As police reopen the case for the third time, investigative reporter Charles Thomson reports on the long search for answers into the life and crimes of a man described as “the Teflon paedophile”.
On Monday, April 9, 1990, two men entered the dock at Chelmsford Crown Court in Essex. One was Dennis King, a café worker from Shoeburyness. Aged 55, he sported large spectacles and a mane of white hair. The other was 57-year-old businessman Brian Tanner, from nearby Westcliff-on-Sea.
The pair were to stand trial for grooming dozens of boys from Southend-on-Sea, then pimping them out to a network of fellow paedophiles. The Essex authorities had dubbed their operation “the Shoebury Sex Ring”. If found guilty, they faced possible life sentences.
Also at court that day were six of their victims. After a year of support from local charities, the boys felt confident enough to give evidence. Some were even keen to do so. They would give evidence on ‘specimen charges’, representing dozens of other victims, the court heard.
But soon after the boys’ arrival, they were told to go home again. There would be no trial. Instead, the court heard both men had just entered into a plea deal. The conspiracy charges they faced had been dropped. The most serious sexual offences were downgraded to “attempted” offences.
The prosecutors said they’d done it to save the boys from having to testify – but the boys hadn’t been consulted.
A month later, King and Tanner were back in court for their sentencing. This time, they got their say – via their barristers’ presentations – while their victims’ voices remained silenced.
Those victims – some as young as 10 – were portrayed by the lawyers as prostitutes who had instigated their own abuse. Worse still, the judge appeared to accept the claims, saying the psychological damage to the victims was “perhaps limited”. King got four years in jail, Tanner three. Each had already served a year on remand.
The charity workers who had spent the previous 12 months counselling the children were outraged. “How can a 12 or 13 or 14-year-old be a prostitute?” said Rob West, who had attended court with the boys. “They can’t consent.”
Rob worked at the Rainer Project, a youth justice scheme which, through its counselling of disturbed young offenders, had uncovered the ring in early 1989.
His manager Chris Hickey had received the first disclosure, from a teenage boy who was perhaps the most prolific criminal in Southend. After a year of trying and failing to understand what was motivating the teen’s compulsive offending, Chris sat in his office one evening and watched in stunned silence as the boy burned himself with a cigarette, then finally admitted what had sent him off the rails.
Within months, there were 14 known victims. They named other children they’d seen with the paedophiles. As this pattern repeated itself, the list of suspected victims grew to more than 60 names. Paperwork from Essex social services speculated that there could be another, earlier wave of children who had already passed through the men’s hands too.
Three charities were asked by social services to provide a therapeutic service to the victims. Very quickly, the children began disclosing intelligence about the wider ring during their sessions. They had been trafficked to ‘parties’, where they were abused by multiple men, and to east London, where their abuse had been photographed.
By June 1989, official paperwork shows the authorities accepted King and Tanner had been part of a ‘ring’. But after children started naming a particular police officer as a regular visitor to King’s flat, the charities felt some police officers’ attitudes towards them begin to change. At first, they said, they felt patronised and ignored – then things turned sinister. A drunken officer blabbed to two of the charity workers in a pub that a senior officer was planning to “do a hatchet job” on them.
Ultimately, more than 10 people claimed to have been threatened or intimidated by Essex police officers. One alleged that drugs were planted in his van. Others claimed that some police officers had recounted their daily movements to them in great detail, suggesting they were under surveillance. Two people reported being assaulted by officers and warned off the case. The charities even drew up an affidavit with a lawyer.
Despite the nightmare they found themselves in, the charity workers continued to prepare the boys for their days in court. When the trial was cancelled though, and the paltry sentences handed down – with other abusers still at large – it felt to some of them that it had all been in vain. The court case attracted little press attention at the time and was quickly forgotten. But for the charity workers it was impossible to forget.
“It’s as near to becoming a vigilante as I’ve ever wanted to become,” said Chris Hickey. “The solicitors we worked with couldn’t believe it… All of us are scarred by it – and a couple of people are still scared… Even though we’ve nearly all retired now, it’s cast a shadow over our lives.”
