LONDON — UK’s The Guardian reveals a police operation that secretly took over a child abuse forum. The six-month sting led them to snaring Richard Huckle – Britain’s worst-ever paedophile who sexually assaulted children in Malaysia and Cambodia.
FOR six months in 2014, an elite squad of detectives in Brisbane, Australia, were administering a dark-web forum. They were analysing images, monitoring conversations and connecting users with their crimes.
Just as they were about to pull the plug on the forum, 85 children had been rescused and hundreds across the globe nabbed. Among those arrested was Huckle, one of the board’s most prolific member.
The 30-year-old Briton was, in June, sentenced to 22 life terms, one for each of the minors he was convicted of abusing.
The children were mostly from impoverished backgrounds whose families’ trust he won by posing as a Christian missionary.
Police believe he had at least 169 other young victims. Huckle had diligently recorded their names in a ledger, detailing the acts he had performed with each one.
How he was tracked and arrested is a story of persistence and good fortune which key figures inside Taskforce Argos in Australia granted The Guardian access to share.
The hunt to find Huckle leads back five years to Toronto and the warehouse headquarters of businessman Brian Way. The 42-year-old had built a child-abuse film distribution racket worth US$4m (RM15.89m), which to this day is among the largest ever discovered.
When Canadian police raided his premises they found it piled with refuse, the bathroom sheeted in thick mould. The disarray was typical of a predator’s home.
But Way, who was later convicted of 15 charges related to child abuse images and is awaiting sentencing, kept meticulous records. About a tenth of his 370 customers were based in Queensland. Their details were passed onto Insp Jon Rouse, the grave 52-year-old who commands Taskforce Argos.
Way was captured and dozens of arrests across Queensland followed, including of one man who subscribed to a site Argos had yet to unearth: a vast, highly organised forum, whose name is still suppressed under a strict court order.
Police discovered an intricate hierarchy operating on the site.
“It ran as a company or business,” Rouse said. Senior administrators took charge of individual boards, grouped around categories such as boys or girls, hardcore or non-nude. Users had to upload material at least every 30 days or risk exile. Each of its 45,000 accounts were ranked according to the quality of their output, with a “producer’s area” walled off to all but the most feted. At the top was one man, “effectively the CEO”. He regularly started his messages with the cheery greeting “hiyas”.
Paul Griffiths, a police officer from England, worked on Argos in Queensland as a victim identification specialist, scanning gigabytes of images and videos each week looking for clues that might give away a child’s location. Above his desk was a whiteboard scrawled with two dozen usernames: the forum’s most wanted.
Huckle’s name made the whiteboard because he was a producer, uploading exclusively fresh material. He was zealous about it.
“He belittled others [on the forum] for claiming they were paedophiles,” Griffiths recalls.
“He thought they were just sitting at home living off other people’s experiences, where he was out there living the life.”
“(Huckle) talked about leaving a legacy, where he’d be remembered because of the material he produced,” Griffiths says. “He got to the point where he was actually titling his work, saying it was his studio. He was definitely branding.”
To Huckle’s frustration, however, his material was not sought after.
“You’ve got the fact he wasn’t particularly popular, he was very arrogant,” Griffiths says. “His victims weren’t white females or even white males,” Griffiths said.
“People want the kind of stuff they’re attracted to, and they’re not necessarily attracted to what they see as being poor Indian children.”
Huckle took precautions, usually blurring faces and backgrounds, and erasing telltale metadata from his work. Advice, including on how to evade police detection, was readily available on the site. One 180-page manual billed itself as “the exclusive step by step guide for practising safe and fun sex with children”. Huckle had authored his own 60-page tome, titled “Paedophiles and Poverty: Child Lover Guide”.
Most users assumed he was somewhere in south Asia, probably India.
“He never specifically said, ‘I’m in India’ but whenever anyone suggested he was, he agreed with them.”
A man was discovered using the giveaway “hiyas” greeting on a four-wheel drive discussion forum. He lived in Adelaide. Griffiths’ eyes went wide at his username. It was a close copy of the handle used by the forum’s chief.
