns the homes, Longcare Ltd, has been a success story. In the financial year 1992-93 it had a turnover of pounds 1.3m; Mr and Mrs Rowe were paying themselves more than pounds 230,000.

Mr Rowe has a palatial eight-bedroom home in an exclusive cul-de-sac in Windsor. His wealth bought him access to the local establishment. For two years he paid his subs to the Beaconsfield Conservative Association, and he bought a holiday home in Florida, four miles from Disneyworld.

Last week, however, the Rowes' houses in Britain and the US were empty. Some outraged local resident had daubed the word 'Scum' on the walls of his Windsor home. The Rowes have disappeared; their money means that they will not want for much.

The relatives of those they allegedly abused have only just started to take in the full horror of it all. Since the abuse allegations were made public (the county council had tried to keep its internal report private), many have been trying to find out what has happened and why it was allowed to happen. One lady telephoned the Independent shortly after the first report, in search of information. She said: 'My sister has just been to the home to see our relative and she can't even talk about what has happened to him. What shall we do?'

(Photographs omitted)