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FLORIDA POLICE RELEASE GIRL'S PHOTO IN EFFORT TO SOLVE CHILD-PORN CASE

Police in Florida last week took the rare step of releasing the photo of a young girl who they believe may hold the key to cracking a child-pornography case that the Toronto police force's Sex-Crimes Unit has been unable to solve for two years.

The girl, who appears to be about 9 years old in the photo, is described as a material witness but is not believed to have been a victim of sexual abuse.

She was photographed on a couch that police say is also visible in a series of photos of a mystery girl whose image has been found on almost half the computer hard drives seized in child-porn arrests in Toronto.

Police believe the girl in the photo released Wednesday may be a friend or relative of the young victim.

"We think she's about the same age and that if we can talk to her she may be able to help us to identify the victim," Detective Sgt. Paul Gillespie of the Toronto Sex-Crimes Unit said in a phone interview from Florida after Wednesday's news conference.

The case first gained international attention more than two months ago when Toronto police released doctored photographs showing only the background details of a hotel where the young victim was assaulted. Within hours, tips came in from people who had vacationed at the same hotel, and police were able to trace the photos to a resort in Orlando. Gillespie said forensic analysis of the images indicates that the photos were taken three or four years ago.

Lists of hotel guests from that period were examined by officers from the Orange County Sheriff's Department but turned up nothing. Those lists have also been cross-referenced against data provided by Harley Davidson on the owners of a certain type of motorcycle seen in the photos.

Gillespie said his team of 17 officers has been scouring the photos for two years, searching for clues that could help free the young victim.

"We've examined bricks, we've examined flowers, we've examined trees in the pictures, we've examined a motorcycle and spoken to specialists in all of those areas. Our opinion, and we could be wrong, is that (the girl) is very likely in Northeastern North America."

The latest break came after the media coverage of the case created a frenzied demand for photos of the mystery girl on Internet chat sites. Several photos were then posted for public viewing, which is unusual since most child pornography is traded privately from one user to another.

From these postings, police found two photos of the girl described as a material witness that they had never seen before.

Gillespie said that although she is not seen in any pornographic scenes, it is typical for child-porn consumers to want to see a series of images of young people doing apparently normal things as well as images of sexual abuse.

He also raised the possibility that, in the future, police and lawmakers may want to release photos of the victims of child sexual exploitation so they can be identified and rescued.

"We have about 50,000 different victims that we have pictures of in our office. Of these 50,000 pictures (police around the world) have only identified 500 of them.

"That's a pretty staggeringly low number, and I'm truthfully embarrassed by it."

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