James McTurk is 78. He has wispy white hair and glasses, and speaks with a soft Scottish accent. He lives on a pension – and in a jail cell.
He has been twice convicted on child pornography charges, and his legal troubles have just intensified: McTurk could become the first person in Canada to be convicted of sex tourism in connection with the abuse of children in Cuba.
He is now one of a very small group of Canadian men to face charges for the crime of child-sex tourism.
McTurk does not travel to Cambodia or Thailand, destinations of choice for those who seek sex with children. All of his known and alleged victims have been Cuban girls. All were young, and some were very young – as young as 4.
McTurk has spent several years on Canada’s sex offender registry, but he was able to make repeated trips abroad until he was caught last summer, almost by accident. He was arrested at Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson airport, returning – once again – from Cuba.
According to court documents – and to McTurk himself, in interviews with police – he travels there frequently.
Like tens of thousands of convicted sex offenders across Canada, McTurk was free to come and go, whenever he wanted, to destinations where sex is cheap and victims are young. Despite an addition to the Criminal Code in 1997 allowing the prosecution of Canadians for crimes committed against children outside the country, child-sex tourists appear to be undeterred, and mostly undetected.
A succession of Canadian governments have declared their intention to eradicate the problem of child-sex tourism, saying children abroad are as deserving of protection from predators as kids in Canada. UNICEF estimates there are as many as 2 million children involved in the sex trade.
But there are big loopholes in the system. Supervision of the travel of sex offenders is lax. The privacy of convicted offenders is prioritized. The process of filing sex tourism charges is an arduous one for police. Ultimately, it appears Canada is failing in its moral obligation to protect children.
“Talking about child protection is really easy for governments to do because there is nobody who is going to argue the other side,” says Mark Hecht, a co-founder and legal counsel for Beyond Borders, a Winnipeg-based group that fights global child exploitation. “If you stand up as a government and say you stand firmly against children being sexually abused, who is going to say they disagree with that?
“But if you actually break that down into what that requires, that’s where there is a lack of political will.”
An investigation by The Toronto Star and El Nuevo Herald, the Miami Herald’s Spanish-language sister paper, has revealed loopholes in the system meant to monitor offenders. The result is that Canadian sex offenders, unlike those convicted in the United States, the United Kingdom or Australia, aren’t closely monitored:
In Canada, sex offenders don’t have to tell anyone they’re traveling if it’s for less than a week – and they can advise just before getting on a plane. The U.K. demands all travel by convicted offenders be reported, and they have to tell authorities at least seven days in advance. The same is true in Australia. Many American states require 21 days’ advance notice of travel.
In Canada, if offenders decide not to tell anyone they’re traveling, and are caught, the penalties are soft: a maximum of two years or a $10,000 fine. In the U.K., the penalty could be as much as five years behind bars. In the United States, the federal penalty for not complying with sex offender registry rules is as many as 10 years’ imprisonment.
In Canada, even if sex offenders do comply and notify authorities they are traveling, they don’t need to tell anyone where they’re going or provide an itinerary. The United States, U.K. and Australia all require detailed travel plans in advance.
And unlike other jurisdictions, Canada doesn’t monitor who is leaving the country, and so can’t catch sex offenders on the way out. On the way back into Canada, a child-sex tourist is unlikely to be caught because border agents aren’t on the lookout for them and don’t have the tools to catch them, such as front-line access to police data of criminal histories or the names listed in provincial or national sex offender registries.
“These people are passing right underneath our noses,” said Jean-Pierre Fortin, head of the Customs and Immigration Union, which has been pushing for access to criminal databases for Canada Border Services Agency inspectors.
The job of keeping track of child-sex tourists is becoming even more challenging as new destinations such as Cuba emerge, eclipsing hotspots in southeast Asia. An internal Royal Canadian Mounted Police report, released to The Star under Access to Information legislation, cited Cuba as the most popular destination in the Americas for child-sex tourism – and the Americas’ most visited region for Canadians traveling abroad for sex with kids.
McTurk, Toronto police allege, was one of those tourists.
No evidence against McTurk has been heard in court, and the charges against him are unproven. The case against him and his criminal convictions are detailed in a sworn search warrant, obtained by The Star, along with interviews of investigators.
The investigation that led to child-sex tourism charges against the diminutive retired postal worker – which could result in a 14-year sentence if he is convicted – began last spring.
The manager of a grocery store called Toronto police after an upset photo clerk spotted images, in for printing, showing sad, half-naked children.
The subsequent search warrant includes the clerk’s perception of the images: “The children were not smiling and she believed that they looked frightened.”
When police looked at the name of the man who placed the photo order, James McTurk, an alert cop recognized it. Police are obliged to check on the addresses of sex offenders once a year.
The case made its way to the force’s Child Exploitation Unit, which investigates sexual crimes against kids. It landed on Detective Paul Robb’s desk.
Robb and his boss, Detective Sgt. Kim Gross, concluded child pornography charges were justified, and three of those were quickly filed. But this time, Gross wanted her team to pursue child-sex tourism charges against McTurk.
“As far as I’m concerned we have a duty to protect children in countries other than Canada,” Gross said.
