Over 150 people arrested in connection with child exploitation, 7 in Toronto
A three-year joint-agency investigation into global online sexual exploitation has resulted in the arrest of more than 150 people and the rescue of about a dozen children.
The international investigation was named Project Mercury and included officers from Toronto Police, Ottawa Police, RCMP in Saskatchewan, Homeland Security Investigations in the United States, and the National Crime Agency in the United Kingdom.
In a news conference on Thursday, Det. Const. Janelle Blackadar said the child exploitations unit of the Toronto police launched an undercover investigation in 2014 that led to the arrest of 16 Canadians.
“In 2014, the national crime agency in the United Kingdom discovered a group of offenders who were engaged in the sexual abuse of children, the youngest of which was 10 months old,” she said. “The abuses were not only recorded and distributed, but often took place in live streaming events where others could actively participate, encourage and direct the sexual abuse of these children. “
The national crime agency identified one of these participants as a Toronto resident.
During the news conference, officers outlined the process of their investigation.
In July 2015, officers said they observed the live stream sexual abuse of a six-year-old. Blackadar said the live-stream was “not only for the sexual gratification of the abuser himself, but to satisfy the requests of those online, who were actively encouraging the abuse of the child.”
Toronto police said 20 offenders were arrested in connection with this live stream and the child was rescued.
In March 2016, officers discovered sexual abuse material involving an eight-year-old child. This material included an advertisement for the abuse. Police said the offender was allegedly drugging the child with narcotics. The offender was identified and arrested by RCMP in Saskatoon and the child was rescued.
Two other occurrences led to the arrest of a dozen people and the rescue of two more children.
Melissa Ruiz, an attaché with Homeland Security Investigations, said that Project Mercury led to the arrest of about 58 suspected predators and the rescue of 13 children. Ruiz said that some of the people arrested held positions of public trust and they had access to children.
“If you are a predator know that we will find you, arrest you, and ensure that you will face the full weight of the law,” she said. “If you are travelling abroad to exploit children and believe you are beyond the reach of the U.S., you are wrong.”
Graham Ellis of the National Crime Agency in the United Kingdom said that 79 people were arrested as a result of Project Mercury. Nine of the people arrested were in positions of public trust. Ellis said the National Crime Agency arrested four teachers, a doctor, a member of police staff, a nurse, a priest, and a private music teacher.
“This is the beginning of a multi-agency approach to safeguard the most vulnerable,” Ellis said. “Geographical boundaries will not be an issue.”
Since 2014, 153 people from Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom have been arrested due to Project Mercury. Toronto Police released a list of the people in Canada who have been charged or convicted as a result of Project Mercury. This included seven people from Toronto, two people from Ottawa, and one person from Edmonton, Belleville, Thunder Bay, Quebec, Saskatoon, Newfoundland, and New Brunswick.
Blackadar said that technology lends itself to the distribution and sharing of child abuse, saying that concerns about privacy can sometimes lead to offenders being notified about their investigations. She urged those with sexual interest in children to contact police or health professionals for treatment and said that victims should know that there are officers around the world prepared to help them.
“If you are a victim of sexual abuse, please know that you are never alone and your voice is important. Try to find the courage to come forward and tell someone.”