Operation Stranger (Jan ’86 – ’89?)


We’ve been trying to untangle the police operations, the networks they connected, and piece together a chronology. The results so far have surprised us. We’ll make the connections later.

This is our first one, Operation Stranger (and its strands).

(Sources include ‘Lambs to the Slaughter’ by Ted Oliver and press reports, which may contain inaccuracies and contradictions, so we’d welcome input to help us refine any omissions or errors).

OPERATION STRANGER (January ‘86 – ‘89?)
This was joint Essex and the Met forces investigation into the deaths of Jason Swift and Barry Lewis. We believe three ‘strands’ are connected directly, or indirectly, to this operation;

1.      The ‘Dirty Dozen’ Paedophile ring (Feb ‘86 – Jun ‘87)
2.      The Alan Brent (baby-sitting) ring (Apr ‘87 – Mar ’88)
3.      The ‘Jason Swift murder’ Hackney ring (Jun ’87 – May ’89)

Operation Stranger was set up on 17th January 1986, as a secret operation between Essex police and the Metropolitan Police who were investigating the murders in 1985  of Barry Lewis, age 6,  and Jason Swift, age 14.  Detectives had been informed that both children had been drugged prior to their deaths but decided this should not yet be made public so as not to alert potential suspects.  (The operation was joint because Jason’s body had been found outside the Met boundary, in Essex.)

Commander Corbett, head of C11, the Met’s Criminal Intelligence Unit was appointed to co-ordinate Operation Stranger.

Operation Stranger was made public on 16th April 1986 when Commander Corbett, Detective Chief Superintendent Bill Hatfull from the Met, and Detective Superintendent James Kenneally from Essex, held a press conference at New Scotland Yard.

A key purpose of going public was to try to track down the man who had been seen carrying a child the day after Barry Lewis disappeared. The man had been driving a red Talbot Horizon, and photo-fits of the man were released.  It was the first time the murders of Barry Lewis and Jason Swift were officially linked, and nine similarities between their deaths were announced.

National Conference
Five days after the announcement of Operation Stranger, a national police conference was held in London to discuss child killings and abductions. Three boys in particular attracted the interest of the Stranger team. These were Mark Tildesley, Vishal Mehrotra (who vanished from Putney High Street on Royal Wedding day in 1981 and whose body was discovered in Surrey) and a six year old from Brighton who had been the victim of a vicious homosexual attack in a car in August 1983.

At the conference, a chief superintendent from Cleveland asked if anyone had information on an organisation called ‘Interchain’. This was a world-wide circle of homosexual paedophiles with its main centres in Switzerland and New York. These men exchanged information on their mostly violent perversions and fantasies about young boys. An investigation later showed that there were 142 British members of Interchain. All were traced and 15 were found to have convictions for offences against boys. Two of them were interviewed about the murders of Jason Swift and Barry Lewis, but never arrested.

The Operation Stranger investigations into Jason Swift & Barry Lewis resulted in conviction of the ‘Dirty Dozen’ gang, and led to four convictions for the killing of Jason Swift.

THE ‘DIRTY DOZEN’ (Feb’86 – Jun’87)

Hackney police raided a flat on the Kingsmeade Estate in November 1985 after a report that a 13 year old was being abused there, but failed to find the child who was hidden there.  Essex police later picked up this information and visited the flat to question the occupants, Lennie Smith and Robert Oliver, about Jason’s death. Both men had previous convictions for offences against young boys.

In February 1986, Essex detectives found the same 13 year old boy by chance when they raided a house in Croydon as they made inquiries into Jason’s murder.

They rescued him from the gang and sparked off a massive investigation. Two of the first names supplied by the boy were Lennie Smith and Sidney Cooke. Both men had had brutal sex with him. Within days, Smith and Cooke were arrested and charged and remanded to Brixton Prison to await trial.

In June 1987, twelve men from this paedophile network who had preyed on runaway boys were convicted. Crown prosecutor Mr John Sevan told the court that, between January 1984 and January 1986, the defendants procured and corrupted boys who had run away from home or from council care. Boys were ‘hawked about’ all over London, staying for a week or two at the homes of different men who passed them on when they tired of them. To keep one step ahead of police, social workers or parents, the men hid the boys.

