Toronto human trafficking arrests shine spotlight on popular classifieds site. Sex worker advocates fear another crackdown

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After a series of human trafficking arrests involving the same online classifieds site, a Toronto sex worker says she worries a crackdown on internet sex ads could make her more vulnerable.

Toronto police have charged eight GTA residents with dozens of charges in four separate cases this year involving the website LeoList.com. In one, police say a 17-year-old schoolgirl was taken to a series of GTA motels by a man with a gun and forced to sell her body to strangers.

The latest bust was announced last week, after police say a man physically assaulted a 28-year-old woman several times, including one attack that left her with broken ribs.

In all four cases, alleged pimps forced women to place sex ads on LeoList.com and took all of their earnings.

In one, an alleged pimp even threatened a sex worker’s pet, police said.

“I can tell you stories that will fill your head,” Perry said.

But the Toronto sex worker, whom the Star is not naming because she fears for her safety, said she worries a sweeping crackdown against human trafficking on the internet could push independent adult sex workers underground.

The 30-year-old sex worker, whose real name is known by the Star, is a member of Butterfly, an Asian and migrant sex workers support network. She said she has been a sex worker in Toronto for two years.

She said sex workers use the internet to vet their potential clients and even ask for references.

“They can screen,” she said. “They can increase their safety.”

Toronto police declined to comment on LeoList.com. The Star attempted to contact the website by email and at a toll-free phone number listed on the site’s contacts page, but received no response.

LeoList.com’s terms of use ask users to immediately report suspected human trafficking to police and say the site will cooperate with law enforcement “to the fullest extent possible.”

There’s a major difference between sex trafficking, in which girls and women are coerced into prostitution, and the sex trade where adult women make independent decisions, said Karen Campbell of the Toronto-based Canadian Women’s Foundation.

The 2018 shutdown of the site Backpage.com, once a popular host for sex workers’ ads, was distressing for many, Campbell said in an interview.

“It pushed a lot of people back onto the streets,” she said.

Cracking down on online sex ads also won’t help undocumented women who are reluctant to go to police, she said.

“If they were to go to police, they would end up detained and deported,” she said.

Read more:

Backpage.com shutdown puts sex workers’ livelihoods, safety at risk, GTA advocacy group says

Beaten. Branded. Bought. Sold: A Star investigation into the dark underbelly of sex trafficking in Ontario

Sex trafficking case turns on whether websites can be held liable for content created by users

Perry said the average Toronto sex worker when he was on the job entered the sex trade at age 14.

There seemed no end to men wanting to prey upon them, Perry said.

“We had a mandate to rescue these kids, get them help and go after the pimps,” Perry said. “Every time we arrested a pimp, there were two or three to take his place.”

Perry said fewer sex workers could be seen on the streets after pagers became popular a few decades ago, a change he said made it tough for police to monitor their safety.

“A lot of the girls that used to work the streets were suddenly carrying pagers,” Perry said. “At least when they were on the street we knew them.”

When sex work was more visible on downtown streets, it was easier for social workers to try to help women and for police to keep an eye on their customers, Perry said.

“They may be in a more vulnerable position now because they have no interaction with police,” Perry said. “Prostitutes don’t generally walk into a police station and report intimidation.”

Some Toronto sex workers were local residents while others came from abroad, smuggled into the city on the hopes of getting a job, Perry said.

There was some organized crime involvement, often connected with bikers and strip clubs, he said.

Perry said he fears pimps now use websites to fly under the police radar and exploit women. Some websites are out of the country, presenting jurisdictional challenges for police.

“We’re almost giving a license for pimps to be anonymous and control women,” Perry said.

LeoList.com, which bills itself as “Canada’s classified site,” automatically redirects to the address leolist.cc — using the internet country code of the Cocos Islands, a tiny Australian territory. The contact page refers to Unicorn House Ltd., a company based in Budapest, Hungary.

To post an ad, users are charged a cost ranging from free to more than €2.50 ($3.75 Canadian) — the site bills in euros — depending on region and category.

As of Wednesday, a personals ad for a female escort in the GTA costs the poster €2.65. That same ad in Hamilton costs €1.79; an ad for a male escort in Ottawa is free.

