Masha Allen’s fight to help other child sex assault victims
By: Julian Sher Investigative News reporter
For the past eight years, the framed photo has stood prominently on his desk at Toronto police headquarters: an American teenage girl with long hair and a beaming smile leaning against the burly Canadian cop.
Ever since Det. Bill McGarry helped turn Masha Allen into one of the most famous victims of child abuse and Internet pornography, he has kept a special place for her on his desk and in his heart.
“She gave me the strength to keep doing my job,” said McGarry, who heads the Toronto Police Identification Unit, spending days unearthing gut-wrenching images of child sexual assault on the web. “I look at her picture and say: if I don’t do this, who is going to hunt for these kids?”
Now a grown-up, Masha is using an American law named after her to go after the hundreds of men who have downloaded and traded her pictures of abuse.
Masha was adopted as a 5-year-old Russian orphan by an American millionaire named Matthew Mancuso, who sexually abused her for years and posted her pictures extensively online until she was rescued by the FBI in 2003.
She went on to testify before the U.S. Congress and appear on Oprah’s TV show, inspiring then senator John Kerry to bring in “Masha’s Law” in 2006 to make it easier for victims of child pornography to sue for civil damages.
Last month, Masha filed a class action lawsuit in a federal court in Pennsylvania, seeking potentially millions of dollars from Mancuso and the other men convicted of possessing and distributing pictures of her abuse.
“She’s a very strong young woman, but it’s obvious she has been through a lot and has the scars,” Leighton Moore, one of her lawyers, told the Star.
“It’s a very compelling cause to help her get some justice under the statute she helped create.”
He said even though in recent years pictures and videos of Masha as a public campaigner for victims’ rights are in wide circulation, she is living under an assumed name and filed her lawsuit as “Jane Doe” to protect her privacy.
When McGarry first came across the disturbing pictures of Masha more than a decade ago, she was a thin waif of a child known as “Angeli,” one of the most popular series of child abuse images that circulated widely like pornographic trading cards across the Internet.
Over the years, Masha was displayed in suggestive poses on a Harley, naked and chained to exercise equipment in a gym or spread across a hotel bed.
“She was helpless,” McGarry recalled. “It’s like we were watching this little girl grow up exploited.”
McGarry spent two years trying to figure out who and where the girl in the pictures was.
Frustrated by law enforcement’s inability to identify her, Toronto police in 2005 took the unprecedented step of releasing sanitized photos of the crime scenes at one hotel — with Masha removed from the images — in the hopes of enlisting the public’s help.
The hunt became a North American media sensation. The location was quickly identified as one of Walt Disney World’s hotels in Orlando, Fla., which earned Masha the nickname “the Disney Girl.”
It then turned out that the FBI had already located Masha two years earlier in Pittsburgh and jailed Mancuso, but flaws in police databases and file sharing meant other agencies did not know.
Still, Masha decided to use her newfound freedom and fame to speak out on behalf of other child abuse victims and the men who traded in their misery.
“The people who are doing this should be afraid,” she told Congress in May 2006. We know who they are. A lot of the people downloading these pictures are professionals. They are doctors and teachers and ministers.
“You have to do something … If we can put a man on the moon, we can make the Internet safe for kids.”
Kerry – who praised Masha for “a maturity and strength that defies her years – got “Masha’s Law” passed, tripling the potential civil penalties for anyone who downloads child pornography to $150,000.
Other legislation also obliges U.S. authorities to notify victims like Masha every time their abuse images turn up in a criminal case for illegal possession of child pornography.
Masha’s lawyer said his client has received more than 2,000 such notices, so for a long time she was wary about launching legal action against that many offenders.
The problem, Moore explained, is that filing a couple of thousand of lawsuits against all those defendants could tie up Masha for years in court, possibly forcing her to testify countless and relive her horrors.
“They have already taken away her childhood,” said Moore. “She shouldn’t have to spend her adult life testifying to get justice.”
So Masha’s lawyers came up with a novel legal tactic, a sort of reverse class action lawsuit that names Mancuso and about 13 other men in a single case as “representatives of a class” of defendants, opening the door to potentially going after hundreds of additional targets.
Moore said he hoped a judge would certify the class action proceedings as early as next year.
For his part, Toronto police detective McGarry is proud the American girl he helped turn into a heroine is standing up once again on behalf of survivors of child abuse.
The last time he saw Masha was seven years ago in New York just before she appeared on CNN. He had his picture taken with her and gave her a gold necklace the Toronto squad had bought for her, with a cameo of an angel and a diamond set as a star in the sky.
On the back were inscribed the words “Always watch over me.”
“We deal with hundreds of children around the world and we don’t know the fate of most of them,” said McGarry. “I’ve always held this investigation close to my heart.”
To this day, many people mistakenly assume the picture on his desk of a smiling Masha is his daughter. McGarry corrects them – sort of.
“We treat her as one of our children,” he said. “We could fill a wall with the pictures of the kids we rescued. But that one was special.”