The jailing of Colin Blanchard, Tracy Lyons, and Tracy Dawber marks the end of a complex and disturbing police investigation spanning five counties that ended up uncovering not just a paedophile ring, but also a crime of our times.
The three accused were the last to be dealt with in this case, which was triggered by the arrest of Plymouth nursery worker Vanessa George, accused of assaulting an unknown number of infants on a changing mat at Little Ted’s nursery, while photographing her actions for the gratification of others. The self-styled “paedo whore mum” had, according to Justice Royce, who tried her case last October, aroused “revulsion and incredulity”, the shockwaves extending “perhaps to every nursery school in the country”.
As detectives got to grips with George, others were tracked down too, including Tracy Lyons, a 39-year-old mother-of-nine from Portsmouth, who last March admitted six charges, including two counts of sexually abusing a toddler and distributing indecent images. Then there was Angela Allen of Nottingham. The 39-year-old single mother from Bulwell was arrested last June and in October pleaded guilty to four child sex assaults and distributing an indecent image.
However, apart from the number and age of the victims, and the role of mothers in the abuse of children – an uncommon enough crime in itself – what made these events stand out was the revelation that – with the exception of Dawber and Blanchard, who had met in the flesh in 2008 – the first time Blanchard, Lyons and Allen had been in each other’s company was when they stood in the dock last October.
Until then, the three had had a relationship that was solely virtual. For Allen, George and Blanchard “going equipped” meant opening a Facebook or Bebo account and acquiring a camera phone and multiple MSN identities. Their only skills were the ability to parse their fantasies into text-speak and the know-how to master picture messaging. Equally significant, was the role played by Colin Blanchard himself, a man who insisted to police that he was led astray by manipulative women who had sought him out on the web.
Transcripts obtained by the Guardian of Blanchard’s interviews with detectives – extracts from which are published here for the first time – together with details from the heart of the Greater Manchester police’s lengthy operation to catch him, describe instead a serial abuser who transfixed vulnerable women with access to children.
Luring these women into a male version of a honey pot, Blanchard twisted their moral compasses so they would feed his dark fantasies, abusing children to order, photographing the deeds, and sending him the image files as evidence in an act of sordid ventriloquism. And police are certain that Blanchard would have continued in this vein, becoming increasingly brazen and sadistic, had he not made a rare misstep.
On 5 June 2009, Noman Ahmed called at his rented offices in Trafford Park, Greater Manchester, to check his emails. Ahmed found that his business partner, Colin Blanchard, had left his Gmail account open. Blanchard was away in Dubai on a business trip and – suspecting the Liverpool-born IT consultant was doing deals behind his back – Ahmed had a nose around. More than a dozen picture attachments of children being sexually abused, plus disturbing images of a naked Blanchard, spooled up.
Repulsed, Ahmed called 999. The operator deferred to a supervising police inspector who dispatched uniformed scenes of crime officers from the GMP to get a detailed statement and take away the desktop computer. Ahmed told the officers that Blanchard was due back the next day.
Shaven headed and bulky, Blanchard strolled into the arrivals hall at Manchester airport on Saturday 6 June 2009, only to be arrested and whisked to Altrincham police station, where his laptop and iPhone were seized.
The detectives’ first concern was to find out if the pictures were historic images downloaded by Blanchard or photographs of “fresh abuse” taken by Blanchard or someone he knew. Were there children who needed to be rescued as well as abusers who had to be stopped? The world of paedophilia, the GMP’s sexual crimes unit had discovered, was complex and hierarchical. Some were content to be consumers, procuring and exchanging images of children, like in the “Lucy series” that first came to police attention in 1997 and showed a young girl depicted in various degrading scenarios. Others wanted their subjects unsullied. Those who had access to a real child sat at the top of the pile. At what end of the flesh-market was Blanchard, detectives wondered? Arrested under a superintendent’s warrant, they had 36 hours to find out.
