| Left to right, top row: Adam Toms, David Harsley, John Denham (previously|
known as Benjamin Harrop), Christopher Knight; L-R bottom row: Matthew
Stansfield, Robin Hollyson and Matthew Lisk. Photo: National Crime Agency
The sex ring – described as having “tentacles that go round the world” – preyed on the families of the children they targeted, in one case grooming a mother and father before their baby was born.
Members would frequently travel long distances to carry out the attacks together or watch the abuse over the internet, often using the dark web, if only one of them had access to a victim. Online chat revealed that members of the gang, who lived across the UK, would offer advice and guidance to others on drugging their young victims.
Seven men, aged between 30 and 51 and including three convicted sex offenders, were brought to justice following an investigation led by the National Crime Agency.
The details can be reported in full for the first time after the trial of two of them, John Denham, 49, and Matthew Stansfield, 34, concluded at Bristol crown court with their convictions. Denham was found guilty of conspiracy to sexually assault a child under 13. Stansfield was convicted of two charges of conspiracy to rape a child under 13.
The others – Robin Hollyson, 30; Christopher Knight, 35; Adam Toms, 33; David Harsley, 51, and Matthew Lisk, 32 – pleaded guilty earlier to the charges they faced.
Hollyson, who was previously known as Robin Fallick, Stansfield and Harsley are convicted sex offenders while Denham, who changed his name from Benjamin Harrop, was a respected youth football coach.
In total they faced more than 30 charges, including the rape of a child, conspiracy to rape a child, sexual activity with a child and administering a substance with intent against three victims – a baby, a toddler and a pre-school-age child. Investigators, who spoke before the verdicts, believe there are other victims.
The gang hid behind a veil of respectability with careers and families to habitually target children under the age of five in Yorkshire, and the south-east and south-west of England.
Robert Davies, prosecuting, told the jury in the trial of Denham and Stansfield: “This prosecution will take you into a world you wished did not exist. The evidence exposes the shocking interest a group of men had in sexually abusing babies, toddlers or pre-school children.
Police described the men as “monsters in disguise”, working together to commit some of the most “vile and depraved” child sex offences the authorities had ever seen.
The NCA, which led the investigation, said the men met after discussing their sexual interests in young children on legitimate social media and adult sex sites. The gang was described as “incredibly skilled” at grooming victims’ families, even striking up relationships with pregnant women to abuse their babies.
The men, who did not know each other outside of their involvement in the abuse, led outwardly respectable lives and concealed their activities from the outside world until they were unmasked.
Graham Gardner, deputy director of investigations at the NCA, said: “They don’t stand out as monsters, but they are monsters in disguise. We rarely see criminal behaviour involving the sexual abuse of children to this degree. This is serious organised crime at its worst.
“The men involved in this group actively targeted families to facilitate the sexual abuse of their children, toddlers and babies. The depravity of these men appeared to know no bounds and is without doubt as vile as we have seen.”
The NCA launched its investigation, codenamed Operation Voicer, last September after Toms contacted police and admitted he had abused a child. Their inquiries led to the unmasking of the ring operating across the UK, which had links to other paedophiles across the world.
In the weeks that followed, the other six members were arrested and a further two victims were identified. Another 21 children have been the subject of safeguarding measures in relation to the investigation.
The NCA has worked closely with the Avon and Somerset, Bedfordshire, Greater Manchester, Hampshire, Humberside, Wiltshire and Sussex police forces, as well as the Crown Prosecution Service and nine local authorities.
Police combed the suspects’ electronic communications and established that contact between them began on adult online sex forums, which are publicly accessible and legal to use. Investigators recovered Skype chat logs that recorded conversations between the men, which police described as disgusting and abhorrent.
The exchanges – which were never meant to have been discovered as the men went to great lengths to destroy their online activities – included references to “nep”, a term investigators had not come across before. It is a shortening of “nepiophile” – a word used to describe those sexually attracted to babies and toddlers.
There were also references to controlled drugs and over-the-counter medicines, with members of the ring openly discussing what dosages were needed to drug children of different ages.
Police said an “incredible” amount of planning went into gaining access to victims.
Ian Glover, senior investigating officer, said: “We’ve encountered grooming where the family have been groomed prior to birth of the baby. They go in that early with the sole intention of abusing that baby once it’s born.”
Extensive planning went into enabling the abuse to be screened over the internet to co-conspirators and also other paedophiles around the world.
Members of the gang were “savvy” in establishing a way to broadcast their activities without transferring files in a way that could be easily traced, instead using video conferencing site Zoom to stream their abuse. They also used the dark web – a way of hiding online activity – to communicate with each other.
Images of abuse in this case are believed to have been seen on every continent and British police have circulated evidence about other suspected paedophiles to authorities in Europe, South America and Australia. There was no business element to the activities, with no evidence of any payment being received.
Greg McGill, head of the CPS organised crime division, said: “It is difficult to find the words to describe the activities of these men, and the harm that they have done. The families of these children have endured a horrendous ordeal and I would like to thank them for their invaluable assistance in securing these convictions.
“Fortunately, the CPS, NCA and police forces were able to coordinate a swift and effective response when matters came to light, which resulted in the arrest and prosecution of these men. The efforts have resulted in guilty pleas from all involved, followed by further convictions secured after a trial for other offences.”
The gang will be sentenced together at a later date.