Facing light punishment
'Kiddypics' offenders in other countries got years behind bars. Not in Canada.
JULIAN SHER | March 26, 2008 |
In the murky underworld of Internet chat rooms where collaborators trade in graphic images of child abuse, he was known as "Lord Vader." Even by the depraved standards of Internet child porn, the "Kiddypics and Kiddyvids" club where he hung out was egregious. Members used sophisticated encryption to view sexually exploitative material — including live streaming video of men abusing their own infant children. In one post monitored by police who infiltrated the group, Lord Vader boasted that he had "lots of fun" watching young children at a local shopping mall. "Perv?" joked another Kiddypics member. "Thanks for the compliment," Vader replied.
It was no joking matter back in March 2006 when — thanks to intensive undercover work by Canadian investigators who have gained a reputation worldwide for their cyberskills — authorities here as well as in the U.S., Australia and Europe announced they had broken up the Kiddypics ring, which was engaged in what the U.S. attorney general at the time called "the worst imaginable forms of child pornography." Eventually, more than 80 people were arrested around the world and over 30 children rescued in the landmark global police operation. Code-named Project Wickerman, it remains one the biggest global busts of its kind.
But two years after the Wickerman arrests, a Maclean's survey of more than two dozen completed court cases reveals that while offenders in other countries face decades behind bars, their Canadian partners in crime can count their punishment in days.
Lord Vader turned out to be Kristan Hayes Ahola, now 30, who studied welding at a community college in Prince George, B.C. He pleaded guilty in British Columbia's provincial court to one count of "simple possession" of hundreds of abuse images; the Crown and defence made a joint submission for the sentence handed down in January. His punishment? Fourteen days — to be served on weekends. Ahola will also be on probation for three years and remain on Canada's Sex Offender Registry for 10 years.
Those convicted of hands-on sexual assault of children generally get harsher punishments, but up until recently, many found guilty of so-called "simple possession" of child abuse images got no jail time at all. Fourteen days is the new minimum mandatory for the crime since 2006. "It's very frustrating," says Sgt. Paul Krawczyk, who until recently was a detective with Toronto's elite sex crimes unit. He spent months tracking down Lord Vader and other suspects in the Kiddypics chat room. "Canada is where the Wickerman case started," he says, "and where most of the work was done, and yet here is where we're getting the lowest sentences."
Like Lord Vader, two other Canadians found guilty of possession of child abuse images got only 14 days — even though one of them had one of the largest collections police had seen. "These are not 'just pictures,' " says Edmonton police Det. Randy Wickins, who worked closely with Krawczyk to launch the international bust. "I wish people could understand the horror of what these children go through." Three other Canadian men charged with distributing in addition to possessing the illicit images received 18-month terms.
Contrast that with the U.S., where nine people convicted of similar charges of possession and distribution in the Project Wickerman sweep are serving prison terms ranging from five to 20 years. "The children raped in these images are real, and we take these offences seriously," says Drew Oosterbaan, chief of the child exploitation and obscenity section at the Department of Justice in Washington. "You download child pornography, you should expect to do serious time." In Britain, three men found guilty received "indeterminate sentences" — meaning they stay behind bars indefinitely, until they prove they are no longer a danger to society.
Meanwhile, a Canadian ringleader of the group, an Edmonton man who was one of the chat room administrators, got off lightly. It was his arrest by Canadian investigators in early 2006 that led to the unravelling of the worldwide network. When police burst through his door, Carl Treleaven had 90 people standing by online, waiting to download some of the 20 gigabytes of child exploitation material he had stored on his computer. Treleaven, now 51, was released last September into a special residential treatment program for sex offenders, after serving only 18 months of a 3Â½-year sentence.