WARNING: This story contains descriptions and language associated with child sex offending.

Authorities in the United States searching the dark corners of the internet for missing children were led to New Zealand. They found a young man, the son of a former cop, sharing and downloading images of exploited kids. He is one of several Kiwis arrested in recent years for similar offending, Sam Hurley and Chelsea Boyle report.

When Kiwis think of international child exploitation, the affluent and vineyard-lined Waiheke Island may be the last location that comes to mind.

Southeast Asia, the Americas and Europe rightly remain in the headlines with cases of criminal syndicates abducting and abusing society's most vulnerable.

However, the US National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children identified an IP address in 2017 on the most populated and second-largest island in the Hauraki Gulf.

The computer belonged to a 26-year-old fish and chip shop worker. He was using a fake name to enter online paedophile chat groups to share and download dozens of photos and videos of exploited children.

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The American agency shared its information to the Online Child Exploitation Across New Zealand police unit (OCEANZ).

In December 2017, Auckland police raided Thomas Moroney's Waiheke home.

The former junior rugby league representative's computers and electronic storage devices were seized.

The US National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children noticed Thomas Moroney downloading and sharing sexual images of children. Photo / Dean Purcell
The US National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children noticed Thomas Moroney downloading and sharing sexual images of children. Photo / Dean Purcell

During the search Moroney confessed to entering the chat groups.

Examinations of his laptop by the digital forensic unit found he had been using the fake Skype profile "Izzy Boykin", accompanied with the face of a young woman, to share child exploitation material with other people.

Between November 29 and December 12, 2017, Moroney had downloaded and then deleted 57 child exploitation files.

When spoken to by detectives, Moroney admitted using the female pseudonym and confessed to accessing, downloading and deleting "numerous" sexual pictures and videos of young children.

Though he had no previous convictions, Moroney was familiar with law enforcement, his "highly-respected" father having worked for the New Zealand Police for some 26 years.

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His mother supported him as he stood in Auckland District Court this week to be sentenced on 19 charges of possessing and supplying objectionable material.

Thomas Moroney was sentenced to intensive supervision and community work. Photo / Dean Purcell
Thomas Moroney was sentenced to intensive supervision and community work. Photo / Dean Purcell

"He has never been in trouble before. He is gentle person," Moroney's lawyer Roger Chambers said.

"It was pure voyeurism as much as anything," he said.

Prosecutor Katelin Bailey, however, held Moroney's crimes in a more sinister light.

She said it was premeditated offending against extremely vulnerable children.

Judge Nevin Dawson agreed: "Those victims are unknown and unnamed but they would not be victims if there were not persons like yourself viewing those appalling images."

However, he was satisfied Moroney was "not a danger to the children in the community" otherwise he would not have stopped short of imprisonment, he said.

At his discretion, the judge did not place Moroney on the child sex offender register.

Judge Dawson took into account Moroney's early guilty pleas, strong social and family support, and employment.

"It is a great pity you appear here today," the judge said, later adding he was satisfied he would not see Moroney in court again.

Moroney was sentenced to two years of intensive supervision and 200 hours' community work.

'A borderless crime'

Moroney's case is just one of many to be heard in New Zealand courts during the past few years. Many have first been detected by law enforcement agencies abroad.

Detective Senior Sergeant John Michael, head of the NZ Police Covert Online Investigation Unit, said the exploitation of children on the internet was a "borderless crime".

"We are always uncovering offenders online. Whether it be people who are grooming children or trading in child exploitation material, there's no shortage of offenders for us to locate.

"We will in some cases identify overseas offenders through our investigations and will send referrals overseas and vice versa."

The FBI caught former North Shore community board chairman Martin Lawes paying live child sex shows. Photo / Greg Bowker
The FBI caught former North Shore community board chairman Martin Lawes paying live child sex shows. Photo / Greg Bowker

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, one of the New Zealand's police's major partners in identifying child exploitation, discovered a former North Shore community board chairman paying for access to live child sex shows.

The multi-national investigation, led by the FBI, found Martin Lawes had paid more than $100,000 over a decade to stream the abuse directly from Asia.

