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Tuesday, 13 February, 2001, 13:18 GMT
Porn ring 'was real child abuse'
internet
Club members 'paid' an entry fee of 10,000 indecent images
It was an exclusive international club, men with a similar interest exchanging material via the internet.

The sordid entrance fee - 10,000 indecent pictures of children.

Police forces from 12 countries finally managed to break the so-called Wonderland Club, making 107 arrests and seizing 750,000 computer images of children.

In the UK, eight men were charged with conspiracy to distribute pornographic images.


This was not a passive activity of collecting pornography. This is real abuse of children

Detective Superintendent Peter Spindler
Seven pleaded guilty and one killed himself.

The international operation to trace the internet paedophiles began in San Jose, California, in May 1996, when the police discovered that a child abuser had broadcast live images on the internet to a paedophile ring called the Orchid Club.

Among its subscribers was a man in his twenties who lived in East Sussex.

Investigating the leads, Sussex police found not only child pornography linked to the Orchid Club, but also a larger and more sinister paedophile network called Wonderland.


Police seized 750,000 computer images of children
A five-month investigation followed, codenamed Operation Cathedral and co-ordinated by the British National Crime Squad in London.

Wonderland originated in the United States but also operated in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Britain.

Members joined, by invite only, on condition that they provided 10,000 images of children different from the hundreds of thousands of others already stored on the club's database.

One Italian member had 180,000 images.

The images uncovered by the raids in 1998 that finally broke the ring included photographs of naked boys and girls, aged from infancy to puberty.

One was a baby less than a year old.

'Skilled individuals'


The behaviour that has been carried out is absolutely appalling

Det Supt Peter Spindler
Detective Superintendent Peter Spindler, of the National Crime Squad, said the Wonderland Club were educated, skilled individuals who knew how to use encryption to protect the images and defeat law enforcement.

"This was not a passive activity of collecting pornography," he said.

"The images are disgusting and the behaviour that has been carried out is absolutely appalling.

"These people were not the dirty mac brigade that you might think paedophiles may consist of.

"They are male, in their mid 30s or early 40s who happen to have good IT skills. They knew what they were doing."

One of the Wonderland conspirators, who pleaded guilty, does not believe he encouraged the exploitation of children by his behaviour.

However, detectives believe there were 1,200 young victims whose images were the hard currency of this paedophile ring.

Trauma

John Carr, internet consultant for NCH Action for Children, said each one of the images represented a crime against an actual child.

"It is therefore very important that these guys are caught and that these images are found and confiscated," he said.

"Without these pictures we have no way of tracking down the children to give them the kind of help and support they almost certainly will need to recover from the trauma which these pictures represent."

Child
Tracking the children in the images is like hunting a needle in a haystack
As pornography on the internet rapidly increases, Mr Carr says the authorities face an uphill struggle in catching those responsible.

"One is that the internet itself is very difficult to police, it is very difficult to find the bad guys who are doing these kind of things," he said.

"Equally it is about resources. If you haven't got the right number of policemen in the first place you have no hope of finding these guys who are doing the bad things on the internet."

Lost children

There are still no clues as to the identities of the children involved in Wonderland's trading ring despite secret pilot studies in Britain and other countries.

Some pictures suggested they had been shot in an Asian location.

In others, the scenery suggested that of a typical English village.

Rob Hutchinson, from the Association of Directors of Social Services, said it was almost impossible to continue with the investigation.

"It's like looking for a needle in a haystack," he said.

"We don't know how old the photos are, we don't know where the children come from, we don't even know what countries."

But Mr Hutchinson said all the information had been transferred to child protection units of police authorities around the UK who would match it with ongoing investigations.

The UK's National Crime Squad keeps a file of the victims, and police now hope to have the world's first victims' database which can be accessed by law enforcement agencies everywhere.

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