REWARD
Orange County Sheriff's Office
This poster released Wednesday by the Orange County Sheriff's Office in Orlando, Fla., shows an image of a girl authorities think may be linked to another girl who has appeared in sexually graphic photos online. This girl is being sought as a witness; there is no proof that she has been assaulted or injured.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 4/27/2005 10:39:39 PM ET 2005-04-28T02:39:39

Unable for perhaps as long as three years to identify a young girl seen online in 200 sexually explicit child-porn images described as “horrific” and “grotesque,” authorities in two police departments on Wednesday took the unusual step of releasing the photo of a “material witness” in the matter: another young girl they think may know the victim in the case.

Detectives on Wednesday released the photograph of the material witness, a grade-school-age girl with black bangs, a lime-colored halter top and cutoff blue jeans. Investigators do not believe she was sexually exploited.

But they hope her image — that of a young girl lying on a sofa, apparently preoccupied by what appears to be an electronic game — will help them identify a girl seen in a series of pictures believed to have been taken at a Walt Disney World hotel and other locations, and circulated over the Internet for three years.

The strategy by authorities at the two police agencies — one in Florida, the other in Canada — carries some risks: Besides concerns of violation of privacy, there are fears that a pedophile could kill children in these circumstances if he fears police are closing in on him.

It's a grim mystery, one based on the series of explicit photos in which a girl about 12 years old is glimpsed in an array of compromising situations. Resolving the mystery has become a mission for two agencies unified by the hope of heading off a tragedy.

Grimly popular pictures
The case had its genesis in 2003, when Candian authorities discovered photos of the victim being abused over what appeared to be a range of years; it's been estimated the girl was between nine and 12 years old.

As Toronto police continued to investigate, it was found that about half of the men arrested in Toronto on child pornography charges had the pictures in their possession, Canada's National Post reported Feb. 4.

In the course of conducting their inquiry, the sex crimes unit of the Toronto Police Service determined that some of the 200 photographs in question were taken at the Port Orleans French Quarter Resort in Orlando, Fla., part of the complex of hotels and amusement parks under the Disney World name.

As a way to help authorities identify the location of the abuses, authorities digitally smudged some of the 200 explicit photographs, electronically airbrushing the victim out and leaving only the empty locations behind.

Vacant rooms
The pictures show a flowered bedspread in a hotel room, the sleek interior of a modern elevator, a hot tub, a game arcade.

Video: Mystery child-porn case

At a Wednesday press conference, Detective Sgt. Paul Gillespie, of the Toronto police sex crimes unit, said authorities have decided the scene of the abuse is “very likely to be in the northeastern United States or southeastern Canada.” He said the victim is likely to be an American child.

“We have no idea who we're looking for,” he said, but adding, “We believe that this victim is being abused on a daily basis and is in constant danger.”

Gillespie told MSNBC's Dan Abrams that Toronto authorities think the girl reclining on the sofa “has been on the same furniture in the same room, and possibly knows the victim in the same case.”

Similarities between them’
At the press conference, Gillespie said that only two of the 200 explicit images were of the girl on the sofa in a non-explicit pose. Her image was included in a collage found on the Internet that included the sexually exploited girl.

Gillespie said that while there are parallels between the explicit shots and the image of the girl on the sofa, “there is no picture of them in the same image together.”

But elaborating later for MSNBC's Abrams, Gillespie said that while the shots are seemingly unconnected, “there are enough characteristics and similarities between them” to lead authorities to believe there is a possible connection.

The similarities include furniture and exercise equipment, said Sgt. Matt Irwin, an Orange County sheriff’s detective.

Who's the abuser?
Speculation as to who the abuser is could turn on the immediate family or friends. “These are not stranger cases,” Gillespie told Abrams. “Ninety-nine and one-half percent of victims of Internet child abuse know their abusers,” he said. “Perhaps they're a father, an uncle, a coach, a friend of the family.”

The Port Orleans Resort had little comment. “Disney World has been cooperating fully with law enforcement,” said Kim Prunty, a Disney spokeswoman told MSNBC. “We are not able to answer any question directly related to the case itself.”

“Our hearts go out to the victim and her loved ones as we do everything we can to support law enforcement in its investigation,” Prunty said in a later statement.

Both Toronto and Orange County departments have established a hot line number for those with information. The number is 1-866-635-4357.

Authorities are offering a $5,000 reward for information in the case.

MSNBC.com's Michael E. Ross and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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