450 users of child abuse platform arrested in the UK
An international law enforcement operation has resulted in the arrest of 450 people in the UK after they were identified as members of an online platform used for trading child sexual abuse material.
The material was some of the most ‘horrific and devastating’ investigators had seen. It included a particularly disturbing and sadistic video series, which showed the torture, rape and sexual abuse of three kidnapped young girls, one of whom was an 18-month-old toddler.
Authorities in New Zealand, where the platform was hosted, launched an investigation in October 2019 and identified tens of thousands of global users.
Information relating to accounts believed to have been created in the UK was passed to the National Crime Agency (NCA). The NCA launched a high priority operation to analyse the data, before initiating its own investigations, as well as disseminating packages to law enforcement partners across the country.
So far, 450 UK-based users of the platform have been arrested by police, Regional Organised Crime Units (ROCUs) and the NCA, for a variety of child sexual abuse offences.
NCA investigations alone have led to the arrest of 95 people, with 42 having been charged to date and 28 convicted. NCA officers have also safeguarded 79 children.
Although many were initially arrested for their roles in sharing child abuse material on the platform, this often led investigators to uncover further serious offending, including contact abuse.
NCA officers arrested Robert Stanley from Essex in April 2020 after receiving intelligence he had accessed three Category A (the most serious) child abuse videos. Analysis of his phone uncovered screenshots of a video call with his partner, Danielle Schofield of West Yorkshire, where she sexually abused an eight-year-old girl. Messages also showed the pair fantasising about kidnapping, gagging and keeping a child chained up as their ‘sex slave’. They were jailed for a total of seven years and nine months in April 2021.
In August last year, Steven Skelton from Folkestone was jailed for ten years, after a Kent Police investigation found he had been directing the abuse of hundreds of children around the world. He had in his possession more than 230 videos showing victims as young as seven live streaming themselves between 2019 and 2020. On one of his phones was a conversation in which he sent sexual messages to a 13-year-old girl, who officers identified and safeguarded.
Many of the UK offenders were also working in positions of trust, including at primary schools and nurseries, within law enforcement, as medical professionals, and some as religious officials.
Other suspects were in the process of applying for jobs working or volunteering with children.
In May 2020, NCA officers arrested brothers Akaash and Nadeem Mahmood, from Sheffield, after the pair were found to have signed up to the platform. Akaash, a night support worker at a children’s home, had 200 indecent images of children (IIOC) on his phone. Nadeem had downloaded over 400 and both pleaded guilty to making IIOC.
Sarah Blight, deputy director of the Child Sexual Abuse Threat at the National Crime Agency, said: “This has, and continues to be, a hugely important operation. The information received from our partners in New Zealand pointed to a significant number of online accounts linked to individuals in the UK, who likely pose a sexual threat to children.
“After analysing this data, we were able to prioritise those offenders believed to pose the highest risk, and share details with our policing partners throughout the UK. This has so far led to the arrest of 450 suspects, some of whom were already known to law enforcement and many of whom were working in positions of trust.
“Much of this activity took place during the Covid-19 lockdowns, when the majority of young people were at home and offenders had more time to spend online targeting their victims. Identifying and safeguarding vulnerable children during this period was our absolute priority.
“Work is very much ongoing across the country to disrupt more of these sexual predators. Each month the NCA and UK policing arrest around 850 suspects and safeguard over 1,050 children. The NCA is focusing on the most dangerous offenders; we have the specialist capabilities to identify them and ensure they are brought to justice.”