The personals section contains dozens of recently posted ads for male and female escorts across the GTA. Many of the site’s other classifieds categories — including for vehicles, housing and jobs — appear little used.

The site’s landing page boasts it has more than 150,000 registered users and millions of total ads.

LeoList.com appears to have become more popular since Backpage.com was shut down by the FBI last year; before Backpage.com, classifieds site Craigslist was one of the most popular sites for advertising sexual services.

A study of sex ads on Craigslist released this year by researchers at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, supports the Toronto sex worker’s comments that the internet can make the sex trade safer.

The study suggests that the old Craigslist “erotic services” ads made sex work safer by helping sex workers screen out the most dangerous clients.

The internet allowed women to do background checks of clients, even seeking references, the Baylor team found. It also “may have caused outdoor street-based prostitution to transition to the safer, indoor channel,” researchers found.

Scott Cunningham, one of the study’s authors, said in an interview he suspects LeoList.com is absorbing a market once filled by Backpage.com.

“The market is probably adjusting in Canada,” he said.

Cunningham said he wasn’t surprised the Toronto woman said internet ads make her feel safer and freer of pimps.

“Sex workers have been saying this for years,” he said.

Peter Edwards is a Toronto-based reporter primarily covering crime. Reach him by email at pedwards@thestar.ca

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Kingston man says terror arrests over alleged bomb plot are ‘just allegations’

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KINGSTON—Hussam Alzahabi said he was at work near his home Thursday when suddenly police swarmed around him, yelling, and telling him that he was under arrest.

The 20-year-old says he was handcuffed and taken to the Kingston police station on Division Street, where he was held overnight in a cell.

At the same time, a teenager, whose gender was not released by police — Alzahabi said he was male — was charged with knowingly facilitating a terrorist activity; and counselling a person to deliver, place, discharge or detonate an explosive with intent to cause death or serious bodily injury. He cannot be identified under the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

Asked how he knew the minor who’s been charged, Alzahabi said he is “just a friend” and a former classmate.

“There was some accusation that I work for some terrorist group,” he said, sitting on a brown sofa in his family’s living room after his release from custody Friday afternoon. He looked tired. His father, Amin, sat on a flowered couch across from him and said he wanted his son to talk, so the public would know what happened and hear his perspective.

Investigators have not identified a specific target for the alleged plot and no bomb was ever planted, Lambertucci said.

But one individual was “believed to be building a homemade improvised explosive device,” said RCMP Cpl. Caroline Duval.

Labertucci said investigators confirmed that fact during a search of the teenager’s home, adding a potentially explosive substance was removed from the home and blown up Friday morning by the Kingston bomb squad.

“There were elements and trace elements, but I’m not prepared to speak on that with regard to the ongoing investigation,” Lambertucci said.

On Friday night, back home with his family, Alzahabi said he met the youth at school.

He said he was communicating with him, but said they didn’t do anything wrong, calling the arrests “just a misunderstanding” and “just accusations.”

Asked if the minor spoke about bombs, Alzahabi said he “talked a lot about that.” But Alzahabi said he never took him seriously and told him it was a bad idea to talk about things like that.

Now, back at his family’s home on a quiet residential Kingston street, he’s “worried about what will happen in the future.”

“Not for me, but for the whole Syrian people, because they will be affected,” he said.

The police still have his phone and laptops and are still investigating him, he added.

The family came to Canada about two years ago after fleeing war-torn Damascus for Kuwait. Their home in Syria has been destroyed. The father was once imprisoned for not joining the ruling political party and would be vulnerable to arrest and severe retaliation should he and the family return home, according to one of the churches that sponsored the refugee family.

They’ve been in Kingston for about one-and-a-half years, Alzahabi said.

Alzahabi said the police at the division treated him well, and gave him a sweater because he was cold.

Without laying charges, RCMP were required to release Alzahabi 24 hours after arrest, police said.

As Alzahabi described his last 24 hours, his father, Amin, looked on protectively. After Alzahabi went to bed, his father was eager to speak more about how he says his family was treated by officers who came to their home.

With the help of his younger son to translate, he expressed his outrage at how he says they stormed into his home and terrified his family.

