Brothel that was magnet for pedophiles including Maple Ridge man to be safe house for children

The 'swirl face' altered picture of Christopher Neil
— image credit: File photo

by Daphne Bramham / Special to The TIMES

It's rare that any crime scene is refurbished as a place of healing for the victims let alone one in Svay Pak, the Cambodian village infamous as the go-to place for sex tourists and pedophiles seeking very young children.

Yet it's happening and it's another improbable chapter in a very Canadian story.

The rehabilitation of both the building and the children is the work of Brian McConaghy, a Richmond forensics expert whose work helped nail Canada's first convicted sex tourist, Donald Bakker, and Canada's most notorious sex tourist, Christopher Neil.

The story really begins 30 years ago when Cambodia was still a killing field in the midst of a civil war and McConaghy chose to go there on his first vacation after joining the RCMP as a civilian weapons expert.

What he saw was devastating.

So, he came home and set up a charity called Ratanak International. Over the years, the volunteer work in Cambodia, which eventually focused on rescuing children from the sex trade, balanced the paid work on high-profile murder cases.

Those worlds collided in 2003. Police had arrested Bakker for assaulting a Vancouver woman and found home videos of him assaulting pre-pubescent Asian girls. Sgt. Ron Bieg knew McConaghy from working together on the investigation of serial killer Willie Pickton. He also knew about Ratanak and asked McConaghy to take a look.

Almost immediately, McConaghy identified the girls as Cambodian or Vietnamese, and narrowed the search to Svay Pak. Later, he went along with Vancouver police to collect evidence. Similarly in 2007, RCMP showed McConaghy some of the hundreds of images of child pornography from Interpol along with a worldwide warrant for a man who turned out to be Maple Ridge teacher Christopher Neil.

The following month, McConaghy located a building of interest in Svay Pak within a stone's throw of where one of Ratanak's buildings is used as a community centre.

But RCMP interest in Neil waned after Neil was found in Thailand, convicted and sentenced to nine years for sexually exploiting two young boys.

McConaghy's interest hadn't. But by spring 2008 he'd resigned from the RCMP to work fulltime for Ratanak.

All that changed in the fall of 2012.

Neil was pardoned and deported to Canada. RCMP reopened its investigation, despite Neil agreeing to conditions that included no Internet use, no electronic devices and not going to places frequented by children.

Coincidentally, the gangsters who owned the brothel had fled and the Svay Pak building was up for sale.

On his next trip to Cambodia, McConaghy went for a look and took a camera.

Over the next few months, he painstakingly compared the photos and Neil's videos.

The window and the dangerously wired electrical panel were the same. There were marks on the wall that matched where a cloth calendar that provided the backdrop had been nailed up.

A room little bigger than a jail cell was the one that they'd been looking for.

McConaghy also concluded that it was the building where Bakker had abused his victims, possibly even while Neil was there as well.

Ratanak began negotiating to buy the building. Not only did McConaghy want the crime scene preserved, but Ratanak needed the space to expand its programs in the troubled community.

Meantime, he completed and sent a forensics report to the RCMP.

Ratanak finalized the purchase of the skinny, two-storey building for $15,000 US in November 2013.

A month earlier, Neil pleaded guilty to breaching his agreedupon conditions and was jailed. RCMP asked McConaghy to help find the two Cambodian boys.

A month after one victim - by then a 23-year-old man - was located in February 2014, Neil was charged. There were 10 charges - four related to the sexual abuse of the two boys, plus possession and distribution of the pornographic images of them as well as hundreds of other images that he'd stored at his mother's home in Maple Ridge.

Evidence at the preliminary hearing later that year included the victim's interview as well as McConaghy's forensic work.

In December 2015, Neil pleaded guilty to five charges; the other five charges were stayed. He will be sentenced June 1. It's only after that that the former Svay Pak brothel will be thoroughly cleaned, painted and refurbished as a dorm and safe house for sexually exploited and at-risk children.

McConaghy had expected to feel as if evil had been banished and justice triumphed. But he didn't.

"All I felt was sadness," McConaghy said after last month's sentencing hearing. "There are a lot of lives ruined in Asia as a result of him (Neil).

"His life is ruined and I often think of his family. ... It's loss, loss, loss."

That's why converting the brothel is so important to him. Not only will it give kids a safe place to go, it may also give them hope that change and transformation are possible.

- Daphne Bramham is a reporter with The Vancouver Sun

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