This network became known as the ‘Dirty Dozen’.

Walter Ballantyne, 46; a stallholder at Dalston Market, was one of the ringleaders of the network, he was given 6 years 3 months
Leonard William Smith, 31, was sentenced to 30 months;
Sidney Charles Cooke, 59, remanded for bail reports / got 2 years *
Simon Haeems, 35, was sentenced to 2 years
Colin Byrne, 18, was sentenced to 1 year probation
Daniel Paine, 33, was sentenced to 2 years;
Roy Alan Morris, 26, was sentenced to 30 months,
Alfred Goddard, 58, was sentenced to 2 years;
John Thornton, 36, was sentenced to 8 years (thought to be leader of the Croydon group);
John Stead, 23, was sentenced to 5 years;
Edward Talbot, 47, was sentenced to 1 year;
Brian Turner, was sentenced to 5 years

* ‘Lambs to the Slaughter’ by Ted Oliver and Ramsay Smith, 1993 reported that Cooke got 2 years for buggery of the boy that Lennie Smith also abused.

THE ‘BRENT INQUIRY’  (Alan Brent’s Baby-Sitting Network)

By the early part of early 1987, new leads relating to the Operation Stranger inquiry into Jason Swift and Barry Lewis were drying up, and the number of detectives working on the case had been reduced.

On Good Friday 1987, the Hackney crime squad investigated a complaint that a four year old local child had been abused by the family baby-sitter. Later that night, an anonymous telephone call to Hackney police led them to an address where they arrested Alan Brent, a 46 year old council cleansing department worker. Brent admitted he had molested the child and had convictions for similar offences dating back twenty years. It became apparent that the assault was not an isolated incident and, over the years, other members of the family had been subjected to abuse.

DI Bob Brown decided to form a squad to undertake ‘The Brent Inquiry’ which uncovered a catalogue of abuse against members of families that Alan Brent and his gang had been baby-sitting for. These men, who were linked to other groups, including the ‘Dirty Dozen’, wormed their way into the confidence of working-class families with the sole purpose of abusing their children. For years, young victims were passed from man to man and from group to group.

On the 26th June 1987 three men including a 72-year-old pensioner were remanded in custody on child sex charges by Old Street Magistrates Court.
Alan John Brent, 46, also known as John Alan Spicer and Andrew Spicer
Roy Becker, 72
Bryan Owen, 62
Brent and Owen were remanded in prison custody until July 8, while Becker was remanded in police custody.

In March 1988, the Brent Inquiry reached its conclusion at the Old Bailey. Alan Brent pleaded guilty to six counts of indecent assault on young boys and was jailed for five years. Four other men were given prison sentences ranging from 18 months to two and a half years.


As the Brent Inquiry widened, Hackney police realised the prospect of a link with Jason Swift’s murder grew.  DI Brown instructed the team to question every suspect in the Brent Inquiry about Jason Swift and he supplied them all with photographs of the murdered boy.

They were correct.  A key witness emerged who was 21 and one of the older members of the original family corrupted by Brent. He had been abused for years by the gang and gave a detailed history of how Alan Brent and others had systematically corrupted him, his two younger brothers and other male relatives. He spoke of meeting a boy called Jason in Holt’s shoe shop, a well-known homosexual haunt in Hackney, and identified Jason Swift from a school photograph. He told the police that Jason had been sent to a flat belonging to Robert Oliver on the Kingsmeade Estate.

On Wednesday 24th June, a 16 year old boy told the Brent team that he, too, had been indecently assaulted by Robert Oliver. The detectives tracked Oliver down to a flat occupied by Leslie Bailey’s mother and he was arrested. Leslie Bailey was in the house at the time in a room he shared with Oliver.

Under questioning, Oliver admitted he knew about the death of Jason Swift and that he had met him several times, first through Lennie Smith and Sidney Cooke. Essex police were informed of this development – in their own inquiry into Jason’s death they had 32 lines of enquiry left to deal with. On that list were the names of Sidney Cooke and Lennie Smith.

Oliver’s previous lodgings were searched by police and three prescription bottles of dimazepam were discovered, the tranquiliser found in the bodies of Jason Swift and Barry Lewis.

