SPECIAL REPORT – Part 2: ‘Shoebury Sex Ring’ victim breaks 30-year silence to detail horrific web of abuse

Exclusive YA interview

Ben* was around 13 years old the first time he was taken to Dennis King’s flat. He was invited by his friend Max*. The two boys were in the same tutor group at Shoebury Comprehensive, but they’d known each other since junior school. As he looks back, Ben realises Max’s insistence on taking him there had bordered on ‘nagging’.

“Leading up to it, he just kept asking and asking about watching this film and going round this flat,” he says.

That was one of the ways Dennis King lured boys to his home on the Eagle Way estate. He’d kitted it out with a state-of-the-art home cinema system. He had stacks of pirate videos, including banned horror films. He’d open his living room to local boys for ‘screenings’. Then, as they watched, he’d dish out booze and drugs to incapacitate them.

King, by this time, already had 20 convictions for sex offences. He had been abusing boys as young as eight since the 1950s. But Ben had no way of knowing that.

The first time they arrived together, Ben noticed the flat was full of boys – all younger than he and Max. In all the times he visited after that, Ben never saw any boys there older than him. He found it odd, but was ‘very naïve’.

“I thought it was a bit weird that we were watching this film with some old guy, but that was it, really,” he says. “Back in those days it was hard to watch a banned horror film on VHS. And he had a lot of pirate films that weren’t even out on VHS yet.”

Ben initially remained oblivious to King’s paedophilia, but quickly noticed that something was amiss; King, who supposedly worked in a café, was living far beyond his means.

“It didn’t add up,” he explains. “Everything in there was all new and modern. In the time I was going there, he went through about three tellies – and they got bigger and bigger every time.”

Ben noticed other peculiarities. Every time they visited the flat, the lounge would be full of items that didn’t belong in a lounge – like kitchen appliances. Then they’d be gone again.

King, Ben learned, was a fence.

“I think that’s probably how Max got involved, initially – because he was a bit of a tealeaf,” says Ben. “Boys would sell stuff to King.”

By this time, in addition to his 20 sex offences, King had 19 convictions for dishonesty, including theft, larceny, burglary, fraud, forgery and receiving stolen goods. Whilst living on the Eagle Way estate, King – later compared by child protection workers to Fagin, from Oliver Twist – was sending boys out to steal for him.

This was all part of King’s sophisticated sexual grooming regime. His penchant for manipulating boys to satisfy his criminal urges, as well as his sexual ones, had been part of his modus operandi since the 1950s when, having been caught molesting boys, King dispatched another boy to burgle a house for the money to pay his court fees.

After boys stole for King, they felt compromised; unable to disclose their abuse without implicating themselves in criminal activity. King eventually wielded such power over them that he would start sharing them with other paedophiles.

The only way out, he would make clear, was to bring he and his cohorts new boys to abuse.

None of the boys felt good about doing it, but it seemed like their only means of escape. So over the years, the web of abuse grew ever wider. Investigators would later determine that ‘dozens’ of boys – perhaps 80 or more – had been drawn into the ring in this way.

Among them was Ben, procured for King by his childhood friend, Max.

It was on about Ben’s fourth visit that King abused him for the first time.

“One day it was just more drink – or more something else,” he says. “I just remember feeling really out of it.”

King took him to the bedroom and raped him. Then he shoved a £10 note into Ben’s hand.

Why Ben kept going back is difficult to explain in hindsight, he says. The booze and the drugs became addictive. He rationalised it by telling himself the abuse didn’t happen every time.

“Say you went ten times, then maybe three times, stuff would happen,” Ben says.

He started taking precautions to try to ward off King’s advances, like never going alone and trying not to be the last one out. But while boys like Ben thought they could outfox King, they didn’t manage it every time. As their young bodies absorbed his booze and drugs, their wits abandoned them.

One boy’s escape was always another’s misfortune. Sometimes boys would arrive to find that day’s victim – or victims – had already been selected.

“Sometimes we would go around there and get turned away,” says Ben. “One time there was this guy with King and there was a young boy with them. It was only the three of them there. And they said, ‘We’re busy. We’re not going to show any films today’.”

This was how Ben discovered King wasn’t the only man involved. Ben would only be abused by one of King’s cohorts – Brian Tanner – but other boys weren’t so lucky.

For instance, Ben knew Max was abused by at least two others, both of whom Ben had encountered at the flat.

Ben never recruited any other boys. Instead he began acting out: skipping school, smoking, stealing.

He even stole and crashed his parents’ car. One time, recalls his mother, Maria*, he almost confessed what was going on.

“He should have been at school but he was bunking off,” she says. “He had tears in his eyes and was trying to tell me something – and the doorbell went. So I went to answer it and he stopped. If only I hadn’t he might have told me then and it may have brought it to an end much sooner.”

When child protection workers eventually uncovered the ring in 1989, other victims gave Ben’s name to the police. He gave a statement about King, Tanner and the two other men he knew of.

In April 1990, he attended court with his mother to testify against King and Tanner, who were charged with buggery, gross indecency and conspiracy. But when they arrived, they were told the men were changing their pleas to guilty so Ben’s testimony wasn’t needed.

“I just assumed he was put away for a long time, because that was what I was led to believe would happen,” Ben says of King.

But that wasn’t the case. The men did change their pleas – but only after being offered a generous plea bargain. The buggery charges – which could have put them behind bars for the rest of their lives – were downgraded to ‘attempted’ buggery, and the conspiracy charge was dropped.

During sentencing, King and Tanner’s lawyers claimed the boys had all been prostitutes who consented to their abuse – a claim the judge accepted and used as an excuse to lessen his sentences on the already reduced charges. As a result, King received just four years, while Tanner got three.

They’d already been on remand for a year, meaning their actual jail terms were minimal.

Prosecutors claimed they’d done the deal to spare the boys from giving evidence, but Ben says he was never consulted, adding: “I was very keen to testify.”

None of the other men involved in the paedophile ring were brought to book. Ben eventually got his life back on track, but Max, after years of self-harm and at least one suicide attempt, died in his 20s from a heroin overdose. Brian Tanner died of cancer in 2006.

After whistleblowers raised concerns in 2015, the YA revealed King was prosecuted for sex offences more than 15 more times after being released from his Shoebury sentence. His crimes included sexually assaulting children and taking pornographic photographs of them, which he then hung on the walls of his home.

He was last charged with sex offences in 2018, but never faced trial because he died. His death certificate revealed he had died from pneumonia and AIDS, sparking fears for the health of the many children he had abused over the years.

“I can’t believe it happened,” Ben says of the plea bargain. “I just feel let down. And the fact that they let him out to continue doing it and potentially infect other people with HIV and AIDS – heads have got to roll.”

*Names have been changed to preserve the victims’ anonymity.

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Charles Thomson

Chief ReporterEmail: [email protected]