Global police agency Interpol has shared details of the extraordinary operation, involving Australian Federal Police and their South Australian counterparts, which has seen dozens of arrests in nearly 60 countries.
But it warned police had yet to identify and locate around 100 more children who featured in thousands of seized photos and videos and were likely still being abused.
Codenamed Operation Blackwrist, the daring sting resulted in the arrest of Australia’s most prolific and dangerous child sex offender, Ruecha Tokputza, who was last week handed a record 40 year jail term for his horrible crimes.
Tokputza pleaded guilty to 50 counts of abuse of 11 children — the youngest just 15 months old — between 2011 and 2018.
“You are a child’s worst nightmare,” South Australia District Court Judge Liesl Chapman told the 31-year-old in sentencing last Friday.
Judge Chapman said Tokputza was fuelled by his delusional and aberrant belief that he was helping the children, that they enjoyed his abuse and that they loved him, The Advertiser reported.
But the hundreds of videos he recorded while abusing the children showed there was only pain, not love, she said.
“You are every parent’s horror, you are a menace to the community,” she told Tokputza.
“Unfortunately there are many like you out there — fortunately, you have been caught.”
Now authorities have revealed exactly how Tokputza and his network of fellow paedophiles in Australia, Thailand and the US were brought to justice.
PEELING BACK LAYERS OF THE DARK WEB
Interpol launched Blackwrist in June 2017 following the discovery of a subscription-based site on the dark web, depicting the abuse of 11 boys, all under the age of 13.
On the dark web, where people use encrypted software to hide behind layers of secrecy, sites cannot be found through search engines and users need to have a specific URL to find what they are looking for.
Thailand’s Department of Special Investigations (DSI) took on the case, working in close collaboration with Interpol’s Bangkok office, pulling in investigators from all over the world in the race to identify and locate the 11 boys and the site’s administrators.
US Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) found the IP address of the site, where new photos and videos were being posted weekly, and worked on establishing potential links to America. Meanwhile, Bulgaria’s Cybercrime Department took down the website’s servers.
The Department of Internal Affairs in New Zealand monitored the movements of users and compiled profiles of them, which they distributed to Interpol member countries.
The US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children cross-checked e-mail addresses and provided additional intelligence.
The Australian Federal Police (AFP) and South Australian Police came on board when an IP address pointed to a location in Adelaide.
VICTIMS LURED WITH FOOD, WI-FI AND FOOTBALL GAMES
The first victims were identified in November 2017, leading to the arrest of the site’s main administrator, Montri Salangam, in Thailand and another administrator, Ruecha Tokputza in South Australia.
The AFP named Detective Brevet Sergeant Stephen Hegarty and Federal Agent Jonathon Coats from the Joint Anti-Child Exploitation Team (JACET) as two of the three officers who collared Tokputza.
“(Salangam) was the man seen abusing the 11 boys, one of whom was his nephew,” Interpol said in a statement posted to its website.
“The children had been lured to Salangam’s home with meals, internet access and football games.”
In Adelaide, “police found thousands of images taken in both Thailand and Australia on (Tokputza’s) seized devices, some of which featured Tokputza as the main abuser”.
Salangam was sentenced in June last year to 146 years in prison by Thai courts, while an associate, a preschool teacher, got 36 years.
“The website and its administrators sparked a series of investigations around the world, leading to further arrests in Thailand, Australia and the United States,” Interpol said.
“As police in nearly 60 countries examine referrals by New Zealand, more arrests and rescues are expected. Although police have removed 50 victims from harm, they believe an additional 100 more have suffered abuse and are currently working to identify those victims.”
The agency said all of the seized material had been uploaded to Interpol’s International Child Sexual Exploitation Database.
Of those arrested so far, Salangam and Tokputza are the only two who have been named, likely because they have already been prosecuted and it is legally safe to do so.
The HSI’s regional attache in Bangkok, Eric McLoughlin, said in the statement that “numerous arrests” had been made in the US.
Some held “positions of public trust,” he said, including one individual who was abusing his two-year-old stepbrother.
“Operation Blackwrist sends a clear message to those abusing children, producing child sexual exploitation material and sharing the images online: We see you, and you will be brought to justice,” Interpols Secretary General Juergen Stock said.
With over 20,000 child sex criminals in Australia, there are strong calls for a public sex offenders register to be introduced.