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Twisted Tale of Katie’s Abductor : Kidnaping: To neighbors, John Esposito was a mild-mannered ‘mama’s boy.’ But then he led police to where he kept a 10-year-old girl hidden for 16 days.

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

The real John Esposito, it seems, was much like the bunker in which 10-year-old Katie Beers was imprisoned--hidden from view, inexplicable, rooted in darkness and dark impulses.

To his neighbors he was a mild-mannered building contractor, a “mama’s boy” who never left home, preferred young children to adults and cared for them like a benevolent uncle.

But there was more to Esposito than they knew. They did not know, for instance, that he had fashioned a subterranean tunnel and dungeon, connected to the back yard garage in which he lived apart from the rest of his family.

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And even his family did not know much about his life in that toy- and video-game-filled home. “We had intercoms in the house and we’d call him when we needed him to come in,” said Ronnie Esposito, John’s fraternal twin. “None of us ever had a reason to go back there.”

But then John Esposito, 43, opened the door to his secret world. He led police into the dungeon, to the coffin-like cubicle where Katie had been kept hidden from the world for 16 days, sometimes chained around the neck.

Police said she was imprisoned after spurning his sexual advances; a grand jury charged him with kidnaping and sexual abuse in an 11-count indictment.

Even as Esposito was led away in handcuffs, the speculation began: What happened to John Esposito? How did he come to this moment?

Was it the death of his beloved mother? Was it the other tragedies that have plagued the Esposito family? Was it something less apparent? Or was it beyond understanding--an accident of nature, like a lightning bolt?

Esposito’s father, Ralph, a carpet layer, moved his family from Brooklyn to what had been the empty potato fields of southern Long Island. In the 1950s, the Espositos were just one family among tens of thousands of white ethnics fleeing the crowded quarters of Brooklyn and Queens for the good life on “the island.”

But soon after the move, little Ralphie Esposito, just 5 years old, was killed when he was hit by a car outside their two-story house.

Ralph and Rose Esposito had three more sons: the twins and Patrick. But the shadow that fell over the family after Ralphie’s death persisted. Two years ago, Patrick Esposito, then 33, died of a cocaine-induced heart attack.

“I remember the mother would always say, ‘I buried two sons,’ ” said neighbor Mike Cacoperdo. “The family really had some bad luck.”

Though he never married and never left home, John Esposito was not considered especially odd by most neighbors. “He was always quiet in school, always kept to himself,” said Douglas Aichroth, who attended Islip High School with the twins until they quit school at 15.

“Ronnie was the smarter, sharper, good-looking twin,” he said. “John was a little slow. But he seemed like a regular kid. He just turned out to be a mama’s boy.”

Like many in the neighborhood where there are two, three and four generations under the same roof, John Esposito built his own apartment over the garage, only a few yards from the main house.

There was a warning that something was wrong here: In 1978, Esposito pleaded guilty to attempting to snatch a 7-year-old boy from a shopping mall. But few in the neighborhood remembered it.

Esposito put up posters in local stores, advertising himself as a “Big Brother.” Boys spent weekends at the renovated garage.

“I don’t remember ever seeing him with a girl,” said Mike Stone, 18, a neighbor of the Esposito family. “It was always little boys.”

Katie Beers’ half-brother, John, has said he was molested by this friend of the family--a man he called “Big John"--until, he claimed, Esposito told him he was “too old.”

But Stone and at least two other youths whom he befriended and entertained at his house said he never molested them.

“The man I knew wasn’t like that at all,” said Thomas Umlauft, 25, who went on outings with Esposito when he was 6 and 7. “He was very friendly. He used to tell us a story about when he was little and didn’t have much and he always wanted somebody to do something nice for him.”

Esposito’s mother, meanwhile, had been a recluse since her husband’s death in 1978. Then Rose Esposito, who struggled with obesity, died two years ago.

Ronnie’s wife, Joyce, 42, believes John Esposito was more traumatized by Rose’s death than anyone knew.

“He took his mother’s death very hard,” said Joyce Esposito.

Police said they believe Esposito built the bunker about six months after Rose’s death.

Neighbors said they never heard anything unusual there, but since he had a home-improvements business with his brother, “nobody would have thought anything if he was doing something at home,” said neighbor Herlinda Pena.

Gradually, the Espositos dispersed. His brother and sister-in-law moved out. Then, two months ago, Patrick Esposito’s widow moved to a nearby town.

John Esposito was alone--at least until Dec. 28, when he offered to take Katie Beers on a birthday shopping trip that became something very different.


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