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Police identify hotel in photos of abused girl

She is a collector's item in the sordid world of child pornography, a must-have image that has been replicated untold hundreds of thousands of times by men around the world who troll the Internet for pictures of sexually exploited children.

For the past three years, police forces have tried in vain to identify the abused and degraded 12-year-old girl, thought to live somewhere in Eastern Canada or the northeastern United States. She appears in at least 200 Internet images described by one child-pornography expert as “certainly among the worst” he has ever seen.

But child-exploitation officers with the Toronto Police Service's sex-crimes unit scored a rare breakthrough yesterday in the normally frustrating, futile work of locating victims of child pornography. Against the odds, they identified the hotel at a resort in the southern United States where some of the photographs were snapped a few years ago by a pedophile they believe to be the girl's father during a family vacation.

It was a victory for the child-exploitation detectives who had run out of clues, and it came within minutes of a press conference where Detective-Sergeant Paul Gillespie revealed doctored pictures of the crime scenes — a hotel room, an elevator, a fountain and a video arcade — with the little girl's image digitally removed.

Seconds after Toronto television stations broadcast the photographs, the tips started to pour in. The second call from a man who had stayed at the U.S. hotel on a recent vacation started a chain of hotel website searches and telephone calls to American police who were able to confirm the hotel as the one where the girl was abused.

Det. Sgt. Gillespie refused to reveal the location of the hotel, insisting it would seriously undermine the investigation.

“We've arrested 80 or 90 people in the past two years, and at least one out of two have some of these images on their computer,” Det. Sgt Gillespie said yesterday.

“She was very popular among pedophiles. This is one of the more popular series that most of the collections we come across contain.”

Child pornography has exploded on the Internet over the past five years, with tens of thousands of consumers swapping images on-line that range from pictures as benign as children in bathing suits frolicking on beaches to unbearably graphic images of babies in diapers being raped and tortured. Once a photograph is on-line, it is instantly downloaded and traded by pedophiles around the world, impossible to trace back to its distributor.

Those who download child porn — mostly white men over 25 — are often wizards of computer software who anonymously trade photographs and videos on-line and expertly remain beneath the radar of police scrambling to keep pace with their technological savvy.

Images of children are treated like a commodity to be bought and traded.

“These images are traded like trading cards with no more value given to them than that,” Det. Sgt. Gillespie said. “Just as some people find value in trading certain cards, these images are considered in the same light by those like-minded individuals who find pleasure in the sexual abuse of children. Everyone on the Internet throughout the world knows the series. They openly trade it, share it, and, very disturbingly, find pleasure in it.”

The 13 detectives in Toronto's four-year-old child-exploitation branch pored over images of the girl. From other photographs, they have pieced together that she lives somewhere in Eastern Canada or the northeastern United States, narrowing down the location after consulting bricklayers about the brick wall in some of the photos and with horticulturists about plants in the background.

But when their leads dried up, the officers started to consider budding technology that would allow them to crop the victim from the photos, digitally paint the missing background, and circulate the images to the public for tips.

Fewer than a dozen police forces around the world are chasing child pornographers, and none has ever appealed before to the public in this way.

“We are not aware of another case in the world in which this has been done in the past, and I think that really speaks volumes about [the Toronto police force's] aggressiveness and their seriousness,” said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va., a non-profit organization. The centre works with the U.S. Department of Justice and police forces worldwide to locate child-pornography victims and perpetrators.

“This is a huge and growing problem, and what the Toronto police are doing right now is what a lot more police forces need to be doing around the world.”

For now, the Toronto police have handed the file over to U.S. officers who have inspected the hotel and e-mailed photographs of its rooms back to Toronto. With hundreds of rooms in the resort hotel and the abuse thought to have happened at least three years ago, U.S. police have reams of guest lists to go through and plenty of former hotel staff to track down before they can narrow their search.



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