Waverly D. Crenshaw, Chief U.S. District Judge of the Middle District of Tennessee, has charged four men with significant prison sentences for their connection with and operation of a “sophisticated” child pornography and exploitation ring operating off a Tor-network-based website.
Tor, short for The Onion Router, is a browser which gives users near-complete anonymity and the ability to access the dark web. The browser utilizes a network of internationally based Tor servers and provides anonymity by randomly bouncing your internet traffic between the various servers, further encrypting your activity each step of the way. The result is an almost untraceable digital footprint. Your activity may be seen, but no one will know where it came from.
Tor is the most common browser used when accessing the dark web, a completely unregulated version of the internet infamous for its hosting of all sorts of illegal activities, including drug trafficking, snuff films, terrorist propaganda, and child pornography.
The two put together make tracking criminals, who often implement additional safety precautions, incredibly difficult. Given the scope of the child exploitation network these four individuals were operating, which had over 72,000 registered users and 56,000 posts in 2016, it is extremely fortunate that law enforcement officers were able to find the founders and arrest them.
The sentences are as follows:
Patrick D. Falte, 29, of Franklin, Tennessee, was sentenced to 35 years in prison for engaging in a child exploitation enterprise, three counts of advertising child pornography, and three counts of distributing child pornography. Benjamin A. Faulkner, 28, of Ontario, Canada, was sentenced to 35 years in prison; Andrew R. Leslie, 24, of Middleburg, Florida, was sentenced to 30 years in prison; and Brett A. Bedusek, 35, of Cudahy, Wisconsin, was sentenced to 20 years in prison, all for engaging in a child exploitation enterprise.The United States Department of Justice
The website these four were operating was named the Giftbox Exchange. It was founded by Falte in July 2015 and soon attracted Faulkner to become involved and share admin duties. The requirement for users to join the child pornography sharing forums that Falte created was the creation and posting of an act of child sex abuse. As there were 72,000 registered users and 56,000 posts, this suggests that the creation of the Giftbox Exchange may have led to tens of thousands of children being abused.
According to The U.S. Department of Justice, the Giftbox Exchange was organized in forums which were categorized by age, which included a sub forum listed as “Babies & Toddlers.”
“The Giftbox Exchange proved a haven for sophisticated predators to produce and spread deplorable depictions of child sexual abuse,” said Brian A. Benczkowski, Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. “These sentences affirm that layers of anonymity on the dark web will not prevent the Department of Justice from identifying and holding accountable those who exploit children.”
Multiple spin-off websites were also produced by the four involved.
One such website, created by Faulkner, was dedicated to child sexual exploitation and, at one point, hosted over 200,000 users. Additionally, Faulkner created a hidden service on the Giftbox Exchange “reserved for producers of child pornography.”
Leslie ran another separate Tor-based hidden website which featured even more violent videos and images of child sex abuse.
Bedusek, while not founding his own evil website, was a VIP member of the Giftbox Exchange, which gave him access to the more explicit parts of the site. He, then, became a moderator, allowing him access to even more depraved content. This latest charge comes after his previous federal conviction related to child pornography.
“The sentences imposed on these despicable individuals should insure that they never have another opportunity to abuse another child,” said Don Cochran, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee. “With all that we have, we will continue to hunt down the evil and abominable like-minded individuals who delight in abusing children and will bring them to justice.”
Falte and Faulkner also face life sentences for their repeated sexual abuse of a toddler whom they gained access to through a user of their website. They abused this child multiple times. Additionally, Faulkner frequently travelled to Texas to abuse a different toddler and produce more child pornography.
Leslie also faces similar charges for similar acts, including the sexual abuse of an infant, much like Faulkner.
The arrests of these four monsters are the result of an ongoing, nationwide initiative called Project Safe Childhood, which was launched in May 2006 by the U.S. Department of Justice. The initiative seeks to “combat the growing epidemic of child sexual exploitation and abuse.” It is led by the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices and CEOs, and involves the collaboration of all law enforcement, from the local level all the way to the top.