Andrew Edwards, an IT technician at the GMP’s hi-tech crime unit, which operated out of a claustrophobic room known at GMP’s force headquarters known as “the cave”, got the call on Saturday morning. Operation Morley would be Edwards’s first major assignment.
His initial task was to get inside Blanchard’s email accounts and take apart whatever hardware police recovered from his £350,000 home in Smithy Bridge, near Rochdale. In a cul-de-sac of new-builds known as Yea Fold, a shiny black Volvo remained parked on the driveway, but no one was home. Blanchard’s wife Anne, who he had met while she was an undergraduate at Liverpool John Moore’s university, had been forewarned that her husband was to be quizzed and, having collapsed, was being cared for elsewhere.
Inside, the place was immaculate. Even the toilet paper had been turned down. Blanchard clearly wielded absolute control, recalled detectives. His swagger was stamped throughout, from the colossal dining-room table hewn from a slab of marble to the immense models of yachts placed on the shelves. Even the climate was controlled; Blanchard’s large conservatory fitted with air-conditioning units, a surprise purchase in Rochdale.
Edwards made a list of what officers recovered: a Nintendo gaming machine, a Sony PSP, an Acer laptop, two pen drives – memory dongles that can be plugged into a computer – a Hewlett Packard laptop, two external hard drives, three memory cards, an Apple computer, a Netgear disc drive, and a Nokia N70 mobile phone. It represented a haystack of gigabytes through which he would have to sift. Then there was the iPhone. It was so new that the GMP did not know how to crack it.
Over the next few crucial hours, the IT technician eviscerated Blanchard’s gadgets, using C4P, a digital tool devised by the Canadian police that sought out and collected images stored on any computer, even reassembling those that had been overwritten and broken up. Edwards’s task was made a little easier as Blanchard used no passwords or encryption.
Three out of four of his email addresses were variations of his real name.
The police quiz Blanchard
On the morning of Monday 8 June, Detective Sergeant Bob Willis, of the GMP’s sexual crimes unit – an old hand at these types of inquiry – turned up for work at Nexus House in Ashton-under-Lyne, the new headquarters of the criminal investigations division. He was pulled to one side by his detective inspector.
“He said, ‘Don’t take your coat off. There’s an urgent inquiry to make on the M Division [covering Trafford and Altrincham].’ I contacted them, found out about Blanchard and arranged a meeting with the officers dealing with it.”
Within the hour Detective Constable Andy Pilling, from the GMP’s sexual crimes unit, had arrived too, and together with DS Willis set off for Altrincham.
They would leave that meeting with a group of 20 images to study, all of which Blanchard had received from unknown sources. They depicted naked babies and toddlers, the oldest no more than 18 months. “They were unusual for being so young and there was a women’s torso and hand featured in some of them,” said DC Pilling.
He minutely examined the images for clues as to their origin: “We could see from the electrical sockets that this was somewhere in Britain.” The windows made it look like a church hall. There was lino on the floor. “All were taken in the same room and on the same changing mat.” It looked like the material was coming from a crèche, social club or children’s centre. “We had to find it, locate the woman and shut it down,” DC Pilling said.
Digging into Blanchard’s history, detectives saw he had previous: arrested in 2002 after obscene images of children were found on his computer. He then claimed in mitigation that an uncle had sexually abused him and other members of the family. He escaped a jail sentence but was placed on the sex offenders’ register for five years. Within two years of dropping off the register, Blanchard was at it again. What kind of man was he? They dug into his personal life and discovered he owed £8,000 in unpaid utility bills. His house was slated for repossession. His shiny black Volvo, bought on instalments, was about to be towed away.
But in the interview room, he was confident, blokey and bright. While he admitted to possessing the images, he claimed child abuse sickened him. The only reason he has this material was because he had been preyed on by a manipulative woman whom he had accidentally met on Facebook in December 2008, using a dating app called Are You Interested? Lonely, he confessed to her of having been abused as a child and she had responded sending him “filth”.
DC Pilling scanned the transcript of Blanchard’s police interview:
A: She became a friend … she asked me to add her, I just added her. I didn’t know who it was. I didn’t give a monkeys. We got chatting about a year ago thereabout.
