A predatory paedophile who incited more than 200 girls as young as 10 to send him explicit images and videos of themselves while he was a serving police officer has been jailed for life with a minimum term of 12 years.
As Lewis Edwards, 24, was sentenced, detectives revealed that they were continuing to search for hundreds more victims across England and Wales and confirmed he had carried out some of the abuse while on duty with South Wales police.
The force accepted his crimes would knock public confidence but said they had acted quickly to arrest and suspend Edwards as soon as they realised the abuser was one of their own.
As well as continuing to search for more victims, police are hunting a distributor of child abuse images on the darknet called “Snap God”, a name Edwards forced some of his victims to write on their bodies.
Though he admitted 160 offences, Edwards obstructed the investigation by refusing to give police the passwords and codes for his phones and computers and he declined to appear in court for his sentencing.
During an emotionally charged three-day sentencing hearing, Cardiff crown court heard Edwards posed as a teenage boy using pseudonyms including James, Jacob and CJ.
The recorder of Cardiff, Judge Lloyd-Clarke, said Edwards was a dangerous and prolific offender who carried out his crimes for sexual gratification and enjoyed power and control over his victims. His reaction to their distress showed he was “cruel and sadistic”, she said.
The judge said: “He groomed his victims psychologically, manipulating them until he had gained control of them.” He pressured them into sending him indecent images and videos or to engage in sexual behaviour online while he watched.
“Under his control his victims would comply usually in the hope the defendant would leave them alone.” But he then had them “trapped” and would threaten to share the images if they did not continue to do what he said. Although victims asked him to stop and some expressed suicidal thoughts or said they were self-harming, he refused to stop.
Lloyd-Clarke said he had caused “immense harm” to his victims and their families. She said they should not feel they had done wrong. “They have done nothing wrong, they bear no blame and no responsibility.”
The judge said an aggravating factor was that he was a serving police officer and his actions had caused “signifcant harm to the reputation of South Wales police and police in general”.
After coercing his victims into sending him images and videos via Snapchat, which he secretly recorded, Edwards would threaten to send them to family and friends if they did not send him even more explicit ones. He would also find the girls’ addresses and threaten to bomb them or shoot their loved ones.
Edwards carried out some of his abuse while on duty and got in touch with one vulnerable girl after visiting her during the course of his work.
Some victims hid the abuse for months from their families and contemplated suicide. A number stopped going out because they felt they needed to be in the privacy of their own homes so they could meet his next demand.
Edwards had no previous convictions and had passed the police’s vetting procedures without any problems being picked up.
“There was nothing about him,” said Det Supt Tracey Rankine, of South Wales police. “No red flags. That was why it was such a shock when we identified that it was him. He seemed a regular guy.”
She said the revelation that the abuser was a police officer sent “shock waves” through the force. “We want a relationship with our communities that’s built on trust and confidence. And this one individual really has blemished that relationship for us.”
Rankine said about 15 forces in England and Wales had been involved in the inquiry, such was the spread of Edwards’s victims.
She said: “These are young, innocent children who thought they were having a conversation with someone their age and it’s turned incredibly nasty and threatening and they’ve felt they had no option but to do what was asked of them. It’s going to be far-reaching and long-lasting for many people.”
As well as targeting his own victims, Edwards bought images of child sexual abuse using bitcoin from “Snap God”, an act that began the investigation. Part of the continuing inquiry is an attempt to trace this distributor. Police have not found that Edwards sent the material on to other paedophiles.
Asked if Snapchat could do more to protect children, Rankine said: “I think there’s always room for more ‘prevent messaging’ and more how they police their own platforms. I would like to think they are always looking for opportunities to safeguard.”
Edwards, who resigned from the police before he could be sacked, lived with his mother and father in a semi-detached house in Bridgend, south Wales. He was described by his defence in court as “emotionally immature”, had never had a relationship with a woman of his age and suffered from low self-esteem.
NSPCC Cymru said: “This case demonstrates why the online safety bill, which will soon become law, is so important, as it will require tech firms to design their sites with children’s safety as a priority.”
Snap, the company behind Snapchat, said: “Any sexual exploitation of young people is abhorrent and illegal and our hearts go out to the victims in this case. We work in multiple ways to detect and prevent this type of abuse, including using cutting-edge detection technology, and we work with police to support investigations.
“We have extra protections for under-18s and recently added a new pop-up warning for teens if they are contacted by someone who they don’t know. Our family centre allows parents to see who their teens are talking to.”
In the UK, the NSPCC offers support to children on 0800 1111, and adults concerned about a child on 0808 800 5000. The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (Napac) offers support for adult survivors on 0808 801 0331. In the US, call or text the Childhelp abuse hotline on 800-422-4453. In Australia, children, young adults, parents and teachers can contact the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800; adult survivors can seek help at Blue Knot Foundation on 1300 657 380. Other sources of help can be found at Child Helplines International