`Internet' girl's story unravels wicked Web of abuse

Date: 2005-06-19

Maggie Farley
The Journal Gazette

Mea, 12, didn't know everyone was looking for her.

She wasn't aware that concerned police officers thought that she was still caught in a nightmare of abuse, reflected in hundreds of sexually explicit photos of her on the Internet.

And she didn't know that one particular team of Toronto police officers had been so haunted over the years by her image and fate that in February, they asked the public to help find her.

But Mea had already been found.

She was safe and with her new adoptive mother. They didn't see the news show where the police broadcast sanitized versions of the Internet photos in February and asked for help identifying the background locations. One of the backgrounds turned out to be a hotel at Disney World, a detail that led many to refer to her as "the Disney World girl."

Mea and her mom also missed a follow-up program that asked viewers if they could identify her friend, described as "a witness to a crime." It wasn't until the FBI called Mea's mother, Faith, last month that they realized Mea had been the subject of an international search.

"If I had seen the pictures, even with her face blanked out, I would have known it was her immediately," Faith said. "But when I heard people talking about it, I just didn't make the connection. Mea had been rescued two years ago."

The man who had used and photographed her for five years, Matthew Alan Mancuso, had been caught in an Internet child pornography sting in 2003 and is serving 15 years in prison. He was Mea's adoptive father.

Mea was placed in the care of Faith, a gutsy 28-year-old who legally adopted her a year ago. They moved far from the quiet hamlet in Pennsylvania where Mancuso stole Mea's childhood.

Mea - whose friends know her by another name - and Faith are fiercely protective of their privacy and asked that where they live be kept secret and that their last name not be used.

But they are willing to talk about what happened because they want to keep Mancuso in prison for the rest of his life. They hope to see him prosecuted on additional charges for what Mea has described to police as five years of rape and abuse for which he has yet to face justice. And although it is difficult to think of him at all, Mea is willing to testify.

She used to call him "Dad." Now, she calls him "it," or sometimes "jerk."

Mancuso, 46, a thin and balding engineer, had adopted her from a Russian orphanage with partly forged papers when she was 5. She had been placed in the orphanage after her drunken parents had chopped her neck with a large knife. Mancuso told her he had picked her from a video of many children, and that she should feel special. He was saving her, he said.

The abuse began her first night in the United States, she told police. She described how he made her sleep with him unclothed, shower with him and more. Soon the camera came out. After photo sessions, he would reward her with toys and gifts if she smiled for the camera, and several times, he took her to Disney World.

But if she did not follow his instructions, he would tie her down or lock her up for hours.

As she got older, he fed her plain spaghetti with raw vegetables, and did not allow her to drink milk - a starvation diet designed to keep her body thin and childish as she approached puberty. Over the years, he posted hundreds of pictures on the Internet, and traded them for hundreds more with other pedophiles.

During Mancuso's online trading sessions two years ago, an undercover officer in Chicago posing as a pedophile gathered enough information to get a federal search warrant. When the FBI came through Mancuso's door, they encountered someone they didn't expect: a terrified 10-year-old girl with light brown hair who weighed only 52 pounds.

"When the FBI raided his house, they didn't even know she existed," Faith said. "He had brainwashed her so much that she thought that she had done something wrong and they were coming to arrest her." A foster agency called Faith and asked her to take care of the child. When she picked the girl up, Mea's hair was so brittle that Faith was afraid to brush it, her body so frail that Faith carried her as carefully as glass.

At the same time Mea was being rescued in Pennsylvania, Toronto's Child Protection Unit was in the midst of its own mission to find her.

For months, the officers painstakingly analyzed the details of Mea's pictures, calling experts to identify the native area of the flowers and the trees - even the signature characteristics of the bricks in a wall in a photo. They had narrowed it down to the northeast United States or southeast Canada. They circulated photos of her face to U.S. law enforcement agencies, but the connection to Mancuso was missed.

In February, Det. Sgt. Paul Gillespie, the chief of the unit, decided to release the pictures with the girl digitally erased. On the U.S. side of the border, the FBI joined the search. Tipsters identified some of the locations as a Disney World hotel; further sleuthing pointed to Pennsylvania. When the FBI shared its database of child victims with the Pennsylvania police, they discovered a match. The outcome sought for years by the Toronto investigators already had occurred: Mancuso was in prison and the girl had been rescued.

Gillespie likes to think that new technology Mea helped inspire would have also led them to her. In April, Microsoft and the Toronto police unveiled a new computer-aided database that will allow police around the world to share information and track child porn - and to let each other know when one of the thousands of child victims has been saved. Like Mea.

"Every one of my team just want to give her a big hug," Gillespie said. "To see a child endure what she had to go through and find out that she is now safe made us all cry."

Last year, Mea had her first birthday party. She quickly bloomed after she eased into a healthy diet, discovered a talent for art and hand-painted her bedroom walls. Her favorite color is purple, and she regards the care and protection of her pet hamster, a chittering bundle of fur, as a solemn duty.

She has frequent slumber parties with her school friends, their sleeping bags scrunched together on the floor of the modest living room as they paint each other's toenails and chatter halfway until sunrise.

Mea can sleep through most nights now without awaking in terror, and the times that she does, Faith gently rocks her, talks to her and softly prays, just as one of Faith's foster mothers did for her.

"I've been through some of the same things she has, and she says that helps her a lot, knowing that I really do understand. And she can see that there is a way forward," Faith said.

Mea is graceful and deliberate, unrecognizable as the girl in the Internet pictures. Her smile is wide and genuine and her eyes sparkle. With her friends, she can be a cut-up, a clown, posing happily for photos in silly wigs and costumes.

In May, an Orlando, Fla., detective came to interview her. Orlando police hope to file new charges involving Mancuso's alleged assaults during their Disney World trips that could put him away for life. That was the first time she was aware that her pictures were being posted online.

Faith says that Mea was shaken but wants to tell her story to help other children in the same situation, and to make sure that Mancuso is held fully accountable for what he did. His 15-year sentence derives only from the child pornography charges; he has not been prosecuted for his alleged systematic rape and abuse of his adopted daughter.

In Pennsylvania, the Allegheny County police set aside their charges while the federal authorities tried their case. Faith felt they had been too slow to resume the prosecution - one detective even told her that there was no hurry since Mancuso still had 13 years to go.

Faith decided to use the publicity about the search for Mea and her rescue to put pressure on the district attorney's office to follow through. Last month, she contacted an Orlando TV station, WESH, and allowed the station to do a story, obscuring Mea's face.

Three weeks after it aired nationally, the district attorney's office announced that Mancuso would be arraigned soon on 11 additional counts, including rape. He had been charged with those crimes in November, and department spokesman Michael Manko says that the timing of the arraignment, scheduled for Thursday, is unrelated to the news program.

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