He said he was shaken by the way officers, who he said were not wearing uniforms, rushed into his house with their guns and saw his wife without her hijab and stepped on the prayer mats, both of which, he said, are very upsetting to people of Muslim faith.

The RCMP said they started their investigation as soon as they received the tip from the FBI. Over the last few weeks, Kingston residents had started complaining over social media about the sounds of a low-flying plane, buzzing over their homes at night.

At the Friday news conference, Lambertucci confirmed the plane was part of the investigation and identified it as a Pilatus PC-12 turboprop operated by the RCMP.

Bronek Korczynski, who co-chaired the church committee behind the sponsorship, said he and other members of the four churches that brought the family to Canada were shocked by news of Hussam Alzahabi’s arrest.

“Even though our sponsorship ended last July, many of us in the group have maintained relationships with the family — meaningful relationships — and this is just a real body blow,” he said. “We’re just gobsmacked by this. It’s so out of whack with the family we’ve come to know and care for.”

Korczynski said he’d been at a meeting with Kingston police and RCMP on Friday morning, alongside other community leaders. Officers wanted to ensure the leaders had the answers they needed, and were able to continue providing services to the family and the broader community.

“It was very much an opportunity to say, ‘What can the community do to make sure that this doesn’t become an incident that unjustifiably targets any ethnic group, national group, religious group?’ ” he said.

He added that Alzahabi has both a younger and an older sibling, both of whom are dedicated to their education.

No other countries were involved in the alleged plot, and the FBI did not tell the RCMP about any U.S. connection, Lambertucci said.

Diane Smith-Merrill, who lives across the street from one of the Kingston homes raided Thursday, told the Star she heard sounds of a small explosion nearby early Friday morning.

“I shot right up out of bed,” she said.

Christian Matte, a Queen’s University student, was sitting inside the house across the street with his roommate Thursday when “we saw lights come on and there was already like 30 cops on the street, they all got out of their cars.”

Matte said the raid happened around 4 p.m. and there was “a plane flying over at night for the last few days.”

“It’s usually pretty quiet around here,” Matte said.

The FBI, Kingston police, OPP, Canada Border Services Agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada all took part. The RCMP said as many as 300 people were involved in the investigation.

Asked if this was a “lone wolf” plot or if the accused had ties to a larger group, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale refused to delve into the details of the case.

“At this stage, the investigation is just beginning. As of this morning one set of charges were laid,” Goodale told reporters in Edmonton.

“The process is just too early to speculate,” Goodale added. “But police and security agencies are very clear that the situation has been neutralized, and (is) under control, and Canadians can be confident in Kingston and elsewhere across the country that they are indeed safe and secure.”

There has been no change to Canada’s threat level, Goodale said in an emailed statement to the Star on Thursday.

Federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer said the incident underscores the “critical importance” of having strong anti-terrorism laws and appropriate penalties for those found guilty of breaking them.

“It is also clear that Canada’s refugee-screening process needs to be seriously examined,” Scheer said. “We’ve recently learned of several examples of dangerous individuals entering the country, due, in part, to lax screening procedures.”

A senior national-security policing veteran warned against jumping to conclusions.

“We live in a fear-based society, that’s for sure. It’s partially a media construct and partially police and senior bureaucrats and politicians trying to get everyone afraid of ‘The Other.’

“Yes, there are some bad people out there,” said the officer. “I’m more concerned about some guy going crazy just because his girlfriend hurt his feelings than I am about some Syrian refugee kicking off.

“The world is changing and everyone’s afraid, but I just don’t think it should be the priority that it is.”

With files from The Canadian Press, Alex Boutilier, Alex Ballingall and Stephanie Marotta, Jacques Gallant, Mitch Potter and Moira Welsh

May Warren is a Toronto Star reporter. Follow her on Twitter at @maywarren11

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Community leaders work to head off anti-Muslim backlash after Kingston terror arrests

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Islamic community groups, mental health workers and police officers met today to calm fears and discuss ways to prevent an anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant backlash in the wake of two arrests related to an alleged terrorist plot in Kingston, Ont.

Community leaders say they’re worried about the broader community implications after the RCMP’s national security team charged one youth with two terrorism-related offences and arrested an adult male named Hussam Eddin Alzahabi in connection with an alleged plan to detonate explosives at an undisclosed location.

