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February 18, 2011

Predator bait

Vancouver police are logging onto Internet chatrooms and posing as teens to snare sexual predators who target children and youth

By Mike Howell, Staff writer February 17, 2011  

Her name is Lily.

She is 13 years old and lives in Vancouver. Her nickname in the online teen chat room she’s just entered is lily13.

And her nickname is all it takes—within seconds, others in the chat room hit on lily13 and want to perform sexual acts in front of her.

Here’s a sample.

17 m Holland: hi there.

17 m Holland: like older?

lily13: what do u mean?

17 m Holland: do you like older guys?

17 m Holland: with kamm?

lily13: why kam?

17 m Holland: webkamm to show my d*ck.

I’m lily13.

I went online at 321teenchat.com to experience what a Vancouver Police Department investigator told me inevitably happens when she trolls the Internet to catch predators who prey on children and young teens.

As my exchange revealed, Det. Const. Kate Caprarie couldn’t have been more accurate.

“If your child is on a teen website or a teen forum, make sure you’re standing there and watching because inevitably it always turns to sex,” said Caprarie, a member of the VPD’s Internet child exploitation unit. “The big thing now is webcam and wanting to get the kids on webcam to participate in some sort of sexual activity on webcam.”

While my exchange with 17 m Holland stopped soon after it started, Caprarie’s job is to continue a conversation with someone like my chat room friend and investigate whether he’s an online child predator.

The VPD’s investigations of child luring cases began slowly in 2003 with one charge and increased to an all-time high of 17 charges in 2010. In that eight-year span, 61 charges of luring a child over the Internet for sexual exploitation were laid against suspected predators.

It’s a relatively new area for the VPD and police agencies across the country, with the child luring charge not becoming law until 2002. VPD investigators believe education about the law, training and specialized computer equipment led to the increase in charges.

Driving that success is the undercover work of Caprarie and partner Const. Ian Barraclough, who pose online as young girls and boys to catch unsuspecting predators. Sgt. Russ Mitchell, who since left the unit, was doing the same for several years.

All cases, except for one last month that ended at trial in the conviction of 40-year-old Raymond McCall, have seen suspects plead guilty. Caprarie believes the digital evidence gathered is so overwhelming that an accused predator has no chance at trial.

“That, of course, will tell your story,” she said. “That way you have an actual visual representation of what had occurred. If it’s any sort of video stuff that they’re sending us, we capture the video in real time and we will play the video in court for the judge.”

But while police continue to catch online predators, Caprarie, and advocates fighting the sexual exploitation of children, want to see tougher sentences for a crime that currently has no mandatory minimum sentence.

Penalties range from a fine to five years in prison, although that sentence has not been imposed in any of the Vancouver cases. By comparison, penalties for sexual assault can range from 18 months in jail to life imprisonment, depending on the severity of the crime.

“The guys that we’re arresting are making arrangements to meet these children to perform sexual acts,” Caprarie said. “Thankfully, they’re meeting us and not a real child—but they’re thinking it’s a real child. So that is also leading to sexual assault, which is a much higher sentence. So I think it should be in line with the sentences for sexual assault because, in my mind, they’re attempting to sexually assault this child.”

For one month last summer, Ramreddy Yalaka thought he was chatting online with a 12-year-old girl.

Over the course of the relationship, the 37-year-old man sent links of pornographic websites to the girl and committed sexual acts on a web camera for her to watch. He urged the girl to buy a web camera at the Salvation Army for $5 and said he would inform her how to set it up.

The girl in this case was Caprarie, who stopped the relationship the day she heard a young child’s voice in the background during a computer chat with Yalaka. She was able to locate Yalaka and his computer to an apartment on Sardis Street in Burnaby; Yalaka had said he was in Vancouver.

The child’s voice was that of Yalaka’s two-year-old son. Yalaka, who was in Canada on a work permit from India, was also here with his wife. He was doing computer consultant work for a Vancouver company.

Yalaka pleaded guilty in August to child luring over the Internet and received a 45-day conditional sentence, which means he didn’t go to jail. The sentence included a curfew and to stay away from public places such as schools and parks where children under the age of 16 are present. He also had to provide a DNA sample.

After serving his sentence, he was deported to India. His wife and child had already returned to India.

When police informed one of his co-workers about the arrest and the nature of the crime, the reaction “disheartened” Caprarie, who believes Yalaka previously trolled the Internet for young girls.

