Very shy and bright, a bookworm and computer aficionado unconcerned with typical teen obsessions of hairdos and boys, 14-year-old Ceara Kean O’Connell went to the shopping mall the Thursday before Christmas, saying she needed to buy gifts.
She carried only her trademark small black backpack with its usual CD player, brush, books.
When her mother came back to pick her up a few hours later, Ceara had vanished among the throngs of holiday shoppers.
After a frantic search and a panicked call to police, Ceara’s family found its first clue--in a wastebasket in her room back home in suburban Brighton, outside Rochester, N.Y.
There, torn into pieces, they found a printout of e-mail from a 22-year-old Nebraska senior airman she had met in an Internet chat room devoted to vampire fantasies, the Black Rose Nightclub.
“I have the week of Christmas off,” Brooker Maltais wrote in one e-mail message. “I could be in Rochester in less than a week. I can’t guarantee how much time we could spent together. But at least it would be TOGETHER.”
Ceara, a high school freshman who never dated, has been missing since Dec. 19, and her family fears for her safety. Police and FBI officials, though, say they have determined through interviews with Maltais’ friends that Ceara is traveling voluntarily with him. The divorced maintenance analysis journeyman has been absent without leave from Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha after not returning Dec. 23 from a four-day leave. He has now been classified as a deserter. Maltais, a savvy computer user who tracked aircraft repairs and maintenance trends, could be court-martialed when found.
“If anything positive is going to come out of this, I hope parents realize the need to be monitoring their children’s use of the Internet very carefully,” said Capt. Maureen Chisholm of the Monroe County (N.Y.) Sheriff’s Department, which is leading the investigation. “The metaphor has been made that the Internet is a city. Would you allow your children to go into the city without parental guidance and consent?”
While there have been scattered reports of Internet-linked relationships and crimes, what is striking about Ceara’s case is her young age, said Larry Holmquist, an FBI spokesman in Omaha.
“Our main focus is locating them to make sure she’s safe and get her back to her family,” he said. Law enforcement authorities will not discuss whether Maltais would be charged. Ceara’s family members say his letters, full of affectionate thoughts and talk of marriage, make clear he knew Ceara was only 14 and that she knew his age.
An unhappy teenager may find a sympathetic ear on the Internet, yet feel a sense of control online that may not exist in real life--and that can be dangerous, said Gay-LeClerc Qader, executive director of the New York branch of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, which is helping search for Ceara.
“This is kind of new, heady stuff,” Qader said. “You have a child who took off with this guy. That’s the frightening part of this. She had no idea what she was getting into.”
Police and FBI say Ceara and Maltais apparently were seen in Omaha on Dec. 21 but are now believed to be elsewhere, possibly in the Midwest. Maltais withdrew money from an automatic teller machine near Kansas City, Mo., a day later. They are reportedly traveling in Maltais’ blue-gray 1995 Nissan Altima with Nebraska license plates. Ceara is 5-foot-2, 115 pounds, with long dirty-blond hair, blue eyes and light acne. She wears glasses. Maltais is 6 feet tall, 200 pounds, with blond hair and green eyes. Descriptions and photographs of the two are contained on a Monroe County Sheriff’s home page, https://sheriff.hq.net.
Officials in Omaha searched Maltais’ apartment and seized his computer but said it revealed nothing helpful. Maltais reportedly was heavily involved in fantasy role-playing and other Internet activities.
Ceara did not have a computer at home, where she lives with her mother, Cheryl Kean. But several months ago, her aunt and uncle next door, Kevin and Laura O’Connell, hooked their computer to the Internet as an educational tool for their children. Ceara, who frequently plays video games, Monopoly and pool with her cousins there, shared the Internet account.
Since then, Kevin O’Connell recalled, he has spent much time refereeing the conflicting demands of the five children for computer access. Recently, the O’Connells said, Ceara’s mother attempted to limit her daughter’s usage, believing she was spending too many hours on the computer.
But, her aunt and uncle said, they saw no signs of an unhappy teen. They didn’t know she had met Maltais online. “She wasn’t moping around the house or moody or showing emotional distress,” Kevin O’Connell said. “She was a real responsible, levelheaded kind of kid” who even confirmed a regular neighborhood Monday-night baby-sitting job before she disappeared. Friends told police they knew she had an Internet boyfriend but never suspected she was planning to meet with him.
Ceara, whose interests were intellectual rather than activity-related, was described as “pleasant, an excellent student . . . the kind of kid teachers enjoy having in class,” by M. Rick Page, an official for Rush-Henrietta public schools. Her attendance was top-notch and she had no discipline problems. “Not the profile you would normally expect” of a possible runaway, Page said.
This week, Ceara’s mother made an emotional public plea for her daughter’s safe return.
“Tell the man that you’re with about all the plans you’ve made for your future, and ask him to bring you home and let you finish growing up,” Kean said.
Ceara’s parents, never married, separated several years ago. But family members say they can think of no trigger in Ceara’s life that may have led her to leave home. A relative of Maltais has been quoted as saying the airman wanted to rescue Ceara from alleged problems at home.
A former teacher of Ceara’s remembers that the girl was quite unhappy and greatly conflicted over where to live when her parents separated. She stayed with her father for a time while briefly attending an exclusive private school near Rochester, then lived with her mother and younger sister in Reno, Nev.
Early last summer, Ceara spent time in Seal Beach with her half sister, Tracey O’Connell-Gay, 31. By summer’s end, she returned to live with her mother and sister when they moved to a home outside Rochester.
“Her very favorite activity was going to the bookstore. Not going to the mall and buying miniskirts,” O’Connell-Gay recalled. “She wasn’t the cheerleading popular girl. She was shy and reserved, and she was very conservative in the way she dressed. She wears big, baggy shirts and jeans . . . she doesn’t style her hair. She’s very good at computers.”
O’Connell-Gay said Ceara is planning to attend college, perhaps to study in a computer-related field.
“She’s never been in any trouble. She’s never been into any drugs. She’s never broken any laws. She’s never broken any rules, I don’t think,” she said of Ceara. “She wasn’t interested in attracting older men. She wasn’t interested in men at all.”
Ceara was quite homesick for her mother this summer. After one phone conversation with her mom, “tears were streaming down her face when she got off the phone,” O’Connell-Gay said. Ceara decided then to go back to Rochester early.
Remembering how the young teen missed her mother, O’Connell-Gay asked: “How could she be with this 22-year-old man?”