Q: So what sort of conversations?
A: Erm, for a start off she was okay. You can have a laugh and joke and that like. And then bit by bit she got a bit more … raunchy. Just started chatting having a laugh nothing stupid – I’m 37 .. I’m just thinking about it. I can’t really remember exactly how the conversation came out … Oh what was it about … I said I was, you know, about my uncle and that and it was just a case of … I didn’t have to look at somebody in the eyes, you know? I can delete the account. There’s nothing on there about me. It was anonymous almost, you know, it was like you could be … and just, you know, you could just let out and just tell people what you’ve been through. And that like and I trusted her. I don’t know why, to this day I don’t know why.
The police needed to identify the woman. Blanchard seemed to be keen to help:
A: Do you know what, I think she’s about 40, in her forties, married, a couple of kids.
Q: Was there a photograph of her?
A: Yeah … a home page.
Q: And how did this conversation about the abuse start?
A: I can’t remember the exact specifics of it, just, you know, it wasn’t sort of, it just crept up if you understand what I mean. The questions she was asking and stuff like that and she’d say things like, “I thought of you.” I actually said to her, “Have you, you know, been abused?” She said: “Why have you?” and I went “Yeah” and it went from there really.
Q: What was her name?
A: Vee George as far as I’m aware. That’s her name – Vee George.
Q: When you speak to her do you say, “Hi Vee?”
A: “Hi Hon,” usually. But yeah, “Vee”. It sounds really sort of nothing, you know what I mean? Just because they say that’s their name doesn’t necessarily mean that’s their name.
DC Pilling and DS Willis mulled over “Vee George”, whom Blanchard said lived in Plymouth.
The detective went back to the images and noted the woman’s torso in one of them.
There was an emblem on the T-shirt she wore. Was it a bear? “We contemplated going to the manufacturer of all similar T-shirts,” DC Pilling recalled. They had gone to similar lengths before. Once they had spotted in the corner of a photo featuring a young girl being abused a distinctive ashtray on a table. With further research they found the J W Lees brewery in Middleton had manufactured it. Plotting which pubs the brewery served, they then calculated which schools were near, eventually finding the girl.
DS Willis recalled: “We had specialist officers from a covert unit involved. They focussed on the social networking sites Blanchard frequented. This unit could deal with such matters without trace and with the appropriate authority in place. We received a call from one of the covert officers. They had found a ‘Vee George’ on Facebook and Bebo, and there was a friend of George’s on Bebo who had the same T-shirt with a name written on it, Little Ted’s. A message had been left too, ‘great picture Vanessa’.”
Detectives searched for Vanessa George on the Plymouth electoral-roll and found a woman by that name living in Efford. By 4pm police had found the Plymouth house where 39-year-old Vanessa George lived and located Little Ted’s nursery nearby.
On Monday night, the Devon and Cornwall police were alerted, the call-taker flagging the request as urgent. In Manchester, DS Willis told DC Pilling: “If someone does not do this NOW we will get a car and go down ourselves.” At “The cave”, IT technician Edwards was urgently preparing an evidence package: a disc with a selection of images. Then a GMP motorway unit hurtled down to Coventry to rendezvous with a Devon and Cornwall police unit that had raced up from Plymouth. At Nexus House, DC Pilling and DS Willis sat waiting for the phone to ring.
DC Pilling recalled: “The next day we watched on telly as the story exploded.” There were chaotic scenes outside Plymouth magistrates court. But while the public focused on the horror of a nursery worker abusing toddlers, up in Manchester, detectives suspected Blanchard was at the helm of a far bigger enterprise that had now been tipped off. “If you knew George or Blanchard, you would start wiping your hard drive,” said DC Pilling.
