Sifting Clues to an Unsmiling Girl

Times Staff Writer

She is perhaps 12 now, her hair still light blond, but she doesn't smile anymore. Over the last three years, she has appeared in 200 explicit photos that have become highly coveted collectibles for pedophiles trolling the Internet. They have watched her grow up online -- the hair getting longer, the look in her eyes growing more distant.

"She's a collector's item," says Det. Sgt. Paul Gillespie of the Toronto Sex Crimes Unit. "I know somebody out there could lead us to her. But right now, the only ones who can see her face are the wrong ones."

To his shame and frustration, all he could do was watch as the photos kept appearing and the usual tricks to trace her failed. So he decided to try something different. A computer expert digitally erased the girl from the photos, and in February, Gillespie asked the public to help identify the locations: a hotel room, a fountain, an elevator and a video arcade.

Moments after the pictures appeared on a Toronto television station, the tips began to come, and caller after caller identified a Disney World hotel in Florida. A scan of hotel records gave the police a few clues. They believe some of the pictures were taken by a relative on a family vacation and the rest were taken at a residence.

It was a rare breakthrough for Gillespie and his team at the Child Exploitation Section of the Sex Crimes Unit. A 25-year veteran of the Toronto Police Service, Gillespie is a tall, mustached man with intense energy, blue language and a willingness to push boundaries -- including teaming up with Microsoft's Bill Gates to pioneer a tracking system that became available this month to any police unit investigating child pornography.

But in the case of the Disney World girl, it hasn't been enough. Now Gillespie wants to do something radical: release a photo of her face. But aside from worrying that it would violate her privacy, he must weigh whether it would put her more at risk than letting the abuse continue while they search for other leads.

In another case, an abuser confessed to police that he'd been so convinced that his victim's mother had figured out what was going on, he hired a fellow pedophile to kill her and the girl in exchange for more pictures and sex toys. What would happen if the offender saw the police broadcasting the Disney World girl's picture and expected that he was going to be caught?

"Could harm be caused? Absolutely," says the 45-year-old Gillespie. "Would it be more harm than would be caused for the rest of her life if we didn't do anything? We don't know. We're trying to determine the best thing to do."

Gillespie has been on that knife's edge since the Child Exploitation Section was created four years ago. The Toronto police seized more than 2 million pictures and videos of child sexual abuse in 2003. So far, the world's law agencies have identified fewer than 500 of the children.

"We're doing a terrible job," he says in his office at police headquarters. "Five hundred kids of 50,000? What is that?"

Their work is a daily sojourn to the underworld. Gillespie has a team of 10 men and six women who spend hours in front of their computers, extracting leads, writing warrants and sifting photos for clues. The payoff is the day they get to kick down a door and take the "bad guy" away. The mood is light and the humor often off-color to ease the horror.

On one wall is a "Star Trek" poster with investigators' faces substituted for the Starship Enterprise crew. But even that alludes to a dark fact of their work: All but one of the offenders they have arrested in the last four years was a hard-core Trekkie.

Det. Constable Warren Bulmer slips on a Klingon sash and shield they confiscated in a recent raid. "It has something to do with a fantasy world where mutants and monsters have power and where the usual rules don't apply," Bulmer reflects. "But beyond that, I can't really explain it."

That is one of the biggest challenges of the Child Exploitation Section's work. They need to get inside the minds of the victims and the perpetrators to find them, but there is only so far they can -- or want to -- go.

Sitting in front of two computers in a blue suit and gold tie, Det. Constable Paul Krawczyk starts the day as a 13-year-old girl. Within minutes of his entering a chat room on education, and without asking for them, men are e-mailing nude pictures. "It's always the same," he says. "After two minutes, here come the body parts."

Sometimes, he can set up a meeting with a likely offender within half an hour; others take months to be drawn out.

By lunchtime, he is a pedophile conversing with a fellow "pedo" on the other side of the world about their shared interest. "R u active?" he asks, meaning do you abuse kids. "Yea," the message comes back. "Seven [years old] and 2."

The pedo describes his exploits in unprintable detail and eventually asks to exchange pictures. They negotiate for a while, and the other guy sends a dozen photos that seem to be culled from other websites.

Krawczyk says they will try to save any kid, no matter where the child is. But this guy is very far away, and none of the images seems to be the kind of homemade product that indicates active exploitation.

About a third of child-porn collectors are also hands-on abusers, the police say, and almost all of them are related to or otherwise known by their victims. Krawczyk brushes him off with a "Not good enuf" and moves on.

Internet-savvy pedophiles have managed to stay ahead of investigators by using private networks, file-sharing software and surfing anonymously on public wireless systems.

One night in 2003, a frustrated Gillespie e-mailed Gates asking for help creating a database that could combine data from around the country -- and the world -- to help track down offenders and their victims.

To his surprise, Gates responded. After a year and a half of collaboration, Microsoft Canada and the Toronto police unveiled the Child Exploitation Tracking System this month to help investigators share information.

The system is designed to enable police in any country to plug into the system and cross-check data, including names, Internet aliases and the digital signature of every captured photograph. The software is free to any police team working to stop child pornography.

"It's important, because when we see a new series of photos online, that child could be anywhere," Gillespie said. "We need to cooperate and not duplicate each other's work. We just traced a toddler to a particular neighborhood in Spain through a subway ticket in his picture."

Interpol sends Gillespie any photo series suspected to have originated in North America. Clothing styles, writing or even the shape of a wall socket offer clues to locale.

