Source: The Toronto Star
She's been all over the Internet, the little girl with the long blonde hair, portrayed by her abusers in hundreds of sickening, graphic sexual images.
No one — except the people who have been molesting her and posting photos showing the 9-year-old being brutalized — knows who she is.
But now the Toronto police sex crimes unit, using the same technology that's allowed the girl's photos to be distributed to perverts around the world, is aiming to change that.
Investigators have taken six of the hundreds of photos showing the girl enduring "horrific sexual abuse," as one officer put it, and after digitally removing the girl from the pictures, released them in the hope that someone, somewhere will be able to say where they were taken.
"It's our goal to identify and rescue victims," Det. Sgt. Paul Gillespie told a news conference at police headquarters yesterday.
And in this case, he said, officers with the elite unit — one of the largest and most sophisticated of its kind in North America — have a personal reason for going after her abusers.
After spending the past two years watching the little girl grow up through those graphic sexual images, investigators have become close to the victim, Gillespie said.
"It has become personal for the officers ... she's somebody's little girl."
The photos, released yesterday and posted on the police website — http://www.torontopolice.on.ca/newsreleases
— show various places where the abuse has taken place. They include two pictures of a hotel room, a water fountain, a games arcade, a hot tub and an elevator.
Culled from the more than 200 photographs and videos of her abuse posted online, the photos contain revealing details including a hotel room bedspread, a unique decorative fountain, a bench inside a room.
Julian Sher, a Montreal investigative journalist working on a book on child pornography, called the public appeal "a bold strategy."
Sher, who is familiar with the case, said that in releasing the photos police "are trying to isolate bits of a photo that might seem anonymous, but can maybe be a real telltale sign.
"Think of it as CSI Porn," he told the Star's Nicolaas van Rijn.
"Maybe that bedspread was only manufactured in a certain place, maybe that elevator only comes from a certain place."
Police, he added, are "trying to use digital imaging and the tools of the Internet and all the tools that the pornographers are using, and turning it against them."
Sher said it's the first time, so far as he knows, that Canadian police have resorted to a public appeal in a case like this. In past, he noted, sex crimes investigators have digitally removed the victim and shown some scenes of abuse to experts in various fields in their quest for tips.
Images involving abuse in a car, he said, have been sent to car manufacturers; builders have been shown abuse photos in an effort to narrow down the places where the abuse could have occurred.
"I think it's quite an exciting development," he added. "It's bringing some of the CSI gimmicks that we see on TV home to us.
``Police are using some of the tools of modern technology that have been used against the children in an effort to save the children."
At yesterday's news conference Gillespie told reporters that sex crimes investigators believe the girl's abuser is a close family member, possibly her father or an uncle.
The investigation started two years ago and police have captured digital images of the girl in a hotel or motel, believed to be in a warm climate.
Officers believe she lives in the northeastern United States or the southeast of Canada.
In trying to determine where the child resides, investigators have carefully examined the backgrounds of the explicit photographs.
For example, types of flowers and the way they grow have led officers to believe that some of the photos were taken in a sunny climate.
While the photos show specific locations, investigators believe the girl has been abused in various places, Gillespie said.
But, because the images are digital, officers have so far been unable to clearly enlarge small details that could narrow the investigation.
Gillespie said his unit is working with other agencies in North America in an effort to find the girl.
While the sex crimes unit investigates countless similar cases, Gillespie said, it decided to publicize this one because investigators have been following the case longer than any other. As well, officers believe the public can help in determining the identity of the girl, who would be about 12 now.
While the little girl has been removed from the abuse photos released yesterday, Gillespie said if the search is narrowed to a more specific location — and then comes to a dead end — investigators will consider releasing pictures of the girl.
That can be a difficult decision, said Sher, because that would tip off the girl's molesters.
"The minute you do that, you are notifying whoever is that person's captor, or tormentor, that the police are onto them," he said.
"But that's a call they have to make."
It has been some time since police have seen new images of the girl.
Gillespie said he doesn't think the abuser posted them on the Internet for financial gain but to exchange photographs with other pedophiles.
Although her abuser is in some photographs, Gillespie said he has been careful never to show his face.
Police are asking anyone with information about the location of the photographs to contact the Toronto police sex-crimes unit. It can be reached at 416-808-7474 or Crime Stoppers at 416-222-8477.