By ALYSSA NOEL, SUN MEDIA
Staff Sgt. Howard Kunce from the Alberta Integrated Child Exploitation Unit talks about Project Salvo during a press conference at Edmonton Police Service headquarters yesterday. (DAVID BLOOM/Sun Media)
Four computers were seized from a St. Albert home this week in connection with the country's largest child porn bust, the province's Integrated Child Exploitation (ICE) unit announced yesterday.
The crackdown, dubbed Project Salvo, was a coast-to-coast effort to identify potential offenders who exchange images of children as young as infants online in Canada.
In total, 57 people were charged for allegedly swapping images of sexually abused children, 130 computers were seized and 99 charges were laid.
A number of children were removed from danger, police said, although they would provide no specifics.
The seized images range from infants with their umbilical cords still showing to 17-year-olds. The vast majority of child pornography, about 80%, depicts children under age eight, said Lianna McDonald, director of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.
Up to 40% of those images involve sexual assaults.
"We're dealing with a very dark side of human behaviour," said McDonald.
At least 20 more people are expected to be charged, investigators say. Four Alberta properties - including the St. Albert home and another in Calgary - were searched, but no one has been charged in Alberta yet, said Staff Sgt. Howard Kunce, with ICE. "The investigation is continuing and charges are expected to grow," Kunce said.
It will take a significant amount of time for investigators to sift through data from the seized computers. As a result, it could take a while for all the charges to be laid and victims to be identified.
The nationwide investigation was a collaborative effort with every ICE unit across the country, as well as several support agencies and local police services. The project began in November last year with searches and seizures carried out less than a week ago, Kunce said.
Challenges for investigators - who are seeing younger children becoming victims - grow with the size of hard drives and more technologically sophisticated criminals.
Kunce said a computer containing a million images of children being sexually abused is not uncommon. The most he's ever encountered was 1.5 million.
"It's always a game of catch-up for us," he said, adding ICE made the project a priority in recent months.
Investigators hope that the bust will prompt parents to talk to their children about online predators and monitor their Internet use carefully.
And if their child is sexually abused they need to report it. With early intervention, children can fully recover, said Staff Sgt. Todd Laycock, with Edmonton's Zebra Child Protection Centre.
"Parents need not fear their child is suffering irreparable, lifelong damages," he said. "If they're plugged into the right services there's no reason to believe they won't (heal)."
Meanwhile, Alberta's Solicitor General and Minister of Public Security Fred Lindsay applauded the investigation and said more funding is needed federally to catch criminals.
"Every time you look at a picture, a child is being abused and it's not acceptable," he said. "We will be putting the pressure on Ottawa because it's not only a national problem, it's international, so we do need the resources."ALYSSA.NOEL@SUNMEDIA.CA