Gillespie hopes the tracking system will not only link the often-overlapping investigations around the world, but that it will save his team heartache by letting the computers do some of the dirty work of sifting through the photos by their digital signatures.

"We arrested a bad guy last week," he said. "There were 1,000 images on his hard drive. Can I pay you enough to sit at this computer and look at every image? There are babies raped and sodomized with romantic music playing in the background. You are never the same person after you see something like that. It's soul-destroying."

The team is not allowed to send porn but can access new series of images the way college students swap music files, through programs such as Napster and Kazaa. There are thousands to sort through, with new homemade images appearing every day. For hours at a time, Krawczyk looks at pictures of abuse that the average person could not even imagine. His immersion in this sordid world doesn't leave him unaffected.

"Sometimes you just want to take a shower after doing this," Krawczyk says. "Sometimes you want to throw the computer across the room. But when we do get a bad guy, it gives you great satisfaction. He wouldn't have been caught any other way."

Of the unit's 37 arrests last year, 26 resulted from their undercover work.

The banter is tough in the room, with graphic discussions of what they would like to do to the "bad guys" if they could get their hands on them. But it masks an emotional investment in the search and rescue of children who often remind them of their own.

Bulmer, a goateed 16-year veteran with bleached spiky hair, speaks longingly of finding an 11-year-old girl he has tracked since 2002. After extensive analysis of online videos of her, the team has pinpointed her location to a city in the American Northwest and handed the case to the local police.

"Why can't they find her?" he asks. "Give me a plane ticket and I'll go there and find her myself."

Almost every investigator in the office has a talisman to ward off the ghosts that haunt the workday. For Gillespie, it's a Christmas card from the mother of a 3-month-old boy who had been raped by his uncle, thanking Gillespie and encouraging him to keep going even when he wants to give up. Gillespie tells a bit of the child's story, then swivels his chair to face the window when his eyes begin to well up. He turns back, recomposed.

"I look at that sometimes," he says simply. "It makes me feel good."

Krawczyk sometimes sneaks a look at a framed quote from Nietzsche above his computer: "He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster." But nothing purges the taint of the day like the way his son runs to hug him when he walks through the door at night, he says.

Other things are not so easy to shake. Gillespie says he has nightmares about the young girls beyond their reach. While shopping at Wal-Mart, he sometimes finds himself staring at children, thinking that he has seen them online. Krawczyk says that after three arrests of Boy Scout leaders in Canada in the last six months, he won't let his son join the local troop. Bulmer says he walks down the street looking at other men, thinking, yep, he looks like a pedophile. Yep, that guy is one for sure.

"You have to shake yourself out of it," Bulmer says. "It would be great if you could just tell by looking. But you can't, and that's what makes it so creepy. It could be your next-door neighbor or your teacher."

Their hard-won successes keep team members on the right side of sanity. One day last year, they discovered pictures of a 6-year-old girl cowering in a dog cage, her gaze perplexed and despairing. In another, her hands are bound, a hunting knife is pressed to her abdomen, and messages are written on her body in a red substance meant to look like blood: "Hurt me." "Kill me." "I'm a slut." Her face is flushed purple. She is crying.

"These were some of the most horrific images we had seen," Gillespie says. "We dropped everything to look for her."

They were lucky to find a few clues in the pictures: an orange wristband from an amusement park, her school uniform, a logo from a T-shirt. They found the amusement park in North Carolina, then contacted uniform manufacturers to narrow down which schools in the area used that particular pattern.

"About 36 hours after we got the pictures, we pinned it down to a certain school," Gillespie recalls. "The FBI showed her pictures of her face to the principal, and bam, they rescued her."

The confessed offender, Brian Tod Schellenberger, has been arraigned and faces up to 30 years in prison. His victims are undergoing intensive counseling, the first step in the long process of recovery. Nearly everyone involved in the case was in tears when they heard news of the arrest, Gillespie says.

They haven't been as fortunate in the case of the Disney World girl, squeezing every possible lead until little was left. Bill McGarry, a detective with expertise in graphics, removed the girl's images from photos and digitally restored the scene. He enhanced tiny background objects to pick up anything that could become a clue. Others on the team sent images of flowers and trees in some pictures to horticultural experts to help pinpoint the geographic area and talked to brick manufacturers all over North America to glean clues from a wall in a photo. Anything. Everything.

As a result, they have narrowed the area down to section of the northeastern United States, and now the investigation is in American authorities' hands. They have circulated sanitized photos in U.S. law enforcement circles that specialize in missing children.

If that leads nowhere, Gillespie says, the investigators must turn to the last resort: showing the victim's face to the public.

"I know somebody out there knows her," he says.

If they decide to release her photo, they must be ready to rescue her immediately, to get her into the care of an experienced counselor and to deal with the emotional fallout affecting her family and community.

"The first thought has to be care for the victim. It can't be an afterthought," Gillespie says. "Physically rescuing her is one thing. Rescuing her emotionally could take years."

As Gillespie speaks, a detective steps into the office to announce that police on the West Coast think they have found the girl Bulmer has been seeking for three years. A swell of hope moves across the room, then ebbs.

"We've been here so many times before," Gillespie says. "We're not going to get excited until they make an arrest." A day later, they will learn that it was a false lead.

But in the meantime, Bulmer allows himself to lightly linger on the possibility that the girl would finally be safe.

"If they find her, I'd like to go down and meet her," he says, one hand placed protectively, unconsciously, on his computer screen. "I would say, 'I am sorry we didn't find you sooner.' "

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