Robb swore out a search warrant, alleging that once inside McTurk’s apartment he would find evidence of sexual crimes against children – committed in Cuba.
“It’s new legal territory, because I can’t give any statements of the victims or the dates or place of the crime,” Robb said.
The warrant cites McTurk’s two previous convictions for child pornography in 1995 and 1998, both of which involved girls in Cuba. It lays out a travel record, obtained by police from the Canadian Border Services Agency, that indicates McTurk visited Cuba dozens of times over a four-year span.
Robb found McTurk had made eight trips to Cuba in 2009, another eight the following year, 10 more in 2011and five in just the first few months of 2012. In the four months that police were investigating McTurk in 2012, he visited Cuba twice.
“Based on James McTurk’s past history and his apparent continuing behavior, investigators are very concerned for the safety of these young Cuban girls,” Robb’s search warrant says.
The warrant approved, Robb headed to McTurk’s apartment. When the 10-year veteran of the force knocked on the door on July 11, 2012, McTurk wasn’t there.
He was in Cuba.
On July 24, 2012, two weeks after Robb searched the apartment, McTurk arrived on a charter flight back from the beach resort of Varadero. The detective was there to welcome him home.
Robb arranged for McTurk to be stopped by customs officials – who normally would have had no reason to suspect the man of any wrongdoing – and waited.
McTurk presented his passport. The border agents told the unsuspecting McTurk to step aside for a “secondary” inspection where Robb and another officer were waiting to make the arrest.
In an interview, Robb said McTurk had only a carry-on bag when he was arrested. Inside, police found about a dozen electronic devices, including a camera, digital storage cards and USB keys containing images from his trip. Police retrieved the video and photo evidence and said it appeared he had illegal physical contact with four different girls who appear to range from 4 to 12 years old.
Police immediately charged McTurk with possession of, accessing, and importing child pornography. And then they began the arduous legal process of having the child-sex tourism charges filed.
Toronto police can’t impose those charges on their own; they must first get approval from Ontario prosecutors. So Robb drew up an application to the attorney general, outlining the case. That wound its way through the ministry, getting approval from local and then regional attorneys, and then landing in the attorney general’s office in late January.
The charges – six counts of sexual interference and one each of invitation to sexual touching, making child pornography and exposure – were finally signed off on Feb. 12. Last week, McTurk’s case was before a judge in a north Toronto courthouse; no plea was filed, and court dates were set for the fall. (Through his lawyer, McTurk declined to speak with The Star.)
McTurk’s first brush with the law was in 1995, when he was convicted of possessing child pornography. A clerk at a central photo developing plant had reported “some disturbing photos” that “portrayed adolescent girls in sexual activity with an older man,” according to the police report at the time.
Brought in for questioning by police, McTurk gave a voluntary written statement in which he “admitted that he had experienced sexual intercourse with two of the girls in the photos while he was vacationing in Cuba,” a police report says. The report cites McTurk as saying the girls were 17; at the time, he was 61.
In Cuba, the age of consent is 16, so sex with those girls would not have been illegal. But under the Criminal Code, taking images of anyone under 18 engaging in sexual activity is.
According to Robb’s search warrant, McTurk pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography and received a two-year conditional discharge – no jail time or criminal record, just a promise to stay on good behavior.
Three years later, he was in trouble again, this time after an acquaintance told police he had seen videotapes of McTurk having sex with several Cuban girls.
Another search warrant, and when police entered his home, they found numerous photographs and videotapes, including one that showed “three females, approximately 14 years old, naked and being fondled by McTurk,” Robb’s search warrant says.
Police arrested McTurk on Sept. 12, 1998.
The RCMP child-sex tourism report says taking images of sexual activity is common: they’re considered trophies, or a way of “reliving” the experience. And the November 2011 report adds that children are “lured with promises of money, clothes and material goods,” and that families can “receive financial compensation for allowing access.”
For the videos taken in Cuba, McTurk received another conviction for possession of child pornography, and another conditional sentence of 18 months, plus another 18 months of probation. According to court documents, McTurk had to surrender his passport and undergo counseling for “sex offender treatment programming.” And so the trips to Cuba would have to stop, at least until he got his passport back.
But this conviction had another consequence. In 2001, Ontario set up Canada’s first sex offender registry, in the wake of the 1988 murder of Christopher Stephenson, who was killed by a convicted pedophile. Because McTurk was still on probation as a sex offender, he landed on that list, police said.
Being placed on the sex offender registry sounds punitive, but in reality, the conditions are not terribly troublesome: Those on the list need to tell police where they live and work, and their address is checked yearly by officers. No need to say when you’re traveling if it’s just short trips – and no need to tell anyone where you’re going.
Once McTurk had his travel documents returned, he headed back south. He continued to be a regular visitor to Cuba, as Toronto police discovered when McTurk’s activities came to light for a third time last spring, thanks to the grocery store photo clerk.
And as McTurk waits in a Canadian jail cell, officers investigating his case wonder how many traveling sex offenders are being missed because of loopholes in the law.
“Maybe we should start looking at the travel history for everyone we arrest for possession of child pornography,” Robb said
“There’s a helplessness on the faces of these children that is very striking,” Gross added. “Whether it be within our borders or outside our borders … we have an obligation to these children.”