Police have criticised Facebook over security failures after a postman used the site to groom up to 1,000 children – scores of whom he sexually abused.
Vile Michael Williams, 28, used different ‘profiles’ to target children he met on his post round, while doing schools runs as taxi driver, and as the secretary of a football club.
He dyed his hair different colours to hide his identity and tricked his victims into performing sex acts on a webcam or to meet him so he could sexually assault them.
Police say Williams created at least eight fake profiles pretending to be teenage boys and a girl called ‘Gorgeous Charlie’ to meet children aged 11 to 16.
One included pictures of himself as a youngster meeting Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson and players including Ryan Giggs and Peter Schmeichel – although it is not known if he used the images to snare children.
He used Facebook, Bebo and MSN messenger to chat to multiple victims at once and convinced many to meet him in parks, beaches and at his home where he abused them.
Police say he is a ”fantasist” who kept newspaper cuttings about Ian Huntley and, after his arrest, warned officers his horrific offending was set to ”escalate”.
Williams, of Penryn, Cornwall, admitted 27 specimen charges at Truro Crown Court including grooming, sexual activity with a child and inciting children to engage in sexual activity.
But he also asked for another 460 sickening offences to be taken into consideration – including voyeurism, sexual assault and child porn.
Police have identified around 500 victims he groomed or abused but believe there could be up to 1,000 in total because hundreds are too scared to come forward.
Officers say many of the incidents could have been avoided if Facebook had a ”panic button” which would allow youngsters to alert authorities if they thought they were being groomed.
Facebook had refused to install the function for years because it said a panic button would make the site appear ‘dangerous’.
But in an apparent u-turn this week the site announced it is in talks with the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (Ceop) centre to create it.
Detective Inspector Simon Snell, who headed the investigation, criticised the website for not including the tool earlier.
He said: ”Williams is a predatory paedophile who used the internet and his post round to infiltrate the lives of his young victims and exploit them for his own sexual gratification.
”The children who have been tricked into having sexual activity with this man are horrified and distraught. But some simple safety procedures could have stopped him.
”A panic button is a visible deterrent which would provide reassurance to Facebook users. It is something a child can use there and then.
”Facebook may believe it would make the site appear dangerous, but, in fact, that button would be a very important safeguard.
”There is a real chance that some of Williams’ victims would have pressed the panic button, which would have immediately informed Ceop, who would have then informed us.
”This was a very challenging investigation due to the complexity and the volume of his offending. The internet allowed this offender to contact as many people as he so desired.
”We are unclear of the exact figure of how many children he met through social networking sites but we believe it may be up to a thousand.”
Williams began his internet offending in 2005 when he started to groom kids he met during his postal rounds, taxi routes and at Falmouth Town Football Club.
He was working at the club as a secretary and also set up video cameras in the showers where he filmed adults between the ages of 18 and 25.
Williams, a bisexual, began to dye his hair green and red and adopt different hair styles to set up a series of Facebook profiles.
The physical assaults later took place when Williams met children at his flat and other locations including a park and a beach.
One charge of voyeurism he admitted relates to various incidents where he filmed young children as they got dressed and undressed on a beach in Falmouth, Cornwall.
Williams was arrested in November 2009 when various children came forward to police saying they had been assaulted.
Officers arrested him on suspicion of making indecent images and sexual assault, which he initially denied.
But police then searched his flat and found the ”true extent” of his crimes – video evidence that was stored and catalogued on his computer files.
It emerged that Williams had been using the internet to persuade children to perform sex acts on themselves on a web cam, which he then recorded.
Officers discovered 1,342 indecent images of children, 20 videos featuring children he met on the internet and 800 carefully archived ‘chat logs’.
He used Facebook for the majority of his grooming and had aliases including a young boy called ‘James’ and a teenage girl called ‘Gorgeous Charlie’.
Williams also had contact with many children on MSN Messenger and he would keep several windows open on his screen so he could groom ”multiple victims” at once.
DI Snell added: ”Williams portrayed himself as at least eight different people, including a young boy, a teenage boy and a female teenager.
”He also changed his hair colour on a weekly basis to conduct his grooming. He used various colours and mohican style cuts.
”There appears to be a great deal of fantasy about his criminal activity. He had several press cuttings in his flat from high profile cases, including the Ian Huntley case.
”He is a predatory paedophile who was caught before his offending escalated. In interview he made a comment that indicated to us that his criminal activities would have escalated.”
Williams was secretary of Falmouth Town Football Club and had been involved with youth football for more than five years.
Police say he mainly targeted children who he had got to know in his local area, but had also groomed children from other areas of the country, including the north and the south east.
DI Snell said: ”Some of his young victims decided not to speak to police, but we believe there could be hundreds more due to his prolific internet activity.
”He was working as a postman and a part-time taxi driver and had become very well known in his local area.
”Williams had also been involved in youth football for a number of years. He joined the football club to continue his sexual interest in children, there is no doubt about that.
”He met some victims through the football club and we have evidence that he groomed people on his post round.
”His family are very nice people, who have been supportive of our investigation, and are distraught about what has happened.”
Karen Dale, manager of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Safeguarding Children Board, said 76 per cent of children aged between 12 and 16-years-old have a Facebook profile.
She said: ”Internet safety is an issue some parents don’t give a lot of thought to. But the internet can be exploited and young children exploited.
”It is important to know who your children are talking to and how much information they are giving out about themselves.”
Earlier this year calls for Facebook to place a panic button on its pages received the support of 44 police chiefs in England, Wales and Scotland.
It followed the murder of 17-year-old student Ashleigh Hall in County Durham last October by Peter Chapman, a man she met via Facebook.
Chapman, 33, was jailed for at least 35 years after he raped and suffocated the teenager and dumped her body in a field near Sedgefield.
Clicking on the panic button alerts Ceop and takes people to a site that details how to handle cyberbullying, hacking, viruses, distressing material and inappropriate sexual behaviour.
Speaking earlier this month Richard Allan, Facebook’s head of policy in Europe, said the social networking site and Ceop had a ”common agenda” on child safety on the internet.
He said: ”There are some issues around the design. To change a website fundamentally takes some time to work through.”