TORONTO — She is perhaps 12 now, her hair still light blond, but she doesn't smile anymore. Over the last three years, she has appeared in 200 explicit photos that have become highly coveted collectibles for pedophiles trolling the Internet. They have watched her grow up online -- the hair getting longer, the look in her eyes growing more distant.
"She's a collector's item," says Det. Sgt. Paul Gillespie of the Toronto Sex Crimes Unit. "I know somebody out there could lead us to her. But right now, the only ones who can see her face are the wrong ones."
To his shame and frustration, all he could do was watch as the photos kept appearing and the usual tricks to trace her failed. So he decided to try something different. A computer expert digitally erased the girl from the photos, and in February, Gillespie asked the public to help identify the locations: a hotel room, a fountain, an elevator and a video arcade.
Moments after the pictures appeared on a Toronto television station, the tips began to come, and caller after caller identified a Disney World hotel in Florida. A scan of hotel records gave the police a few clues. They believe some of the pictures were taken by a relative on a family vacation and the rest were taken at a residence.
It was a rare breakthrough for Gillespie and his team at the Child Exploitation Section of the Sex Crimes Unit. A 25-year veteran of the Toronto Police Service, Gillespie is a tall, mustached man with intense energy, blue language and a willingness to push boundaries -- including teaming up with Microsoft's Bill Gates to pioneer a tracking system that became available this month to any police unit investigating child pornography.
But in the case of the Disney World girl, it hasn't been enough. Now Gillespie wants to do something radical: release a photo of her face. But aside from worrying that it would violate her privacy, he must weigh whether it would put her more at risk than letting the abuse continue while they search for other leads.
In another case, an abuser confessed to police that he'd been so convinced that his victim's mother had figured out what was going on, he hired a fellow pedophile to kill her and the girl in exchange for more pictures and sex toys. What would happen if the offender saw the police broadcasting the Disney World girl's picture and expected that he was going to be caught?
"Could harm be caused? Absolutely," says the 45-year-old Gillespie. "Would it be more harm than would be caused for the rest of her life if we didn't do anything? We don't know. We're trying to determine the best thing to do."
Gillespie has been on that knife's edge since the Child Exploitation Section was created four years ago. The Toronto police seized more than 2 million pictures and videos of child sexual abuse in 2003. So far, the world's law agencies have identified fewer than 500 of the children.
"We're doing a terrible job," he says in his office at police headquarters. "Five hundred kids of 50,000? What is that?"
Their work is a daily sojourn to the underworld. Gillespie has a team of 10 men and six women who spend hours in front of their computers, extracting leads, writing warrants and sifting photos for clues. The payoff is the day they get to kick down a door and take the "bad guy" away. The mood is light and the humor often off-color to ease the horror.
On one wall is a "Star Trek" poster with investigators' faces substituted for the Starship Enterprise crew. But even that alludes to a dark fact of their work: All but one of the offenders they have arrested in the last four years was a hard-core Trekkie.
Det. Constable Warren Bulmer slips on a Klingon sash and shield they confiscated in a recent raid. "It has something to do with a fantasy world where mutants and monsters have power and where the usual rules don't apply," Bulmer reflects. "But beyond that, I can't really explain it."
That is one of the biggest challenges of the Child Exploitation Section's work. They need to get inside the minds of the victims and the perpetrators to find them, but there is only so far they can -- or want to -- go.
Sitting in front of two computers in a blue suit and gold tie, Det. Constable Paul Krawczyk starts the day as a 13-year-old girl. Within minutes of his entering a chat room on education, and without asking for them, men are e-mailing nude pictures. "It's always the same," he says. "After two minutes, here come the body parts."
Sometimes, he can set up a meeting with a likely offender within half an hour; others take months to be drawn out.
By lunchtime, he is a pedophile conversing with a fellow "pedo" on the other side of the world about their shared interest. "R u active?" he asks, meaning do you abuse kids. "Yea," the message comes back. "Seven [years old] and 2."
The pedo describes his exploits in unprintable detail and eventually asks to exchange pictures. They negotiate for a while, and the other guy sends a dozen photos that seem to be culled from other websites.