Crime

A mountain of smut

Police make an arrest in a child porn ring on the Internet

PETER KUITENBROUWER November 18 1996
Crime

A mountain of smut

Police make an arrest in a child porn ring on the Internet

PETER KUITENBROUWER November 18 1996

A mountain of smut

Crime

Police make an arrest in a child porn ring on the Internet

In the Mississauga, Ont., offices of Project P, the Pornography Crime Unit of the Ontario Provincial Police, a HewlettPackard Deskjet 600c printer growls softly as it spits out another page, which falls silently into a two-inch stack on a tray. Each printout is a color photograph of one or more naked children, some in sex acts with other children, some in sex acts with adults, some with their genitals displayed. Operating the computer is Det. Rob Nickel, 28, his blond mane held back by a Nike baseball cap, the words “COPS: The largest street gang in the world” emblazoned on his T-shirt. Nickel has a formidable job: sifting through up to 30,000 computer files, about 1.3 gigabytes of material, in what police say may be the world’s largest-ever seizure of computer child pornography files. “I have to do a breakdown of what each picture is,” Nickel said last week. “We need a faster printer.”

The trail to the seizure of that staggering stack of smut began with a tip from the district attorney’s office in San Jose, Calif. A federal grand jury there indicted 16 people in July on conspiracy charges after law enforcement officials said they uncovered an Internet chat room known as the Orchid Club whose members swapped child pornography. In one case, members were giving online instructions to two participants who were molesting a 10-year-old girl. U.S. Customs and the FBI identified one of the accused as a person using an Internet service provider in Ontario, with the code name “MacPhisto.” U.S. Customs passed that information on to the OPP, and last week the Ontario force revealed that on Oct. 3, its agents raided a home in Kirkland Lake, 600 km north of Toronto, where they say they seized up to 30,000 files and a powerful computer. Video store worker Trevor Davis, 22, is to appear in court on Nov. 18 on charges of possessing, importing and distributing child pornography.

The case shows how the Internet and ever-faster modems have become a powerful tool in the hands of the world’s pedophiles. Canadian police are currently investigating or prosecuting more than a dozen cases involving possession and distribution of child porn via computer. Pedophiles find others who share their interests, and then swap stories, images and even video clips. They can also disguise their identities with code names provided by companies called anonymous remailers. “There are tremendous numbers of ways in which you can hide yourself on the Internet,” says Jim Carroll, the co-author of the Canadian Internet Handbook. “And the problem is only going to get worse. If the police think they have a challenge today, they haven’t seen anything yet.”

The police are scrambling to catch up. Det. Staff Sgt. Bob Matthews, in his eighth year as head of Project ft says the unit got its first modem about three years ago. Now, he says, computers are involved in one way or another in all the child pornography investigations that his staff of eight detectives undertakes. He plans to hire four more officers, “ft took me a while when they guys came in and tried to explain it to me,” Matthews, a 31-year veteran of the force, says of the new medium for pornography. Now, Matthews is the proud owner of a Compaq laptop, and says: “Thank God I’m finally getting up to speed on it.”

Meanwhile, pedophiles are finding other uses for computers. In Vancouver, Det. Noreen Waters, a city police officer who works on pornography cases alongside the RCMP, says most of the child porn she seizes “still comes on the normal old routes though the mail.” But she has also investigated several cases where men hooked into the Internet and pretended to be children in order to get into increasingly intimate computer conversations with youngsters. “You could warn your child before, ‘Don’t talk to strangers,’ ” says Waters. “Now, they come right into your home.”

To fight those crimes, there is increasing cross-border cooperation among police. At the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa, Customs attaché Richard Mercier says he regularly exchanges information on computertransmitted child porn with many different jurisdictions across Canada, from British Columbia to Newfoundland. Matthews calls the co-operation with the Americans “excellent.” By tracking child-porn chat group participants to their home towns, Mercier adds, police have the opportunity to uncover local criminal offences. As for how much criminal activity is taking place, he says, there is still “no way for us to get a handle on the volume of these things.”

The job of taking the Kirkland Lake case to trial will take the police a long time. Last week in the Project P offices, officers were beginning another grim task: reading the first three volumes, each two inches thick, of child porn stories printed out from files found during the bust. Those represent just 22 out of approximately 375 stories the police have already identified among the material. There are also more than 150 video clips, some of them horrifying: in one, a child rapes another while the one being raped cries out in pain. Some of the pictures were recognizable from previously discovered child pornography books, but others appear to be new. Said Matthews, who had to fight back tears as he described the contents of some of the videos to reporters: “I mean, this is pretty scary stuff.”

PETER KUITENBROUWER