What began as an investigation more than a year ago into child sex abuse in the United States by the Justice Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement has unraveled a global network of more than 700 child predators and resulted in 31 children being rescued from horrific conditions, authorities in Great Britian say.
Monday, the British Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre — the British government's online child exploitation task force — announced that 200 suspects had been identified in the United Kingdom and that law enforcement agencies in 35 countries had identified 500 suspects around the world who are currently under investigation.
'Kids the Light of Our Lives'
U.K. authorities say they made a break in the case when they shut down the Web site Kids the Light of Our Lives, which was an open forum for trading images and videos of children — including some infants — being sexually abused. A British court has convicted the man behind the Web site, Timothy David Martyn Cox from Buxhall, England, who used the screen name "Son_of_god."
Canadian investigators notified British authorities about Cox after they came across information showing Cox's involvement with explicit Web sites in August 2006. Toronto police conducted online surveillance and worked with British officials to gather evidence and find other suspects who were involved in trading images of sexual abuse.
Thousands of Images
When Cox was arrested the following month, U.K. forensic investigators found more than 75,000 explicit images on his computer, in addition to information that he had supplied 11,491 images to other users around the world.
"From the apparent safety of his home, Cox spent hours each day planning, promoting and encouraging the abuse and exploitation of innocent young victims. In doing so, he provided a service to hundreds of like-minded individuals, enabling those with a sexual interest in children to share indecent images and discuss further plans for abuse," said Jim Gamble, head of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre.
Cox was convicted Monday and now awaits sentencing. "Today's verdict serves as a powerful warning to those using the Internet to facilitate the sexual exploitation of children," Gamble said in a statement.
As part of the investigation, British police also arrested Gordon Mackintosh, who had tried to re-establish the Web site after Cox was arrested and the Web site was taken down. When police arrested the 33-year-old Mackintosh, they discovered more than 5,000 images and found almost 392 movie files.
Mackintosh awaits sentencing after pleading guilty to charges of manufacturing, possessing and distributing child pornography.
Toronto Police Investigate
Detective Sgt. Kim Scanlan of the Toronto police sex crimes unit said that 24 suspects had been arrested in Canada and that, since 2005, seven children had been rescued in Canada. The Toronto sex crimes unit has been a leading authority in tracking online child sexual exploitation. "The more resources we put to it, the more we are finding," Scanlan told ABC News.
Black Market Industry
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, child pornography is a $20 billion a year black market industry that has proliferated on the Internet.
David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire's Crimes against Children Research Center, said that in the United States, "overall sex crimes against children is going down … but it is growing online. It is a problem, which could be exported."
The investigation began initially in March 2005 with agents from the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement working with the Toronto police department. Authorities took down several online child sex abuse computer networks.
In March 2006, the investigation shut down numerous chat rooms and Internet sites that contained live streaming videos of sexual abuse. The Justice Department announced at the time that 27 individuals had been charged in indictments and criminal complaints, with 13 of those individuals in the United States.
Ongoing Investigation in the United States
U.S. law enforcement officials declined to disclose how many suspects were under investigation in the United States, because it remains ongoing, but they did say that the investigation was active in nine states.
Given the international scope of the investigation in 35 countries, more charges and arrests are expected.
"We've had great success with DHS and ICE. With more training, better equipment and working together, we're hopeful other agencies will have success," Scanlan said.