California man arrested in takedown of world’s largest child porn site

A Tulare County man has been charged as part of an operation to take down the world’s largest darknet child pornography site.

California

Charles Wunderlich, 34, of California Hot Springs, a small mountain community located about 20 miles east of Ducor on Highway 65, has been arrested and charged with conspiracy to distribute child pornography. Wunderlich was among 337 site users in 24 states and 11 countries to be charged with crimes in the District of Columbia. The charges were announced on Oct. 16 in a joint statement released by Department of Justice’s Criminal Division, U.S. Attorney Office for the District of Columbia, IRS Criminal Investigation (IRS-CI) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)’s Homeland Security Investigations (HIS).

“Children are our most vulnerable population, and crimes such as these are unthinkable,” said Alysa Erichs, acting executive associate director of HIS. “Sadly, advances in technology have enabled child predators to hide behind the dark web and cryptocurrency to further their criminal activity. However, today’s indictment sends a strong message to criminals that no matter how sophisticated the technology or how widespread the network, child exploitation will not be tolerated in the United States. Our entire justice system will stop at nothing to prevent these heinous crimes, safeguard our children, and bring justice to all.”

The man charged with operating the site Welcome To Video, the largest child sexual exploitation market by volume of content, is Jong Woo Son, 23, a South Korean national. A federal grand jury issued a nine-count indictment against Son along with a parallel civil forfeiture action.  Son has also been charged and convicted in South Korea and is currently in custody serving his sentence in South Korea.

“Darknet sites that profit from the sexual exploitation of children are among the most vile and reprehensible forms of criminal behavior,” said Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division.  “This Administration will not allow child predators to use lawless online spaces as a shield. Today’s announcement demonstrates that the Department of Justice remains firmly committed to working closely with our partners in South Korea and around the world to rescue child victims and bring to justice the perpetrators of these abhorrent crimes.”

According to the indictment, on March 5, 2018, agents from the IRS-CI, HSI, National Crime Agency in the United Kingdom, and Korean National Police in South Korea arrested Son and seized the server that he used to operate a darknet market that exclusively advertised child sexual exploitation videos available for download by members of the site. The operation resulted in the seizure of approximately eight terabytes of child sexual exploitation videos, which is one of the largest seizures of its kind.  The images, which are currently being analyzed by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), contained over 250,000 unique videos, and 45 percent of the videos currently analyzed contain new images that have not been previously known to exist.

Welcome To Video offered these videos for sale using the cryptocurrency bitcoin. Typically, sites of this kind give users a forum to trade in these depictions. This darknet website is among the first of its kind to monetize child exploitation videos using bitcoin. In fact, the site itself boasted over one million downloads of child exploitation videos by users. Each user received a unique bitcoin address when the user created an account on the website. An analysis of the server revealed that the website had more than one million bitcoin addresses, signifying that the website had capacity for at least one million users.

“Through the sophisticated tracing of bitcoin transactions, IRS-CI special agents were able to determine the location of the darknet server, identify the administrator of the website and ultimately track down the website server’s physical location in South Korea,” said IRS-CI Chief Don Fort. “This largescale criminal enterprise that endangered the safety of children around the world is no more. Regardless of the illicit scheme, and whether the proceeds are virtual or tangible, we will continue to work with our federal and international partners to track down these disgusting organizations and bring them to justice.”

The agencies have shared data from the seized server with law enforcement around the world to assist in identifying and prosecuting customers of the site. This has resulted in leads sent to 38 countries and yielded arrests of 337 subjects around the world. The operation has resulted in searches of residences and businesses of approximately 92 individuals in the United States. Notably, the operation is responsible for the rescue of at least 23 minor victims residing in the United States, Spain and the United Kingdom, who were being actively abused by the users of the site.

In the Washington, D.C.-metropolitan area, the operation has led to the execution of five search warrants and eight arrests of individuals who both conspired with the administrator of the site and were themselves, users of the website. Two users of the darknet market committed suicide subsequent to the execution of search warrants.

“Children around the world are safer because of the actions taken by U.S. and foreign law enforcement to prosecute this case and recover funds for victims,” said U.S. Attorney Jessie K. Liu. “We will continue to pursue such criminals on and off the darknet in the United States and abroad, to ensure they receive the punishment their terrible crimes deserve.”

A forfeiture complaint was also unsealed today. The complaint alleges that law enforcement was able to trace payments of bitcoin to the darknet site by following the flow of funds on the blockchain. The virtual currency accounts identified in the complaint were allegedly used by 24 individuals in five countries to fund the website and promote the exploitation of children. The forfeiture complaint seeks to recover these funds and, ultimately through the restoration process, return the illicit funds to victims of the crime.

The international investigations were led by the IRS-CI, HSI and the NCA. The Korean National Police of the Republic of Korea, the National Crime Agency of the United Kingdom and the German Federal Criminal Police (the Bundeskriminalamt), provided assistance and coordinated with their parallel investigations.  The Department of Justice’s Office of International Affairs of the Criminal Division provided significant assistance.

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