A New Zealander helping to run a global online child sex abuse ring has been sentenced in the Dunedin District Court today.
John Ritchie Hellewell will spend the next four years in prison after admitting to being part of an organised crime group, distributing, exporting, and possessing objectionable material.
And 1 NEWS can reveal that the investigation by Taskforce Ruru – a joint taskforce between Customs, Police, and Internal Affairs – led to FBI and US police rescuing a child being abused by the group, with his abuser jailed.
New Zealand Customs investigators were alerted in June 2020 of three objectionable publications uploaded from New Zealand to a social media application in the US. This included video of sexual exploitation of children.
The upload was tracked to a Samsung cellphone, owned by someone living in Oamaru.
Customs raided the address, locating Hellewell, as well as the cellphone.
Examination of the cellphone found Hellewell was actively using a modified version of that social media platform through two accounts, one account with the name "Man BOSS".
An investigation found Hellewell to be the "admin" of those two groups – one had 27 members, the second had 17 members - all members spread across the world.
"They were sharing with each other child abuse imagery – his role was to manage the membership of those groups to the point of requiring illicit material to be presented before accepting membership," Chief Customs Officer, Simon Peterson told 1 NEWS.
Hundreds of photos and videos were found within the groups – Customs identified 608 Objectionable Publications Hellewell had access to, possessed, distributed, or exported.
But that was not all investigators found.
"The offender had been communicating with someone offshore, about the actual abuse of a child".
Taskforce send that information to the FBI, and the Muskingum County Sherrif’s deputies and detectives located the man, rescuing the child.
Former firefighter, Chad Buchanan, was sentenced to 25-years in prison.
Today, Judge Kevin Phillips said at the Dunedin District Court this case was "alarming".
"You did not in any way or any manner take into account the children that were being abused," he told Hellewell.
"You were actively involved in encouraging in the abuse of these young children."
It was not the first time Hellewell had been imprisoned for this kind of criminal activity.
"The sentence imposed on you in 2016 has not had the desired impact," said Judge Phillips.
But Customs was concerned about the increase in cases like this, with offending becoming more extreme.
"The collections that we are seizing from people are larger, the content is tending to be more extreme," said Peterson.
"We are seeing more violence and sadism in child exploitation material."
To help combat this the Taskforce Ruru team was continuing to expand following a $10.2m funding boost in 2020.