7 years for N.W.T. man who impersonated child stars, lured children into sending nude photos

·4 min read
Marcus Bourke in a photo he posted to Facebook in April of 2018. The Fort Smith, N.W.T., man was sentenced to seven years in prison Wednesday for impersonating child stars on social media and luring children as young as four into sending intimate photos.  (Marcus Bourke/Facebook - image credit)
Marcus Bourke in a photo he posted to Facebook in April of 2018. The Fort Smith, N.W.T., man was sentenced to seven years in prison Wednesday for impersonating child stars on social media and luring children as young as four into sending intimate photos. (Marcus Bourke/Facebook - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains information on child luring and includes some vulgar language. 

"While the internet has been a tremendously useful tool," in this case "it's opened the gate to hell."

That's what Justice Andrew Mahar said about a case involving a man who impersonated social media stars online to lure children and solicit hundreds of intimate images and videos.

Marcus Bourke, 25 from Fort Smith, N.W.T., will face seven years in prison on 12 counts of child luring and three counts of child pornography.

Crown prosecutor Morgan Fane and defence lawyer Peter Harte presented a joint sentencing submission of seven years at Wednesday's hearing in the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories.

Bourke pretended to be internet personalities Jacob Sartorius and Jojo Siwa to engage children around the world ranging from 4 to 10 years old.

Bourke would send an initial message to victims on Instagram and Musical.ly — the predecessor to TikTok — asking if the recipient: "do you want to be famous?"

For those who responded, Bourke put forward a series of escalating challenges. Some of Bourke's early messages include, "make your feet touch your face," which grew to "show how high you can lift your shirt" and, "show your butthole."

'A virtual home invasion,' says Crown

Fane listed the number of victims impacted, the harm to each victim and the responsibility of the offender as justification for the seven-year sentence.

He pointed to Statistics Canada figures that show between the years 2015 and 2019, there was a 44 per cent increase in the number of child luring reports to police.

Fane said that 2019 is the latest available data but acknowledged that with the coronavirus pandemic, the expectation is that "these numbers will be spectacularly higher" for more recent years.

He described the damage of "children realizing that Jojo Siwa is not offering a series of escalating challenges but that it's a stranger on the internet and they've been complicit in crimes, themselves taking the photos."

"The impact that that would have is, on one hand, unimaginable," he said, "and on the other hand, I think we can imagine too well the harms."

To highlight those harms, Fane quoted excerpts of victim impact statements from the recent case of Mario LaPlante, a former nurse in Whatı̀, N.W.T., who was convicted of possession and distribution of child pornography.

The statements describe the continued re-victimization of children whose images and videos — even if they're removed from some websites — can circulate forever once posted online.

Fane described Bourke's crimes as akin to "a virtual home invasion."

Offender 'truly remorseful'

Harte described Bourke as having significant "shame and remorse."

Through discussions with his client, Harte said Bourke told him he thinks he was physically abused as a toddler but that his memories are vague.

Harte referenced a part of the pre-sentencing report where Bourke is quoted as saying he also sent a photo of his genitalia to someone over the internet, "and I didn't care."

Harte said he's "not sure that's true" in reference to Bourke not caring about the incident.

Harte told the court that Bourke struggles with anxiety and since being charged has gained up to 100 pounds.

He's "truly remorseful," Harte said, adding that Bourke is "anxious to take any program that he could possibly benefit from," while in custody.

In his submissions to Mahar, Fane said one "throughline" of the pre-sentencing report was Bourke's love of cooking. He suggested Bourke could be recommended to serve in a facility where he might earn a certificate and possibly go on to pursue a career in the kitchen.

'We have to protect our kids'

Mahar accepted the joint submission.

In delivering his decision, he said that Bourke presents as "a socially anxious, troubled individual."

He called the crimes "horrifying" and said he wished he had "a more effective tool" for rehabilitation since a conviction of child luring and child pornography is "a social death sentence."

He also acknowledged comments Harte made about Bourke's grandmother worrying for his safety in custody, and said he would recommend Bourke be considered a vulnerable inmate.

Still, Mahar said the harsh sentence was necessary.

"We have to protect our kids. We have to be seen protecting our kids."

"The internet has opened the door into the private lives of our children and our home and allowed predators, strangers, access to our kids," Mahar said. "And we're horrified by that."

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