Second in a three-part series
When a police officer pretends to be a 14-year-old girl from Canada on an Internet chat room, his popularity skyrockets.
Undercover operations have taken on new meaning as more children are falling victim to sexual exploitation on the Internet, and with limited options open to them, law enforcement agencies continue to use the practice even though it has been questioned by the courts.
“When we get an opportunity to be proactive — most time our investigations are file driven — we don’t get a lot of time to do as much as we would like, but when we do, we are successful in catching the bad guy,” said an officer who can’t be named.
“It is very easy to go into a chat room and post as a 14-year-old female from Canada and get message after message, after message, after message,” he said, gesturing with his hands.
He said he picks one and develops an online friendship with the responder.
It doesn’t take long for the relationship to progress into a chat with sexual overtones — an offence in Canada punishable by prison time.
“It happens very fast. Some will say their age, some will say they’re younger, others will say they’re 35 and live in the U.S. You don’t know who these people are. That’s the scary part. But it happens very fast and the investigation proceeds immediately,” he said.
During a recent interview with the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit—Newfoundland and Labrador (CFSEU-NL) Internet child exploitation (ICE) unit, officers said once an offender is identified, the collection and examination of evidence begins.
Unit member RCMP Sgt. Darin MacDonald says it can take a year or two before charges are laid.
“Electronic devices are seized and turned over to another unit for processing where officers work to obtain information. It’s very labour intensive,” said MacDonald, who has been with the ICE unit since it was formed in September 2013.
There are seven officers from the RNC and RCMP who work out of different offices around the province that make up the team.
MacDonald, Staff Sgt. Joe Gullage and RNC Const. Terry Follett work out of the St. John’s office.
The unit has 21 ongoing investigations — several are at various stages of prosecution. And there have been court challenges with some of them along the way.
All three officers say they are well aware of the concerns of the court, with law enforcement techniques being questioned when it comes to undercover work as well as seizing and searching people’s private electronic devices.
“Sometimes court decisions don’t bode well in our favour,” said Follett, adding there are many limitations and challenges facing officers who fight Internet crimes.
“When it comes to these offences, they are developing. They are new and constantly shifting and the Criminal Code needs to catch up,” added MacDonald.
“The Criminal Code was written so long ago, it’s starting to add new sections now, but case law gives us our limitations, so if we get one bad decision we’re bound by it and it can influence our investigative techniques,” he said.
In 2002, the Criminal Code of Canada was amended to include new offences that would help combat the luring of individuals younger than 18 by making it “illegal to communicate with children over the Internet for the purpose of committing a sexual offence.”
Follett said the research is clear and while the chat is the crime, that is only part of it.
“These people can only talk so much and say the things they would like to do and have done to them and exchange pictures, but at the end of the day, these people turn into hands-on offenders,” he said.
“They can only sit and talk for so long. Their intention is to have sex with the child. If that wasn’t the case, why would a 30-year-old man be talking to a 14-year-old with sexual inferences?” said Follett.
Regarding a recent Internet luring case in St. John’s, where an undercover officer was posing as a young child, the judge allowed the evidence gathered from the investigation, but he questioned the police technique.
Judge David Orr said by using the tool, the police were in contact with some people who were youths and as a result involved them in the investigation.
“There were encounters with the officer by innocent members of the public. The officer used their online presence on his Facebook page to provide credibility to his profile while at the same time they shared information with him, unaware that he was a police officer,” wrote Orr.
“It is clear that this is an undesirable and unfortunate byproduct of the technique that was used and one that should have been made subject to court supervision with previous judicial authorization prescribing the limits of what was to be done and not left solely to the discretion of the investigating officer,” the judge concluded.
While the ICE team couldn’t comment directly on this case or the ones before the court, the officers agree law enforcement agencies have limitations and must find ways to work within the law without infringing upon the rights of an accused.
One of the most prominent Internet luring cases before the court involves Kevin Kelly, a former senior editor with The Herald magazine.
Kelly, 41, is alleged to have sent inappropriate messages to a teenage girl on Facebook over a five-week period.
A complaint was made to police in January 2012. Kelly’s case was back before the court Wednesday regarding a Charter application involving the evidence gathered by the ICE unit. It was set over until March 24.
The most recent Internet luring charge was laid by the ICE unit Feb. 11 against Mohamed Elseify. The 36-year-old is charged with two counts of attempting to lure a child younger than 18 by means of a computer. His case will be called March 20.
A case that shocked educators and parents last year was when a former teacher was charged with exchanging thousands of Facebook messages with a former student at his school when she was 14 and he was 40.
Jody Hale was found guilty by a judge Dec. 13, 2013 in Grand Falls-Windsor. The case is due back in court March 3 for a pre-sentence report.
Several other cases are expected to be called over the next couple of weeks at courthouses across the province. They include that of Sean Patrick Mills, who faces four charges of child luring for a sexual purpose using a computer, and will be back in court in June in St. John’s for a trial; Lily Violet Avery, who faces one charge of luring and one of making sexually explicit material available to a child, Clarenville; and Oral Mark Small, who pleaded guilty Feb. 14 to Internet luring and will be back in court in St. John’s in June for a sentencing hearing.
Tomorrow: Embracing technology and learning from it