Alzahabi’s family, originally from Syria, came to Canada in 2017 through a private refugee sponsorship program after living in Kuwait for 10 years.

Bronek Korczynski, who led the family’s sponsorship through Our Lady of Lourdes church, said the community groups that met today will attempt to head off rumours and spread the message that the alleged offences have nothing to do with Islam.

« This is not about casting aspersions on any faith community, on any identifiable ethnic or racial group. This is about an individual or individuals who have been involved in something that was brought to the attention of police, » he told CBC News.

Noting the arrests come near the anniversary of a deadly 2017 mass shooting at a Quebec mosque, Korczynski said police promised they would exercise increased vigilance against a potential backlash. Six Muslim men were shot to death by a lone gunman who walked into a Quebec City mosque on Jan. 29, 2017.

Addressing immigration concerns

Korczynski said he also fears the arrests and publicity surrounding the alleged terrorism case could spark unnecessary concerns about immigration.

« This certainly doesn’t suggest in any way, shape or form that Canadians shouldn’t remain open to support newcomers, whether they’re immigrants or refugees, » he said.

The backlash fears come as the political debate over immigration heats up again.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, who has accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of maintaining lax control over the border and immigration system, attempted to assign some blame for the developments to the Liberal government. 

Scheer points finger at Trudeau

« It is also clear that Canada’s refugee screening process needs to be seriously examined, » he said in a statement. « We’ve recently learned of several examples of dangerous individuals entering the country due in part to lax screening procedures. »

Scheer pointed to a 2017 audit of the Canada Border Services Agency which found that potential security threats may not have been identified due to lax screening.

« This is completely unacceptable and must be immediately remedied, » he said. « Conservatives will continue fighting against Justin Trudeau’s attempts to weaken Canada’s national security laws and implement real policies to ensure that Canada’s streets and communities are safe. »

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale dismisses Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s comments on refugee screening in wake of arrests, says police should be left alone to conduct investigation free of speculation 0:43

Last night’s arrests came just hours after Trudeau warned Canadians to expect « fearmongering » over immigration in the run-up to the fall election.

At a town hall meeting in northern New Brunswick, a young Syrian refugee thanked Trudeau for allowing her family to come to Canada, drawing applause from the crowd.

Trudeau said in an era of rising intolerance and misinformation about migrants, Canadians have a responsibility to engage in « a positive and a thoughtful way. »

According to a bulletin posted to the website of a Kingston-area Catholic church detailing the journey of the Alzahabi family, the family’s sponsorship application was approved in the spring of 2016, but the family was still awaiting its final security and health checks that fall due to the « overwhelming number of applicants. »

At the time, the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was working to bring more than 50,000 Syrian refugees to Canada through government and private sponsorships.

Community supports for family

According to the bulletin, five committees were working diligently to prepare to welcome the family and had raised more than $30,000 to assist their resettlement.

A storage room was rented to hold donated furniture and supplies, and an extensive support binder in Arabic and English was assembled to ensure a smooth transition.

The Anglican Diocese of Ontario and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kingston, which support refugee sponsorship and resettlement programs, issued a statement after learning through the media that one of the individuals arrested was a member of a sponsored family.

« As the investigation evolves, we support the work of law enforcement. Our concerns, thoughts and prayers are for the Kingston and surrounding area, the faith communities involved, the family and all those affected by this unfortunate situation, » the statement says.

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Little to no proof police carding has effect on crime or arrests: Ontario report

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Police street checks widely known as carding have little to no value as a law enforcement tool and should be significantly limited across Ontario, a judge tasked with reviewing the practice said Monday.

The report from Justice Michael Tulloch outlines certain circumstances in which police may have legitimate grounds to conduct street checks, or stop people at random and request identifying information.

But Tulloch, who was hired by Ontario’s previous Liberal government to assess the effectiveness of new regulations meant to limit the impact of street checks on racialized groups, said those circumstances are very specific and the practice as a whole should be sharply curtailed.

« There is little to no evidence that a random, unfocused collection of identifying information has benefits that outweigh the social cost of the practice, » Tulloch wrote in his 310-page report.

