A British Columbia man convicted in Thailand for sexually abusing children has been set free in Canada, but a judge has imposed strict public safety conditions on the pedophile once dubbed Swirl Face. Christopher Neil must be watched for the next 18 months to prove he's not a danger, provincial court Judge Patrick Chen ruled Wednesday in Richmond, B.C.
Mr. Neil's lawyer told court the 37-year-old former English teacher would willingly follow the restrictions. "If he hadn't agreed, there would have been bail conditions probably for a year until a hearing. And as it stood, he wanted to get it over with," duty counsel Mark Thompson, who was appointed to defend Mr. Neil, said outside court.
"His penalty starts now instead of eight to 12 months, whenever a trial would be."
Mr. Neil pleaded guilty and spent five years in a Thai prison after an international manhunt was triggered in 2007 when computer experts unscrambled images on the Internet of him abusing children. Crown lawyer Gerri-Lyn Nelson asked that probation-like conditions be enforced for two years. She said she wasn't aware Mr. Neil had taken any sex-offender treatment programs while he was in custody.
Mr. Thompson, however, argued an 18-month term was sufficient, noting some of the conditions were "quite onerous."
"As distasteful as the Thai court found what he has done, it is not on the scale of the worst sex offender(s)," he told court. "One could assume there are worse sex offenders out there."
Some of the conditions Mr. Neil is ordered to abide by include surrendering his passport, staying away from places where children under 16 would congregate and not having access to the Internet. He must also remain in B.C., frequently check in with a probation officer and attend a treatment centre.
Mr. Neil faces no charges in Canada, but police used a section of the Criminal Code aimed at protecting public safety to arrest him last Friday when he arrived at Vancouver's airport.
The RCMP's Integrated Child Exploitation unit sought a protective order under Section 810.1 because they believe he is a risk to reoffend.
"With any travelling predator, the conditions I like are behind bars, but I can live with what's been done today," said Brian McConaghy, a former RCMP officer who was part of the initial investigation but now runs a rights group for child sex abuse victims in Cambodia.
"I think it's been done well, it's been done quickly in terms of having conditions on a man that is clearly dangerous towards children. I just hope there's more coming down the pipe in terms of legal process for him."
Mr. Neil wore red prison-issued clothing and appeared to be listening with his eyes cast downwards throughout his hearing.
The judge gave Mr. Neil an opportunity to speak before making his ruling, but Mr. Thompson said his client did not wish to address the court.
Mr. Thompson said he is aware there may be a warrant out for Mr. Neil in Cambodia, but noted that country would likely have to extradite him if in order to prosecute him.
He's not sure what Mr. Neil plans to do now that he's free, noting the former Maple Ridge, B.C., resident taught English to prisoners in Thailand. But he said the man might try to find a job where he doesn't have much contact with the public in order to abide by the ruling.
"His family doesn't welcome him, so I don't think he's going back to Maple Ridge," Mr. Thompson said, referring to the city east of Vancouver.
Mr. Neil was arrested in Bangkok in the fall 2007 after police seized images from a storage locker depicting him engaged in sex acts with children.
He pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting two boys and was sentenced to six years, six months for the crimes.
Court heard Mr. Neil was put on a plane back to Canada after getting amnesty from the queen of Thailand for good behaviour while in prison.
The hunt for Mr. Neil began in 2004, when police in Germany discovered several hundred pictures of someone engaged in sex acts with boys.
The images were being distributed online, and the abuser's face was obscured by a swirl, which later prompted international media to dub the person Swirl Face.
Police were then able to remove the swirl and determined the images were coming from a computer IP address located in Maple Ridge, B.C.
Interpol led the worldwide search that located Mr. Neil in Korea, where he was teaching English. He fled to Thailand, where he was apprehended.
The RCMP's Integrated Child Exploitation unit has said a further sex tourism investigation is not being pursued against Mr. Neil because that would be considered "double jeopardy" after the man has already served his sentence.
However, police remain mindful of the case and will never entirely close the possibility of another investigation related to possible offences in other countries.
The conditions imposed by the court will lapse if the Crown does not seek a renewal by the end of the 18 months.
Canada's sex tourism laws, enacted in 1997, ensure the country can prosecute a citizen who commits crimes overseas.
According to the RCMP's Canadian Police Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, the law has so far been used five times.