Edwards needed to get a move on. He used a powerful software tool, EnCase, to harvest live and deleted files, reaching into Blanchard’s data swamp to pull out copies of chat and texts, even on mobile phones. He cracked the iPhone too, recovering messages that reached back to well before Christmas 2008. As George was remanded in custody, Edwards’s investigations threw light on the true nature of her relationship with Blanchard. He was by far the more dominating party, and had lured George into a dangerous role-playing game.
Blanchard and George
George had been using an email address that encompassed her Web persona firstname.lastname@example.org. From it foamed streams of chat that Blanchard responded to, pushing her fantasies into darker places, much of it revolving around the imagined abuse of her own daughters. “I think she’d keep it secret if u did her then I did,” George told him in one message. “R U going to do her tnight?” Blanchard asked. “i [sic] might tomorrow,” texts George. More chat came via email@example.com. “I want pics of them asleep,” Blanchard requested. “Get them drugged n take pics of them asleep.”
George was coquettish. “When ive met you properly i:ll [sic] do things like that ok xxx.”
George was looking for more than a sex-text partner. She wanted sex and romance.
Blanchard did not.
George’s mobile phone, a handset she referred to as her “dirty phone”, zapped thousands of messages to Blanchard, narrating in real time random thoughts, including the abduction of a child she had spotted who was separated from her mother at a railway station. DC Pilling said: “Some stuff is just masturbatory and we have to be careful not to police people’s fantasies.”
However, in the light of what they already knew from finding photos taken at Little Ted’s nursery, the line between erotic suggestion and reality had already been crossed. DC Pilling went back to Blanchard. He still insisted his role was nebulous and had thought George had been downloading the images she was sending him rather then photographing children she was abusing. DC Pilling did not buy it. “I knew Blanchard was pivotal,” he recalled. “But we had to prove it.”
A week after Blanchard’s arrest, another woman’s name emerged from the mass of Blanchard’s digital files. In July 2008, seven months before he had met Vanessa George on Facebook, he had begun frenetically texting, emailing and chatting with a woman nicknamed “Ang Bank”.
Edwards had found thousands of references to her on Blanchard’s computer and iPhone that, after obtaining a RIPA warrant that gives detectives power to demand registration details from an internet service provider, led back to an email address: firstname.lastname@example.org. Edwards established that Ang Bank live in Nottingham and had been using an untraceable pay-as-you-go phone number to text Blanchard in conversations that dwelled on child rape.
“God im getting fuckin so turned on now,” she wrote in one. “May have 2 take [child’s name] in2 sme bushes,” Ang Bank wrote to Blanchard in another, referring to an as yet unknown victim. He replied: “Mmmm take a pic if u do.” And then straight back came her answer: “Mmmm o, but if I dnt theres always the cam 2nite.”
Blanchard cheered her on, introducing into the conversation the subject of his own childhood abuse, eliciting from her the revelation that she had been abused too.
The web triangle
Blanchard then introduced this woman to Vanessa George in the spring of 2009, cementing a web-based sex triangle. According to Edwards’s findings, on 7 March 2009 Ang Bank sent Blanchard photos of herself abusing a child – with a toy golf club, a penis-shaped stick of rock, a crayon and a metal tube. Blanchard then forwarded some of these images to George in Plymouth. She soon responded, sending five images she had taken at Little Ted’s directly to Ang Bank on 19 May. By the end of that month, with both women vying for Blanchard’s attention, Ang Bank asked Blanchard if he wanted to join her in hurting a child, making an infant scream.
Desperate to identify Blanchard’s second woman, police scoured the net and found a Facebook page for an Ang Bank who lived in Nottinghamshire. Her real name was Angela Allen, one of nine women with that name who lived in the county. The RIPA came back on 16 June 2009, revealing a postcode that matched only one of them. Armed with an evidence package, Nottinghamshire police raided Allen’s rundown home in Nine Acre Gardens, Bullwell, on 17 June.
The 39-year-old woman they arrested was a single mother. Her house, next to an industrial estate, was devoid of furniture apart a computer. As Pilling feared, Allen had already tried to erase her hard drive by dragging it into the “trash”, but Edwards recovered material, while detectives went back to Blanchard.
