29 year old Owain Thomas befriended children on games like Roblox with victims identified across the UK and as far as the USA.
It was what appeared to be an isolated act of indecency in Ferndale in November last year, which unravelled a trail of online abuse.
Owain Thomas was sentenced to 15 years in prison at Merthyr Crown Court on Friday after pleading guilty to 158 online sex offences against children.
The 29 year-old from Pontypridd used the internet to befriend children and incite them to commit sexual acts on camera.
Thomas used different Skype usernames, nine Facebook profiles, and three online gaming accounts to commit his crimes.
Police learned how he created the fake profiles on popular online games such as Roblox and he would then persuade his victims with gaming credits in exchange for sexual favours to be performed on camera which he would record.
He then used footage of those victims - pretending it was him - to create peer pressure in group chat situations, often taking on the role of three people at any one time, in multiple-way online group chats.
This case represents an unprecedented number of offences committed by one person, and the highest ever investigated by the Police Online Investigation Team (POLIT) in Wales.
Owain Thomas has been described as a calculated and manipulative offender who hid behind expertly-crafted, fake personas to commit his crimes which have left his victims and their families devastated.
The police investigation began back in November 2018 after Owain Thomas stopped his car near to a group of boys at a playground in Ferndale and brazenly asked them to show him their private parts. The youths – aged between 7 and 14 - told their parents who then contacted police.
Officers carried out CCTV enquiries, managed to get a partial registration number, and just two days later Owain Thomas was arrested at home in Pontypridd.
As police seized laptops and devices from his home, he told an officer ‘That’s the one I didn’t want you to find,’ as he was taken into custody.
Operation Bramble was launched - the online forensic investigation unveiled 110 hours of footage of abuse which was analysed by officers who were faced with the task of identifying 146 victims aged between 9 and 16.
This painstaking process saw officers visiting schools up and down the country with images of the victim’s faces, but one by one, they were identified and their parents were told.
Detective Inspector Lianne Rees, said: “To tell any parent that their child has been a victim of a sexual predator was not easy. What was so alarming was the high percentage of parents who had no clue whatsoever what their children were doing online, and that should be a warning for others. There are predators out there who are very good at manipulating – children are vulnerable and should all be safeguarded effectively and parents have a big role to play in that. Being a technophobe can no longer be an excuse, as there are many websites out there which give advice and information to parents on how to keep children safe online”.
Parents are urged to make use of websites such as GetSafeOnline.org and Internetmatters.org for more information.
DI Rees added: “I would like to give some credit to the children in Ferndale who initially reported Owain Thomas and also thank police officers in Pontypridd for their initial enquiries were pivotal to this case, and I am confident that Thomas’ quick arrest helped to prevent many further victims and came at a time when I feel that Owain Thomas’ offending was showing worrying signs of escalation.”