348 people arrested and 386 children rescued
Police say a sweeping child pornography investigation that began with a Toronto man has led to at least 386 victims being rescued.
Toronto police say 348 people have been arrested around the world as part of Project Spade, which they described as one of the largest child porn busts they’ve ever achieved.
Hundreds of thousand of the images, filling 45 terabytes or a stack of paper reaching as tall as 1,500 CN Towers, found featured “horrific acts of sexual abuse — some of the worst (officers) have seen,” said Inspector Joanna Beaven-Desjardins, who heads the Toronto police’s sex crimes unit.
They say 50 of those arrested are from Ontario and 58 are from other parts of Canada.
Police say school teachers, doctors and actors were among those arrested.
The Toronto man at the heart of the investigation was allegedly running a company since 2005 that distributed child pornography videos.
Police allege the man instructed people around the world to create the videos of children ranging from five to 12 years of age, and then distributed the videos to international customers.
“We’ve worked a lot of big cases. This is by far the biggest,” said one source.
The company, Toronto-based Azov Films, sold mail-order DVDs and streamed online videos of naked boys from Germany, Romania and Ukraine, which it marketed as naturist movies and claimed were legal in Canada and the United States.
According to police in Spain, where 38 suspects were arrested last year, the Canadian firm earned $1.6-million annually from sales in 94 countries.
The head of the company, 41-year-old Toronto resident Brian Way, has been in custody since his May, 2011, arrest after an online undercover operation.
Records at the Finch Avenue courthouse in Toronto show that, in addition to indicting him with 23 child-pornography-related criminal counts, prosecutors took the unprecedented step of designating Azov Films as a criminal organization and charging Mr. Way with giving directions on behalf of a gang.
Originally enacted to fight criminal bikers, gangsterism offences bring stiffer penalties because they have to be served consecutively to other jail terms.
Mr. Way’s mother, Sandra Waslov, who is believed to be in the U.S., was named as a co-conspirator, along with a German videographer, Markus Rudolph Roth.
About 100 people have been arrested in Canada, including 45 in Ontario and 45 in Quebec, police sources said.
According to U.S. court documents, the Azov investigation was prompted by about 20 complaints to Toronto police.
Some of the complaints came from other law-enforcement agencies, some from cyber-tipsters and even some from business rivals of Mr. Way, sources said.
Azov was not exactly a covert operation: It was incorporated, held trademarks and fought for them in very public legal battles that stretched over years.
Starting in 2004, David Eisenlohr, a California mail-order distributor selling what he calls European naturist videos, complained to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that Mr. Way was stealing his films and reselling them online at a cheaper price.
Mr. Eisenlohr then came to the attention of U.S. investigators in March, 2006, when photo-lab employees at a Wal-Mart in Virginia saw a man, David Tetterton, trying to print explicit photos from their self-serve kiosk. Evidence seized from Mr. Tetterton’s house led to Mr. Eisenlohr, who was indicted with trading child pornography.
Even as he faced criminal charges, Mr. Eisenlohr continued his campaign against his Canadian competitor. In 2007, he wrote a letter to then Canadian justice minister Rob Nicholson to complain about Mr. Way “stealing my intellectual property using the internet” and ask whether there were laws in Canada to stop him.
“It’s crazy, guys arguing over what we consider child-exploitation material,” one police detective said about the feud.
In court, Mr. Eisenlohr successfully argued that his nude videos were not pornographic and he was acquitted in 2009.
The following year in Romania, a German man arrived in the Transylvanian city of Zalau and began offering martial-arts classes to local boys.
The man was Mr. Roth and he was arrested in August, 2010, and sentenced to three years of prison for taking more than 100 pornographic films of children. Authorities said the films were sold to Canada at $1,000 a piece.
Two months after Mr. Roth’s arrest, Toronto police and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service began their Azov investigation, accessing the company website and making undercover purchases.
They found that orders to the U.S. transited through a warehouse near Buffalo before being shipped by USPS Priority mail.
Toronto police executed a search warrant at Azov’s Etobicoke offices on May 1, 2011, and seized hundreds of DVDs, computers, business records, shipping labels and customer order histories, according to U.S. court documents.
Police sources estimate about 100 children were rescued as a result of the investigation.
Sources say the investigation identified 10 to 15 children in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, who modelled for photographers connected with Azov.
In addition, the sources said, as Azov clients were identified around the world, police uncovered more children who were victims of those customers, who were either “hands-on abusers” or who secretly videotaped them.
In one case, the Azov probe led to the arrest of Richard Keller, a pediatric endocrinologist in Andover, Mass.
A search at Dr. Keller’s house uncovered videos that appeared to have been shot at the Cap d’Agde nudist colony in southern France. The camera operator’s forearm and wristwatch are seen at one point. Investigators then executed a second search warrant to see whether they could find a matching wristwatch.
Several of the American defendants contend the videos they bought aren’t pornographic at all, but just legal videos of naked boys, using the same argument that led to Mr. Eisenlohr’s acquittal. U.S. courts so far have sided with the prosecution and a number of defendants have already been found guilty.
In Canada, the Criminal Code’s definition of child pornography includes images where a minor’s genitals are depicted for a sexual purpose.
Canadian police say they’ve obtained legal opinions from prosecutors that the material sold by Azov qualified as child pornography.
“What did they think they were buying?” one officer said about customers who argued they bought legal naturist films.