A: [Ang Bank] contacted me on Facebook … Got chatting and stuff like that. Having a bit of a laugh. She came … you know a bit … having a bit of a joke and that, a bit rude. Exchanged phone numbers so we could text each other. It went from there.
Q: Okay what happened?
A: After about two months or so we were having … I’ve never met her, it was just you know just sort of online fantasy relationship, you know what I mean? Just a bit of adult fun, and I can’t even remember exactly how it happened. She got talking and that, and then she said … come out with one of her fantasies and all that kind of stuff … a schoolgirl and all that kind of stuff. We had a mess around and that like and she asked me what I like. Oh I said, “maids … just general stuff”. It went from there then she started playing like age play, er role-playing, you know? She wanted to be younger and younger and younger than that like. Played that on the phone, you know phone sex and cyber-sex … she liked … she’d been abused by her dad quite considerably from when she was younger. She sent me a poem what she’d written about it and stuff like that and it went from there really.
The detectives changed direction.
Q: Did you send [Allen] any photographs?
A: Of me? Yeah.
Q: No, of children?
A: I think I did. Yeah, what I’d downloaded.
Q: Did you send her any that you’d got from Vee George?
A: I can’t remember. I probably did to be honest with yeah. I can’t remember.
Q: There certainly are images that would appear to be from Vee George – at the nursery – that you’ve then forwarded on.
Q: So if that’s the case would that be you sending them?
Q: So then you said it got a bit dark.
A: Yeah, [Allen] was, yeah she got into violence and stuff like that, and it was just rape violence. Some really, really dark stuff you know what I mean?
In reality, police knew far more than Blanchard realised. Edwards had by now logged 16,014 images of children, as well as violent adult porn and bestiality that were swapped between George, Allen and Blanchard. There were also 229 hardcore porn movies.
“Despite the public focus on George, Blanchard was emerging as far more dangerous,” DC Pilling said, although he maintained his innocence.
A: I just didn’t want the hassle. I didn’t want to be involved in that that’s why I stopped with Vee, that’s why I was stopping with Ang and that like, it just wasn’t me. I realised that it just wasn’t, it didn’t do anything for me … Fantasy’s one thing and that, but it went beyond that and that’s when it got a bit stupid you know what I mean?
Q: You knew she was taking pictures of children?
A: Yeah. I didn’t know she was taking them. I thought she was downloading them. It wasn’t till later on that she told me she’d taken them.
Q: I’m just trying to understand where the pictures of children come into it.
A: Because both of them that’s what their fantasies were.
Q: To be abusers of children?
Q: So where does it come into your fantasy?
A: It didn’t, it didn’t start off like that … So that’s when it flipped. It was just sort of talking about you know age play and role-play and stuff like that. That’s where it started. Now when it went darker with them and that like and they were saying what they were saying that’s when I started … back and that’s when I sort of pulled out from it, because it, just that wasn’t what I wanted? I’m happy with my fantasy, you know what I mean like, and role-play.
More names came out of the data pot. One of them was a divorced mother from Liverpool, who Blanchard had begun texting in May 2009, five months after he had met George and at least 10 months after he had met Allen. The Guardian cannot identify her because although police discovered image files from her on Blanchard’s computer, her hard drive had been cleaned. They had to let her go. But for the GMP, a phenotype had emerged.
All of Blanchard’s women were middle-aged mothers, divorcees or women who were alienated from their partners, and were suffering from low self-esteem.
The fourth woman
Another name was found, someone who used theinternet avatar “Foxy Witch”. There was a torrent of chat between email@example.com and Blanchard that begun in October 2008. Police eventually found a MySpace site that revealed the woman’s identity as Tracy Lyons. She fitted the profile of Blanchard’s women. The mother of multiple children, she was in her late 30s and a slogan printed above numerous photographs of her offspring read: “Where can I fund the perfect hunnie [sic] for me?”
