More than 300 families were warned last night that they may never know whether their children fell prey to a female nursery worker who sexually abused babies in her care and swapped sickening images of the acts with two other paedophiles she met on Facebook.
As Vanessa George, 39, was led away after pleading guilty to a string of child sex charges yesterday, a judge told the mother of two that the length of her sentence depended on whether she helped police to identify her victims. Judge John Royce urged her to do the "decent thing" and name children she had assaulted at Little Ted's Day Nursery in Plymouth.
Speaking to George's lawyer after her guilty plea, Judge Royce said: "Your client must know, it seems to me, who she has abused and who she has not. If I were a parent I would want to know whether my child was abused or not. Would it not be decent for her to indicate who she has abused? It is a factor I have got to take into account."
The paedophile ring was smashed accidentally after a chance discovery earlier this year. Police learned that, for eight months, George and two strangers she met on the social networking site – Colin Blanchard and Angela Allen, both 39 – had been trading horrifying pictures of child abuse.
Many of the images were classified at the most serious level and showed terrible sexual assaults on the victims, most of whom were Little Ted's pupils under 18 months old. Blanchard, a businessman from Smallbridge, Rochdale, and Allen, of Nottingham, also admitted to using text messages and the internet to share and create images with George who, until her arrest in June, was regarded as a "warm and bubbly" nursery worker.
Their confessions have shocked the communities of Efford and Laira – two quiet Plymouth suburbs whose working families relied on Little Ted's nursery, where George was employed without suspicion for three years.
Detectives initially thought up to 313 children from 270 different families might have been abused, but forensic analysis of George's photographs – which had been digitally manipulated to hide her victims' faces – narrowed the number to 30.
Last night, however, officers said that despite repeated questioning, George still refused to disclose the children's identities. Detective Superintendent Michele Slevin, of Devon and Cornwall Police, said: "We have interviewed George on five occasions and during those interviews she has co-operated, but we have not been able to identify any of those children.
"The judge was clear today that the families will want to know and this is one of our priorities – to set their minds at rest and enable them to move on. [George] has caused massive trauma to a great number of victims, not just to the children, who will not understand what was happening, but also the families and communities in Plymouth."
Detective Inspector Costa Nassaris added that experts had been unable to identify any of the children filmed by George because of the "nature of the images themselves". "We have not given up but the probability I would have to say is very low that we will identify any of these children," he said.
As the three defendants shuffled into Bristol Crown Court, watched by some of the parents whose children attended Little Ted's, it was the first time they had stood in the same room together – but they all knew each other well.
Police believe that while the women may always have harboured paedophile thoughts, it was Blanchard who provided a "catalyst" which encouraged Allen and George to act out their fantasies as they competed for his affection and swapped messages on Facebook. Blanchard was already on the sex offenders' register, but neither woman had a history of sexual activity with children until they met him online.
Had it not been for one of Blanchard's work colleagues accidentally finding indecent images on his computer, the abuse might have continued unnoticed. Blanchard had built himself a tenuous middle-class lifestyle by borrowing far beyond his means and working for a small information technology company in Trafford, Manchester, to try to pay off his accumulating debts.
Neighbours described him as a "Walter Mitty" character who routinely bragged about having far more money than he actually had. When arrested, he owed £8,000 on his electricity bill.
His darker side came to light on 5 June, when Blanchard was in Dubai on business. A co-worker found child abuse images on Blanchard's computer and contacted Manchester Police, who arrested Blanchard the next day as he returned through Customs. Police discovered they were dealing with a man who nonchalantly carried pictures of child sexual abuse wherever he went.
"At the time of his arrest he had a laptop and an Apple iPhone," recalled Detective Inspector Tony Creely, of Greater Manchester Police. "Examination of the items revealed a number of explicit stills of very young children. These images were of naked children of both sexes and believed to be at that time around 12 to 18 months old, showing them being sexually abused."
While interrogating Blanchard, police learned he had been trading abusive images online with a woman who went by the name of "Vee George". With many of the pictures looking as if they had been taken recently, police realised they had to work quickly to identify the culprit to halt any further abuse. Two days after Blanchard's arrest, Devon and Cornwall Police turned up at a small, semi-detached house on the outskirts of Plymouth to arrest George – thanks to one photograph which gave them a vital clue.
Every time she took abusive pictures, George had been careful to mask both her identity and that of her victim. But in one photograph she had failed to entirely cover her tracks: it showed part of the Little Ted's emblem.
The trail led to Allen, whom Blanchard had also befriended on Facebook and then introduced to George. She was arrested the following week at her home in Nottingham. According to police, Allen had sent to her two new friends "as a trophy" an image which showed her raping a young child.
The case has left parents struggling to comprehend how a female nursery worker could have betrayed their trust with such depravity. "It's the worst feeling you can ever imagine," one mother told BBC Plymouth.
Parents who dropped off their children each morning at Little Ted's nursery in Plymouth had no idea that George, a seemingly bubbly and happily married mother-of-two, was subjecting their children to horrendous sexual abuse.
Plymouth-born and bred, she married Andrew in 1993 and moved into a house in Douglass Road where they brought up their two daughters. Police believe none of the family members were aware of the abuse George was carrying out.
At the time of her arrest, she had been working at Little Ted's for three years, having passed all the requisite checks from the Criminal Records Bureau. She had previously worked as a secretary and a classroom assistant although police believe she only began abusing children after meeting Colin Blanchard online sometime around September last year. Between December and June she made 134 paedophilic images to share between between her, Blanchard and Allen.
Contact between her and Blanchard was particularly frenetic – at least 10,000 messages over their eight-month online relationship. Roger Marks, George's estranged father, told the BBC he couldn't understand how his daughter had become a child abuser. "It just looks as though Vanessa's lost her way in life – strange behaviour," he said.
Described by detectives as "sinister and evil", the former prostitute, 39, was responsible for the most graphic of all the communications between the trio detailing depraved acts with children and animals. Though she had once worked in a bank, unlike the other two, she had little money or social contact and the mother-of-one was said to live on the fringe of society. She was described as "emotionally vulnerable" and lived alone in a run-down house with no food or furniture, next to an industrial estate in Bulwell, near Nottingham. Again in contrast to her fellow abusers, she made no attempts to cover up her crimes, even after their arrest, and astonished police during questioning by readily admitting her part in the gang and failing to show any remorse. She was not only involved in the distribution of obscene images of children but admitted four counts of abuse including sodomising a three-year-old girl.
To the outside world, Blanchard was a successful businessman who loved nothing more than to boast about his financial endeavours. Born on a tough Liverpool estate, he claimed on Facebook that he had made a fortune buying and selling computer companies. But his neighbours in Smallbridge, Rochdale, took a different view. Their nickname for him was "Billy Bullshit". His actual job, at an IT company in nearby Trafford, gave him a comfortable salary but he struggled to live within his means. In 2002, indecent images were found on his computer and he was placed on the sex offenders' register for five years. Police believe he was the catalyst that encouraged Allen and George to turn their fantasies into the abuse of children. One of the photos he sent his friends was of him engaging in a sex act with his dog, a Shi Tzu called Bubba, who has since been rescued by the RSPCA.