“They didn’t think anything of it,” she said. “It wasn’t a big deal.”

The Children of the Street Society, a nonprofit in Coquitlam that fights against the sexual exploitation of children and youth, highlighted the Yalaka case in a press release it sent out last summer.

The release was issued, in part, to remind the public about its “Predator Watch” campaign, which aims to raise public awareness about child luring over the Internet and inform predators that police are on the case.

The campaign began last summer and continues to air advertisements on television and radio. Newspaper ads, which depict a police officer wearing a mask of a young child’s image, are part of the package.

Diane Sowden, the society’s executive director, likens the campaign to the “bait car” program, where vehicles are placed around Metro Vancouver to nab car thieves. Statistics show car thefts have decreased since the program began, said Sowden, who is hopeful the same effect has occurred with online predators.

“I can’t answer that somebody didn’t go online to prey on a child because they saw the ad—I can’t say that,” she said from her office. “But based on the stats from the bait car project, we were hoping it would have the same impact and the amount would decrease.”

The society, however, isn’t relying on the campaign alone. Its staff regularly conducts prevention talks in schools across the province, meets with parents and holds workshops for social workers and police officers. This year, staff will conduct about 600 presentations and talk to more than 27,000 students in grades 6 to 12.

“When I first started doing this [17 years ago], you had to be concerned about adults in your own community and keeping your child safe,” said Sowden, recalling the effect child killer Clifford Olson had on a child’s freedom. “Now you have to be concerned when your child is in the safety of their own home, online and talking to anyone in the world.”

Like Caprarie, Sowden believes online predators should serve jail time and wants the federal government to implement a minimum sentence for offenders. There’s no need, she said, to increase the maximum sentence.

“A lot of times when they change the laws, they increase the maximum sentence, which makes it look like there’s more teeth there,” said Sowden, who is also a Coquitlam school trustee. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean the person is going to spend more time in custody.”

Added Sowden: “But we’re not lobbyists. We have to put our energy where we feel we’re going to have the greatest impact. So we concentrate on prevention. And if we are successful in prevention, there isn’t the need for all the heavy hammers.”

The federal government recognized the issue of sexual exploitation of children in a statement from Justice Minister Rob Nicholson in November 2010. Nicholson promised that adult sexual predators will receive sentences “which reflect the extreme seriousness of their crimes.”

The proposed legislation would establish mandatory prison sentences for seven existing Criminal Code offences, including 90 days for child luring. Nicholson promised to scrap conditional sentences, which is what Yalaka served. The legislation is still before Parliament.

Getting a handle on the number of online predators is impossible.

So is keeping track of the number of online chat rooms, forums and other social media that are plagued with sexual content and deviants.

New sites pop up every day.

For parents, the easy solution to prevent their child from becoming a victim of someone like Yalaka is not to allow them to use a computer.

Caprarie doesn’t advocate such extremism. She’s a realist and said kids need to know how to operate a computer to function in today’s world. Besides, some will also find ways to use a computer without a parent knowing.

So what can parents do?

Caprarie has a few tips:

- Keep a computer in a common place in the house for all to use and install monitoring and security software on it.

- Don’t allow your child to have a webcam. If one is already built into the computer, cover it while online; some predators are so tech savvy they can remotely turn on another person’s webcam.

- Educate yourself about computers and learn with your child. Tell them how one supposedly innocent photograph sent to a boyfriend could be circulated for thousands to see, including pedophiles and future employers.

“The lovely thing about the innocence of youth is they think everything is going to be great,” Caprarie said. “Unfortunately, the opposite end of that is they don’t foresee the consequences. They don’t realize when they either text a picture of themselves or send a picture of themselves naked or whatever, that they’re actually committing the offence of distributing child pornography.”

Added Caprarie: “I’ve been accused of scaring parents because I tell them like it is. I tell them to get their heads out of the sand. Kids are going to do stupid things but you just hope that the stupid things they do aren’t going to ruin their future.”

Before I logged off my exchange with 17 m Holland, I asked him a few more questions.

He claimed he was from Gelderland, Holland.

He said he was really 17.

So I asked him why he would be interested in performing a sexual act in front of someone 13 years old.

His response?

17 m Holland: it’s not in real life. so who cares?

mhowell@vancourier.com

Twitter: @Howellings




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