Detectives were sure he was involved in Jason’s murder, but his account was unconvincing, and there was not enough to charge him with murder. On Friday 26th June he was charged with indecently assaulting Jason, and with two other offences in relation to the Brent Inquiry.

The Hackney Gazette reported on 19 June 1987 and 26th June 1987, that the police might be close to identifying Jason’s killers, linking a Hackney paedophile ring with some of the ‘Dirty Dozen’ convictions, and claiming that 6 charges had already been made, with more expected.

Det Inspector Bob Brown, of Hackney CID, said: “There are certainly common factors between the investigations into child sex activities and those into the murder of Jason Swift.

On 27th June, 1987 the Times reported that a man, who has not been charged, was being quizzed over the killing of Jason Swift and Barry Lewis. Also, that during their inquiries police uncovered a network of alleged child molesters, based in a shop in Mare Street, Hackney, and that six men had already been charged with offences of gross indecency against a number of children aged between five and 15. The Times later reported that a 3rd man, Donald Smith, aged 62, a chef, of Hackney was due in court accused of the murder two years previously of Jason Swift.

Oliver appeared at Old Street Magistrates’ Court on Monday 29th June 1987 and was remanded in custody. A month later, police realised a definitive account of Jason’s murder was eluding them and decided to interview ‘that bloke he was sharing a room with’. Leslie Bailey was found and driven from his flat to the police station, the last ten minutes of freedom in his life. Bailey gave the police a horrific confession, a substantially true account of Jason’s murder and an uncannily accurate account of where the body had been dumped.

On 15th February 1988, committal proceedings against Leslie Bailey, Sidney Cooke, Lennie Smith, Robert Oliver, Steven Barrell and Donald Smith began at Lambeth Magistrates’ Court.

The Jury was sworn in on 20th Feb 1989 for the trial. Leslie Bailey, aged 35, and Robert Oliver, aged 34, both of Hackney, east London, pleaded not guilty to murder.
Sidney Cooke, aged 61, of Homerton, Donald Smith, aged 64, of Hackney, and Stephen Barrell, aged 29, of Dagenham, Essex, denied manslaughter.  All denied sexual charges.

The Times reported on 16th March 1989, that ‘ no evidence was offered against Donald Smith, aged 64, of Ashmead House, Kingsmead estate, the alleged scene of the killing, who was discharged after denying manslaughter, indecent assault and perverting justice.’

The court also heard that Sidney Cooke had made an anonymous call to the police a month after Jason’s body was found saying: “I just want to say it shouldn’t have happened like that. I want you to know it was an accident.” Cooke also claimed he was powerless to stop the killing.

All four men were found guilty of manslaughter on 12th May 1989. It was revealed that ‘A well-organised and financed group of paedophiles operating in east London, which has international links, is believed to have recruited at least 60 boys into their ring. From their headquarters, a shoe shop in Hackney, they produced manuals on how to entice and gain the trust of youngsters before seducing them.’

The sentences were delivered on 15th May 1989.
Sidney Cooke 62 of Kingsmead Estate, Hackney, was sentenced to 19 years.
Leslie Bailey, aged 35, and
Robert Oliver, aged 34, both of Frampton Park Estate, Hackney, were sentenced to 15 years each
Stephen Barrell, 28, of Arnold Road, Dagenham, Essex, was sentenced to 13 1/2 years.

In August 1989, police Operation Orchid was established, to further investigate boys missing in the 1980’s.

Related Videos;
Operation Stranger (Wolf Pack)
Crimewatch Reconstruction – The Lost Boys.
(Part 1 – Operation Stranger; Part 2 – Operation Orchid)


Filed under Abuse, Police Operations

14 responses to “Operation Stranger (Jan ’86 – ’89?)

  1. Pingback: Operation Stranger: Walter Ballantyne | theneedleblog

  2. W

    I was only about 11/when this case came to light. I was being abused at the time by a gang of peadophiles but hadn’t heard of such gangs before. Esther ranzen seemed to be behind setting up childline and that as been a great help to many kids. These people ( peadophiles) make u feel wanted and cared for and for a young kid who had problems at home this seemed a good option, it did for me. The other thing concerning the sex was that because getting turned on and erect felt nice even though a feeling off ‘something’ usnt right here wasn’t enough to stop myself to willingly go to these peoples houses.
    When I found out I had been abused by these men, I wasn’t angry, I was hurt and sad as they made me feel genuinely liked and cared for. These gangs must of been operating for years before the Jason swift case broke….

