THIS week an Oxford paedophile, Lee Middleton, 40, was sentenced to three years for trying to groom 13 and 15-year-old girls. The internet sex predator was caught by vigilante paedophile hunters. Even though there were no victims in this crime it’s a terrible saga, but I discovered an even worse story.

Some years ago during my phone-in programme on BBC Radio Oxford, a caller raged against the police for kicking down the door to his flat and confiscating some of his professional work – photographs. I met the man, let’s call him Antony, and was given access to all his records. This is the story I uncovered.

In 1999 Antony walked out of Bullingdon prison after serving three-and-a-half years for sex offences, fraud and perverting the course of justice. He had £52 in his pocket and a bed for the night at a hostel, but he wanted to get back into the business of being near children, to set himself up as a child photographer.

He found a flat in the Green Ridges development of Headington, yards from two schools for three to nine-year-olds. With the backing of two charities, he managed to secure the flat. The English Churches Housing Group helped him get housing benefit from the city council and the Oxford Lord Mayor’s Deposit Scheme guaranteed his rent and paid his deposit.

The address was the key to Antony’s plan. Now he needed clients: children, preferably from families who needed money. He would persuade parents to hand over their children by promising to turn them into models.

All this time Antony had signed the Sex Offenders Register, was under supervision by the police, was being monitored by a parole officer and had been assessed by a team of psychiatrists as “posing a serious threat to others, particularly those who are vulnerable by age”.

He placed adverts in the Yellow Pages around the country: “Do you have a child who you think could be a model? We are looking for children aged between six months to 18 years for a newly-formed professional modelling agency.”

These adverts cost £20,000 to place.

Antony was by now collecting £52.50 a week from the government’s jobseeker’s allowance, housing benefit and help with his council tax. From this slender economic base he ordered two digital video cameras for £47,000, office supplies, a car, telephone systems, special fibre-optic cable to his flat and state-of-the-art computers.

He also set up a website that would serve two purposes: to advertise his agency and to sell the images of children he would collect.

For money, Antony turned to the VAT office. He was starting a business, and in the first, second and possibly third VAT quarters he might have no income and could therefore reclaim all the VAT on his purchases.

On all his invoices, which he could not pay because he had no resources, he added a stamp confirming the bill was “paid in full”.

Supported by this crude documentation, he claimed his total expenditure was about £160,000, and therefore submitted VAT returns claiming refunds of £28,000. The VAT office paid up.

Antony now had everything he needed to develop his child model agency: a base, national publicity, equipment and public funding of £28,000. Antony did not even need a licence: the Department of Trade and Industry used to run a licensing system for those who wanted to set up child model agencies, but that was scrapped in 1995.

His model business flourished. The website had thousands of hits and the phones rang constantly. The deal was simple. Antony offered to take photographs of children and market them as models, in return for a fee of £176 for the pictures, registration fee and enrolment fee in his agency. He kept the copyright to the pictures and collected the fees, yet there is no evidence he got even one child employment as a model.

Antony abused not only the trust of the parents. Ryan and Shane are brothers, aged eight and seven. Antony visited them at home to photograph them. Since one shot was to feature Ryan as Rambo, Antony sent their mother out of the room for black boot polish.

This is her account: “On my return I found Ryan sat on Antony’s knee in a pair of jeans with no T-shirt. I gave Antony the polish and he applied it to Ryan’s face, body, arms and back.

“I was in and out of the room leaving Antony with Ryan and Shane on their own. Towards the end of the session Antony appeared to be a nervous wreck: he was shaking all over and could not even hold his coffee cup.

“Later I mentioned Antony’s name to Shane and he said: ‘I don’t like him… he smacks Ryan on the bum’.”

The Rambo picture also features in the experience of Adam, another seven-year-old.

Adam’s mother, a single parent, put her son’s name down for a modelling agency to help “make ends meet” and invited Antony into her house to take “numerous photographs of Adam wearing different costumes. One of which was a pair of my knickers, which Adam wore as a G-string that Antony had cut up to give this impression”.

Antony went on to assault Adam indecently.

Matthew, seven, claims Antony took him and his two brothers to his flat in Oxford. There he led Matthew into the bathroom, locked the door, exposed himself and proceeded to assault the boy. On the strength of Matthew’s evidence, a case was brought against Antony in court.

While this case was proceeding, Antony made several court appearances. Each time the magistrates granted him bail on conditions that let him continue his photography.

In spite of his previous convictions for taking indecent photographs of children, the police asked for no restrictions on Antony’s activities, even though they had received complaints , had been told by an informant that he was running a child modelling agency and had raided his Oxford flat taking away hundreds of photographs. The police did not ask Antony to surrender his passport.

Antony continued his agency for a further three months.

Then, as the final court date loomed, he calmly boarded a plane for Tenerife because, he said, he had “lost all faith in the British justice system”.