I left a piece of my soul in Winnipeg.
When the Alberta government announced in 2005 that it was setting up an Integrated Child Exploitation Unit, I went to Manitoba to get a behind-the-scenes look at that province’s ICE squad and how it conducts the work of rescuing children and prosecuting the predators who sexually exploit them. We called the series “Rescuing Kids Caught on the Web.”
Part of an ICE investigator’s job involves viewing videos and images of children being sexually abused. One investigator calls the task “gut-wrenching,” and there’s no other way to describe it. I’m still haunted by the things I saw during my short stay — I can’t imagine the fortitude and dedication it takes to view those types of images day after day.
Manitoba police making headway: ‘Gut-wrenching’ task of viewing abusive images takes toll on officers
Monday, June 13, 2005
Jason van Rassel
But what happens next is a crime.
After a few moments, one of the girls takes the camera and a fat, goateed man in his 20s or 30s enters the frame.
The child behind the camera (who, it becomes clear, has done this before) trains the lens on the man as he crouches behind the other girl and begins running his hands over her body.
The girl grimaces and flinches. She tries once, unsuccessfully, to push the man’s hands away.
It continues as the man lies with the now-naked girl on a bed. He takes her hands and tries placing them on his body. Staring blankly into space, the girl simply lets her hands fall away.
Frustrated by what he perceives as the girl’s lack of interest — more likely she’s petrified — he summons the other girl from behind the camera.
Without hesitation, the second girl begins performing a sex act on the man. She has been trained to do something no child that age should even know about.
The video was seized from a Manitoba man by the province’s Integrated Child Exploitation Unit, a 10-member team of Winnipeg police and RCMP specializing in child pornography investigations.
It’s a tiny sample of what Alberta’s ICE investigators will deal with when the 14-member squad of Calgary and Edmonton police and RCMP members begins its work.
“There are a lot of sick, twisted individuals out there,” says Const. Dave Boyce, one of the Manitoba unit’s five Mounties.
The mugshots of 107 arrested people hang on a wall in the ICE Unit’s Winnipeg office, but all around there are signs the fight against Internet child pornography is never-ending.
In a room where Boyce views and catalogues evidence, rows of shelves are lined with computer hard drives, monitors, printers and even an old film projector. Boyce estimates it’s “one half of one per cent” of the equipment seized by the unit since its formation in 2001.
Another room down the hall is crammed with computers in various stages of disassembly, these ones being searched for evidence by the ICE Unit’s two forensic technicians.
“You could lock the door and turn off the phone and we’d still be busy for a year,” Boyce says.
But if the task seems overwhelming, the video depicting the two young girls is an example of how investigators are making a difference.
While viewing the 14-minute video in the summer of 2003, Const. Susan Desjardine noticed several clues.
In between songs playing in the background, Desjardine heard a radio station’s call letters.
A campaign poster from the U.S. presidential election in 1996 hung on one of the walls.
The abuser himself offered clues: tattoos on his shoulder, leg and hand.
Desjardine contacted the U.S. Customs Service International Child Pornography Investigation and Coordination Center, which found the radio station in Connecticut. They also heard a contest ad between songs, which helped them determine the video was shot sometime during a one-month period in 1999.
American authorities also had an older video of the girls, meaning they were abused over a period of years.
As disturbing as that knowledge was, it helped U.S. investigators produce age-enhanced pictures of the girls that led to their identification.
From there, they found and arrested the man in the video, who had dated a relative of one of the girls.
But the same hard drive containing that success story holds evidence of crimes that may never be solved.
Desjardine scrolls through preview thumbnails, some depicting a toddler being penetrated.
The file names are similar, meaning they make up a part of a series, but Desjardine says there’s no way to know if the images are even of the same child.
“They have blankets or sheets covering her. It could be a different girl (in each image) and we don’t know the difference.”
The ICE Unit is led to the pornography primarily through tips, whether they’re from police in other jurisdictions, computer repair shops or family members who stumble across the images on a relative’s computer.
While some child pornography squads have members who work undercover and troll the Internet for pedophiles, Manitoba’s ICE Unit doesn’t have the manpower.
“That’s kind of a long-range plan. We would love to be able to do that,” says Det.-Sgt. Duane Heintz, the top-ranking Winnipeg officer in the unit.
The unit was formed in response to a nationwide probe of 2,000 Canadians suspected of accessing child pornography through a U.S. website.
User data for the 82 Manitoba suspects was two years old by the time investigators got it, leaving them with the challenge of obtaining search warrants based on dated evidence.
Investigators were able to convince judges partly by realizing that solving Internet-related crime isn’t just about technology.
“We were trying to make an argument (in court) that these individuals have a sexual interest in children, and we argued the sexual interest doesn’t change over time,” Heintz says.
The argument was quickly borne out as many of the suspects arrested by the ICE Unit for possessing child pornography were also abusing children.
