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How police smashed child porn club

LONDON, England (CNN) -- Operation Cathedral was the name given to the world's largest police investigation that smashed open the Wonderland Club paedophile ring.

It saw an estimated 1,500 officers breaking down the front doors at the homes of suspects in 12 countries -- all at exactly 0400 GMT on September 2, 1998.

The investigation began after United States Customs officers exposed a paedophile gang called The Orchid Club in 1996, and found three Britons associated with its activities.

British detectives followed up leads from the Americans, starting with computer consultant Ian Baldock, from East Sussex -- and uncovered the world's largest child porn network.

Police in the UK executed 105 warrants and seized thousands of computers in the raids.

Before the National Crime Squad swooped on Wonderland, the largest seizure of child porn was 7,000 separate images.

But this highly organised international ring, with members in the U.S., Australia and across Europe, had at least 750,000 still pictures and 1,800 digitised video clips of children -- mostly boys -- being sexually abused.

The true figure may be even higher, because some of the computer hardware was so highly protected that officers have still not been able to crack its advanced encryption technology.

Detectives had to recruit two computer consultants from specialist companies to work on the case full time for 14 months because of the technological challenges.

After being tipped off by U.S. Customs, officers tracked down the Internet service providers being used by the paedophiles, so they could trace their customers' names and addresses.

"We then had to establish who was making use of the computers. In some cases the computer was in a shared house, and others were based in universities and libraries," Detective Chief Inspector Alex Wood of the Operation Cathedral team said.

Officers set up covert surveillance to pinpoint who were the paedophiles and who were innocent computer users.

After the operation, they had arrested 105 men and tracked down 74 people in the UK who were not Wonderland members, but were associated with some of its members.

Nine of these men had boasted in Internet chat rooms about their child abuse activities -- other police forces are investigating those cases.

Officers who worked on Operation Cathedral had to undergo compulsory debriefing with a psychologist because of the harm they might have suffered through viewing tens of thousands of images of abused children.

Meanwhile, Interpol is calculating how many successful prosecutions have followed from the arrests.

Wood added: "This destroys the myth that you can be anonymous on the Internet. We can track down those who use this technology to abuse children."

In cyberspace, the club styled itself "w0nderland", with a zero instead of a letter "o", to reduce the risk of anyone finding its web sites.

Until the day of the raid, no detective had typed the word "w0nderland" into an Internet search programme, he added. "We were scared it would give us away and the whole thing would crash around us."

"Wonderland was at the time the principal club for paedophiles worldwide," Wood added. "This operation has, without a doubt, dismantled that club."

Detectives believe the porn ring operated for at least five years and investigators in the United States think it originated there.

"They could not join the club without being vetted by other members, and we have evidence that members travelled to other countries and met each other for the purposes of vetting.

"They were comfortable that their membership was of the most dedicated paedophiles. On a daily basis, they were extremely active in updating each other on any police involvement that might be homing in on them."

Detectives are now trying to locate the 1,236 child victims of the abuse depicted in the pornographic images.

However, in the two-and-a-half years since the material was seized, only 17 of the children have been identified, six of those from Britain.

Wood said: "Within the UK the victims are being given very significant help from social services and professionals who deal with victims of child abuse."

But that still leaves 1,219 child victims, who could come from anywhere in the world, to be traced and helped.

The National Crime Squad has compiled an album of 900 victims, categorising them by gender, age and ethnic group, which is available to law enforcement agencies around the world which investigate the work of abusers and pornographers.

Detectives believe the rest of the children's lives will be affected by the injuries they suffered.

Wood added: "For me, the worst images were the ones showing the expression on the child's face, and not necessarily what's happening to them.

"The fear on their face or, conversely, when the child appears to be happy while being abused. I can't help but think of the damage that's been done."

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