Fort Smith man sentenced to seven years for child sexual abuse
Warning: This report contains details involving the sexual abuse of children that readers may find disturbing.
Internet child sexual abuse is a “horrifying” crime and the community “must come down extremely hard on offenders,” a judge said as a Fort Smith man was sentenced on Wednesday.
Marcus Bourke must serve seven years in prison for 15 counts of luring children online and making or possessing child pornography, Justice Andrew Mahar decided.
“These cases horrify, as they should,” Mahar said during a hearing at the Yellowknife Courthouse.
“The internet, worldwide, has opened the door into the private lives of our children, into our homes. And it’s allowed strangers, predators, access to our kids.
“The community, through the courts, has to come down as hard as we can [to] react in this way, as we have to protect our kids. We have to come out and very strongly denounce any sort of behaviour that threatens them.”
From October 2016 to November 2018, Bourke impersonated teen internet stars and sent thousands of texts over social media platforms – including Instagram and musical.ly, which is now TikTok – to hundreds of children, aged four to 14, from across the world. He persuaded many to send him nude photos and videos of themselves.
Crown prosecutor Morgan Fane told the sentencing hearing there is no evidence Bourke, now 25, shared any of those images online. However, when a search warrant was served in September 2019 at his Fort Smith residence, he was found to have child sexual abuse material downloaded from various online sources on his cellphone and computer.
Working in collaboration with the United States’ Department of Homeland Security and various police forces, the Yellowknife RCMP’s internet child exploitation unit and a national child exploitation crime centre managed to track down many of Bourke’s victims in the US and United Kingdom.
Some parents weren’t aware that their children had been tricked into sending intimate images of themselves.
Bourke created accounts that impersonated teenaged celebrities Jacob Sartorius and Jojo Siwa.
He would “message users requesting that they participate in a series of escalating challenges, starting with sending innocuous photographs, and then culminating in the making of child pornography,” said Fane.
“Most of the chats begin with him saying, verbatim, ‘Hi. Do you want to be famous?’ and then a smiley-face emoticon.”
Fane said he and defence lawyer Peter Harte had reached a joint sentencing recommendation of seven years in exchange for guilty pleas and taking into consideration the mandatory one-year minimum for most of the counts.
“Determining that seven years is the appropriate sentence of imprisonment comes from the number of victims in this case, the conduct engaged in … and fundamentally, and ultimately, the gravity of the offence and the degree of responsibility of the offender,” said the prosecutor.
“That [a] stranger on the internet would take advantage of them in those private places, and of their private parts. That they have been complicit in their own abuse. That they have been, in fact, the actor – they are the ones taking the pictures, they are self-harming – the impact that could have is, on the one hand, unimaginable, and on the other hand, I can imagine too well how harmful it has been.”
Fane said a seven-year sentence was needed “to express condemnation of the conduct.”
Bourke “describes himself as a polite individual,” said Harte, adding his client has gained 100 pounds since being charged, suffers from extreme anxiety, identifies as an alcoholic and uses cannabis.
“He was extremely grateful and polite throughout my dealings with him, and always grateful for what I’ve been able to do for him.”
Harte said Bourke wants to receive treatment and is willing to undergo chemical castration. His grandmother is concerned for his safety when in prison and Harte asked the judge to recommend he be sent to an appropriate facility.
“He never wants to have anything to do with this again,” said Harte.
‘In need of intensive therapy’
The court heard Bourke was a socially awkward, troubled individual “who was basically going nowhere,” living with his grandparents, not particularly engaged in his community, and suffering from anxiety and social isolation.
His pre-sentence report “paints a picture of somebody who has been devastated by being deeply shamed and almost unable to bear the consequences,” said Justice Mahar.
“I wish that I had a more effective tool [to end] this sort of behaviour, because getting charged with child luring or possession of child sex abuse material is a social death sentence. People are ostracized, understandably … when they are caught.
“And I despair that regardless of what the court does … we are not able to stop it through criminal censure alone, because people are willing to risk enormous shame being caught for these types of things.
The judge told Bourke: “You’re clearly somebody who’s in need of intensive therapy.”
Bourke showed little emotion on being sentenced by Mahar.
His sentence includes appearing on the national sex offenders’ registry for life, a 10-year firearms ban, and provision of a DNA sample for the federal databank.
He will be prohibited for 10 years from attending any areas where anyone under the age of 16 is present or can reasonably be expected to be present, and cannot to have any contact with a young person without an adult being present.
Correction: June 8, 2022 – 16:21 MT. This report initially stated Bourke will be barred from using the internet. That’s not the case. He is, however, barred from going online “to access any content that violates the law,” must not delete his browser history, and must hand over any devices and passwords when asked by an officer.