Nearly 400 children have been rescued and 348 adults arrested following an expansive and “extraordinary” international child pornography investigation, Canadian police announced Thursday.
The three-year project, named Project Spade, began when undercover officers with the Toronto Police Service Child Exploitation service made contact with a Toronto man allegedly sharing “very graphic images” of child sexual abuse in Oct. 2010, Toronto Police Service Chief William Blair said at a press conference on Thursday.
Police said their investigation revealed an entire child movie production and distribution company in Toronto operating via the web site azovfilms.com.
The site was run by 42-year old Brian Way, according to police, and sold and distributed images of child exploitation to people across the world.
Inspector Joanna Beaven-Desjardins, head of Toronto’s Sex Crimes Unit, said they enlisted the help of the United States Postal Inspection Service since many of the videos were being exported to the U.S. and began a joint investigation.
After a seven-month long investigation, officers executed search warrants across the city of Toronto including at the business, located in the city’s West End.
Investigators catalogued hundreds of thousands of images and videos of “horrific sexual acts against very young children, some of the worst they have ever viewed,” Inspector Beaven-Desjardins said at the press conference.
Police seized over 45 terabytes of data from the $4-million business that distributed to over 50 counties including Australia, Spain, Mexico, Sweden and Greece.
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For nearly a year, a team of Star reporters was granted exclusive behind-the-scenes access to the child exploitation unit of the Toronto Police Service as they brought their three-year investigation to a conclusion on Thursday.
At the centre of the ring, police allege, is Brian Way: A 42-year-old with a thin goatee and carefully groomed hair, he faces 24 charges of making, possessing, distributing, exporting and selling the explicit images of boys — who range in age from toddlers to teens — in videos that investigators say were edited, packaged and sold from his west-end Toronto warehouse.
They have also laid a charge of instructing a criminal organization, the first time this has been done in relation to a child pornography investigation. It is a charge more usually associated with gangs or organized crime.
“This case has really challenged people to reconsider what nudism and child modelling are,” said Toronto police Detective-Constable Lisa Belanger, who led the investigation. “It’s caused countries around the world to look at this material and ask whether it’s OK for doctors, teachers, daycare providers and hockey coaches to be buying this kind of material. Countries from South Africa to Australia, Isle of Man to Hong Kong and Spain have all said it’s not OK. I think it’s going to have ripple effects everywhere.”
The charges against Way, who is in custody, have not yet been proven in court. His lawyer, Nyron Dwyer, declined repeated requests for comment on behalf of his client.
Among Way’s alleged Canadian clients are a Chatham volunteer hockey coach, a teacher in Toronto, a priest and a Boy Scout leader in Quebec, and a retired high-school principal in Nova Scotia.
In the U.S., those arrested include police officers, a high-profile pediatrician, school teachers, principals and coaches and a Boy Scout leader.
In all, 108 Canadians have been arrested in Project Spade sweeps (50 in Ontario, of whom at least 20 have so far pleaded guilty to various charges). Another 76 Americans face charges. Internationally, another 164 are before the courts. And hundreds more remain under investigation.
Even as Toronto detectives revealed Project Spade to the world at a news conference Thursday at police headquarters, the arrests kept coming: Swedish police reported another batch, bringing the global total of arrests to 348.
Among them in Canada: Forty school teachers, nine doctors and nurses, 32 people who volunteer with children, six law enforcement personnel, nine pastors and priests and three foster parents.
As police dug deeper into the suspects’ activities, they discovered that many had not simply been purchasing alleged child pornography images and videos, but were actively engaged in hands-on abuse of children.
In all, police say 386 children were rescued from direct abuse and exploitation as a result of the Spade investigation — including 24 Canadian children and more than 330 children in the U.S.
For an investigation that would eventually cross international borders into more than 90 countries and include dozens of law enforcement agencies, the genesis of Project Spade began locally, nearly a decade ago.
Way, police allege, began his business — characterized now as a clandestine, large-volume international network — modestly. They say he started by buying films from other companies and redistributing them, online, under his own company name: 4PSP Inc.
But Way’s site, and success, attracted attention. By 2004, police had received more than 30 complaints about the site, says Belanger.
On the surface, it appeared to be a legal “naturist” site, showcasing what were billed as artistic films that featured nude boys. But officers decided a closer look was needed, and an investigation was launched in 2006. They looked at Way’s material and found nudity — worrying to many, but not enough to meet the strict legal parameters of child pornography.
It was decided police couldn’t lay charges, but they warned Way the material was questionable.
With that, Way disappeared from police radar — until detectives stumbled across him as part of a separate investigation years later.
In October 2010, as part of his routine work, Toronto police sex crimes unit investigator Det. Paul Krawczyk was downloading child abuse images from an anonymous online porn trader, who appeared to have a vast library of material. (Officers often pose undercover as pedophiles in order to identify targets and gather evidence.) Krawczyk, one of the most experienced investigators in Canada in the field, was taken aback by the extent of the material in his new target’s possession.
“It was one of the biggest collections of child pornography we’d ever seen,” Krawczyk says.
He discovered the anonymous figure behind the online porn library was Brian Way. That’s when police computers flagged his name from the previous investigation. The connection led to the creation of Project Spade.
By this time, 4PSP Inc. had morphed into a new site: Azovfilms.com.
The site was an Amazon-like marketplace, “featuring coming-of-age and naturist films,” the website claimed. There were Top 10 lists and reviews for discerning customers; a searchable catalogue; and digital downloads and credit card payments were available.
The site boasted more than two million unique visitors in 2009; by 2010, the number was more than three million.