A three-year Toronto Police-led child exploitation investigation has led to the rescue of 386 children and 348 arrests worldwide.
Those arrested include six law enforcement officials, nine religious leaders, 40 school teachers, three foster parents, 32 children volunteers and nine doctors and nurses.
The enormity of Project Spade, that netted 50 arrests in Ontario, 58 in the rest of Canada, 76 in the United States and 164 in other parts of the world, was unveiled at a press conference at police headquarters on November 14.
Inspector Joanna Beaven-Desjardins, head of the Sex Crimes Unit, said the investigation was launched after undercover officers in the Child Exploitation Section made contact in October 2010 with a man on the internet who was sharing very graphic images of young children being sexually abused.
“The officers were able to trace the internet connection to a male living in Toronto who was running an exploitation movie production and distribution company from an address in the city,” she said.
“The company operated a website – www.azovfilms.com – where customers from around the world placed orders to have movies sent to them through the mail or internet. Our investigators believed many of these movies were consistent with the Canadian Criminal Code definition of child pornography.”
Believing that many of the movies were being exported into the United States, the Toronto Police Service sought the assistance of the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) and they began a joint investigation.
In May 2011, officers executed numerous search warrants in various Toronto locations, including the site of the reported business in the west end.
After four days of cataloguing hundreds of movies and computers, 45 terabytes of data were seized.
“This is the equivalent of a stack of paper as tall as 1,500 CN Towers,” said Beaven-Desjardins. Search warrants were also executed at the residence of the company’s owner-operator where, it’s alleged, officers found hundreds of thousands of images and videos detailing horrific sexual acts against very young children.
Brian Way, 42, of Toronto, has been charged with 24 offences, including numerous child-pornography and proceeds-of-crime offences and instructing a criminal organization.
We believe this is the first time in Canada that anyone has been charged with being part of a criminal organization in regards to child pornography.
“It’s alleged that his company had revenues in excess of $4 million during the years he was in operation. It’s also alleged that he paid people to have children filmed in Eastern European countries in order to produce some of the movies he would sell online.”
The producers of the child exploitation movies, sold exclusively through Way’s company, have been convicted in their respective countries.
“With assistance from our Tech Crimes section, officers were able to recreate the customer database used by azovfilms to distribute the material around the world,” Beaven-Desjardins said.
“Child Exploitation officers, with the assistance of members of the Ontario Provincial Strategy to Protect Children from Sexual Abuse and Exploitation on the Internet, spent months analyzing the seized material to determine who the customers were. That information was then sent through the RCMP’s National Exploitation Coordination Centre and Interpol to over 50 countries.”
Toronto Police worked with numerous law enforcement agencies during the operation, including Australian, Spanish and Mexican officers who attended the press conference. Police agencies from South Africa, Hong Kong, Norway, Ireland, Greece, Gibraltar and Sweden also participated in the huge operation.
“The success of this investigation confirms that, when we work together, regardless of the borders that divide us, we can successfully track down not only those that prey on our most vulnerable, but also profit from it,” said Beaven-Desjardins.
USPIS acting deputy chief inspector Gerald O’Farrell said international co-operation is the most effective way to identify, track and combat those who sexually exploit children without regards to border.
“…These 386 children have had their lives altered forever,” he said.
“The images of them become a permanent record. In this operation, the victims were all pre-pubescent with some as young as five years of age.”
O’Farrell said the investigations spanned all segments of society. They included an attorney and youth baseball coach in Washington state who pled guilty to producing more than 500 videos of children – under the age of 16 – who he sexually molested; a Georgia school employee who pled guilty to receiving child pornography and admitted to placing a hidden video camera in students’ restrooms in an effort to film their genitals; a pre-school teacher who pled guilty to producing child pornography while he was employed in Japan and a Texas police sergeant who pled guilty to producing a video of a child involved in sexually explicit conduct.
“We in the USPIS remain committed to strengthening our cross-border partnerships as well as developing new relationships with law enforcement around the world,” he added.
This investigation solidified the fact that we all achieve a common goal of protecting children from exploitation when we work together.
Chief William Blair concurred with O’Farrell.
“I think one of the most extraordinary things we are witnessing today is the national and international cooperation from law enforcement to deal with one of the most important challenges facing us,” he said.
“There is no greater responsibility, for those of us who have sworn to serve and protect, than the protection of our children. The exploitation of children is a crime for which law enforcement comes together, united around the world, to do our very best to protect those individuals who can’t protect themselves.”
Signy Arnason, the director of Cybertip.ca, also spoke at the press conference.
Operated by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, the organization’s mandate is to protect children from online sexual exploitation by receiving and processing tips from the public, referring relevant leads to law enforcement and/or child welfare agencies and providing the public with information and other resources as well as support and referral services.
“The work of all law enforcement agencies in Canada and abroad should be commended today,” said Arnason.
“As a child protection agency, we are grateful for all of the work that you do. This is an important day for Canadian children as well as children from other countries and sends a strong message that child sexual abuse will not be tolerated… This announcement only serves to underscore the important difference ordinary citizens can make in the fight to reduce child victimization, a fight that no entity in this country or around the world could wage on their own.”
She said the arrest of individuals whose professions or volunteer work provided them with easy access to children should serve as a wake-up call to Canadians.
“We need to do a better job of creating safer environments for children and implement policies that hold adults to a higher standard of conduct when interacting with children in their care,” said Arnason.
We are not powerless. It is in our control.