A multi-agency global investigation involving the online sexual abuse of children has led to 153 arrests mainly in Canada, the United States and Europe.
The youngest victim was 10 months old.
At a news conference at police headquarters on April 12, Detective Constable Janelle Blackadar, of Toronto Police Service Sex Crimes, said the abuses weren’t only recorded and distributed, but were often live-streamed events where others could actively participate, encourage and direct the sexual abuse of these children.
The international investigation – Project Mercury -- started four years ago after the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) started looking at a man involved in the sexual abuse of children online with himself and other individuals.
“Their investigation resulted in the identity of seven offenders and seven children were rescued,” she said. In all, Project Mercury resulted in 17 children rescued and 58 safeguarded.
One of the people linked to the investigation is Toronto resident Marc Leonard.
“Through forensic examination of Leonard’s evidence, numerous other persons engaged in the distribution of child abuse material were identified,” said Blackadar. “The Toronto Police began conducting undercover investigations and sending leads internationally, originally assisted by Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Toronto office, and then assisted by the Phoenix office. Due to the identification of worldwide perpetrators who were using various social networking platforms to engage in the distribution of child abuse material, the Toronto Police Service, HIS Toronto and Phoenix offices and the National Crime Agency partnered to conduct investigations into these crimes.”
While conducting undercover investigations in July 2015, Toronto Police observed the live abuse of a six-year-old child.
“The sexual abuse of this child occurred not only for the sexual gratification of the abuser himself, but also to satisfy the requests from those online who then actively encouraged the abuse while it was happening live,” said Blackadar. “During the abuse of the six-year-old child, users commented amongst themselves as well as directing the abuser. Unfortunately, this was not the first time this online abuse of this child took place, but I can tell you it was the last.”
Subsequent Toronto Police undercover investigations of this group of sexual offenders led to the discovery of the distribution of child abuse material of an eight-year-old child and the invitation by the offender to others to also participate in administering narcotics to the child to facilitate the sexual abuse.
“The undercover officer was able to immediately identify the suspect who was believed to be in Saskatoon," said Blackadar.
Cpl. Jared Clarke of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Saskatoon was notified immediately.
Within hours of identifying the suspect, Kenneth Bowman was apprehended by members of the Saskatoon Internet Child Exploitation Section and the child was identified.
Bowman has pled guilty to several charges, including aggravated sexual assault, making child pornography and administering a noxious thing. An application has been made to designate him as a dangerous offender.
The Toronto Police Service has assisted in 16 investigations in Canada on this project, leading to the arrests of seven persons in Toronto, two in Ottawa and one each in Belleville, Thunder Bay, Quebec, Edmonton, Newfoundland, New Brunswick and Saskatoon.
“The success of this joint project with the National Crime Agency, Homeland Security Investigations, along with numerous other domestic and international partners is a great example of the co-operation of law enforcement agencies with one common goal. That’s to identify and safeguard children no matter where they are in the world,” Blackadar noted.
In addition to the 16 arrests in Canada, 58 were made in the United States and 79 in the UK.
Of the 79 arrested in the UK, 26 have been deemed high-risk.
‘We measure high risk by a variety of methods,” said Graham Ellis of the NCA. “It can be whether they are in a position of trust, previous convictions, evidence we have against them or their access to children. So, a large proportion of the offenders that the team here has identified are high risk.”
He said 29 have been convicted for serious offences and are serving a total of 68-and-a-half years in prison. They include four teachers, a doctor, a member of police staff, a nurse, a priest, a foster carer and a private music tutor.
“The operation has also identified 58 children who have been at risk and we have been able to safeguard them and put measures in place to prevent them from being a victim in the future,” said Ellis. “In addition, we have prevented a child being adopted by an offender and we have removed a child in foster care.”
Ellis said six offenders were arrested on July 22, 2016, during a live event.
“They are six prominent offenders, including a youth worker who also drove vulnerable adults around,” he added. “In a second live event in 2015 in Denmark, a four-year-old girl was abused. She was fortunately rescued and given the appropriate support and the offender was arrested and convicted. As a result of that, we arrested four offenders. From our perspective, this is very much the beginning. We look forward to a fairly successful multi-agency approach to safeguard children around the world and the team here will continue to target people who are a threat to children.”
Melissa Ruiz, the HSI attaché in Ottawa, said that fighting child exploitation is among her organization’s highest priorities.
“When it comes to protecting the most vulnerable among us, we will leave no stone unturned,” she said. “This case is a testament to the outstanding relationship we share with Canada and the United Kingdom.”
She said that, because of the dedication of the officers involved in the case, approximately 58 sexual predators have been arrested in the United States.
“But, more importantly, 13 children who had been victimized have been rescued in the U.S. alone,” said Ruiz. “These cases include one particular event involving the live-stream abuse of a child in the U.S in October 2017 which resulted in the arrests of two subjects and one child victim rescue. Several of those arrested during this investigation also included those that held positions of public trust who had access to children.”
Know that if you are a predator, we will find you, arrest you and ensure that you will face the full weight of the law
Since its inception in 2003, HSI has initiated more than 35,000 criminal investigations with the arrest of more than 12,000 predators in the U.S. and abroad.
“Operations like this will continue,” Ruiz added. “Know that if you are a predator, we will find you, arrest you and ensure that you will face the full weight of the law.”
Blackadar, who shared the 2012 Toronto Police Service Officer of the Year Award with then-Detective Paul Krawczyk for their work on Project Sanctuary that led to the arrest of 60 sex crimes suspects worldwide, made a special appeal to sexual predators.
“If you have a sexual interest in children, whether you want to acknowledge it or not, if you are consuming child pornography, searching for it and watching it, please stop,” she said. “You can turn yourself in and get help through the judicial process or go to a doctor to get a referral for counselling.”
She also had some advice for victims of sexual abuse.
“Please know that you are never alone and that your voice matters,” Blackadar said. “Try to find the courage to come forward and tell someone. There are officers all around the world who are dedicated to trying to safeguard you, no matter where you are and to protect you from future harm.”