« Given the social cost involved with a practice that has not definitively been shown to widely reduce or solve crime, it is recommended that the practice of randomly stopping individuals to gather their identifying information for the creation of a database for intelligence purposes be discontinued. »

Tulloch, who previously led a review into Ontario’s complex police oversight system, was asked to turn his attention to carding months after the previous government made moves to eliminate what it described as systemic racism in law enforcement.

Police oversight

Street checks started coming under intense scrutiny several years ago amid data showing officers were disproportionately stopping black and other racialized people.

In 2016, Ontario introduced rules dictating that police must inform people that they don’t have to provide identifying information during street checks, and that refusing to co-operate or walking away cannot then be used as reasons to compel information.

The aim was to end arbitrary stops, especially those based on race, though anti-carding advocates have called for the practice to be abolished entirely.

Race is prohibited as forming any part of a police officer’s reason for attempting to collect someone’s identifying information.

Police had long argued that street checks have value as an investigative tool, a notion Tulloch challenged in his report.

« A widespread program of random street checks involves considerable time and effort for a police service, with little to no verifiable results on the level of crime or even arrests, » he wrote. « Some police services reported that there are other ways to gather data or use data that they already have more effectively. »

Tulloch’s report also debunked the notion that carding had played a role in solving the high-profile killing of Cecilia Zhang, a nine-year-old girl who was abducted from her Toronto home in the middle of the night in 2003.

Tulloch said many of the more than 2,000 people consulted for the report cited the arrest of Min Chen, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in Zhang’s death, as an example of a carding success story. Tulloch said, however, that Chen’s name first came to be in police files as a result of a non-random stop that did not fit the definition of carding.

On July 22, 2004, Peel police charged a 21-year-old male student from China with first-degree murder in the case of Cecilia Zhang, the nine-year-old girl who disappeared from her parents’ Toronto home. (CBC)

Chen was stopped in response to a complaint of illegal fishing filed weeks before the girl was killed, Tulloch said, adding the information gathered during that interaction later gained relevance when Chen’s name surfaced in the Zhang investigation.

« The Cecilia Zhang case does not support the proposition that the police should be authorized to randomly request and record identifying information, » Tulloch wrote. « It simply reinforces that when identifying information is properly obtained during a police investigation, as it was in that case, that information might be useful to help solve a crime. »

Additional recommendations

Tulloch said street checks have value in cases where there are clear suspicious circumstances, or when police need to identify the identity of a missing person or crime victim. Among his many recommendations to the new Progressive Conservative government were some stating the 2016 rules should not apply in such cases.

But other recommendations advise the government to take a harder line on street checks, tightening definitions of terms such as « identifying information » and « suspicious circumstances » and broadening protections during vehicle stops.

Tulloch also recommended an overhaul of the training that was put in place when the new rules took effect. He said it lacked the critical component of explaining why the changes were being made, which left some officers hesitant to get on board.

« Implementing new rules for police officers to follow has little value — and will not achieve the intended goal — if officers are not effectively and adequately trained on the reasons why the changes were necessary, » Tulloch wrote.

He also recommended officers at all levels « should learn how the widespread use of carding by some services and some officers has been abused in the past. »

Correctional Services Minister Sylvia Jones said the government is taking time to go through Tulloch’s findings, but said his work would « inform » efforts to reform police legislation in the province.

« We are committed to developing legislation that works for our police and for the people of Ontario, » Jones said in a statement. « Our new police legislation will reflect a simple principle: racism and discrimination have no place in policing. »

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Traffic stop in Hamilton results in 3 arrests, drug seizure – Hamilton

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A traffic stop in Hamilton has resulted in three arrests and the seizure of drugs.


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2 killed in overnight plane crash at Brantford airport

Around 8 p.m. Monday, Hamilton police stopped a vehicle without headlights on Upper Ottawa Street, near Mohawk Road.

Police say the three occupants became evasive and the driver failed to properly identify himself, so he was arrested.

Officers conducted a search of the vehicle, which they say turned up a quantity of drugs, including methamphetamine, MDMA (ecstasy) and ketamine.


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‘Aggressive’ Hamilton driver arrested in Port Dover

The two occupants were taken into custody.

Two Hamilton men, aged 27 and 31, and a 25-year-old Haldimand woman are facing charges including possession of a controlled substance.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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