Along the narrow roads leading into the Filipino village of Ibabao, billboards highlight traditional crafts such as baking cassava cakes, rope making, and sea-shell jewelry. There’s no mention of a less salubrious trade that has swept the area in recent years: child porn.
The area has developed a reputation as a global center of the sexual exploitation of children largely due to Eileen Ontong, authorities say. For at least seven years, Ontong -- dubbed “the Queen of Cyberporn” by local media -- abused children on demand in front of a webcam for cash delivered via international wire transfer services, according to Philippines and U.S. police.
Investigators say as many as 35 children, some as young as five, passed through the door of Ontong’s concrete and plywood home, adorned with a crucifix and a picture of Jesus, and into a makeshift cyber-den. There, they were molested, had sex with each other, or exposed themselves in front of a camera. It didn’t take long for neighbors to offer their children for shows and set up similar operations at home, police say.
“This became a cottage industry in the area because they all saw Eileen Ontong making money,” said Abdul Jamal Dimaporo, an agent with the Philippines National Bureau of Investigation, the country’s equivalent of the FBI. “It’s easier to earn a living doing this than working. They don’t think what they are doing is wrong.”
Police estimate Ontong netted about $200,000 over the years: Snapshots of naked children retailed for $50, nudity in front of the webcam cost $100, and a live sex show among children ran as high as $500. The children, or their parents, got $10-$18 per show. Members of Ontong’s extended family participated from age 11. Her husband, Wilfredo, served as a watchman, police say.
The Ontongs today are being held 15 miles (24 kilometers) from their home, in the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center, a hilltop prison designed for 1,400 inmates that houses 2,200. Charged with child pornography, child abuse and violating the country’s human trafficking law, the Ontongs face life imprisonment, according to the Philippines NBI. They have pleaded not guilty, the NBI says. Their defense lawyer didn’t respond to numerous phone calls and text messages.
Cat and mouse
Away from the sandy beaches and blue waters that woo tourists to the Philippines, children have long been exploited in the sex trade. These days, though, instead of working as underage prostitutes on street corners or in hotels and discos, children from poor families in remote slums are being used for sex shows via online video calling services.
“When the money flows easily through the Internet, there are new ways to exploit children,” said Mark Clookie, a former head of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service who oversees investigations at the International Justice Mission, a non-profit group that is helping prosecute the Ontongs.
About four years ago, Filipino police say they began receiving reports about online child porn streamed live from the Philippines to customers worldwide. Since then, underage sex shows have become the country’s No. 1 cybercrime. Though a 2009 law requires Philippines Internet access providers to install software that can detect images and streams of pornography, those rules are often ignored because companies deem it too expensive to comply, said Ronald Aguto, head of the NBI’s cybercrime unit.
“It’s a cat and mouse kind of thing,” Aguto said. “Our Internet providers are mandated to be law enforcers, but it’s a big business and a lot of people are involved.”
Until 2006, Eileen Ontong, now 36, worked at a factory that made electronic equipment in the neighboring city of Lapu Lapu. Wilfredo, now 38, had a motorized rickshaw that he used to ferry tourists around resort areas, according to Wilfredo’s mother, Nenita Ontong, a slight woman of 56 who lives in a small stucco house with pink curtains and an air-conditioner -- relative luxury in the warren of tumbledown shacks. Eileen and Wilfredo’s place, next door, was more humble.
“Look at their home,” Nenita Ontong said, gesturing toward a small concrete structure where her son and daughter-in-law lived. “It’s not the house of a queen.”
After a friend taught Eileen how to use computers, she began frequenting local Internet cafes that offer private rooms for less than $1 an hour, Nenita said. There, Eileen engaged in chat sessions with foreign men, and she soon earned enough to buy her own computer and a high-speed Internet connection to start working from home. Several times a week, Eileen traveled to money-transfer outlets in Lapu Lapu to pick up funds sent via Western Union (WU) or other services, police say -- anywhere from $30 to $500 at a time.
“I knew Eileen was doing something using the Internet, and I advised her to stop but she ignored me,” said Nenita. “I think some of our neighbors asked Eileen for help” in setting up their own cyberporn operations. She didn’t say whether children were involved.
The NBI says it found thousands of images of child pornography on equipment seized from the house: scenes of Eileen Ontong sexually abusing a pre-teen member of her extended family, children having sex, a five-year-old girl exposing herself, young boys performing oral sex on each other.
About 60,000 Filipino children enter the sex trade every year, and perhaps 10,000 of them have worked in online porn, according to the Preda Foundation, which runs a shelter for abused girls. In a country where 25 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, a webcam show can put food on the table or pay for a new roof.
“Of course those who do it will always use poverty as an excuse,” said Adelino Sitoy, mayor of the Cordova Municipality, which includes Ibabao. “What attracts them is easy money. All you have to do is tell your children to undress.”
One child testified in the Ontong case on Dec. 8, and the next hearing is expected in March, according to the International Justice Mission. One girl found at Ontong’s house during the arrests has also testified, but the other two children who were there that night fled and can’t be located, according to the NBI.
Ibabao sits on Mactan Island in the shadow of the international airport serving the city of Cebu, where flights from points as distant as Singapore, Seoul, and Tokyo disgorge sun-seeking tourists. Many of these end up at hotels such as the Shangri-La, Costabella, and Plantation Bay on Mactan’s eastern beaches. Few ever make it to Ibabao.
To reach the settlement of about 8,000 people, you leave behind the resorts, malls and apartment towers near the shore and cross a low bridge spanning the Gabi River. The road narrows to two lanes, and the sedans and SUVs typical of wealthier districts give way to swarms of motorbikes and three-wheeled motorized rickshaws. Colorful posters depicting happy families urge children to cherish and obey their parents.
