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An international investigation of internet-based child pornography has led to accusations against innocent victims of credit card fraud, a CBC News investigation has found.

In other cases, victims of identity theft found themselves fighting to save their reputations, jobs and marriages after their names were used to buy child pornography.

Still others were implicated when they made legal purchases of adult pornography from sites that were associated with child-porn sites.

In the United Kingdom, almost 40 of those accused have committed suicide in the past six years, as well as six in Australia and at least one in Canada.

Victims of credit card fraud implicated

Brian Cooper's home in Brighton, England, was searched by child-porn investigators early one morning just before Christmas in 2002. Cooper was able to clear himself only because he could prove that he'd been a victim of credit card fraud three years before.

"I was taken away pretty quickly, within the hour, by two or three officers in a car," the 44-year-old information technology manager recalled in an interview.

His wife of 20 years and two teenage children could only watch helplessly as police searched every room in their home for evidence of child pornography.

"I just couldn't believe anyone would think he was a danger to our children or anybody else's," said Cooper's wife, Gill.

"Holly was going off the school wondering if her dad was going to be around for Christmas, and it was just awful."

In another case, a doctor whose credit card was used fraudulently lost his hospital position when he was investigated on child-porn charges. The doctor was cleared at trial when his electronic diary showed he could not have accessed a child-porn site at the time indicated in the database, but he did not get his job back.

A Scottish man who was similarly targeted by the investigation was never charged. However, he was suspended from his job for 14 months in the course of the investigation, and his marriage disintegrated.

The worldwide investigation began after a Texas-based website called Landslide Productions was caught selling access to child pornography.

When police closed down the company in 1999, they discovered a database containing more than 100,000 names — including 2,329 from Canada — and credit card details from around the world.

The resulting Canadian investigation, Project Snowball, saw police forces across the country run background checks on names from the database, then set up fake child-porn websites to lure the suspects into attempting to buy illegal images and videos.

"We don't charge innocent people with possessing child pornography," said Det. Insp. Angie How of the Ontario Provincial Police's child pornography section. "The evidence has to be there for us to go forward with the charge."

But internationally, some police agencies ended up raiding homes and offices simply because their owners' names appeared on the database.

No presumption of innocence: Irish lawyer

Irish lawyer Paul Lambert has reviewed some of the Landslide cases. He says because the issue was child pornography, people were not treated as innocent until proven guilty.

"Certain police forces around the world ... would have been told by U.S. authorities, 'These are pedophiles and this is a 100-per-cent pedophile website,' " he said.

Lambert says no one seems to have considered other possibilities in the cases he has reviewed, "things like whether somebody else has access to a computer; things like malicious access to computers, malicious uploading and downloading.

"These are all issues which, strangely, were wholly ignored by the prosecution, and particularly prosecution [information technology] experts in their examination of the evidence they gathered."

Lambert said he believes many suspects pleaded guilty because they didn't know how to fight back against the technical experts used by the police.

4,000 sites raided in United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, people on the list were automatically treated as criminals rather than being given the benefit of the doubt, says computer forensics expert Jim Bates, who was involved in several Landslide cases.

There were 7,000 names on the Landslide list from the United Kingdom. Police raided 4,000 homes and offices as a result.

"Police had what amounted to pretty good intelligence. They decided to use that for evidence," said Bates.

"Intelligence may be strong suspicion, strong enough to get a search warrant, but it is not evidence."

There was another wrinkle in Britain: Some people whose computers showed no signs of child pornography were nonetheless charged. They were accused, on the basis of the credit-card receipts, of inciting Landslide to continue to operate by purchasing from the website.

U.S. police told to gather fresh evidence

In the United States, authorities say they treated the database as simply a source for leads.

Police set up a sting operation to gather evidence against the people whose personal information appeared on the database. They sent out invitations to names from the database, and charged only those who took the bait and tried to buy child pornography.

"Some of the information on the database was a year old," said Det. Steve Nelson, the Dallas police officer credited with busting Landslide. "Our legal people wanted something fresher to go by.

"That's why the operation came in. To do that, [officers were told,] 'Contact everybody fresh. Don't even worry about Landslide.' "

Of the 35,000 names on the database from the United States, 200 people were arrested after allegedly agreeing to buy child porn in the stings.

Investigators told CBC they don't know how many of those were eventually convicted.

By comparison, 1,200 people were convicted in the United Kingdom out of the 7,000 names contained in the Landslide database, on charges ranging from incitement to actually possessing child pornography.

Many of those convicted are now appealing, especially on the incitement charges.

'Naming and shaming' led to suicide in Canada

As for Canada, the Project Snowball investigation had a tragic side, first reported by CBC News back in 2004.

In Toronto, then-police chief Julian Fantino held a news conference on April 16, 2003, in which he announced the arrests of five men accused of using their credit cards to buy child pornography from Landslide. A warrant had been issued for the arrest of a sixth suspect.

"These Project Snowball arrests involve offenders from all walks of life, who live in every corner of the city," Fantino said. "They only have one thing in common, and that is the criminal approach to their relationship with children."

The names and ages of all the suspects were released to the media.

One of those charged was a Toronto man named James LeCraw.

After further investigation, charges against LeCraw were withdrawn, but he never recovered from the stigma of being associated with such a horrific crime.

LeCraw lost his job, his friends and his reputation. He committed suicide on July 19, 2004.

Of the six other people named at the 2003 news conference in Toronto, only one has been convicted, CBC News has learned. One man was never charged, three had their charges withdrawn and one pleaded guilty but has since applied for a new trial.

Overall, conviction numbers for Canada are hard to come by.

The Ontario Provincial Police had 267 names to check for regions outside Toronto. They arrested 32 people and 30 were convicted.

The Toronto Police Service was given 241 names from the database. As of one year ago, they had arrested 22 people. Guilty pleas were recorded in 18 of those cases.