Seaside clue led to hoards of child porn

Internet arrests: The Web still offers explicit images of the young, but the law is closing in
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The Independent Online
THE FADED seaside town of St Leonards in East Sussex seems an unlikely place to uncover an international paedophile ring. Once an affluent rival to the Victorian resort of nearby Hastings, the town has become a neglected backwater.

But in October last year a police search at one of the smarter-looking houses just off the seafront uncovered a computer that was to lead to yesterday's raids on 105 addresses in 12 countries and the recovery of more than 100,000 pornographic photographs of children as young as two.

The operation that led to the discovery of the highly secret child pornography and paedophile network, known as the Wonderland Club, had its origins in California more than a year ago.

It was during an investigation into a smaller Internet paedophile group, called the Orchid Club, in which 16 men have been charged with producing and exchanging sexually explicit images of girls as young as five, that an address in East Sussex first emerged.

American customs officers contacted the National Criminal Intelligence Service in London, which tipped off Sussex police. A visit to the St Leonards home of a professional man in his 20s uncovered a computer containing child pornography connected to the Orchid Club. But a sharp-eyed police computer expert also noticed a separate system hidden behind a variety of secret passwords and codings. He had stumbled across the Wonderland Club.

"We found more than 10,000 images - some were very distressing," recalled Detective Chief Inspector David Wood, head of Sussex's intelligence branch. Sussex police realised that they had uncovered an international conspiracy and brought in the recently formed National Crime Squad from London.

Since April the NCS has been drawing up complex plans with law enforcement agencies in 11 other countries. Surprise was essential if the police were to catch the pornographers. A leak of information or a badly timed raid could have seen the Internet users tipped off at the push of a button.

Detective Superintendent John Stewardson, who was in charge of Operation Cathedral, held two briefing conferences in Washington in June and Lyon, France, in July to prepare the co-ordinated raids.

Representatives from the United States, Australia, Germany, Italy, Finland, Belgium, Austria, France, Sweden and Portugal attended.

At 5am yesterday, British time, about 105 addresses were raided worldwide. About 50 people, including a small number of women, were arrested and dozens of computers seized. In Britain there were raids in London, Sussex, Oxford, Berkshire, Kent, Gloucestershire, Middlesex and Norfolk and 11 men were arrested.

The full horror of the contents of the material kept by the "club" is only starting to emerge, but the files suggest it is by far the largest paedophile network yet to be discovered. As well as photographs of children as young as two being sexually abused, at least one man from Britain had been filming himself having sex with children and broadcasting it.

To become a member of Wonderland, which was started in the United States, each person had to have at least 10,000 different pornographic images of children, which they had to be prepared to swap.

On just two databases examined in the UK, police found 43,000 and 45,000 pictures.

All the images are of children aged under about 13 being abused by adults or photo- graphed in explicit sexual poses. Police will try to identify and find the youngsters.

Wonderland members used a complex system hidden on the Internet. They set up a separate conference channel, accessed via secret passwords and coding systems. People joined the club only if they were backed by a personal recommendation from an existing member. No fees were charged.

Det Supt Stewardson said: "They had a number of security measures which made it virtually impossible to break into the system without the right information.''

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