STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We start this story with a warning. Some people may find the subject unsettling. People with kids in the room may wish to skip the next six minutes.
Years ago, police in Toronto, Canada, began tracking a suspect in their city. With the help of police in other nations, they quietly began linking him to a global network of people trafficking in child pornography.
Toronto Star reporter Robert Cribb and two colleagues were allowed to track that investigation for about a year before police announced their work last week. Cribb says the center of the network was that single suspect in Toronto.
ROBERT CRIBBS: Brian Way is a 42-year-old man in Toronto, lived a very normal life. He got up every day, went to a nondescript warehouse office on the west end of the city, went to the Tim Horton's virtually every morning, got coffee and a doughnut; came back to his office, disappeared behind the mirrored glass door; was friendly with the mailman and his neighbors. The bank teller hired him to videotape her wedding - sort of an upstanding guy, according to everyone in the neighborhood.
What police discovered is that that warehouse was home to tens of thousands of videos, which they certainly alleged to be child pornography, which appeared on a website called Azovfilms.com; which sold videos to men around the world, more than 90 countries. And he was at the center of what police believe to be one of the largest commercial child pornography operations they've ever busted.
INSKEEP: Now, let's just mention he hasn't been convicted yet so we have to say he's innocent until proven guilty, but based on what the police say and what the police believe, how did evidence begin to lead toward this man?
CRIBBS: It's an interesting story. So back as early as 2004, police became aware of Mr. Way and the previous incarnation of this website, and it's because they had complaints. And they actually looked at it, way back in 2004; and it was billed as a legal site showcasing artistic films featuring nude boys. They felt, at the time, it was close to the edge. They warned him, and they left him alone.
Separate occurrence in 2010, we fast-forward - a senior officer at Toronto Sex Crimes Unit is doing what he does a lot of the time, which is to go undercover anonymously online, and trade or purchase child pornography. And he stumbled across this massive cache of child porn, and was able to track that stash to a man named Brian Way.
INSKEEP: So the tentacles of this led overseas. Can you help me understand what kind of network this was? Is it an organization? Is it just people in different countries who were file-sharing, buying and selling things from each other? What was going on here?
CRIBBS: Yeah, we talk about a child pornography ring, but what we're talking about is people who are not linked in any real way. It's a doctor in Spain. It's a school teacher in Australia. There's a Harvard pediatrician who was caught up in the U.S. element of the investigation here, which was vast. I mean in the United States alone, 330 children were rescued, you know.
So it's individuals who independently sought out the videos that came out of a warehouse in Toronto.
INSKEEP: Do the police believe they've caught everyone?
CRIBBS: The police believe they have not caught everyone. The investigation is not over, we should say that. There were, literally, tens of thousands of names that came out of the computer hard drive at that Toronto warehouse.
INSKEEP: So help us understand how this investigation was wrapped up and became public. Were there coordinated arrests in multiple countries?
CRIBBS: It wasn't like a bust. This has been a trickle process. I mean, Toronto police have been laying charges gradually.
INSKEEP: But they avoided saying they were onto a bigger conspiracy.
CRIBBS: Exactly. That's the trick, right? So it's that sort of secrecy around the coordination that allowed them to gradually roll out charges and arrests without being detected.
INSKEEP: How did it affect you for the period of a year, to be learning about this widening investigation week after week, month after month; and to know that whatever else was going on in the world, that there was also this underside that was unknown to most of the world?
CRIBBS: I'll tell you how it affected me most. I went to Romania. We found out that one of the major suppliers of these films was a child pornographer named Marcus Roth. I ended up in Northern Romania, the far northern reaches of Romania near the Ukraine border; the place where this Marcus Roth came in the early 2000s, after already being charged and convicted in Germany on child pornography charges.
He fled to Romania, and he started teaching young boys karate. He was a karate teacher. Eventually, he started filming them. He posted a few videos onto the Internet, got some positive responses. And it's at that point he got an email in 2007 from Brian Way in Toronto, and that was the connection. Brian Way asked him if he would make some videos for him. He'd pay him well.
And the boys who came to believe Marcus Roth to be a benevolent mentor would do what he suggested. And so when I met with these boys - all of whom were very gracious, and sat down with me and talked to me, with their parents - they are all deeply affected in ways they're only beginning to understand, I think. In fact, one of them pulled out a computer, at one point, and called up Google and typed in his name and a couple of other word, and was able to pull up images of himself from five years earlier.
It's a form of tremendously disturbing exploitation that never goes away for them.
INSKEEP: Robert Cribb, of the Toronto Star, thank you very much.
CRIBBS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.