More than 300 British families were warned last night that they may never know whether their children fell prey to a female nursery worker who sexually abused babies in her care and swapped sickening images of the acts with two other paedophiles she met on Facebook.
As Vanessa George, 39, was led away after pleading guilty to a string of child sex charges yesterday, a judge told the mother of two that the length of her sentence depended on whether she helped police to identify her victims.
Judge John Royce urged her to do the "decent thing" and name children she had assaulted at Little Ted's Nursery in Plymouth.
Speaking to George's lawyer after her guilty plea, Judge Royce said: "Your client must know, it seems to me, who she has abused and who she has not. If I were a parent I would want to know whether my child was abused or not. Would it not be decent for her to indicate who she has abused? It is a factor I have got to take into account."
The paedophile ring was smashed accidentally after a chance discovery earlier this year. Police learned that, for eight months, George and two strangers she met on the social networking site - Colin Blanchard and Angela Allen, both 39 - had been trading horrifying pictures of child abuse.
Many of the images were classified at the most serious level and showed terrible sexual assaults on the victims, most of whom were Little Ted's pupils under 18 months old.
Blanchard, a businessman from Manchester, and Allen, of Nottingham, also admitted yesterday to using text messages and the internet to share and create images with George who, until her arrest in June, was regarded a "warm and bubbly" nursery worker.
Their confessions have shocked the communities of Efford and Laira - two quiet Plymouth suburbs whose working families relied on Little Ted's nursery, where George was employed without suspicion for three years.
Detectives initially thought up to 313 children from 270 different families might have been abused, but forensic analysis of George's photographs - which had been digitally manipulated to hide her victims' faces n narrowed the number to 30.
Last night, however, officers said that despite repeated questioning, George still refused to disclose the children's identities. Detective Superintendent Michele Slevin, of Devon and Cornwall Police, said: "We have interviewed George on five occasions and during those interviews she has co-operated, but we have not been able to identify any of those children.
"The judge was clear today that the families will want to know and this is one of our priorities - to set their minds at rest and enable them to move on. [George] has caused massive trauma to a great number of victims, not just to the children, who will not understand what was happening, but also the families and communities in Plymouth."
Detective Inspector Costa Nassaris added that experts had been unable to identify any of the children filmed by George because of the "nature of the images themselves".
"We have not given up but the probability I would have to say is very low that we will identify any of these children," he said.
As the three defendants shuffled into Bristol Crown Court, watched by some of the parents whose children attended Little Ted's, it was the first time they had stood in the same room together n but they all knew each other well.
Police believe Blanchard was the catalyst for the paedophilic fantasies in George and Allen, who competed for his affection as they swapped messages on Facebook.
Although Blanchard was already on the sex offenders' register, neither woman had a history of sexual interest in children until they met him.
Had it not been for one of Blanchard's work colleagues accidentally finding indecent images on his computer, the abuse might have continued unnoticed.
Blanchard had built himself a tenuous middle-class lifestyle by borrowing far beyond his means and working for a small information technology company in Trafford, Manchester, to try to pay off his accumulating debts.
Neighbours described him as a "Walter Mitty" character who routinely bragged about having far more money than he actually had. When arrested, he owed £8,000 on his electricity bill.
His darker side came to light on 5 June, when Blanchard was in Dubai on business. A co-worker found child abuse images on Blanchard's computer and contacted Manchester Police, who arrested Blanchard the next day as he returned through Customs.
Police discovered they were dealing with a man who nonchalantly carried pictures of child sexual abuse wherever he went.
"At the time of his arrest he had a laptop and an Apple iPhone," recalled Detective Inspector Tony Creely, of Greater Manchester Police.
"Examination of the items revealed a number of explicit stills of very young children. These images were of naked children of both sexes and believed to be at that time around 12 to 18 months old, showing them being sexually abused."
While interrogating Blanchard, police learned he had been trading abusive images online with a woman who went by the name of "Vee George".
With many of the pictures looking as if they had been taken recently, police realised they had to work quickly to identify the culprit to halt any further abuse.
Two days after Blanchard's arrest, Devon and Cornwall Police turned up at a small, semi-detached house on the outskirts of Plymouth to arrest George - thanks to one photograph which gave them a vital clue.
Every time she took abusive pictures, George had been careful to mask both her identity and that of her victim. But in one photograph she had failed to entirely cover her tracks: it showed part of the Little Ted's emblem.
The trail led to Allen, whom Blanchard had also befriended on Facebook and then introduced to George. She was arrested the following week at her home in Nottingham.
According to police, Allen had sent to her two new friends "as a trophy" an image which showed her raping a young child.
The case has left parents struggling to comprehend how a female nursery worker could have betrayed their trust with such depravity. "It's the worst feeling you can ever imagine," one mother told BBC Plymouth.
"Feeling sick 24 hours a day. Not being able to sleep. Drinking during the day - everyone is the same."
A Facebook group called 'Get Vee George child molester off Facebook now' has been set up on the social networking site.
- THE INDEPENDENT