  3. Pingback: Paedophilia around Piccadilly Part 5 1980s and Operation Circus | cathy fox blog

  4. The Count of Monte Cristo

    Any news on uncle Leon? Missing file! Surely not!

  5. Pingback: Operation Stranger and Jason Swift: Court of Appeal Judgment 1992 | theneedleblog

  6. Pingback: Operations Stranger and Orchid: Lennie Smith | theneedleblog

  7. Pingback: New Information Regarding Vishal Mehrotra | theneedleblog

  8. Pingback: Operation Hedgerow (1987 – 89) | theneedleblog

  9. Pingback: Operation Orchid (Aug ’89 – Oct ’92) | theneedleblog

  10. Well, thank you kindly again for this informative & speedy reply!
    I understand the overlap between the before 1989 and after 1989 Operations much better now, and why “Orchid” is sometimes referenced as encompassing ALL of the Cooke gang investigations.

  11. Thanks for your efforts, in clarifying names of police operations, and what specific investigations and resulting charges and/or convictions (if any) fell under which police operations names.

    I’m still confused about “Operation Orchid”, however. There are many, many references to Operation Orchid in news articles, news commentaries, blogs, ‘reports’, inquiries, recommendations, etc. etc. If you can help me with a definitive description of Op Orchid – as you have above for Operation Stranger & Brent Inquiry – I’d appreciate that.
    At the end of the above article, you said: “In August 1989, police Operation Orchid was established, to further investigate boys missing in the 1980’s”. Some other references to Op Orchid describe it in a similar fashion, i.e., a further investigation, SUBSEQUENT to the investigations-operations which led to the conviction of the Cooke gang for the murder of Jason Swift.
    However, many more references to Op Orchid describe that operation name as THE OPERATION through which the Cooke gang was investigated charged and convicted for their horrific, murderous crimes. For now, I’m going to assume that you’ve got the correct description-definitions for these Operations titles.

    But, if your description of Orchid is correct – and that Operation commenced in 1989 rather than concluding (via convictions) in 1989 – then it sounds as if Orchid itself may never have manifested beyond a mostly empty file with that title on it…never investigated or collected any new information beyond the initial references to “other boys who went missing in the ’80s” and never produced any charges or convictions. Is that correct?

    • opgreenlight

      Hello, yes, you are correct about the beginnings, but there were convictions. Operation Orchid did not commence until August 1989, in secret, when Leslie Bailey began a series of confessions to his cell-mate, Ian Gabb. Police followed numerous leads relating to Bailey’s claims that a great number of children had been abused, even murdered, by the gang. Operation Orchid became public around May 1990 when detectives began digging (unsuccessfully) for a body. Bailey finally confessed to the murder of Barry Lewis. The police used the press to plant a mixture of truths, half-truths and plain inaccuracies in order to confuse, inform and alarm the other suspects. A trial was held at the Old Bailey, commencing 14/07/91 and Bailey was jailed for life. However, this led to Sidney Cooke, Robert Oliver and Stephen Barrell appealing against the sentences they had received in the Jason Swift case, and Cooke and Barrell had their sentences reduced. (Oliver’s case was dismissed). Bailey was later also charged with the murder and buggery of Mark Tildesley. Police submitted papers to CPS on other men, including Sidney Cooke and Lennie Smith, but they were refused. Roger Stoodley, who led Operation Orchid, commented that the gang based on the Kingsmeade Estate in Hackney ‘unquestionably killed more children than is known. The total could be four or it could be nine. I found the figures of 20 or 25 victims as have been mentioned, hard to believe. But I cannot say with my hand on my heart that there were not that many. The tragic answer is that no one will ever really know’.

      We are currently looking at both Orchid and Hedgerow and will post in due course when they are clearer in our own minds!
      PS You are spot on about the Jason Swift case/trial – it was over before Orchid began.

      • binz

        Maybe they digging wrong places I think they should look where undertakers james shackleton and roger patterson have been working