In December 2015, US Homeland Security notified New Zealand Police’s Online Child Exploitation unit (OCEANZ) about a child exploitation ring with connections to the darknet. A New Zealand man, Drew Webb, proved integral to the case. He centered the ring and his arrest led to the freedom of 31 children.
A June 2017 sentencing of one of the group’s members from Scotland marked another milestone for law enforcement. After Webb’s arrest, New Zealand police helped put offenders behind bars at a global scale. The June sentencing marked the successful conviction of 18 members.
National manager for OCEANZ, Detective Senior Sergeant John Michael, explained the importance of Webb’s arrest to the Herald. “This group, many of them parents or step-parents of children, were part of this group focused on the sexual exploitation of their own children,” he said. According to Detective John Michael, “once [Webb] was arrested that opened up a whole new phase of investigation where we identified, around the world, people that we believed posed a really high risk to their own children.”
The investigation into the child exploitation ring reached pedophiles across the globe. So far, authorities caught offenders in the United States, Canada, Scotland, and France. The recent conviction of the Scotland man revealed an intricate level of collaboration between the countries.
Detective Superintendent Andy Lawson of the Scottish police said that the case was “without doubt one of the best examples of law enforcement working at an international level that I have ever witnessed.” He continued, saying, “more crucially the prompt and professional actions by all of the officers concerned in this case enabled a child, indeed potentially other children, to be protected from further harm by this perpetrator.”
Within 20-minutes of receiving a tip from New Zealand law enforcement, police in Scotland arrested Hugh Sim. OCEANZ authorities identified the man in a video where Sim abused a three-year-old girl. Scottish High Court Judge Johanna Johnston said that Sim also distributed images online. “Had it not been for the work of the police in this country and the authorities in New Zealand your offences may never have come to light,” she said.
Other countries also responded with swiftness after the identification of suspects. For instance, in the US, judges began sentencing members in 2016. Some members received as many as 30-years in prison. Others are awaiting sentencing. One of the first suspects, Jason Janatsch, pleaded guilty to producing child pornography last year. “Janatsch, using his iPhone, transmitted the photographs to the New Zealand man,” the Department of Justice explained. “He also received child pornography from the New Zealand man in return.”
Another, Ashleigh Welsh of San Antonio, Texas, received a 27-years in prison for similar crimes. She produced child pornography and distributed it amongst other members of the New Zealand ring.
The OCEANZ detective explained that other members could be in New Zealand but would not comment on open investigations. He said that the child abusers sought networks where others with their interests operated. “They’ll look at working in the darknet where they have a level of anonymity. It’s not difficult to find like-minded individuals unfortunately,” the detective noted.
Mike Bush, the New Zealand Police Commissioner, said he was “extremely proud of the work done on this case.” Despite the low standard for success in similar investigations, thanks to a botched and illegal investigation by a US law enforcement agency, New Zealand law enforcement handled this case smoothly—a fact corroborated by partner agencies worldwide.