THINK of a description such as vile, disgusting or revolting. Multiply it ten times, a hundred, a thousand. You are beginning to scratch the surface of just how bad it has been for jurors, and others, over the past nine weeks in what many believe was Scotland's worst child sex abuse trial.
It was no coincidence that, for the first time in the country's legal history, professional counsellors had been put on stand-by, ready to assist should any of the 15 jurors find it all too much after being exposed to the sort of evidence that caused even experienced police officers and lawyers to recoil in horror.
At times, the anguish was evident on faces around the courtroom, not just those in the jury box, and tears were shed. The comment of one woman who has more than 30 years' association with the courts said it all: "I have never known anything like this. It is just awful."
At times, it was difficult to know which was worse – the written word or photographs of abuse. Much of the evidence was "chat logs" – records of conversations via computer – and e-mail traffic between those in the dock and with other like-minded individuals. Even if, as the accused maintained, it was all fantasy and bluff and an accepted tactic among their kind to try to impress others into parting with some of their treasured collections of child pornography, the dialogue was sick and perverted.
Little of it could be printed in a newspaper without causing huge offence and distress. But the public at large should be under no illusion about what happens in the darkest recesses of the cyber world. Perhaps two examples are sufficient to demonstrate the point.
James Rennie, who used the e-mail name "kplover", standing for "kiddie porn lover", had a discussion with a man in the Netherlands who described how he would like to torture and "finish" a child. "His ending remains to be seen but I enjoy the thought of strangling him while sodomised," the man stated.
On another occasion, Rennie sent a general e-mail with the request: "Has anyone got any porn with young Down's syndrome or learning difficulty kids?"
This case sank to new depths mainly because it exposed the unpalatable truth that the abuse of innocent, wide-eyed children, sometimes only months old, is not something restricted to countries on the other side of the world and involving anonymous men. Bad as that is, the impact is never the same when it's not happening on your doorstep with people you might bump into on a trip to the shops. Much of the pornography in the trial did, indeed, emanate from the internet, so it had that kind of unreal quality. But some was created here and featured victims whose parents' emotions were very real as they sat in the witness box. It also featured men who sat only feet away, as those parents spoke of the utter disbelief that had descended on them when police came knocking at their doors to reveal the awful truth.
The investigation began in late 2007. Neil Strachan, 41, a man who had served time for sexually abusing a child and was on the sex offenders' register, worked as an engineer with Crown Paints at premises in Edinburgh. He had fitted a personal hard drive to one of the computers at his work and either forgot to remove it or had not realised that the computer was to be sent away for repair. A technician discovered an indecent image of a child, and police were alerted. Operation Algebra swung into action.
Strachan and his partner, Colin Slaven, 23, an IT worker, who shared a flat in Duff Street, Dalry, Edinburgh, were under immediate suspicion. The net widened after checks on Strachan's e-mail traffic. The "kplover" address was linked to Rennie, 38, who lived in Marionville Road, Meadowbank, Edinburgh, and was then chief executive of LGBT Youth Scotland, an organisation that helped young people who had difficulties with their sexuality.
Further inquiries led to raids on the homes of five other men: Ross Webber, 27, a bank worker, of Gilbert Avenue, North Berwick, East Lothian; Craig Boath, 24, an insurance claims adjuster, of Gourdie Street, Dundee; Neil Campbell, 46, the married manager of a cake business and a churchgoer, of Glendareul Avenue, Bearsden; John Milligan, a civil servant, of Wanlock Street, Govan; and John Murphy, a trained teacher working part-time as a DJ in a gay bar and a receptionist in a gay sauna, of Westmoreland Street, Govanhill, all Glasgow.
The raids produced a haul of tens of thousands of indecent images of children, hours and hours of chat logs, and innumerable e-mails. An official scale is used to gauge such images – the Copine Scale – and many of those recovered fell into the worst categories, featuring the rape of children and sadism and bestiality. To keep to an absolute minimum the number of images the jury had to view, only examples from each of the collections were displayed in court.
The picture that emerged during the trial was of paedophiles "meeting" on internet chat sites. They could be from any part of the globe and, initially, they would talk in lurid terms about their sexual preferences.
The next stage would be to swap images from their child pornography collections. Again, this could be done via the internet, but sometimes a meeting would be arranged and sexual activity might take place between two men after they had viewed each other's collections.
A constant theme in the chat logs was the wish for "access" to a child, to abuse him or her (usually him) and take photographs or, better still, video of the acts. Such images were greatly prized in the world of the paedophile, and that was the next rung on the ladder. It was a rung reached by Rennie and Strachan.
Rennie was a close friend of a couple with a son. He had known them from their student days together and he was regularly trusted to babysit the child from the age of three months. He abused the child, photographed and took video of the acts, and forwarded the images to others. It also appeared from some of his e-mail traffic and chat logs that he had been willing and keen to allow others their craved access to the boy. He wrote: "I would like to share my b with you as it is much hotter than solitary." In a message to Strachan, he said: "Might be on for Saturday… put this in your diary."
After Rennie's arrest, police recovered the stills and video of the abuse. They had to inform the boy's parents, and confirm the identity of the child, whose face was often hidden in the images. The mother told the court she had recognised her son from his pot belly and stature, his curly hair and a particular piece of clothing that she had never liked but which her husband did like and often used to put on the boy.
Asked to put into words the effect on the family of Rennie's betrayal, and her son's being subjected to tests for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, she said: "It is fair to say it has turned our lives upside down."
