A New Zealand multi-agency operation targeting an on-line child sexual abuse network has caught six offenders, identified four children who had the potential to be harmed, and rescued a six-year old victim in the United Kingdom.
Customs Manager Border Operations Shane Panettiere says online child sexual abuse is a serious borderless crime, against which agencies join forces to actively share information and conduct investigations to protect children and target offenders.
“With greater global connectivity, offenders think they can operate anonymously accessing and exchanging child sexual abuse material, but they will not go undetected.”
Operation Hyper began last June when a referral by Queensland Police (Taskforce Argos) led to a Customs search warrant at a 41 year old man’s central Auckland home. His young child was assessed by government agencies for harm, with information gained as a result of this warrant also helping identify other offenders in New Zealand and the UK.
Internal Affairs, Police and Customs conducted simultaneous warrants on Auckland’s North Shore and Levin, while UK Police arrested a man in West Yorkshire. As a result of these warrants, another man living in the UK was identified.
In December, UK Police arrested the 62 year old, rescuing his granddaughter from physical sexual abuse, which was also being filmed and distributed. In New Zealand, Customs and Police conducted a further search warrant at a Northland home. This included the assessment of two young children residing at the property.
“The operation required meticulous planning and execution to ensure enforcement activity did not jeopardise potential victim safety or alert suspect offenders who could warn others in their network,” Panettiere says.
Gary Ronald Barnes, age 53, from Levin, who was arrested by the NZ Police, was sentenced to two years and five months’ imprisonment for 25 counts of possessing an objectionable publication and five of distributing objectionable publications last October. He had two previous similar convictions.
The central Auckland man charged by Customs for possession and exportation is due to appear in court for sentencing in March. A 50 year old North Shore man faces similar charges by Internal Affairs, and charges are yet to be laid against the 32 year old Northland man. Both men arrested in the UK are yet to be sentenced.
Detective Senior Sergeant John Michael, head of Police’s Online Child Exploitation Across New Zealand (OCEANZ) unit said Operation Hyper is a great example of both domestic and international co-operation.
“A global taskforce is committed to identifying and protecting children in New Zealand and across the world from online sexual exploitation and sexual offending,” Michael says.
Internal Affairs’ team leader, Censorship Compliance Unit, Jon Peacock agreed adding that it takes a network to defeat a network.
“The agencies involved actively shared information and conducted investigations to target and arrest the offenders when the timing was right,” Peacock adds.
Deputy Director of the UK's National Crime Agency CEOP command, Andy Baker, says the internet knows no bounds, so international partnerships and relationships are crucial when tackling child sexual exploitation – whether this is by sharing intelligence or supporting ongoing operations.
Taskforce Argos has had an exceptional working relationship with New Zealand law enforcement for many years.
Task Force Argos Detective Inspector Jon Rouse adds: "We receive as many investigative leads as we send, and this operation highlights the fact that we are working very effectively across international borders to protect each others children.”