KITCHENER — A local software security entrepreneur is caught up in a global bust of one of the largest child pornography rings ever seen, a network that circulated graphic images of kids as young as five.
Kitchener’s Paul Anton Sop, 42, is accused of being a customer of the child porn website Azovfilms.com, which was exposed this week after a three-year probe called Project Spade involving detectives in Toronto, investigators in the United States and police overseas.
Sop is fighting three charges — two counts of downloading child porn and one count of possessing child porn, dating back to 2010. His criminal lawyer, Boris Bytensky, described the allegations against his client as purchasing “naturist videos.”
Also charged in the widespread sting is a 62-year-old Guelph man, Terence Keleher, who’s already sitting in a U.S. jail for possession of child porn.
More than 100 Canadians were swept up in the massive probe. Another 76 were arrested in the U.S. Police say paying customers included teachers, police officers, coaches, clergy and doctors.
Sop, who co-founded a security software company in his parents’ basement and built it in into a $7-million firm with more than 115 employees, was investigated by Waterloo Regional Police after getting information from police in Toronto.
In February 2012, officers from the local internet Child Exploitation Unit — a three-officer team that conducted 92 investigations and charged 14 people last year — searched Sop’s home while he was out of the country.
Upon his return, he was arrested and later released on bail.
He says he’s innocent and intends to fight the allegations in a jury trial, expected to take place in Kitchener in Superior Court next year.
“Mr. Sop vehemently denies these allegations and will seek to demonstrate his innocence when the matter reaches trial,” Bytensky said, in an emailed statement.
His child pornography lawyer stressed that Sop is not accused of production or distribution of any films or images.
“Most importantly, there has never been any suggestion that Mr. Sop has, at any time or in any way, been involved in the making, production or distribution of any naturist or child pornographic material whatsoever, and of course he has never done so,” Bytensky said.
Police say hundreds of thousand of images seized in the sting featured “horrific acts of sexual abuse — some of the worst (officers) have seen,” according to Inspector Joanna Beaven-Desjardins, head of the Toronto police’s sex crimes unit.
Those images triggered 341 arrests across the globe and led to the rescue of 386 children, police say, making it one of the largest and most geographically vast child pornography investigations in the world.
Police focused on more than 150 of the most troubling films on the website and cross-referenced them with the Azovfilms.com customer records. They swooped on the people they believed had bought them.
The man at the centre of the probe, 41-year-old Azovfilms.com owner Brian Way, faces about two-dozen charges of making, possessing, distributing, exporting and selling the explicit images of boys, who range in age from toddlers to teens. The videos, police allege, were edited, packaged and sold from his Toronto warehouse.
Investigators who have seen videos seized from Way’s warehouse after his May 2011 arrest say they feature all boys, all young.
During the raid on Way’s business and residence, police seized 1,000 pieces of evidence: computers, servers, DVD burners, a video editing suite and hundreds of movies.
Also accused in the Project Spade investigations is Guelph’s Keleher, arrested at his home in January 2012 and charged with possessing child pornography. Police seized computers, camera equipment, digital files and DVDs.
Keleher was arrested again at the Peace Bridge in Buffalo that same month while trying to enter the United States. American customs officers searched his car after he gave vague answers and found an iPad that contained child pornography.
Keleher is now serving a sentence in a U.S. jail for possession of child porn, and Guelph Police say they plan to pursue their case against him after his release.
Among other alleged Canadian clients of Azovfilms.com are a Chatham hockey coach, a Toronto teacher, a priest and a Scout leader in Quebec, and a retired high school principal in Nova Scotia.
In the United States, police officers, educators and medical professionals were among the people arrested.
Some people have pleaded guilty and are serving sentences, while others remain before the courts, proclaiming their innocence, including Sop.
Way declined requests for an interview and his lawyer Nyron Dwyer declined to comment.
Azovfilms.com was a sophisticated site, police say. It had an Amazon.com-like interface, where clients could peruse Top 10 lists and reviews by other customers. There was a searchable catalogue, so those who knew what they wanted could go right to the desired title, and credit-card payments were accepted.
Sop may be best known in the region’s technology sector for co-founding Intellitactics, the successful Kitchener-based security software company he created with his brother in 1996.
Sop, who also helped build Golden Triangle Online, one of the region’s first internet service providers, left Intellitactics in 2005 and later started a new venture with his brother, called RedWolf Security.