A man has been sentenced to four years in jail for exporting, distributing, and possessing child sexual abuse publications and being part of an organised crime group.
John Ritchie Hellewell, 49, from Oamaru, was arrested by Customs investigators during a search warrant at his home in November 2020. It followed a referral from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in the United States, alleging his involvement in exporting and trading the material using a popular social media platform.
Customs says Hellewell was already known to them since they had arrested and charged him for similar offending in 2016. As part of his previous sentence, he was registered as a Child Sex Offender.
Following his arrest in 2020, investigators from the Customs Child Exploitation Operations Team (CEOT) discovered he wasn't just distributing child sexual abuse imagery to people overseas, he was also an administrator for at least two trading groups. He controlled who could access these groups and determined what material could be shared between members. Customs subsequently charged Hellewell with participating in an organised criminal group.
CEOT Chief Customs Officer Simon Peterson says it could be the first time this type of charge has been pursued in New Zealand in the context of objectionable publications and specifically child sexual exploitation material.
"That's exactly what this man was doing: actively participating in, contributing to and in many ways determining the course of these online groups, whose sole purpose was to revel in the unimaginable distress of child sexual abuse victims," he says.
Customs says as an administrator for one of the groups, Hellewell shared links and material to its 26 members and even required a new user to provide objectionable material as part of a verification process to gain entry to the group. This particular group was active right up to the morning when Customs executed their search warrant.
Customs also found communications between Hellewell and a man overseas where they were discussing the actual abuse of a child in that man's care.
"Our lead investigator quickly sent information through an international network, which New Zealand is part of, to the appropriate authorities in the state of Ohio in the United States," Peterson says.
"Within days, the overseas man was identified and arrested, and his child victim safeguarded from further abuse."
Customs says identifying victims and protecting children is always a leading consideration when working on these cases, regardless of whether they are being investigated by Customs, the Department of Internal Affairs, or the Police.
"All three agencies here in New Zealand work very closely together to combat the online sexual exploitation of children, and if we are ever able to assist with removing a child from this kind of harm, anywhere in the world, we'll leap at it," Peterson adds.
Customs encourages anyone who had concerns or suspicions about someone who may be trading or producing child sexual abuse images or videos to call Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111 or Customs on 0800 WE PROTECT (0800 937 768) in confidence. If someone is at risk or is being sexually abused, Customs advises calling the police immediately.