James Hanna was a charming American with a grand vision for a small Welsh town. Today, his conviction for child abuse has left Blaenavon stunned – and questioning his motives. Alison Sanders and Simon Gaskell revisit Booktown
Silver-haired James Hanna arrived in Blaenavon in 2003 with a vision.
The respected businessman wanted to transform the struggling former iron-making town into a cultural hotspot.
With its World Heritage status and literary credentials as the setting for Alexander Cordell’s famous novel Rape of the Fair Country, he believed the deprived Valleys town could come to rival Hay-on-Wye as a book-lover’s paradise.
He was welcomed by residents who applauded his ambition – and celebrated as his efforts appeared to take root.
Few questioned his motivation, still less suspected that 10 years later he would be exposed as a paedophile and left facing a sentence of up to 60 years behind bars in the United States
The native of the southern US state of Arkansas, now 66, admitted this week to producing sexually explicit photos of two 13-year-old girls in America.
He faces a further six state charges including three counts of rape and three counts of sexual indecency, for which a trial starts next week.
Hanna was arrested after a parent contacted the Sheriff’s Office in rural Madison County last August claiming he had sexually assaulted two 13-year-old girls.
Investigators discovered Hanna had been taking sexually explicit photos of the children at his home.
The revelation, which led to his guilty plea this week, has sparked a fresh investigation by Gwent Police into his behaviour during his three years in Blaenavon – and left the town in shock.
Town councillor and estate agent Janet Jones said: “It is quite a shock to think that it could have been going on in our midst.
“But I am sure that if that had been going on we would have known about it and we would have acted upon it.”
Janet said she only knew Hanna professionally.
“I had very little to do with him – I only knew him in a professional capacity. He came to us looking for properties to rent and we provided the insurance for a commercial premises.
“He was the ultimate businessman.”
Hanna had previously run a bookshop in New Orleans which he said had suffered from the decline in tourism after the terrorist attacks of September 11.
His plan for Blaenavon was to open at least ten new bookshops in council-owned properties at reduced rents.
Stephanie and Andrew Nummelin were already in the book trade and were interested in Hanna’s idea.
They own Browning Books – one of the last surviving shops from the book town project.
Stephanie said: “I was born and brought up in the town and it had particular interest for us. The economy was flat at that time. We heard the presentations by James Hanna and others and we took time to make our decision.
“There weren’t many days James wasn’t around town and would pop his head around the door to say morning.
“It was a very new project, new people were coming on board all the time, we had discussions about the level of stock, it was a very vibrant time really with a lot going on.”
She said Hanna was “remarkably good” at the job he did.
Stephanie said: “He was a very good networker, he knew how to talk to people.
“He got a reporter from The Times and the Guardian involved and it was really down to him. He was very good at doing that sort of thing.
“He was larger than life, easy to talk to, very buoyant about the future, he was a big character.”
She said they were “absolutely staggered” by Hanna’s crimes in America.
Andrew said: “He was a bit of a crazy Yank but anyone trying to come in and regenerate what looked like the back streets of Beirut would be regarded as crazy.
“It was a shock. We knew he had a penchant for top-shelf literature but beyond that we had no suspicions at all.”
Stephanie said Hanna was also involved in a youth project, separate from herself and other booksellers, which was designed to promote interest in the town among local youngsters.
She said: “They were given a disposable camera and did workshops to point them in the right direction. The idea was the photos would be printed to showcase what could be done.
“It was supposed to be a youth project.”
Another bookseller who signed up for the Blaenavon Booktown project said she also found Hanna charming and easy to talk to.
The woman, who wanted to remain anonymous, said: “To me, I didn’t find him anything else than perfectly pleasant.”
She said there was no indication of anything sinister.
She said: “The only thing he showed was an interest in adult porn as he had porn books on the top shelf of his shop – soft porn, nothing unpleasant, just photography books but with an interest in the female body.”
Hanna was living in Blaenavon at the time of the project and rented living space and a shop for himself from Janet White.
At the time of his arrest in the States, Janet told Wales Online how she was “appalled” by the crimes he had been linked with.
Janet said: “He was a tenant of mine for three years and there was not an inkling.
“He was polite, paid his rent on time and when he left, the place was immaculate.
“I didn’t know him personally, I only knew him with the book town thing.
“It’s absolutely appalling, terrible, terrible, terrible.”
Barbara Lewis, chair of Blaenavon Traders’ Association when Hanna began his venture said, people had been “taken in” by Hanna and his “silver tongue”.
Not everyone in Blaenavon was satisfied with Hanna’s work and he was accused at one time of owing people money.
Stephanie said: “Some people at the time were dissatisfied. I have to say we didn’t have any particular problems with him. We paid for the books and shelves and got them.”
Torfaen council, which had supported Hanna’s work in Blaenavon, said the only concerns ever raised about Hanna were to do with his immigration status and a trade dispute’.
Gwent Police said the only complaint it received about Hanna before he left Wales in 2006 related to fraud. It is now reinvestigating.