The area is thick with pawnshops, bakeries, butchers and Internet cafes, many of which double as money-transfer services, with Western Union logos on prominent display. As in villages across the Philippines, women working as nannies in Hong Kong and men constructing skyscrapers in Dubai use these services to send funds back home.
From the barangay office -- the local town hall -- a sharp left onto an unmarked road leads to Sitio Sun-ok, a hardscrabble enclave of tiny homes thrown together from concrete, thin sheets of metal, and plywood. They’re separated by dirt pathways, just wide enough for two people, that turn into rivers of mud in the rainy months of June through September. The Ontongs’ house lies up one of these lanes, a few steps from a yellow stucco Catholic chapel devoted to the Santo Nino, or Holy Child, that seats about 50 worshipers.
Police say the Ontongs were in the process of renovating their home with money from the business. In the past few years they had added a concrete foundation and replaced tarps that made up the walls with cement blocks and plywood. They hadn’t yet fixed broken windows or rebuilt the ceiling of banig -- dried palm-leaf mats -- with something more impermeable.
Other proceeds went toward private school tuition for their daughter. And it wasn’t unusual for Eileen to take the family to a mall for lunch or one of the beach resorts for a day in the sun -- sometimes with a “foreign friend” in tow -- Nenita Ontong said.
One of Eileen’s foreign friends, at least via the Internet, was David Tallman. The 55-year-old retired U.S. Navy enlisted man, who sent Ontong more than $7,300 over four years, is serving a 12-year sentence in Lexington, Kentucky, after pleading guilty to transportation of child pornography. His lawyer has retired and couldn’t be reached for comment.
On Dec. 17, 2012, the USNS Laramie -- Tallman's ship -- pulled into Norfolk, Virginia, after sailing to ports across the Middle East and Africa. Waiting at the dock were four agents from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Customs and Border Protection service. Peers in Dallas, investigating a separate case, had alerted the agents that Tallman’s name had come up as someone who bought child porn. They boarded the ship and asked to search his computer equipment.
“He just stared at me like a deer in the headlights,” said Paul Wolpert, a Homeland Security agent who questioned Tallman in the ship’s staff lounge that day. “He sat in thought for a moment, put his head down, and admitted there would be child pornography on the laptop.”
Wolpert’s team seized Tallman’s two computers, three external hard drives and iPhone and took them to Homeland Security offices in downtown Norfolk. Forensic investigators found 4,000 child porn images as well as e-mails and Yahoo! Messenger logs in which Tallman had negotiated sex shows using the screen names “Ronin” and “tragic_prelude.” Among those communications were hundreds of messages and chats with Ontong, Wolpert said. Tallman also kept a meticulous folder of receipts from Western Union and credit card companies that detailed his payment for pictures and live shows.
On Feb. 1, 2013, Wolpert went back to the port and arrested Tallman in his stateroom on the Laramie, where he was living. In exchange for a reduced sentence -- he faced more than 20 years in prison -- Tallman agreed to help investigators snare Ontong. He turned over his e-mail accounts and transcripts to Wolpert, who assumed Tallman’s online identity and kept in contact with her, while police at the Philippines National Bureau of Investigation prepared to raid Ontong’s house.
On Memorial Day weekend 2013, Wolpert logged on as Tallman from a laptop in his living room near Norfolk and negotiated a live sex show. It was after midnight in the Philippines, so Ontong had trouble rounding up children to join in; the more participants the higher the payout. She settled on two members of her extended family and a boy from the neighborhood, all underage, police say.
NBI agent Dimaporo followed the chat on a laptop as he made his way from Cebu to Ibabao in his Toyota sedan, part of a convoy of eight unmarked cars and vans. The NBI had to observe the negotiations taking place from the laptop in order to secure a search warrant, Dimaporo said.
“When we saw the children flash on the screen it was all we needed to swoop in,” he said.
Wilfredo Ontong, standing guard at a basketball court near the house, spotted the agents as they arrived and took off running to warn Eileen, Dimaporo said. He was too late; from the chat, police had all the evidence they needed. The three children were pulled from the house just as two of them were about to have sex in front of the camera, and were handed over to local social welfare counselors. Dimaporo said Eileen showed little remorse, while her husband said he’d warned her to stop the shows for fear of arrest. Both were handcuffed and hustled off to jail.
NBI agents have identified 35 children from the material found at Ontong’s house. Dimaporo said 13 have been taken from their parents and placed in state facilities or shelters run by non-profit organizations. Evidence from the case has helped police find at least 10 neighbors involved with online pornography, the NBI says. Charges of child pornography and child abuse are pending against three people, including one of the parents of the second girl rescued during the Ontong raid.
Police have also identified at least 20 people in the U.S., U.K. and Australia, who they say purchased images or live shows from her. One man, an American Marine, paid Ontong some $40,000 over the years, according to Homeland Security. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service arrested the man in Okinawa, Japan, though he can’t be named until he enters a plea, expected in January.
In the wake of the Ontongs’ arrest, local officials have stepped up efforts in schools, churches and community centers to educate children and their parents about the dangers of the trade. And social workers seek out children on the streets and at Internet cafes to help steer them away from cybersex, said Guusje Havenaar, a psychologist at Terre des Hommes, a non-profit that combats child exploitation.
Children who engage in such acts start to “see their bodies as a tool; they become separated from themselves,” Havenaar said. “Cybersex, especially when parents are involving their children, is damaging much more than the parents suspect. Family ties are strong in Philippines, but that doesn’t mean they are healthy.”