When police turned their focus on Lyons, they found she had been introduced to Allen, although she knew nothing of George or the Liverpool divorcee. Like the others, Lyons quickly responded to Blanchard’s advances, both of them doing pornographic request shots for each other. DC Pilling recalled: “We were now extremely worried.” Narrowing down their search for Lyons to an address in the home counties, GMP contacted Hampshire police at the end of June 2009, but in the absence of hard evidence the force held back.
In Manchester, Edwards slogged on, examining a poorly-lit film of a woman sexually assaulting a boy. To enhance the quality, the GMP hired Richard Neave, a medical artist, who had once reconstructed a face of Lindow Man, a late Iron Age corpse found in a Cheshire swamp in 1984. The new screen captures showed that the figure was not the Liverpool divorcee. The images were sent on to Hampshire. DS Willis received a call back. They matched Lyons. Willis drew their attention to the room featured in the film.
He had spied a miniature football kit seen on the wall. Searching through team strips he was certain it was Arsenal. The Hampshire detectives revealed that Lyons “was a massive arsenal fan” and after showing her the stills, she “caved in”.
That left police with just one battered Nokia phone, recovered from Blanchard’s house.
Expecting little, DC Pilling sent it to Technocell, a specialist forensic company in Cheshire. They recovered one disturbing sequence that began with Blanchard’s shaved head, showing him as he got ready in his bathroom. He photographed himself sitting in his Volvo. And then came shots of a freckled women being masturbated by a man, wearing a distinctive watch strap. There followed photos taken in the same room of a child being abused by the woman. One of the last frames showed Blanchard wearing the same distinctive watch strap. He had photographed his own hand and the woman. The police now had him. But who was his accomplice?
The entire sequence had been recorded in 90 minutes. One hour was the equivalent to a 30-mile radius of travel around Blanchard’s house, which left half an hour for Blanchard inside the woman’s home. They drew a circle around Blanchard’s Rochdale property on a map, and on 13 June 2009 confronted him with the photos that they had documented as the “freckles series”. Blanchard claimed not to know the woman’s name but said she lived in Southport. He helped with landmarks, recalling a hospital, roundabout and school.
Police overlaid these on Google Maps, eventually plumping for one location. “We drove to Southport, to check it out,” DC Pilling said. “Two days later police arrested Tracy Dawber, a twice-divorced middle-aged mother.”
She was, it transpired, the first of Blanchard’s women. They had met in early 2008, well before Allen, George, the Liverpool divorcee or Tracy Lyons. Detectives also now traced the last of Blanchard’s conquests, a woman who the Guardian cannot name but who called detectives shortly after watching Blanchard’s arrest. She said she had just begun dating him after meeting on Facebook. They had texted and messaged each other. He had just confided in her about having been sexually abused. And then sent her images of a child being abused.
Still police could not get Blanchard to explain himself. But the detectives who investigated his crimes believe they caught a glimpse of who he really was in the transcript of one of his last interviews he gave. What had he been looking for in his virtual world, they asked him?
A: Someone to just have a laugh with and talk to …
Q: So did you enjoy the sexual side of it?
A: Part of it yeah I’m not going to like say that I didn’t and that. But yeah it was two adults having fun, you know? There was nothing untoward about it, you know? It was just sort of … online friends. I know it sounds a very, very sort of twenty first century thing and all. But it was just you’re not there you’re not sitting in front of … do you know what I mean? You can switch it off and you know standby friends, I suppose you’d call it really. You can put them on standby and six months down the line you can talk to him again … “How you been, blah, blah, blah.” There was no relationship there if you understand what I mean? You can switch on, do what you want to do, say what you want to say, [and] just turn it off again …
In the end, had this been Blanchard’s most profound realisation? That he could win control of others and direct them to commit heinous acts on his behalf in order to double his pleasure while halving the risk. Real friends and relationships were hard work. They were unpredictable and required constant attention. But Facebook pals could be quashed when he grew bored, and revived when he was in the mood. Here was a convenient, thrilling and tidy way to maintain a modern life, one that did away with all responsibility and consequences.