your connection to The Boston Globe

Girl, 12, survives ordeal, but search is prolonged

Adoptive father abused her for 5 years, she says

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 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 Walt Disney World, a detail that led many to refer to her as ''the Disney World girl."

Mea and her mother 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," said Faith. ''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.

Mancuso, 46, a thin and balding engineer, had adopted her from a Russian orphanage with partially 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 America, 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.

During Mancuso's online trading sessions two years ago, an undercover officer in Chicago posing as a pedophile gathered enough information about his collection 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.

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 and other children being exploited by pornographers. The team wanted to develop new tools to keep up with the pedophiles who had created a shadowy sphere on the Internet.

For months, the officers in Toronto painstakingly analyzed the details of Mea's pictures, and called specialists to identify the native area of the flowers and the trees -- even the signature characteristics of the bricks in a wall in a photo.

In February, Detective Sergeant Paul Gillespie, the chief of the unit, decided to release the pictures with the girl digitally erased. On the US 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.

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives