On the trail with the paedophile hunter

A former Australian policeman is on a mission to stop convicted sex offenders abusing children region-wide.

When he learned last month a convicted Australian paedophile was teaching at a school in Thailand, Glen Hulley had an important decision to make. The former Melbourne detective was in Manila negotiating an MOU with Philippines police and justice officials on how his NGO, Project Karma, would investigate paedophile cases involving foreign nationals and locals.

Safe from harm: Mr Hulley’s NGO Project Karma investigates paedophile cases involving foreigners and locals, and supports young people.

But the name of the abuser, Peter Walbran, set alarm bells ringing. Through his previous work, Mr Hulley was aware of 59-year-old Walbran and his history of child abuse on Indonesia’s Lombok island for which he served two years in jail.

The informant in the Walbran case was in Malaysia and had learned from blogs, administration boards and a Facebook photo that the Australian was teaching science at the Ubon Ratchathani school since last September.

Although Project Karma only had A$60,000 (about 1.5 million baht) in its kitty through donations, Mr Hulley decided to leave the Manila negotiations and spend some of the NGO’s money flying to Malaysia to meet the informant. Using his policeman’s training and aware of the high standard of proof needed to pursue prosecutions against child sex offenders in foreign jurisdictions, he wanted a recorded statement as evidence to present to the Australian Federal Police and Thai police.

“From the intelligence we got from that person, no one else was aware he was in Thailand teaching at the school,” Mr Hulley said.

He returned to Australia and formulated a strategy to out Walbran with the help of several media organisations. On Nov 18, he flew to Thailand, a country, culture and legal system he was unfamiliar with. Dipping further into Project Karma’s limited funds, Mr Hulley hired a local private investigator to connect him with sources and informants to help in the investigation.

“I only knew this guy was in the country and we had to get him out,” Mr Hulley told Spectrum.

Several days later, Mr Hulley informed the AFP about Walbran’s case and booked a flight to Ubon Ratchathani. He conducted his own surveillance on Walbran, hiring locals to surreptitiously film him in and around his Charn Mansion condo in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city near the airport. An informant was also cultivated inside the school to keep tabs on Walbran.

On Nov 23, Mr Hulley confirmed to the AFP Walbran was teaching at the school through surveillance photographs. Photos of the condo were also later sent to the AFP.

After five days, the surveillance team backed off, waiting for news from the AFP, who said they had had a teleconference with the Department of Special Investigation on the case.

On the ground: Glen Hulley is working to stop child sex abuse in Southeast Asian ‘hot spots’.

Pol Lt Col Paisith Sungkahapong, the director of the DSI’s Bureau of Foreign Affairs and Transnational Crime, told Spectrum that they only became aware of the case after being informed by an AFP officer.

The DSI ran a check on Walbarn and found he was employed at a high school in Ubon Ratchathani.

Once the DSI had enough information, they sent an investigation team to monitor Walbran’s activities with the help of local police.

“We monitored him and found that he is well-loved by locals because of his friendliness,” said Pol Lt Col Paisith. “We saw him with a young person he took on his motorcycle, but that turned out to be his boyfriend who is aged above 18.”

But Mr Hulley was growing anxious. The AFP informed him that police wanted to execute an arrest warrant on Dec 8 or 9 — after tougher new child pornography laws with jail terms of up to 10 years came into affect on Dec 7.

His biggest concern was the welfare of the children. He also feared that Walbran would flee across the border to Laos, which would lead to extradition problems. But he agreed to conform to the wishes of local and Australian police, who believed potential child abuse committed by Walbran in Thailand could be investigated while he was in custody.

There was a proviso if children were at immediate risk.

“Part of the agreement between both teams was if we witnessed him in the company of children the plan goes out the window and he will be arrested immediately,” said Mr Hulley.

Walbran was arrested by police at his home on Dec 8 on suspicion of possession of child pornography.

He was detained at Ubon Ratchathani Immigration Bureau while his computer and mobile phone were examined.

His work visa was revoked and he has been blacklisted for paedophilia under Section 12 of the Immigration Act. He was deported to New Zealand on Thursday.

SYSTEM FAILURES

Walbarn’s case is a prime example of failures in monitoring the international travel of convicted sex offenders.

After serving just over two years in a Lombok jail for the molestation and rape of boys as young as eight, he was deported to Australia. Walbarn had no valid passport — it had either expired or been cancelled — and he was issued with a temporary travel document.

On his return to Australia he was ordered by a court in New South Wales to register on Australia’s National Child Offender Register. But he simply failed to do so and in the meantime obtained a valid passport from New Zealand, the country he was born in.

Prime Minister John Key said at the time he didn’t know how Walbran obtained a New Zealand passport.

“My advice at this stage is Mfat [Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade] doesn’t know about the individual,” he said.

“It’s quite possible that it’s legitimate. There are people that [sic] have multiple passports because they have multiple citizenship.

“So there are lots of people who travel on both an Australian and New Zealand passport and might theoretically do that at one time. But if it’s an illegal passport, that’s a very different issue but I don’t have any advice about that.”

Mr Hulley said it’s a deep flaw of the Australian system that child offenders are instructed to “self register” without follow-up.

“If they don’t fill it in they can flee and no one chases them. It shouldn’t be the responsibility of the offender,” said Mr Hulley, who believes all child sex offenders should have their passports revoked.