The multimillionaire paedophile was jailed last September for more than four years and six months, while the investigation led to the rescue of exploited children in the Philippines.

Michael said the Lawes case showed how the exploitation of children crossed age and socioeconomic boundaries.

But, he added, offenders are "generally male, and generally Caucasian".

US Homeland Security found Christchurch man Drew Webb at the centre of a global child sex network on the dark net. Photo / Facebook
US Homeland Security found Christchurch man Drew Webb at the centre of a global child sex network on the dark net. Photo / Facebook

US Homeland Security also contacted OCEANZ in September 2015 with concerns about a Canterbury link to a global paedophile syndicate on the dark net.

Christchurch man Drew Webb was found to be orchestrating the group and importing and distributing images and films of children being abused, included toddlers and babies.

Thirty-one children, some as young as 2, were rescued in 2017 from the massive child sex network.

The syndicate had spread to several countries including Australia, the US, Canada, Scotland and France.

Those arrested overseas included caregivers, parents, and a kindergarten teacher, who had traded child sexual abuse images with Webb, who was jailed for six years.

Detective Senior Sergeant John Michael says child exploitation crosses age and socio-economic boundaries. Photo / NZ Herald
Detective Senior Sergeant John Michael says child exploitation crosses age and socio-economic boundaries. Photo / NZ Herald

Many offenders, some of whom operate on the dark net, remain hard to identify because of fake names, dates of birth and email address, Michael said.

"It's always a challenge.

"There are definitely New Zealanders operating on [the dark net]. The difficulty is you're obviously not going to know who they are, at least not initially but a lot of the most egregious material is on those sites."

The FBI targeted many dark net pages for removal, Michael said, which were being used as havens for criminal groups trading in images and videos.

But there remained many New Zealand children being exploited, he said.

Hawke's Bay man James Nielson was jailed in April after being found in possession of more than 1000 images depicting the sexual exploitation of children.

The 52-year-old was also abusing two young New Zealand girls, one of whom he took objectionable images of on his smartphone.

James Nielson was found in possession of more than 1000 images depicting the sexual exploitation of children. Photo / Jason Oxenham
James Nielson was found in possession of more than 1000 images depicting the sexual exploitation of children. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Michael said some offenders did not think they had done anything wrong.

"They think their behaviour is fine in their eyes. They know what they're doing is wrong in terms of breaking the law, but morally what they're doing they are happy with ... 'As long as the child is consenting'."

He said such a mindset was not only hard to understand for right-minded people but also hard to change.

"You can't arrest your way out of the problem, because it's quite extensive."

Educating children to be more street-smart, however, was one way he suggested to keep kids safe online.

Michael said child chat rooms and websites would "without a doubt" have child predators lurking.

"Some really innocuous websites, they will be there."

South Auckland police officer Gavin Giles was one such predator - he was caught having a sexually inappropriate online relationship with a teenage girl in Texas.

Former South Auckland police officer Gavin Giles was grooming a Texas teen on the internet. Photo / Doug Sherring
Former South Auckland police officer Gavin Giles was grooming a Texas teen on the internet. Photo / Doug Sherring

Along with the Department of Internal Affairs, Customs also plays an important role in the detection of child exploitation in New Zealand.

Just last month, Customs arrested two Kiwi men after investigations linked them to allegedly trading child sexual abuse images.

It came after a tip-off from international sources about a 44-year-old Nelson man's involvement in sharing child sexual abuse images on a popular social media messaging app.

In a separate case, a 26-year-old was arrested in Auckland after a forensic search of his mobile phone allegedly found images and videos of children being sexually abused.

The man, who lives overseas, first came to Customs' attention in 2015 after an referral for similar offending overseas.

The Herald can also reveal Customs has arrested a further two men in Auckland.

The 19-year-old and 33-year-old will appear in court for the first time during the next few weeks.

• If you've experienced sexual assault or abuse and need to talk to someone you can call the confidential Safe to Talk crisis helpline on: 0800 227 233