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Girl Who Had No Name Finds Road to Healing

The world was looking to save the child seen in porn. But she was safe and rebuilding her life.

June 18, 2005|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

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

She wasn't aware that concerned police officers thought she was 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 already 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 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."

An in-depth article about the police search for the mystery girl also appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on its website in late April.

But 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 Mea said abused 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 her 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 Mancuso to stay 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 though 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 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 that 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.

But if she did not follow his instructions, she said, 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 with other pedophiles.

During Mancuso's online trading sessions two years ago, an undercover officer in Chicago posing as a pedophile gathered enough information about Mancuso's 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 52 pounds.

"When the FBI raided his house, they didn't even know she existed," said Faith. "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, the Toronto Police Service's child exploitation team was in the midst of a mission to find her and other children being exploited by pornographers. The team wanted to develop new tools to keep up with pedophiles who had created a shadowy sphere on the Internet.

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