“It’s ‘Police Work 101,’ but it’s ‘Police Work 101’ with technology: Gather your evidence, build your case and see it through the courts,” Heintz says.
Building the case does involve technology: two forensic technicians use specialized software to spot pornographic files that have been deleted and find user data that can sink a suspect’s alibi.
The technicians and other ICE members can spend hours a day viewing violent, degrading sex acts involving children.
For newcomers, it’s a “gut-wrenching” experience, Heintz says. Some lose sleep and even seasoned investigators experience flashbacks.
Unit members meet with a counsellor four times a year. If someone is having a particularly hard day, he or she can get away from the evidence for a few hours without anyone objecting.
Many are parents, which can make the job even more difficult at times. Still, almost without exception, the only members who leave do so because they’ve been promoted.
“The day I look at the images and it doesn’t bother me is the day I leave the unit,” says Cpl. Lindy Yeo, the RCMP’s top-ranking member and a mother of three.
“It’s all about the kids — that’s why we’re here. That’s what drives us.”
Credit card led to discovery of huge collection
Monday, June 13, 2005
Jason van Rassel
That small bit of information led police to one of the largest child pornography collections ever found in Canada.
Larsen’s two computers — which sat at the end of a narrow path cleared through the garbage, take-out containers and pizza boxes that cluttered his living room — contained 206,507 pictures and 1,757 videos of children as young as two years old being sexually abused.
Nearby, 41 pairs of girls’ panties hung on a wooden clothes rack.
The underwear, along with binoculars and a video camera pointed out a window toward a school playground across the street, provided disturbing signs Larsen’s sexual interest in children extended beyond cyberspace.
Indeed, Larsen’s arrest sparked anxiety among members of a nudist resort near Winnipeg, where he was an enthusiastic photographer and contributor to the newsletter.
Two pre-teen girls came forward during the investigation to say Larsen had fondled them.
Cataloguing the evidence was a monumental task. In addition to the images on his computer, Larsen had 276 videotapes and 27,000 pictures cut from magazines.
“This guy had such a phenomenal amount of pornography, we had to split it up,” says Det.-Sgt. Duane Heintz, one of three investigators who took months to sift through it.
Larsen pleaded guilty to possessing child pornography and two counts of sexual interference. He was sentenced to two years in jail in March, 2003, and declared a long-term offender, which placed him under supervision for an additional five years.
Larsen expressed remorse for his crimes in court, but Boyce recalls a man who viewed what he did as an expression of love for children.
“He wasn’t doing anything wrong — in his mind,” he says.
Operation Snowball proves to be just the tip of the iceberg
Sunday, June 12, 2005
Jason van Rassel
After all, the 82 original suspects represented only a small group of people using a credit card to buy legal forms of pornography — and sometimes child pornography — from a single website.
Far harder to count are the pedophiles trading violent images and videos around the world in chat rooms or one of the thousands of newsgroups devoted to discussions of sex with children — or perpetrators abusing children and saving the images on their own hard drives.
As the ICE Unit worked to trim its original suspect list, the new leads began to grow as computer repair shops, suspicious spouses and horrified friends came forward with tips.
“When you have fresh information, you have to act on it. It got to the point where our peripheral files, as we called them, began to outnumber our Snowball targets,” says Det.-Sgt. Duane Heintz, the unit’s commanding officer.
“Things snowballed, for lack of a better way of putting it.”
After extending the ICE Unit’s original mandate six months at a time, Winnipeg police and the RCMP decided in 2003 to make it a permanent unit and split the costs evenly.
“They realized the problem isn’t going away. It’s not getting better — in fact, it’s getting worse,” Heintz says.
Indeed, the Internet and technology that has sprung up around it — webcams, chat rooms, file sharing — make it easier for people who sexually abuse children to commit their crimes with little fear of getting caught.
In Alberta, the government has taken notice.
It decided to step up its efforts to fight the problem by earmarking $2 million in April’s budget to form a 14-member ICE team made up of investigators from Calgary, Edmonton and the RCMP.
They will be stepping into an environment where borders are meaningless and each passing day can reveal sickening new crimes.
In a case that’s considered a first for the province, a Fort McMurray man is accused of molesting a young girl two months ago and broadcasting it live over the Internet on a webcam. The assault was witnessed by a woman in Missouri, who contacted Canadian authorities.
In May, a provincial court judge in Calgary sentenced retired teacher William Harlos, 63, to eight months in jail for downloading more than 3,000 pictures and 763 videos, most depicting prepubescent boys in a variety of sex acts with men.
If Manitoba’s experience is any indication, Alberta’s ICE team can expect to be busy.
During the first four months of 2005, Manitoba investigators opened 59 new child exploitation investigations. At any given time, the unit juggles 40 open cases.
But as the scope of the problem has snowballed, so has Manitoba’s response. The ICE Unit is just one part of a network of measures aimed at protecting children.
