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Porn stars or exploited teens?

Courts hear different versions of the story

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They were initially portrayed as sexually exploited teen victims who were used as props in one of Winnipeg's worst child pornography cases.

Now the same sisters have been painted in court as attention-starved aggressors who were seeking Internet "fame" by creating their own online business using themselves as the featured attractions.

The case in a nutshell

EIGHT years after police busted a child pornography operation, the case was still in court last week.

The original charges were laid in 2002. The case involved two sisters, then aged 14 and 16, now adults in their 20s; their aunt; and a man who was dating their aunt.

Last year, the aunt pleaded guilty and was sentenced. The man pleaded guilty last week and was sentenced under very different facts. The case stalled in the courts for years for a variety of reasons: disclosure of evidence, changing lawyers and the man failing to appear for his initial trial date and then going on the run for more than a year.

Two accused adults struck plea bargains with justice officials in the same case -- using different versions of the facts that suited their best interests but can't possibly both be true.

A 40-year-old Winnipeg man -- who can't be named to protect the identity of the sisters, who were minors at the time the pornography was made -- pleaded guilty last week to making child pornography, which was discovered by police in 2002. The man was given double-time credit for eight months of pre-trial custody and ordered to spend the next three years on supervised probation under a joint recommendation from Crown and defence lawyers.

The man, who was dating the aunt of the two girls back in 2002, admits helping the sisters create their website and taking some of their pictures for them. Defence lawyer Saheel Zaman said last week his client was "pressured" by the girls and "dominated" by his abusive former partner into getting involved in something he knew was wrong.

"They wanted to be stars," prosecutor Terry McComb told court last week in describing the two victims, who were 14 and 16 at the time the films were made. "They wanted to advertise themselves and uploaded photos of themselves."

However, court documents obtained by the Free Press show a different story was presented in January to another judge when the same accused man appeared in court following his arrest on an outstanding warrant.

McComb told court in January the girls initially claimed they willingly took the photos themselves, but later admitted to police they were forced into it by the man. McComb described how the man, along with the the girls' aunt, had turned part of their Salter Avenue home into a makeshift sex dungeon complete with an elaborate computer network and video studio. The adult pair planned to tap into the growing online sex trade.

McComb said the woman claimed her former partner took their business in a more sinister direction when he began to involve her two nieces. The couple had two other children of their own, aged four and six.

Child and Family Services removed all four children from the home and placed them in full-time care.

Hundreds of explicit nude photos of the sisters were found on various computer hard drives during a police raid. The 34-year-old aunt had pleaded guilty in 2009 to possession of child pornography.

She admitted to doing nothing to stop the man from taking advantage of her two nieces. She was given a one-year conditional sentence under a joint agreement. Her lawyer, Jeff Gindin, told Queen's Bench Justice Glenn Joyal during that hearing last year how his client was a victim of an abusive relationship.

Last week, McComb and Zaman told Queen's Bench Justice Don Bryk the teens may have come up with their pornography plan based on the success their aunt was having with her home-based computer business, earning up to $1,600 a month with her sex-on-demand site.

"It was at the girls' own urging that my client became involved," said Zaman. "They asked him for some technical help." McComb said last week the man provided the girls with camera equipment, took a number of pictures himself and helped build the downstairs photo studio.

McComb said the man was confused because Canada's age-of-consent laws at the time made it legal for children as young as 14 to consent to having sex. The age has since been raised to 16; however, taking nude photos for a sexual purpose of anyone under the age of 18 is illegal.

Bryk accepted the time-in-custody plea bargain last week on the basis the man "wasn't an instigator or leader" in creating the images.

A justice source told the Free Press Monday both teen girls gave multiple statements to police and the Crown, which at times conflicted with each other and made it difficult to obtain an accurate account of what happened or rely entirely on their evidence.

As well, the source said defence lawyers in both cases likely "minimized" their clients' involvement to a certain degree to put them in the best light before the courts.

www.mikeoncrime.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 10, 2010 B1

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