It was a photograph in a restaurant newsletter in Costa Mesa that brought an end to the international odyssey of a Florida girl abducted by her father four years ago, police said Wednesday.
Even though 9-year-old Monique Nicole Pace had undergone facial surgey to remove a prominent birthmark, authorities said, a customer recognized her in a roster of missing children in the newsletter and notified police that she was living in Orange County.
Monday, moments after he had dropped his daughter off for the first day of classes at a private school in Costa Mesa, Angelo Pace was arrested on state and federal warrants, according to Costa Mesa Police Detective Sgt. Dennis Cost.
And Monique, who had been taken as far away as Italy at one point, was driven to the Costa Mesa police station for what was described as a very emotional reunion with her mother, Vickie Croes, who had flown here from Hialeah, Fla., Cost said.
It was almost a fluke that the girl's picture was spotted, according to Jo Ann Currier, founder of Child Keyppers, a Lake Worth, Fla., group which places photographs of missing children in a monthly newsletter distributed to customers in Fuddruckers restaurants.
"What's incredible was that it wasn't even a current issue," Currier said Wednesday. "It was August, and if that woman had been there a day later or even a few hours later, it probably would have been gone."
Currier said Croes had last seen her daughter Aug. 26, 1982, in Hialeah. Croes, who had filed for divorce from Pace, allowed him to take his daughter on an overnight trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla.
Although a Florida court awarded Croes custody of Monique in March, 1983, by that time she was in Rome, where Pace, an Italian citizen, was living with his parents. An Italian court upheld the mother's claim to custody, and Pace returned with the girl to the United States, but he still refused to give her up. At some point, he also had a large, dark birthmark on her chin surgically removed, Currier said.
Photo in Newsletter
A year ago, police raided homes in south Florida where relatives of Pace lived. The officers said they found recent pictures of Monique but not the girl. Later, there were reports that she had been seen in Louisiana, Texas and Utah.
The latest twist in the case came last week, Sgt. Cost said, when a woman whom police have refused to identify contacted Child Keyppers to say she had seen Monique's picture in a copy of the Fuddruckers newsletter.
"The woman had come back in saying she had to have a copy of the August issue of the paper because she had seen one of those kids," Holli Hodge, the restaurant manager, said Wednesday. "We didn't have any more, but I found out that there were some at our Anaheim place and got the manager there to send it to her.
"We never found out if it was true. It's kind of exciting because we've been putting those pictures in for about a year. But we've never heard anything, until this."
Currier's group immediately called Hialeah police, who in turn notified Costa Mesa authorities, Cost said.
About the same time, Cost said, Costa Mesa police also were contacted by federal drug agents in Florida, who said "they were interested in Pace on some drug trafficking charges. They didn't have any warrants yet but said they could get one if they knew where he was. They got one on Monday."
Held on Drug Charges
Cost said police waited until Monique was in the classroom before they stopped her father as he drove away from the school. Pace was taken into custody without incident, Cost said, and "although we had information that he'd be armed, he wasn't." While Pace is wanted by Hialeah police for parental abduction, Cost said, he was turned over Monday afternoon to U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents who hold an arrest warrant growing out a 14-count federal grand jury indictment on narcotics charges.
"With the state child-stealing charge, there would have to have been an extradition proceeding," Cost said. "This way the federal people can return him to Florida without that, and police can serve the abduction warrant on him there."
A couple who were at Pace's Newport Beach apartment Wednesday afternoon declined to speak with reporters.
Monique and her mother returned to Florida Tuesday. Pace was being held Wednesday at the federal prison on Terminal Island in Long Beach.
Times staff writer Ray Perez contributed to this story.