Police knew him for years as a violent paedophile, yet no one stopped him stealing an innocent life

Howard Hughes was yesterday jailed for life for murdering Sophie Hook, report Louise Jury and Chris Blackhurst
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Police in north Wales knew for many years about the paedophilic and violent tendencies of Howard Hughes, it emerged yesterday after he was jailed for life for the savage double rape and murder of seven-year- old Sophie Hook. Hughes's record dates back to his mid-teens when he was arrested after attempting to assault a boy indecently and then strangle him.

Social services officials in north Wales yesterday argued that his subsequent conviction and suspended sentence for assault - a Schedule One offence - meant police should have entered his name on a warning register and alerted the children's agencies.

However, a north Wales police spokeswoman said last night that criticism from the social services staff made little sense when Howard Hughes had been known to social services from an early age. She said that the police had had a good working relationship with social services, and that arrangements for working with other agencies had been tightened up across the country since 1981.

North Wales police are understood, however, to have interpreted the definition of Schedule One narrowly, applying it only to sex offenders.

After Hughes was found guilty, the judge at Chester Crown Court yesterday called for a change in the law to protect society against men like him. Recommending that Hughes should never be released, Mr Justice Curtis saidthat the country needed a statutory system of supervision and control. "Your crimes are every parent's nightmare. No girl is, or ever will be, safe from you."

The Home Office said later that the judge's recommendation about tighter supervision for paedophiles had already been addressed in a consultant document launched last month when Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, announced preliminary plans to set up a register of sex offenders.

Hughes had been the subject of complaint from various sources over the years. Among them, the Independent has learned, was the Llwyn Onn children's home in Colwyn Bay who told police that Hughes had contacted one of their boy residents. The boy had previously been a resident at Bryn Estyn, the children's home at the centre of the Clwyd child abuse scandal, where he had beenabused. Hughes himself spent 13 days in Bryn Estyn on the way to treatment at St Andrew's Hospital, Northampton, under the Mental Health Act.

"Social work staff were very worried about Hughes, who was hanging around the home," a senior social services source said yesterday. "They went to the police, who could have arrested him." Police did issue a warning, through their child protection team, last year, shortly before Sophie was killed at Llandudno in August.

The social workers argue that the police should have maintained a vigil instead.

In the close-knit community of Colwyn Bay where he grew up, Hughes was known as "Mad Howard". The son of Rene and Gerald, a successful and well- respected businessman, he had been difficult from an early age and shown signs of emotional insecurity. A chromosomal abnormality had left him exceptionally tall, at 6ft 8ins. Shortly after his 10th birthday he had been sent to a special school for children with behavioural problems in Derbyshire. His parents paid for private tuition, but he was never to gain any qualifications.

Hughes' peers spoke of his violent tendencies even as a youth. "He was always in fights with people much older than him," one said. "He was always killing things, like small animals. Everyone knew his reputation - you didn't mess with him."

He was obsessed with children. In the mid-Eighties he approached a girl, thought to be 11 or 12, in some woods for sex. In 1993, a 15-year-old alleged she was assaulted by him with intent to rape, and an 11-year-old claimed he spied on her. Last year, two witnesses spoke of indecent suggestions being made to them, and a 15-year-old girl was threatened with rape.

Detective Superintendent Eric Jones confirmed Hughes had been closely watched since 1981, but added: "I have had a look at the papers we have in relation to Howard Hughes and I am quite happy in my own mind that everything that could have been done at various stages was done."

Malcolm King, policy and resources chairman at Wrexham Borough Council and former chair of Clywd social services, said: "It appears that this person was known to all the agencies in Colwyn Bay for many years and it must give everybody the greatest cause for concern that he had been on the loose for so long. If we dealt with the issue of Schedule One offenders differently, maybe this would not have happened."

Mr King also sits on the North Wales Police Authority, and plans to raise the Hughes case at its next meeting.