“Unless we can be very targeted and specialized, there’s a new generation of predators and cyberstalkers who are going to get the better of us,” says Gord Mackintosh, Manitoba’s justice minister.
For example, Manitoba is the birthplace of Cybertip.ca, a national website that allows Canadians to report Internet child pornography.
Launched as a pilot project in September 2002, the site was set up by Child Find Manitoba and is credited with leading to 10 arrests and the deletion of approximately 500 websites containing child pornography.
Child Find continues to run the site, with the federal government now contributing approximately 70 per cent of its $1.25 million annual operating budget and the remainder coming from several private-sector partners.
“We’re like a neighbourhood watch for the Internet,” says Signy Arnason, the site’s director.
Four analysts sift through tips that come into the site, and pass on anything that appears illegal to police.
“It takes a huge workload off of us. They separate the wheat from the chaff,” Heintz says.
Child Find and the police also work closely together on the Child Online Protection Committee, established by Mackintosh’s department in 2002.
The committee is studying the feasibility of legislation that would require computer technicians who discover child pornography to report it to authorities.
Child Find is also behind attempts to reach children, teens and adults — each with a different message. One poster warns teenage girls about how a momentary lapse of judgment could have irreversible consequences: “She sent a picture without her clothes on. She can’t ever get it back,” reads a caption below a picture of a distraught girl sitting on her bed with a computer nearby.
“It’s a community response to children being exploited on the Internet — there’s no other way to approach it. That’s why we’ve been so successful,” Arnason says.
Manitoba’s Justice Department has also changed the way cases involving child victims are handled in court: the province introduced “child friendly” courtrooms and has designated specialized prosecutors for child exploitation cases.
The ICE Unit has worked with prosecutors to overcome technological challenges involved in letting defence lawyers have access to evidence seized from suspects’ computers and to ensure judges see those graphic images in court before passing sentence.
Although federal law gives judges leeway to impose a conditional sentence that spares an offender jail time, Manitoba’s changes are giving prosecutors a more compelling case for jail time, Mackintosh says.
“We were getting nominal fines and discharges and at least now we’re getting conditional sentences — though I’m still concerned about that,” he says.
“The province can’t go and change the Criminal Code, but all of this combined can provide more comfort to the victims and provide stronger evidence in court.”
Alberta child porn cops look east: Manitoba team’s Internet work delivers arrests
Sunday, June 12, 2005
Jason van Rassel
When Alberta decided it needed to do more to fight the growing problem of Internet child pornography, Manitoba provided officials with an enviable model to study.
“Historically, law enforcement have not played together very nicely in the sandbox,” says Det.-Sgt. Duane Heintz, Winnipeg‘s top-ranking member in the Manitoba ICE Unit.
“We’ve made it known to people: don’t reinvent the wheel. We’ve been there, done that.”
Investigators from Calgary and Edmonton have taken advantage of that open-door policy, visiting Winnipeg as they draw the blueprint for a 14-member team made up of city police and Mounties.
The province heeded their calls to do more to fight Internet child pornography, with Solicitor General Harvey Cenaiko announcing in April the government will spend $2 million to form Alberta’s own ICE team.
“They’ve got a good program (in Manitoba), but it’s important that we base the mandate and policies for our team on the advice of Alberta’s police experts,” says Cenaiko.
Whatever the arrangement, it will be an improvement on the status quo.
At no time were Alberta’s shortcomings more evident than in 2001, when police across Canada launched Operation Snowball to track down thousands of Canadian suspects identified by U.S. authorities during a two-year probe of an American website that contained links to sex sites — many offering child pornography.
U.S. investigators turned over 2,329 names to Canadian authorities, leaving police on this side of the border with the daunting task of tracking down suspects with two-year-old information.
Faced with the challenge of determining the guilt of 82 Manitobans pulled from the database, Winnipeg police and RCMP pooled their resources and formed a task force.
Since then, Manitoba’s ICE Unit has charged 28 suspects identified during Snowball. An additional 49 people were crossed off the list, either because they didn’t access illegal material or there wasn’t enough evidence to prove they did.
Five suspects remain. Four years later, they’re still being pursued.
In Alberta, the situation was starkly different. While 10 investigators toiled in Winnipeg, Calgary assigned only one detective to Operation Snowball.
Police announced in 2003 they were unable to arrest a single suspect among the 232 Albertans identified.
Manitoba isn’t the first Canadian jurisdiction to form a team to specialize in child pornography cases: the Ontario Provincial Police launched Project “P” in 1975, and the Toronto Police Service’s 10-member Child Exploitation Section is considered one of the best units of its kind anywhere.
However, the ICE Unit’s formation came when resources and co-operation were sorely lacking in Western Canada.
Toronto’s Det.-Sgt. Paul Gillespie is heartened by the establishment of the National Child Exploitation Co-ordination Centre in Ottawa, and news Alberta is following Manitoba’s example.