A detective constable was lauded by colleagues for leading a child exploitation case that saved hundreds of children around the world from harm and shut down a Canadian child pornography network with international reach.
Five years ago, Detective Paul Krawczyk of the Toronto Police Service’s Child Exploitation Unit was working online in an undercover capacity, using a file-sharing program, when he discovered a user with numerous graphic video and image files containing child pornography which was made available to the officer to download.
The officer and his colleagues were able to trace the internet connection to a man living in Toronto, who was running an exploitation movie production and distribution company from an address in the city.
The company operated a website – azovfilms.com – where customers from around the world placed orders to have movies featuring nude pre-pubescent and pubescent boys sent to them through the mail or via the internet.
Believing that many of the movies were being exported to the United States, the TPS began a joint investigation with the United States Postal Inspection Service. Ten films were purchased from the azovfilms website and were delivered to a Tennessee location where Child Exploitation Detective Constable Lisa Belanger and US authorities inspected them.
She determined that five of the films met the Canadian definition of child pornography.
In May 2011, officers executed several search warrants in various Toronto locations. After four days of cataloguing hundreds of movies and computers, 45 terabytes of data (the equivalent of a stack of paper as tall as 1,500 CN Towers) were seized.
Search warrants were also executed at the residence of the company’s owner/operator, Brian Way. Belanger was the officer in charge of the execution of the investigation into Way’s illegal business and Project Spade.
The warrants resulted in the largest seizure of child pornography in Toronto’s history and Way and his editor were charged. Way was also charged with being part of a criminal organization, making it the first time this type of charge was laid in Canada as part of a child exploitation case.
“When we originally started it, we didn’t know how big it would get. We were hoping we could lay charges against the owner. I had a feeling that we would be able to look at customer records, but I didn’t realize how organized it was going to be. Sure enough, when we seized everything and laid the charges, we discovered there were very detailed records of who bought what and there was also a huge amount of e-mails that allowed us to look at the whole day-to-day operation and identify the different photographers in the other countries and get information on the boys they were filming,” Belanger said.
When we originally started it, we didn’t know how big it would get
“We were also able to send packages of information to very many countries and a good number of them acted on the information and made some good arrests.”
In September 2011, the Project Spade team created a list of 160 child pornography films sold by azovfilms.com. A target list was created using these films and the azovfilms customer database. Packages with target information were distributed to over 50 countries for their attention.
Last May, Way was convicted of making, possessing, publishing, distributing, exporting, and importing child pornography. He will be sentenced in December.
To date, a total of 369 arrests – 50 in Ontario, 58 nationally, 76 in the United States and 185 internationally – have been made. Those arrested include law enforcement officers, religious leaders, school teachers, foster parents, children volunteers, doctors and nurses.
Nearly 1,000 charges have been laid with numerous guilty pleas, another 900 charges are before the courts and over 150 people are still under investigation.
Most importantly, over 400 children have been rescued from further harm.
Through the large-scale international investigation, Belanger was able to see how easy it is for children to be lured by online sexual predators.
“It helps you get a perspective on why kids are so vulnerable at that age,” she said. “Most of the boys who were being filmed were around the ages of 10 and 12. They are still very immature and if they are from parts of the world where they don’t have a lot of opportunities and their parents can’t afford things, someone who comes forward offering free karate lessons and take them to tournaments is a God-send.”
On October 29, her 40th birthday, Belanger was honoured for investigative excellence and the successful execution of Project Spade with the William Bishop Award.
The retired Superintendent and his family, with the support of then Deputy Chief William Boothby, established the award 21 years ago.
Elaine Cernowski, the daughter of Bishop, who was unable to attend the ceremony, joined Acting Deputy Chief Jim Ramer in making the presentation to Belanger.
“My father would like to congratulate Detective Constable Belanger for her fantastic policing and investigative skills and for taking on a case which brought the issue of child pornography to the forefront and placing this issue in the international headlines around the world,” said Cernowski, who is a civilian in Records Management Services. “He’s proud of her relentless determination and perseverance to this case which he says is one of the many reasons as to why Toronto Police is the best police service in the world. It’s his hope that all of the outstanding charges before the courts with respect to this case result in convictions.”
Inspector Joanna Beaven-Desjardins, who nominated Belanger for the prestigious award, said the enormity and international scope of the project set it apart from other investigations conducted by the Service.
“Without the concerted and dedicated efforts of this one officer, the outcome would not have been the same,” she said. “Lisa is the heart and soul of Project Spade.”
Beaven-Desjardins said Belanger’s contribution to the project is an excellent example of top-notch investigative work.
“Her investigative skills started the project, her skills at managing a project of this magnitude are exceptional and her ability to bring all parties together to accomplish a goal is superior,” she pointed out. “She was able to cross over international borders in terms of getting investigators on the same page to take a hard look at what Brian Way and his company were doing online and look beneath the images of the children who were victimized.”
Ramer emphasized that winning the prestigious award is a significant achievement.
“There are a lot of excellent investigations undertaken on a yearly basis in this organization and that’s who the winner is competing against,” he said. “…We were able to save hundreds of children from further victimization because of Lisa’s dedication, drive and commitment. We also effected change in the way other countries deal with these types of offences. That is something to be truly proud of as a Service and Detective Constable Belanger is at the heart of those changes. Her success is our success as an organization.”
In her 15th year with the Service, Belanger said Project Spade is the highlight of her law enforcement career.
“It’s such a big deal that I have my whole family here with me,” she said. “This is a big honour because of the uniqueness of this investigation.
Detective Sergeant Kim Gross, Belanger’s immediate supervisor in Sex Crimes, wasn’t surprised that Belanger volunteered to be the point person in Project Spade.
“It speaks to her character and ambition,” said Gross, who also worked with Belanger at the 51 Division Youth Bureau. “She’s not afraid to take difficult cases and run with them. It took a true dedicated effort for her to see this through to the end. She was able to organize the material in such a way that other countries could go ahead and act on the information. Her skills and ability to adapt to the needs of other countries were a key part of this being a success. She had to look at hours and hours and hours of pornographic material.”
Choosing a career in policing over law school, Belanger – who has a philosophy degree – was transferred to the Intelligence Unit cyber-crime section in June 2014 after five years in the Sex Crimes Unit.
Project Spade prompted Germany to change its pornography laws by making it a crime to take nude photographs of children in order to sell or exchange them.