A 49-year-old Oamaru man has been sentenced in the Dunedin District Court today to four years’ jail for exporting distributing, and possessing child sexual abuse publications, and being part of an organised crime group.
John Ritchie Hellewell was arrested by Customs investigators during a search warrant at his home in November 2020, following 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.
Hellewell was already known to Customs, who had arrested and charged him for similar offending in 2016. As part of his previous sentence, Hellewell was registered as a Child Sex Offender, however this did not deter him from re-offending.
Following his arrest in 2020, investigators from the Customs Child Exploitation Operations Team (CEOT) discovered he was not just distributing child sexual abuse imagery to overseas users, he was also operating as an administrator for at least two trading groups, controlling access to those groups and determining what material could be shared between members. Customs subsequently charged Hellewell with participating in an organised criminal group.
Chief Customs Officer – CEOT Simon Peterson says this is possibly the first time this type of charge has been pursued in New Zealand to date, in the context of objectionable publications and specifically child sexual exploitation material.
“But 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.”
As an administrator for one of the groups, he actively shared links and material to its twenty-six 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.
Furthermore, Customs discovered communications between this individual and another man overseas, discussing the actual abuse of a child in the 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. Within days, the overseas man was identified and arrested, and his child victim safeguarded from further abuse,” Mr Peterson says.
Identifying victims and protecting children is always a leading consideration when working these cases internationally or in New Zealand, regardless of whether they are being investigated by Customs, the Department of Internal Affairs, or 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,” he adds.
Task Force Ruru, which consists of specialists from all three agencies working together to identify victims of child sexual exploitation, exists for this very reason. Additionally, staff from Customs, DIA and Police are members of a global network made up of international law enforcement agencies who collaborate to identify victims and perpetrators around the world.
If you have concerns or suspicions about an individual who may be trading in or producing child sexual abuse images or videos, call Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111 or Customs on 0800 WE PROTECT in confidence. If you are, or know of, someone at risk of being sexually abused, contact Police immediately.