False child porn allegations against Halifax doctor stemmed from U.S. police error
Mistake involving email addresses was then compounded by police in Halifax, according to records
The false child pornography allegations against a Halifax-area doctor stemmed from a U.S. law enforcement error involving a North Dakota investigation, a mistake that was then compounded by police in Halifax, according to documents obtained Monday by CBC News.
Dr. David Barnett was arrested in December on suspicion of possession and distribution of child pornography, and was subsequently suspended from practising medicine. Last week, the case against him was dismissed and his suspension lifted, with Halifax police acknowledging he'd been wrongfully accused.
The new information about the case comes from an information to obtain a search warrant (ITO) document that lays out many new details of the police investigation on both sides of the border.
The records show the error, involving the email address of a U.S. suspect that was similar to Barnett's, was even noted by a Nova Scotia justice of the peace who on Dec. 1 refused to approve a search warrant for Barnett's Halifax home. A second justice of the peace, however, approved an updated request later that day.
The search warrant document was sworn by Halifax Regional Police Det.-Const. Jennifer Murray before Justice of the Peace Allison Rose of Dartmouth.
In it, Murray describes herself as assigned to the integrated internet child exploitation unit, which operates with both RCMP and HRP officers.
The ITO records Murray requesting permission to seize and analyze computer equipment from Barnett's home on the suspicion they contain electronic child pornography.
Murray based her search warrant request on files provided by the RCMP's National Child Exploitation Coordination Centre that relayed details of an "investigative package file" from U.S. Homeland Security Investigations.
The Homeland Security file contained an email between two U.S. officials discussing the case and which said: "Here is a brief summary of what led us to believe David Barnett, a Nova Scotia Family doctor is responsible of distributing child pornographic material."
The email goes on to explain the child porn material initially under investigation was uploaded in North Dakota from a Kik messenger app account with the username "willy84."
On Nov. 9, 2020, officers with the Fargo Police Department, the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation and Homeland Security Investigations executed search warrants at the Fargo, N.D., address associated with that account, seizing computer equipment and arresting a man, Cody Wilson, who lived there, according to the search warrant records.
Wilson denied uploading child porn from his Kik account.
But police searched Wilson's phone during the interrogation and found a conversation with a second person, Dustin Barnett, via the New Zealand file sharing site MEGA.NZ. The online conversation included a video, uploaded by Dustin Barnett, that depicted a girl between eight and 10 years old in a sexual context, according to the search warrant allegations.
The MEGA.NZ account belonging to Dustin Barnett was linked by a gmail address with the name dsbarnett followed by numbers.
This appears to be the root of an error which linked an innocent Halifax doctor to child porn activities.
Google email switch
The Homeland Security Investigations email included information collected from Google, the company behind the widely-used gmail.com email service.
Inexplicably, police asked Google for information about a different email address. The new email shares elements with Dustin Barnett's email, but is clearly different.
The new, incorrect Gmail account belonged to David Barnett, the Halifax family doctor. The source of the new email address is not explained. It had no connection to the child pornography investigation, but police in the U.S. and Canada continued to operate like it did.
Further investigation in Halifax
Google connected the incorrect email to David Barnett through his recovery email address at Nova Scotia's health authority.
The Homeland Security investigator contacted Halifax police and asked an officer from the cybercrime unit to investigate Dustin Barnett's email address, but also included David Barnett's email and personal information.
Halifax officers subsequently conducted surveillance on the lobbies of David Barnett's condo and doctor's office, the Cole Harbour Family Medicine Centre, taking pictures of the building's directory and noting in the search warrant documents that it "lists 'Dr. D. Barnett' among eight other physicians."
They also made a copy of his registration information from the Nova Scotia College of Physicians and Surgeons website.
All this information was cited by Halifax police to justify the search of his computers.
First justice of the peace notices the discrepancy
Murray, the Halifax police detective, applied for the search warrant on Dec. 1, the same day she received the investigation file from the United States.
Her first application was denied. A justice of the peace said the ITO lacked details of the source investigation and a timeline for forensic investigation of David Barnett's computers.
"I had difficulty interpreting the link between the emails quoted in the Information," said the justice of the peace, identified by the surname Bowes. "It was not apparent to me the link between the email that uploaded the video and the 'Recovery email.' You have explained this to me but it is not in the four corners of this document."
A second search warrant was issued the same day after Murray submitted a revised ITO to a new justice of the peace.
"There has been one previous attempt to receive a warrant in respect of this same matter," Murray wrote. "I believe I have addressed these issues."
Serious repercussions for doctor
David Barnett of Halifax was arrested on suspicion of possession and distribution of child pornography as a result of the Halifax Regional Police investigation.
After he was arrested, Barnett, 37, informed the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Nova Scotia, which regulates the medical profession in the province. The college suspended his licence on Dec. 4.
On Jan. 25, the college issued a statement saying it was a case of mistaken identity, and that someone with a similar name and email address in Ohio was the actual suspect. It then lifted Barnett's suspension.
Dr. Gus Grant, CEO of the college, said someone in Ohio with a similar name and email address had been arrested over the alleged offence.
"This is a case of mistaken identity," Grant said. "There is no evidence whatsoever connecting Dr. Barnett to matters related to child pornography."
Halifax Regional Police issued a statement the next day.
"On January 22, 2021, we were advised by one of the partner agencies that an error had occurred related to their initial identification, and that the referral to HRP was made in error," the statement said.
"We recognize and regret the deeply negative impact of an unfortunate error of this nature," the police statement concluded.
On Monday, Halifax Regional Police directed CBC News to its previous statement. It said it is considering the details revealed in the search warrant documents.
CBC News reached out to both David Barnett and the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Nova Scotia for comment, but did not receive an immediate response.
A lawyer for Barnett has said he is considering his legal options.