Another similarly named user – sprinkling his posts with “hiyas” – was also discovered on a basketball forum.
It was a 32-year-old named Shannon McCoole. He worked in childcare.
Police moved on McCoole in June 2014. Though news of his arrest was initially suppressed, the fact he worked in state care would eventually trigger a royal commission. It revealed a long trail of red flags raised by McCoole’s colleagues over the four years he spent volunteering for youth services and eventually working for Families South Australia.
They included an anonymous call in March 2011 warning authorities the then-nanny was inappropriately physical with some children. It was ignored, along with a psychological assessment one year later, that found him to be “high risk” and “very unsuitable” for the job.
McCoole was jailed to face court, but online, his presence barely faltered. Two officers had immediately assumed control of his account. This was in a different league from the earlier takeover of a Queensland account. Now one of the world’s largest online paedophile networks was suddenly being run from the Brisbane headquarters of the Queensland police.
For six months in 2014 Task Force Argos was all-seeing too, with access as McCoole to the forum’s every crevice, and the private messages of all 45,000 users, including Richard Huckle’s.
There was intelligence suggesting the offender had spent time in Malaysia.
Access to the full suite of Huckle’s material provided the breakthrough. It was not what he photographed, but what he photographed with. Embedded in some of his images, overlooked when he swept the files of metadata, was the brand and model of his Olympus camera. A tiny clue – but enough.
Police traced the legitimate photographs to an email address, which in turn illuminated his accounts on other websites. In an echo of McCoole’s case, one of these accounts was registered under a similar name to that of a paedophile on their site.
The digital trail also led to a studio named Huckool Photography Productions. It was based in Malaysia and linked to Huckle’s public Facebook profile. There, he had been more brazen than police could have imagined.
Some of Huckle’s profiles are still archived. They are a sea of children: in church, dressed as Christmas angels; knee-deep in water, beaming; bunched together, “delightedly over-excited (at) their English photographing uncle”, he writes.
Griffiths called his counterparts at Britain’s National Crime Agency (NCA), passing on the raw intelligence about Huckle’s crimes and his likely identity. But Huckle would remain in Malaysia untouched for another four months.
“As I understand it, the Malaysians believed they didn’t have enough evidence to arrest him,” Griffiths said. (Malaysian police say they were only notified of Huckle’s offending by the NCA in May 2016.)
They were so close. Police had an identity, a location, an array of online profiles. But no way to reach the man himself until Huckle provided one.
“I just saw a (Facebook) post he made, basically saying, ‘Great news, I’ve just booked a flight home for Christmas’,” Griffiths says. “He had hashtagged the airline. It was almost too easy.”
Huckle was arrested at Gatwick airport on Dec 19, 2014. Computers and hard drives in his possession contained more than 20,000 indecent images of children, around 1,000 depicting children he had himself abused. To this day, he has refused to divulge the keys to encrypted files on his laptop, thought to reveal additional victims, and thousands more images and videos.
Huckle’s trial received sensational media coverage in the UK, including his branding as “Britain’s worst-ever paedophile”.
After six months running the forum – gathering enough evidence to prosecute hundreds and rescue 85 victims – police were pulling the plug on site. For months before, as evidence was disseminated around the world, the most significant users were being picked off by police.
“Some of (the users) put it together before we closed the board,” Griffiths recalled.
“People noticed people were disappearing. It’s an occupational hazard, and they usually assume when someone disappears they’ve been arrested. But when it keeps happening and happening, they start putting two and two together.”
Users even began approaching McCoole’s account with worries the police had infiltrated the site. Once they realised the forum wasn’t returning, and news finally emerged of McCoole’s arrest, some even offered grudging compliments. “One guy posted something along the lines of, ‘Kudos. I chatted to McCoole for six months and didn’t realise it was the cops’.”
Two Argos officers received awards for so seamlessly assuming McCoole’s identity for six months on the board. Last month, Huckle was sentenced to a minimum 23 years’ jail. McCoole is serving 35 years.
A blue line has been struck through both their names on the most-wanted list above Griffiths’ desk. More than two dozen others were crossed off the whiteboard by the time that particular investigation was closed. Eight remain.