Over the next 25 years, those who remained in touch with the Shoebury boys watched them descend into homelessness, addiction and criminality. Several are now dead from overdoses and suicides. But in early 2015, a retired NHS manager called Robin Jamieson walked into the offices of Southend newspaper the Yellow Advertiser and asked to speak to a reporter. He said he had an important story that needed to be investigated. This was where I entered the picture. As a reporter on the paper, I spoke to him in the Advertiser boardroom for an hour that day.
He told me how in the early 1990s, he had been in charge of the Southend psychology service. His department had been asked to help organise treatment for the victims of the Shoebury ring, whose scale he felt had been covered up. Robin had maintained contact with others from the case, including Rob West.
In early 2016, after a year of working with the Advertiser, the whistleblowers met with Essex’s Police and Crime Commissioner Nick Alston, who publicly said that he found them “eminently credible”. By that summer, the Shoebury case had been reopened. New complainants came forward and an ageing Dennis King was arrested. But Robin was sceptical. In the intervening decades, he’d kept tabs on King, who he dubbed “the Teflon paedophile”. The 1990 plea bargain had freed King to continue abusing children. His criminal record since then showed him to be a compulsive offender, who racked up more than 15 further convictions. His crimes included photographing the sexual abuse of children, framing the images and using them to decorate his flat.
Every time he was released, he would reoffend – and opportunities to put him away for significant periods seemed to be repeatedly missed. For instance, in one case, in Peterborough in 2000, he was eligible for 10 years in jail but was given 12 months and released after five. “No matter how many times he reoffended, whenever he came back before the court, the judge would give him a really lenient sentence again,” said Robin.
As Robin had predicted, the 2016 reopening of the Shoebury case also amounted to nothing. Police decided, without consulting the Crown Prosecution Service, that King would not be charged. The whistleblowers simply could not fathom why such a dangerous sexual predator seemed to be let off the hook over and over again.
But I kept digging. In 2017, we helped to reopen the case a second time. In 2018, a victim mentioned a man called Lennie who had been connected with King and Tanner. After a few days rummaging through Southend’s public records office, I found a Westcliff address King was linked to was actually the former home of Lennie Smith. Smith was a member of the violent paedophile gang known as the Dirty Dozen, which had been responsible for the notorious killings of three young boys in the 1980s – Jason Swift, Mark Tildesley and Barry Lewis.
Then I tracked down a treasure trove of paperwork from the Shoebury case, days before it was due to be burned. The documents cast a new light on Dennis King’s treatment by the authorities. In the minutes of a 1993 meeting, an Essex police officer described King as a “registered informant” and said a senior officer within the force was blocking an investigation into him.
Could this explain the generous deal he had secured in 1990? But what would he have been informing on that was more serious than his own offending? Was it possible that his informant status was connected to his link to Lennie Smith? These questions remain unanswered, as official agencies stubbornly refuse to release King’s files, citing an array of excuses.
Then, in November 2018, King died, taking many secrets to his grave. (Tanner and Smith had both died in 2006.) King had last been in court months earlier, once again charged with abusing children. In summer 2020, I began work on an eight-episode podcast series recounting the twists and turns of my investigation. In August, hours before the final episode was due to be released, I was leaked a copy of an internal report by Essex Police’s Professional Standards Department.
The report didn’t pull its punches about the most recent investigation. “Inexcusable” delays meant King had died before allegations could be put to him. Numerous leads were never followed up. No attempts were made to track down named victims, witnesses or suspects.
Three officers now face management action and a decision had been made that the case should be reopened, for the third time in five years. Will police finally correct past mistakes? Will the truth behind the remaining mysteries of the Shoebury ring emerge? The whistleblowers aren’t holding their breath.
Unfinished: Shoebury’s Lost Boys is available on your podcast provider, or by visiting www.podfollow.com/unfinished-1/