Her husband added: "It has affected every day of my life. It has affected every relationship I have… it has been the pivotal thing of my lifetime."
Strachan once wrote in a message to Rennie: "I might have found us a contact with two boys, two and four, willing to share. Only problem is he is in Warrington." After the message was recovered by the police, huge efforts were made in the Cheshire area to try to identify the children. But they were never found.
Strachan had also written of "having fun" with boys aged six and 18 months. It had happened at New Year 2005-6 when the parents, who were known to Strachan and Slaven, allowed the youngsters to sleep over at the gay lovers' flat while they hosted a Hogmanay party.
Some days later, Strachan transmitted to Rennie a copy of a photograph featuring an adult and a child of about 18 months. Neither face was visible. The photograph was recovered by police after officers in Edinburgh took steps in the United States, with the assistance of the FBI, to freeze and obtain access to Rennie's e-mail account with Microsoft. The photograph became known as "the Hogmanay Image" and it was one of the most harrowing for the jury. Although Strachan said in an accompanying message to Rennie that he was the adult in the shot, and he was known to have a polo shirt like the one worn by the man, the police required further proof. They established that Strachan owned a Sony CybershotU digital camera, and they had three photographs of Strachan. One was of him in a baseball cap, and the others were shots of his body that he had sent to his work as a picture sick-note when he suffered from shingles.
Hany Farid, 43, of New Hampshire in the US, is recognised as a world expert in the evolving forensic discipline of computer sciences. He has helped the FBI and the CIA, and it was to him that Lothian and Borders Police turned in relation to the Hogmanay Image. Professor Farid explained to the jury that modern cameras had a "digital fingerprint" and it was possible to link an image to a particular camera, in the same way a bullet could be shown to have been fired from a particular gun.
He studied the photographs of Strachan and the Hogmanay Image and said it was highly likely they had all originated from the same camera, a Sony CybershotU. It was the first time such evidence had been used outside the US.
A second world expert was recruited. Susan Black, of Dundee University, is renowned for her work in human anatomy, and has identified victims in Kosovo, Iraq and Sierra Leone, and in the London bombings.
She examined the Hogmanay Image, in particular the right thumb of the adult, and photographs of Strachan's right thumb. She noted that the offender's lunule, the white crescent at the base of the nail, was distorted. The crescent on Strachan's nail was similarly misshapen.
Professor Black said there was "strong evidence" to support the proposition that Strachan and the abuser were the same person.
Again, the police had the task of revealing to the parents what had happened to their children during that New Year stopover two years earlier. The father told the jury of his torment. He said: "Words cannot describe it… it traumatised everything. Angry, everything… you name it, we felt it."
Traumatised was a word with which many who had the misfortune to be involved in this trial could identify.
Sickening catalogue of abuse kept secret for years
THE sickening acts of child abuse captured in the so-called "Hogmanay image" horrified the jury in the trial of a paedophile network.
But that vile episode, which saw Neil Strachan carry out disgusting sex acts on a child aged about 18 months, did not represent the first time he had abused defenceless children. The 41-year-old was jailed for three years in 1997 for repeatedly molesting a boy.
In a sickening echo of the abuse he was yesterday convicted of, the former youth football club official started preying on the boy when he was only five, after befriending his parents. Strachan quit as secretary of Edinburgh-based Celtic East Boys Club after he was caught. The abuse had gone on for two years.
The boy's parents trusted Strachan and let their son stay overnight at his home in Edinburgh. Following his conviction, the victim's mother said Strachan "should be castrated".
"He abused our trust, and he deserved to go to jail," she said.
Sheriff Andrew Bell told him the abuse he carried out was "particularly disgusting and disgraceful".
He had been convicted of a similar sex offence in 1985 but had managed to keep his past secret.
Youth rights champion guilty of vile abuse
A CENTRAL figure in the paedophile ring that committed a string of horrific abuse crimes had been both a confidante to teenagers struggling with their sexuality and a prominent champion of youth rights.
Jamie Rennie began working with LGBT Youth Scotland – which provides support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people – as a group worker in 1997.
Every week, the trained teacher would provide emotional support and advice for about 20 youngsters aged between 13 and 18 at a community centre in the Tollcross area of Edinburgh.
After a year working directly with young people, Rennie moved into management and rose to become chief executive of LGBT Youth Scotland in 2003.
He studied physics at Heriot-Watt University, after which he trained as a teacher. It was during his studies that he became friends with the parents of "Child F" – who he would go on to abuse during babysitting sessions.
In a statement issued after the verdict, the charity expressed its shock and "betrayal" on learning of the abuse Rennie had carried out. It was within the offices of LGBT Youth Scotland that Rennie accessed the Hotmail account "kplover" that he used to view and distribute vile pornographic images of children.
"We are appalled by the abuse and exploitation of children by James Rennie, and wholeheartedly welcome his conviction," LGBT Youth Scotland said.
"Our immediate thoughts are with the children and families who have been directly, and indirectly, abused by him and the other co-accused also convicted.
"Lothian and Borders Police have been clear that their investigations concerned James Rennie personally and not LGBT Youth Scotland as an organisation."
Rennie also sat on the board of YouthLink Scotland, which provides support for youth groups across Scotland.
A spokesman for YouthLink Scotland said Rennie was suspended from his position after it learned of his arrest.
The group also insisted "he had no access to children or young people".