Breaking a global child-porn ring

The Guardian, January 5 2001

Seven British members of a global child pornography ring named Wonderland face prison after pleading guilty to their roles in the distribution of 750,000 obscene pictures on the internet.

They were among more than 100 men arrested in 107 coordinated raids across three continents in the largest international police operation mounted against any crime.

In the wake of the investigation, codenamed Cathedral, the Home Office is increasing the penalty for the distribution of child pornography to a maximum of 10 years in prison. The sentence faced by the seven Britons is the maximum now in force – three years.

Police forces around the world have been asked to trace the child victims, dozens of whom were under five years old. So far, only three have been found.

The case has highlighted the scale of the international child sex industry and, although Operation Cathedral is regarded as a stunning success, it has also revealed the weakness of international law enforcement against child abusers.

Three countries – Canada, Denmark and the Netherlands – failed to join in the planned arrests. Authorities in those countries, which pulled out the evening before the joint raids, claimed they had not had enough time to organise themselves.

Several states in the US also originally missed their targets because they lacked local laws to prohibit the possession of child pornography, according to law enforcement sources.

Detectives raided 15 homes in Britain while – simultaneously – police in the US, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Portugal and Sweden were making their arrests.

The operation yielded an array of ‘horrific’ images of abuse, including 750,000 computerised pictures and more than 1,800 computerised videos depicting children suffering.

US authorities have named the man who spawned Wonderland: Peter Giordano, 37, nicknamed Harry Mudd, a sales clerk for an electronics supply store, who was arrested by US customs agents at his home in New York, and has since pleaded guilty to distributing child pornography.

“He was the creator … the guy that organised it,” said Jim Gibbons, US customs assistant director in charge of child exploitation.

The last of seven British defendants yesterday admitted conspiring to distribute indecent images of children and all are due to be sentenced at Kingston crown court on February 12 and 13.

In the dock will be computer consultant Ian Baldock, 31, from St Leonards, East Sussex; David Hines, 30, unemployed, from Bognor Regis, West Sussex; Antoni Skinner, 36, a computer consultant from Cheltenham, Gloucestershire; Ahmed Ali, 30, a taxi driver from Tulse Hill, south London; Andrew Barlow, 25, unemployed, from Bletchley, Buckinghamshire; Frederick Stephens, 46, a taxi driver from Hayes, west London; and Gavin Seagers, 29, a computer consultant from Dartford in Kent.

An eighth man, Steven Ellis, 40, a computer salesman from Earlham, near Norwich, Norfolk, was charged with the same offence but committed suicide in January 1999, four months after the raids.

Another paedophile, computer consultant David Chaiken, 36, from Maidenhead in Berkshire, was charged separately with possession and distribution of indecent images of children. He appeared at Reading crown court in July 1999 and was jailed for eight months for the distribution and three months, to run concurrently, for the possession. The court ordered that he also be placed on the sex offender’s register for 10 years.

Lothian and Borders police are dealing with a further man who was interviewed after the swoop, and who awaits trial in Scotland later this month. Three other people arrested by the national crime squad have been released without charge.

Detective Superintendent Peter Spindler of the National Crime Squad said outside court: “We have taken out those who considered themselves the best. I won’t be complacent and say there aren’t others out there but this was the most sophisticated and organised group that was in existence.”

Yesterday, the squad released details of the operation carried out at 4am GMT, on September 2, 1998. The inquiry began after US customs officers arrested internet paedophiles in the United States in 1997 and discovered that they were swapping images of child pornography with Ian Baldock in East Sussex.

They passed their intelligence to Sussex police who seized Baldock’s computer and rapidly discovered he belonged to an international club named Wonderland, a global network of men using the internet to exchange images of child abuse. The club was protected by encryption and a password; only its members knew that to get access they had to type “Wonderland” with a zero instead of the letter O.

The National Crime Squad produced a sanitised catalogue of facial shots taken from the 750,000 images uncovered in the raids and distributed it at a summit meeting of every police child protection team in Britain. As a result, police have identified two British child victims, neither of whom wanted to give evidence against their abusers. The catalogue was also relayed around the world, but so far only one other victim has been identified.

All 750,000 UK images are to be passed to Interpol, which has agreed to set up an electronic library of child sex victims at its headquarters in Lyon, France. It has not yet been decided how the library will be staffed or funded or whether other agencies in other countries will send in their own images.

The Home Office has added amendments to the Criminal Justice and Court Services bill, increasing the penalty for the possession of child pornography from six months’ imprisonment to five years, and for its distribution from three years to 10.

However, it remains the case – as highlighted by the Guardian in November last year – that the sexual abuse of children does not figure in any of the 37 ‘best value performance indicators’ which the Home Office uses to set the priorities for police in England and Wales.

In April, the National Crime Squad is launching a high technology crime unit which will police the internet generally, but its resources will be divided between money launderers, terrorists, fraudsters and other commercial criminals as well as paedophiles.

Only a handful of UK police forces have proactive paedophile squads, and, in contrast to the war against drugs, there is still no agency in the world which pursues paedophiles across national borders.