Investigators in B.C. and the Netherlands say they have unravelled the complex web of online torment that triggered the 2012 suicide of B.C. teen Amanda Todd.
Coquitlam RCMP Inspector Paulette Friel confirmed on Thursday that a 35-year-old Dutch citizen has been arrested on an array of charges related to the Todd case, as well as several other international instances of online luring.
"Today marks a major milestone in our investigation," said a triumphant Insp. Friel. "A suspect has been identified, he has been arrested and he has been charged."
Ms. Todd's death made international headlines in 2012 and spurred calls for stronger cyberbullying laws. In a heartbreaking YouTube video that has now been viewed over 17 million times, the teen outlined how she'd been coerced to "flash" her breasts to a man in an online chatroom. When she refused his demands for a repeat performance, he posted partially nude pictures of Ms. Todd to social media. The embarrassment and abuse that followed – both online and in person – led Ms. Todd to take her own life.
The investigation began 3 1/2 years ago, when the online abuse began, and ballooned after Ms. Todd's death, eventually taking in thousands of tips and hundreds of interviews until it grew into an international hunt that touched at least five countries.
In mid-January, police in Canada caught a break when authorities in the Netherlands arrested a 35-year-old man in the country's south on a series of charges related to online luring. He lived a quiet life, according to his lawyer, residing in a "holiday park" full of small rented bungalows.
"I can only say he seems like a decent person, a young good-looking man who is easy to speak to," said Christian van Dijk.
But according to investigators here and abroad, his modest facade hid a destructive international reach.
Dutch authorities allege that the man had a sinister pattern of enticing underage girls through the Internet and convincing them to perform sexual acts via webcam. With the footage in hand, he would coerce the girls to make new videos by threatening to use the old images against them.
Over the last three months, they have linked his online activities to crimes in four other countries – the United States, United Kingdom, Norway and Canada.
Due to strict Dutch privacy laws, the man cannot be named, according to Paul van der Zanden, spokesman with the Dutch Public Prosecutor's Office. The case only became public on Wednesday when an Amsterdam District Court judge released details during a hearing, according to Mr. van Dijk.
"They only do that when they think they catch a big fish and want to show everyone what they achieved," he said.
Dutch authorities have charged him with indecent assault, the production and dissemination of child pornography, fraud, computer intrusion and the possession of hard drugs.
Dutch authorities still don't know the full extent of his luring activities, but stated his bullying didn't stop with young women. He would also convince men he was an underage boy and press them to perform sexual acts through a webcam. He would then threaten to pass the images to police.
"In my reading of the evidence, it's not really about him going after young girls, but it was more about getting money from them," Mr. van Dijk said.
In Canada, meanwhile, the RCMP announced five charges against the man: extortion, internet luring, criminal harassment, possession of child pornography and possession of child pornography with intent to distribute. Inspector Bob Resch, head of the RCMP's National Child Exploitation Coordination Centre, said the man victimized several other underage women in Canada in addition to Ms. Todd.
Ms. Todd's mother, Carol, said that although she is pleased that there seems to be a break in the investigation, she does not want it to stop because of this one arrest.
"I don't want everyone to get so hyped up that this is it, that this is the end. I don't think in my heart that this is the end. It's the start of it. There's more than one person in those chat rooms," she told The Globe and Mail. "There are more people responsible for extorting [Amanda]."
She said she believes that local people may also be involved and hopes this arrest will lead to other revelations.
"The hardest thing right now is to see her picture plastered everywhere again," Ms. Todd said.
Simultaneous international charges raise the spectre of an extradition morass that could drag out the multiple cases for years. Dutch authorities weren't ready to talk about the prospect. "It's too early to answer questions about extradition," said Paul van der Zanden, spokesman for the National Public Prosecutor's Office. "There is co-operation with authorities from several countries."
Canada has a relatively straightforward extradition agreement with the Netherlands signed in 1991. But if the other three countries involved in the investigation – the U.S., U.K. and Norway – lay charges as well, the order of extradition would get murky.
"If the U.S. decides to prosecute, Canada in most cases would defer to them, it's a matter of budget and politics," said Vancouver extradition lawyer Gary Botting. "Then again, the Dutch could prioritize Canada if the most serious crime he is alleged to have committed took place here."