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The man who hunts paedophiles

Ulsterman Jim Gamble leads the UK's Child Exploitation and On-Line Protection Centre which is currently helping in the hunt for missing Madeleine McCann. Crime Correspondent Deborah McAleese travelled to its headquarters in London to meet the man battling to keep our children safe from paedophiles

Tucked away in a small, windowless office in the centre of London the innocent face of little Madeleine McCann smiles out from a computer screen.

Although the haunting image of the happy four-year-old is instantly familiar, it still has the power to unsettle and I cannot take my eyes away.

It is within this nondescript room that some of the world's top child sex abuse specialists combine their skills and the most sophisticated computer technology to analyse the image that could hold the key to tracking Madeleine down.

On another computer in the room is the image of a young school girl who was recently rescued from the clutches of a predatory paedophile after these same experts identified her and traced her location by analysing online footage.

The room is called the victim identification room and is just one small part of the Child Exploitation and On-Line Protection Centre which is headed by Ulsterman Jim Gamble.

In just 12 months his dedicated team has helped rescue 76 children from sex offenders, bring down three organised paedophile rings and track 275 of the UK's highest risk child sex offenders in the UK and overseas.

Their work also helped bring about the arrest of 83 sex offenders, locate 12 of the UK's highest risk child sex offenders and train almost one million children across the UK on how to be safe online.

"If you threaten to harm a child we will ruthlessly and clinically track you, we will find you, we will arrest you, you will go to prison and everyone associated with you who has a deviant sexual interest towards children will join you there," Mr Gamble says as he strides into his office.

The first thing you notice about Mr Gamble when he talks is that he is passionate about his work and fiercely proud of his team members, all of whom he introduces by listing their impressive credentials.

"We have a first class team working here and we punch well above our weight," he says. "The people working here are experts with security service backgrounds, policing backgrounds, we have intelligence analysts from the Army through to people from the old sex offenders unit, people from NSPCC, Microsoft, who all bring their special ingredient to bear on the problem.

"This is a powerful combination and we are relentless in our pursuit of those who are a threat to children."

Despite being a public figure, the 47-year-old is not someone to water down his convictions for the sake of being politically correct and in the past his blunt talking has raised a few eyebrows.

Recently he found himself at the centre of a furious public backlash over a statement that some child sex offenders should be encouraged to seek treatment rather than be sent to prison.

"I heard people in hysteria saying, 'Has he gone mad? Does he think kiddie fiddlers will listen to him?'" he says. "Yes, that was an unpalatable message. That was a message that left my children getting text messages from their friends wondering whether I had lost the plot.

"I'm telling you, I haven't lost the plot. I do this every day. I am solely focused on rescuing as many children as possible and holding these people to account when they have lost the plot, but I can't afford the luxury of living in a deluded world where I pretend that everyone is in prison and pretend everyone will go there, because that is not how it works.

"I am not worried about what people say about me, it is my children and my family. They were very upset and that annoyed me.

"Look, the predatory paedophile should be in prison, there is no question about that, none whatsoever and I have never questioned that fact, but we have to look at things in a balanced and proportionate way.

"We all love our kids, nobody more so than me. I have got three kids that I absolutely love. When we are talking about child protection we all move to the right wing, so do I. I hate what these people do. I want them behind bars and if someone could introduce a system where they go there and stay there forever then I'll sign up to it.

"But the fact of the matter is, in the real world, where I am responsible for delivering protection for children, I have got to operate in that real world and I have got to make sure we do it in a sensible way that protects kids.

"The message we need to get out is if you are having deviant sexual thoughts about a child do not do anything because you will hurt the child and destroy their lives and we will find you and will hold you to account.

"So my message about going and getting help was not about putting my arm around them and feeling sorry for them - I'd sooner put my hand around their throat - but the bottom line is it's about diverting them before they hurt a child."

Mr Gamble, a career police officer who began in the RUC before moving to the National Crime Squad, has been head of CEOP since it first opened just over one year ago.

The centre is a world first, bringing law enforcers in the UK, the US, Canada and Australia together with the information technology industry, charities and schools.

For 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the CEOP team is online infiltrating paedophile rings, searching for victims and lying in wait for offenders.

"In days gone by the trouble was that we were always running to catch up: they (paedophiles) had access to the newest technology, but CEOP brought in Microsoft, talked to AOL, to Vodafone Global, to everybody else that has an understanding or influence in the market place," says Mr Gamble. " That means that I had Vista before anyone else. It means we understand new technology before it arrives in the market place. We are upstream waiting for the predator."

One of the main aims for Mr Gamble and his team is to prevent abuse from happening, which is why he is passionate about educating children and young people on how to stay safe online and how to report a potential paedophile with the click of the mouse.

He also uses every opportunity he can to send a warning message directly to potential child abusers.

"If anyone reading this has inappropriate thoughts then go and get help because I am telling you, the environment has changed, the days when you could go online without consequence are over, we are out there," he warns.

"The days you thought you could step off-line to meet a child at a railway station, or travel to Cambodia, are over, because we are there waiting for you to arrive."

This is not just tough talk. The Bangor man speaks with such firm conviction that you know he means every word.

The air conditioning has broken in the office and the only fan has been positioned towards me. As the conversation becomes more heated and the temperature in the room is almost stifling, the harsher Mr Gamble's warnings to paedophiles become.

But when the conversation turns to his children he softens and you can tell that having a steady family life helps to keep him balanced when dealing with such a high pressured and emotionally charged job.

"I go home every weekend. Sometimes it is like the finish line in a race when you are exhausted at the end of it," he says. "Sometimes you run on empty, but on other occasions the high you get from this job, when you rescue a child, is second to none.

"I chill out the moment I walk in the door to a list that says cut the grass, take me to the cinema, all those normal things are just great."

Jim Gamble is a man of contradictions. When it comes to tracking down and punishing child sexual predators he appears to have the potential to be quite fierce and intimidating.

When it comes to the man outside of work he reveals himself to be slightly mischievous and deeply caring.

"I really enjoy the natural innocence of children, there is nothing like it," he admits.

Pointing to a large black and white photograph of a giggling toddler on his wall, he adds: "I defy anyone to lift their heads from their desk and not smile at this guy."

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