A television ad and a shopping bag helped the Victim Identification (VI) unit crack a child exploitation case that went unsolved for more than two years.
Those clues, along with assistance from dozens of partners across the globe, enabled the National Child Exploitation Coordination Centre (NCECC) to charge a man and bring three children to safety.
While nearly every child exploitation case involves the exchange of information and intelligence, this case dealt with more partners than usual, and the VI unit pursued many different avenues before finding the victims.
"When you look at child exploitation, it's not a local issue, it's not a national issue, it's a global issue," says Insp. Peter Payne, officer in charge for the NCECC. "In some cases you have no idea where this victim could be, so it's important to reach out to partners worldwide."
Narrowing the search
This particular case involved photos and videos of three young children — one five-year-old and twins less than a year old.
"You start looking for background clues…very rarely do we look at the child victim, we are always looking at the surroundings," says lead investigator Cst. Thomas Nairne.
When he and the VI team began analyzing the photos and videos, they noticed a familiar store logo on a shopping bag in the background. With some research, they found out that the store was part of a franchise located only in Ontario and Quebec. The team had effectively narrowed down their search to just two provinces.
"That's the biggest thing — if we can narrow it down to a specific geographic location, we can really focus our investigation," he says. "Until then, they could be anywhere in the world."
Although the VI team had found a general location for the kids, they had little else to go on.
"We at the NCECC are not necessarily specialists in everything, so we have to reach out and ask for help," says Nairne. "Everyone has a different perspective and sees different things when they look at a picture."
The VI unit contacted various government partners, asking for their assistance in identifying the victims. They also contacted Europol, the agency that originally seized the videos from a suspect computer, to see if there were additional investigative materials or links between other suspects.
They also reached out to American partners at the Department of Homeland Security and their counterparts at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Washington, D.C., to see if any e-mail accounts were linked to the videos.
After months of digging, the team was at a dead end, having exhausted all avenues. They realized they needed to take a different approach to solve the case.
A different approach
After assessing the risk to the victims, it was decided that the NCECC would circulate an information bulletin to Criminal Intelligence Service Canada and Criminal Intelligence Service Ontario. Nothing turned up.
After another evaluation, the NCECC distributed a Canada-wide, police-only information bulletin with the victims' pictures and information. This was the first time the NCECC had ever circulated a nationwide bulletin to help solve a case.
After just two days, a positive hit turned up from a community program officer who knew one of the children from a local school. The team confirmed a match, and the Ontario Provincial Police executed a search warrant, arresting and charging the victims' uncle with numerous sexual and computer-related offences. The 35-year-old suspect was recently sentenced to 18 years in prison for these offences.
According to Payne, this is one of the few instances where such a large number of partners and agencies were recruited to help solve one case.
"We're working collaboratively to solve these crimes, and we have to, it's so global," says Nairne. "It's very gratifying when a successful investigation saves children from an abusive environment, no matter where they are in the world."
Reprinted with permission from the Pony Express (No. 4, 2016).