Tracking down the evil eye

IN Garda headquarters they can’t recall who suggested the codename Amethyst and the detective chief superintendent in charge insists it holds no significance.

The men Operation Amethyst turfed out of bed in a hundred homes early one May morning last year in the biggest crackdown on child pornography in the history of the State were not the usual down-at- heel, streetwise targets of dawn raids.

These were a sophisticated set with neat lawns, good jobs, letters after their names the cheese and wine types who hardly have a parking ticket to tarnish their reputations.

Predominantly middle class, professional and successful, they included a teacher, who has been jailed; a TV chef, who has been ruined, and a judge who awaits trial.

But those who were presented with search warrants that day and who watched gardaí dismantle their PCs while their spouses looked on in questioning horror could not have expected their status to protect them.

From browsing the internet they would have known six months earlier that Operation Avalanche in the US had resulted in the conviction of Thomas and Janice Reedy, the couple behind Landslide Productions, a cover for the largest-known commercial child pornography business ever uncovered in that country.

With the Reedys behind bars, their customers must have known it was only a matter of time before the Landslide collapse would bury them too.

This was also the outcome in the mind of National Bureau of Criminal Investigation (NBCI) boss, Det Chief Sup Sean Camon, when the first indications of an Irish link to Landslide started filtering through.

The FBI and US Postal Service investigators had found over 150,000 names and accompanying credit card details in the Reedy's customer data base so not surprisingly it took time to sort them into jurisdictions and begin sending out the information to the relevant authorities.

Everything outside of the US went to Interpol where the European links were extracted for Europol, which broke down the lists country by country and passed on the Irish names and addresses to the gardaí.

Months of discreet inquiries followed as the whereabouts of the named men were confirmed or tracked down to new addresses.

Detectives from the NBCI's Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Unit, the Paedophile Investigation Unit and the Computer Crime Unit attached to the Fraud Squad were assembled and prepared for the task

Simultaneous raids were to be carried out on 100 homes and business premises frequented by 90 individuals in 23 counties so timing and co-ordination were crucial.

So secret and smooth was the operation that similar raids on 30 homes and offices in Dublin were carried out simultaneously several days before without any details slipping out to alert those around the country that they were next on the list.

Dozens of computers, scanners and printers; hundreds of CD roms and floppy disks, and a forest of credit card receipts and bank statements were seized and brought to NCBI headquarters in Dublin to be reassembled and examined.

It was, says Chief Supt Camon, slow and tedious work that put the expertise of the force's small but highly-trained computer detectives to the test.

Before Amethyst, the gardaí had handled just 20 such prosecutions so it was a learning experience for all.

It appears, so far, that it was also a successful one with around a dozen cases either completed or at an advanced stage before the courts, further cases about to be brought and directions awaited from the DPP on how to proceed with others.

When we met yesterday, Chief Supt Camon was reluctant to put numbers on the cases in each category for fear of prejudicing trials or appeals.

However, while not all those whose homes were searched and whose property was seized will be prosecuted, there is no doubt he is pleased with progress.

"It will lead to a heightened public awareness and perhaps understanding that this kind of situation exists," he says of Amethyst.

"We have some good national initiatives going the Internet Advisory Board and the child pornography hotline ( both of which the gardaí are closely involved with but we need the public to be vigilant and to know they can do something about this type of phenomenon," he said.

Child pornography is, of course, nothing new but the use of the internet for its distribution is.

The Child Trafficking and Pornography Act, the legislation which facilitated the Amethyst prosecutions, only came into effect here in 1998.

It has been a steep learning curve for the gardaí since as officers need computer skills as sophisticated as those who use the medium to build their child pornography enterprises.

International co-operation is essential and the gardaí are represented on Interpol's Working Group on Crimes Against Minors by Det Insp Tom Dixon, a veteran of difficult child abuse investigations including the conviction last year of German businessman, Dr Andreas Ernst Lewicki, who sexually abused and videotaped a young Irish girl 17-years earlier.

Europol also has a working group which organises intensive training courses for law enforcement officers. Irish Garda Sgt Michael Moran is one of the instructors who runs the courses.

At divisional and local level, internet crime and child pornography are increasingly covered by in-service training while recruits at Templemore have the subjects on their curriculum.

The financial investment in the area has been substantial, says Chief Supt Camon.

He says there is no substantial evidence of any Irish-produced child pornography for public consumption but it is something officers are always on the look-out for.

"All police forces are now coming to grips with cyber crime," he said.

Crime may change but police remain the same flesh and blood they ever were with the same feelings and sense of outrage, and this is something the gardaí have to bear in mind when assigning members.

Officers working in the field are encouraged to make use of welfare and counselling services when needed and ideally no-one stays in the area more than three years.

More in this section

Price info

Subscribe to unlock unlimited digital access.
Cancel anytime.

Terms and conditions apply

Puzzles logo

Puzzles hub

Visit our brain gym where you will find simple and cryptic crosswords, sudoku puzzles and much more. Updated at midnight every day. PS ... We would love to hear your feedback on the section right HERE.

Puzzles logo

Puzzles hub

Visit our brain gym where you will find simple and cryptic crosswords, sudoku puzzles and much more. Updated at midnight every day. PS ... We would love to hear your feedback on the section right HERE.