Lt Col Paisith said it was very difficult to trace all foreign paedophiles who come to Thailand, especially those who are not on sex offender registers.

The best option is to work with more than 30 embassies in Thailand who tip them off on criminal activities.

“Without any tip-off or information on their criminal record, Thai officials would have no clue who these people are,” he said. “The immigration officers have the right to deny or grant access to the Kingdom if that person is a registered sex offender.”

Mr Hulley said he only discovered Walbran was travelling on a New Zealand passport after this was confirmed by Thai Immigration, who checked details on his new travel document.

“It’s a major flaw in the system, and I’m sure other paedophiles have done the same.”

Lt Col Paisith acknowledged the role played by NGOs like Mr Hulley’s, which focus on issues such as child sex offenders.

“It is very good that we have their help since they seem to have more comprehensive information on the area they are working on such as human trafficking or child sex abuse.”

But Mr Hulley believes sex offender registers alone are not enough as convicted Australian paedophiles are permitted to travel if they fill out a notification form.

AFP statistics showed 250 convicted child sex offenders travelled to the Philippines last year, and about 25 travel to Bali every month.

“And they are just the ones we know about who have been through the system,” Mr Hulley said.

Walbran arrived in New Zealand on Friday, where police met him on his return and reportedly described him as being cooperative with authorities.

Because Walbran is not covered by the newly passed Returning Offenders Act, he can choose whether to engage with police in New Zealand.

The office of the NZ Minister of Internal Affairs says no action can be taken over
Walbran’s New Zealand passport because his sex crime convictions were under his Australian passport.

The supervision regime under the act applies to returning offenders who were sentenced to more than one year in prison in another country; return to New Zealand within six months of their release from custody overseas; and were imprisoned for behaviour that would be an imprisonable offence under New Zealand law.

DIFFICULT SOLUTIONS

After 13 years working as a detective, a job he left in 2008, Mr Hulley was personally exposed to the problem of child prostitution while on holiday in Phnom Penh with his partner in 2013. He was offered a child prostitute for A$20, or about 500 baht.

Teamwork: Mr Hulley at Unicef Philippines.

“That shocked me and it stuck with me,” he said on the motivation to set up Project Karma.

He briefly worked for a Dutch-based child rights organisation, Terre de Hommes, as an adviser and said while it had a “good model”, he recognised it had flaws.

He oversaw 10 investigation teams in locations deemed as child sex offender hot spots across Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, the Philippines and Cambodia.

Terre des Hommes gained international prominence in November 2013 when it used a computer-generated 10-year-old Filipina called Sweetie to try and trap child predators in internet chat rooms.

It claimed that over a 10-week period more than 20,000 predators from 71 countries approached the virtual 10-year-old, asking for webcam sex performances, and that more than 1,000 paedophiles had been identified as a result.

Mr Hulley praised the campaign for raising awareness about online abusers, but said it should have been used as a “stepping stone” to identify predators for further investigation.

“You don’t have a victim. This is not a person it’s a computer program, unless this happens in a country where child pornography is covered by animation. They were expecting 1,000 convictions and there have been just three.”

Mr Hulley is also wary of other “vigilante” groups which operate in Southeast Asia which rescue at-risk children without regard for the local legal system, law enforcement and international police.

“It can take a long time to get to the top — in terms of winning the confidence of a general or politician who is on board — and then these idiots come along,” he said.

He also has issues with foreign-funded NGOs only pursuing cases against expatriates. “The reality is that 85% of child sex abuse is conducted by locals,” he said.

He concedes that while they actively pursued the Walbran case, this was not how Project Karma usually operates. But they believed they had to act swiftly due to the “clear and present danger” Walbran presented to children.

Project Karma aims to raise A$2.8 million to set up investigation teams in the Philippines, Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand. The teams would consist of investigators, lawyers and social workers and work with local NGOs and trusted police.

Mr Hulley said what they are hoping to bring to the equation are credible, legal investigations which would be handed to police for verification.

A key part of Project Karma’s model is to build a local intelligence network of informers — such as taxi drivers, teachers and hospital workers — who consider their organisation the “first port of call”. A support network of registered NGOs to provide safe houses, shelter, counselling and medical care was also needed.

“There is an identified gap that is not being filled,” Mr Hulley said. “The [local] police are not resourced enough and this type of crime is not a high priority. Nothing is getting solved.”

A larger objective is to target criminal groups behind child trafficking.

“Child prostitution is big business facilitated by local crime groups,” Mr Hulley said.

“Targeting just the users, you’re not going to stop the market. Sophisticated crime groups utilise corruption in a corrupt part of the world to infiltrate government and law enforcement.”

Mr Hulley is hopeful that if his model takes off, the fund-raising and intelligence gathering methods will be replicated in other countries.

“The day this model is set up in another country and has nothing to do with me is the day I know I’ve done my job,” he said.

Joint effort: Mr Hulley with officers from the Royal Thai Police and Department of Special Investigation.

Trusted contact: Mr Hulley uses his police training and works with locals to track sex offenders. PHOTOS: BANGKOk POST ARCHIVE/ SUPPLIED/ SYDNEY MORNING HERALD AND GLEN HULLEY

About the author

Writer: Paul Ruffini & Chaiyot Yongcharoenchai