More than 200 adults have been arrested in an international investigation of child pornography, Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Thursday.
The agency’s director, John Morton, said 123 child victims were identified during the five-week investigation, which ended in early December. ICE and local authorities found 110 victims in 19 U.S. states, while the others were living in six countries elsewhere.
Morton declined to provide specific details about which foreign countries were involved, saying only that there were some cases in Mexico.
The investigation, dubbed “Operation Sunflower,” was part of ICE’s effort to find and rescue victims, and arrest abusers and people who make or transmit child pornography.
“We have to attack child exploitation relentlessly and together. There is no other way, there is no other answer,” Morton said. “It is a wrong among wrongs. We are literally defending the defenseless.”
Morton also announced arrest warrants for two unidentified adults charged in Los Angeles with molesting a girl who appeared in online photos to be about 13 when she was abused. The man and woman were identified only as “John Doe” and “Jane Doe” and authorities believe they may have been in the San Fernando Valley area north of Los Angeles when they abused the girl. Photos of the abuse investigators found online are believed to be about 11 years old, Morton said.
A former 61-year-old elementary school teacher has been charged with molesting 23 children after an investigation by authorities uncovered more than 40 photographs showing victims with their eyes blindfolded and mouths covered with tape, possibly inside a classroom.
Mark Berndt was arrested at his Torrance home Monday following a year-long probe that began when a film processor turned in the images to law enforcement. Berndt was a teacher at Miramonte Elementary School in an unincorporated area of south Los Angeles for more than 30 years, but was fired by the school district shortly after the investigation began in January 2011.
“I am sickened and horrified by the behavior of Mark Berndt,” said Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy in a statement. “This individual and his conduct do not reflect on the quality of the teachers who work so hard on behalf of the students in the Los Angeles Unified School District.”
Some of the images allegedly show Berndt with his arm around the children or with his hand over their mouths, according to a statement by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
In addition, authorities say the images depict girls with what appears to be a blue plastic spoon filled with an unknown substance. There were also photos of children with large, live Madagascar-type cockroaches on their faces and mouths.
A search warrant served by detectives on Berndt’shome also led to the discovery of more than 100 similar photographs depicting children, authorities aid. Also found was a DVD depicting adult sexual “bondage” activity. The adults in that DVD are not identified, according to detectives.
As part of the investigation, authorities say they have interviewed more than 80 current and former students, as well as school employees. The victims are identified as 23 boys and girls between the ages of 6 and 10, during a time period from 2008 to 2010.
Investigators are still working to identify 10 of the child victims in the 390 photos uncovered.
Human rights groups say more than 400 children have been killed in Syria’s crackdown on anti-government unrest - some of them deliberately. The BBC’s Fergal Keane speaks to some of those affected in neighbouring Lebanon and Jordan.
Tamer’s mother remembers that on the day he left home he turned and asked her a simple question. It was the kind of question teenage boys, preoccupied with their appearance, are apt to ask. He had been combing his hair and wanted to know if it looked good. “I told him: ‘You are so beautiful’,” recalled Nawal al-Shari.
The next time Nawal saw 15-year-old Tamer, his body was grotesquely disfigured by what the family insists was torture. His father found him in a hospital mortuary 40 days after he left home in April last year to attend a demonstration in the southern town of Deraa against his family’s wishes.
Slowly piecing together the final days of their son’s life, the Shari family learned that he had been taken to the notorious Air Force detention centre near Damascus. His X-rays showed signs of bullet holes and broken bones. Most of his upper front teeth had been knocked out. A fellow detainee has told the BBC he saw Tamer being beaten in custody.
His mother told the BBC that she hoped to see a day when there would be justice for her son. “It is impossible that there are humans that have such stone hearts to do this to their fellow man. Even animals cannot do this to people,” she said.
‘Accounts of torture’
In response to the case of Hamza al-Khatib, a 13-year-old detained around the same time as Tamer, the Syrian government said he had been shot at a demonstration - a claim disputed by human rights groups. State media said the boy’s father had expressed his gratitude for the kindness shown to the family by President Bashar al-Assad.
In all of this it is impossible to verify the truth of every allegation. The Syrian conflict has become a bitter propaganda battle between the opposition and the state.
But the UN says it has gathered “numerous and substantiated” accounts of torture including children.