Police in Alberta believe a recent spike in reports of online child exploitation could be connected to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams (ALERT) says over a dozen people from across the province were arrested over the past month for charges relating to the online sexual exploitation of a child.
According to ALERT, their Internet Child Exploitation (ICE) unit arrested 18 people between May 20 and June 23, with 65 charges laid in total. Of the people arrested, five are from Edmonton, three are from Calgary and three are from Lethbridge.
This comes after ALERT previously announced that in March ICE had received 243 reported instances of online child exploitation in Alberta, a record number that far exceeded the unit’s monthly average of roughly 110.
In a Friday news release, ALERT said members of ICE speculate that the “rise in the number of investigative referrals” is “likely in part related to digital dependency during COVID-19 isolation measures.”
“We believe this to be a continuation of the upward trend that we saw back in March, which we believed was triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and the increased online activity of both kids and predators,” ALERT spokesperson Glenn Cook told Global News. “Kids are spending more time online now because of self-isolation or they’re doing school work … That has all contributed to the rise.”
“This is affecting cities and towns right across Alberta – from big cities like Edmonton to small communities like Airdrie, Frog Lake.”
“This is a level of activity that has been unparalleled in the existence of the ICE unit,” Supt. Dwayne Lakusta said in a news release. “ICE is working incredibly hard to put predators behind bars, but we need parents to do their part and be vigilant of their kids’ online activities.”
According to ICE, there is no definitive link between the suspects, and each was charged with at least one child pornography offence.
The people charged are as follows:
- An 18-year-old man from Edmonton who was a young offender at the time of his arrest and cannot be named under the Youth Criminal Justice Act
- Bryan Alas Hernandez, 18, from Lethbridge
- Dean Bertsch, 62, from Sherwood Park
- Brandon Bran Eguizabal, 26, from Lethbridge
- Tyson Campbell, 27, from Edmonton
- Evan Cardinal, 31, from Frog Lake
- Yonatan Castro Linares, 25, from Lethbridge
- Keone Friesen, 21, from Calgary
- Hans-Ulrich Gerber, 74, from Red Deer
- Travis Harder, 31, from Sherwood Park
- Kristofer Hastings, 28, from Edmonton
- Darcy Hazard, 57, from Airdrie
- Anas Khatib, 24, from Grande Prairie
- Wayne Kupsch, 52, from Edmonton
- Richard McCleary, 61, from Calgary
- George Power, 45, from Calgary
- James Venance, 63, from Edmonton
- Jesse Young, 20, from Grande Prairie
“Online child exploitation victimizes our most vulnerable and is a crime against an entire society that’s built around nurturing our children and keeping them safe,” Minister of Justice and Solicitor General Doug Schweitzer said.
“Identifying and arresting the perpetrators who prey on children is complex and challenging work, and I commend the investigators of ALERT’s ICE unit for their tireless dedication to this grim, but absolutely necessary, duty.”