BUSINESSMAN Gerald Hughes gave his wife red roses on the day his longed-for only son, Howard, was born and told her: ``We've done it at last.''

Thirty years of mounting despair later, he stood in a police interview room and heard the perverted bully known as ``Mad Howard'' confess to him that he had raped and murdered Sophie Hook.

The lanky 6ft 8ins paedophile was a familiar figure to the residents of the North Wales seaside resorts of Colwyn Bay, Llandudno, and Rhos-on-Sea.

He would hurtle about on his mountain bike in his scruffy old denims at all hours of the day and night, his hair greasy and unwashed, his rottweiler dog, Bryn, often at his side - a malevolent presence amid the carefree holiday atmosphere.

With his dark brooding eyes, quick temper, and tall frame, Hughes was a man most people did not want to cross.

``He was the type of person you would nod to and say hello because he might get aggressive if you didn't,'' said a father-of-three who lived over the road from Hughes in Yerburgh Avenue, Colwyn Bay.

``You were always afraid if you ignored him completely he might not like it, but he wasn't the sort of person you could strike up a conversation with.''

When the news spread through his home town of Colwyn Bay that he had been arrested for Sophie's murder, the reaction was one of shock and revulsion, but scarcely of surprise.

``He was a creepy kind of man,'' said the neighbour. ``For my kids' sake, I'm very relieved they've locked him up.''

Whatever the problems that turned Hughes into a deranged layabout with a dark obsession for little girls, an underprivileged up-bringing was not among them.

His engineer father runs the prosperous family contracting and quarrying firm Roger Hughes and Company. Howard and his older sisters, Karen, Laura, and Heather, lacked for nothing.

When Howard was born on June 9, 1965, Mr Hughes and his wife, Rene, were delighted at the arrival of a son to complete their family.

For much of his life, Howard lived in the #200,000 four-bedroomed modern detached house his father had built, set in half an acre of garden in one of the smarter districts of Colwyn Bay.

It it soon became clear, however, that all was not well with the boy. He was very tall for his age, reaching 6ft by the age of 11, and doctors diagnosed a chromosonal abnormality called XYY syndrome.

He was always slow educationally, his progress hampered by dyslexia, but according to a Gwynedd Health Authority medical report he was not assessed as mentally ill or subnormal.

It was, however, suggested that out-patient psychiatric care might be constructive.

Mr Hughes said: ``He was a vulnerable child. He was emotionally insecure and abhorrent of criticism. He didn't like criticism at all.''

He struggled at school and his father paid for him to attend a succession of private schools in the hope that they would be able to do something with him. When one of them, the now defunct Lindisfarne College at Ruabon, near Wrexham, rejected him without explanation after two terms, a desperate Mr Hughes offered the headmaster double the normal fees to keep him on, but was turned down.

One of his school contemporaries paints a vivid picture of Hughes the schoolboy. ``Even at school he was seriously violent,'' he said. ``He was always in fights with people much older than him. Everyone was terrified of him.

``He was always killing things like small animals and birds. I saw him bullying people and he always used to carry a great big knife around.

``We had a lot of problems in Colwyn Bay in the early 80s when the mods and rockers had a revival, and Howard was a mod, wearing a parka and all that. As soon as any trouble broke out, Howard would be down there. He loved it.''

His increasingly worried parents took Hughes to a succession of psychiatrists and by the age of 11 he was sent to an approved school in Derbyshire.

Mr Hughes said he was a strict father but denied ever using physical punishment on his son. The boy was a huge disappointment to him and in his teenage years was regularly in trouble with the police and being hauled before the juvenile courts.

Finally it was Mr Hughes who signed the assent form for his wayward son to be committed to St Andrews Hospital, Northampton, under the Mental Health Act, in 1981.

While he was away, and perhaps partly because of the strain of dealing with their disturbed son, Mr and Mrs Hughes's 28-year marriage failed and the couple divorced in 1986. Mr Hughes last year married a woman who worked for his company.

When Hughes was released from hospital after one year, he lived rough for a while around the Northampton area and was found basic accommodation by social workers before returning to Yerburgh Avenue to live with his mother.

Hughes - ``a child in a man's body'' according to his defence lawyers - struggled to hold down a job of any kind. Described as an out-of-work gardener by the time of his arrest, he was unable to keep a job even with his father's contracting firm.

Mr Hughes gave him jobs six times but each attempt ended in failure, Howard playing the arrogant boss's son and refusing to work properly or to obey instructions from his foremen.

For most of the time, Hughes was out of work, looked after by his affluent family as he drifted around the area, a brooding time bomb waiting to explode.

Mr Ashley Page, whose girlfriend lived a few doors from Hughes, said: ``I think it was only a matter of time before he did something like this. No-one round here likes him and everyone would steer clear of him.

``He was scared of blokes but he would have a go at women or children. My girlfriend says that several times she's been driving down the road and Howie has come out flashing V-signs at her.''

Hughes would wear the same jeans for months on end and admitted during his trial that his teeth had rotted away because he could not be bothered to clean them.

He continued to build up a long record which led to two custodial sentences. He gathered convictions for assaults, burglaries, thefts, criminal damage, threatening behaviour, and possessing a knife and an air rifle.

His offences were mostly petty. One of his more recent convictions was for stealing 60 chocolate bars from a local supermarket.

After one arrest ``Mad Howard'' lived up to his nickname by leaping 25ft from an upstairs police station window, suffering damage to his ankles which has caused him problems ever since.

Mechanically-minded like his father, Hughes had a passion for both real and model cars. A friend recalled that he had a Mini Mayfair, a Mini Highland, and an RS 1600 Escort.

He had a collection of vintage Dinky model cars which he would spend hours polishing and which he kept in a case. He also had numerous toy soldiers and spent hours alone with his treasures in the garage of the house, listening to his stereo and playing with them.

However, there was a darker side to Hughes's collecting passion. After his arrest for Sophie's murder, police found pornographic equipment and literature at his home - much of it relating to children.

He would cut out and keep pictures of children naked or in their underwear when he saw them in magazines and catalogues. He was obsessed with the shaved or hairless genitalia of women and pre-pubescent girls.

In his police station confession, Hughes told his father that he had been sexually frustrated for 10 years but, in his incoherent and often angry evidence from the witness box, he claimed that he had last had sexual intercourse with a girl in Rhyl just four months before the murder.

A metal foil container in a hole in the garden wall of his home contained eight recent indecent polaroid photographs of a seven-year-old girl, and a compost heap on the other side of the wall revealed a plastic bag containing three pairs of children's knickers. Hughes was to claim in court that he had found them while rummaging in skips.

Hughes admitted in court that ``he took a fancy'' to little girls and had a total obsession with their private parts. He said: ``That doesn't make me a child killer, you know.''

He shared the secret of his twisted sexual obsession with young girls with another convicted paedophile, Michael Guidi, 32, who was befriended by Hughes when he was 13 and stayed with him and his mother for three months from Christmas 1993 when he was homeless after coming out of prison.

Guidi, who had to flee across the car park outside Chester Crown Court pursued by two men after giving evidence for the prosecution at the end of the first week of the trial, said Hughes confided to him his desire to have sex with a girl aged four or five.

``There was one occasion when we had a conversation and he said he would like to abduct a girl, have sex with her, and murder her,'' Guidi said, adding that Hughes planned to kill the child by strangling her or cutting her throat.

It was a dangerous fantasy that ``Mad Howard'' Hughes finally acted out in real life on a hot July night last summer, satisfying his perverted lust on a helpless seven-year-old child.