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.
For months, the officers in Toronto painstakingly analyzed the details of Mea’s pictures, calling experts to identify the native area of the flowers and the trees -- even the signature characteristics of the bricks in a wall. They had narrowed it down to the Northeast in the United States or southeastern Canada. They had circulated photos of her face to American law enforcement agencies, but the connection to Mancuso was missed.
In February, Toronto Det. Sgt. Paul Gillespie decided to release the pictures with the girl digitally erased. On the U.S. side of the border, the FBI joined the search. Tipsters identified the location in some of the photos 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 had already occurred: Mancuso was in prison and the girl had been rescued.
Gillespie likes to think that new technology Mea helped inspire would have led them to her. In April, Microsoft Corp. and the Toronto police unveiled a computer-aided database that would allow police around the world to share information, to track child porn and to let one another know when one of the thousands of child victims had been saved -- like Mea.
“Every one of my team just want to give her a big hug,” Gillespie said. “To see a child endure what she had to go through and find out that she is now safe made us all cry.”
Last year, Mea had her first birthday party. She quickly bloomed after she eased into a healthful diet, discovered a talent for art and hand-painted her bedroom walls. Her favorite color is purple and she regards the care and protection of her pet hamster as a solemn duty.
She lets the hamster crawl over her arms, then cups him gently in her hands, stroking his tawny fur. “He likes this,” she says in a clear, high voice. “I think he feels safe.”
She has frequent slumber parties with her school friends, their sleeping bags scrunched together on the floor of the modest living room as they paint one another’s toenails and chatter halfway until sunrise.
Mea can sleep through most nights now without awaking in terror. The times that she does, Faith gently rocks her, talks to her and softly prays, just as one of Faith’s foster mothers did for her.
“I’ve been through some of the same things she has, and she says that helps her a lot, knowing that I really do understand,” Faith said. “And she can see that there is a way forward.”
Mea is graceful and deliberate, unrecognizable as the girl in the Internet pictures. Her smile is wide and genuine, and her eyes sparkle. With her friends, she can be a cut-up, a clown, posing happily for photos in silly wigs and costumes.
Orlando police hope to file new charges involving Mancuso’s alleged assaults during their Disney World trips that could keep him in prison for life. Last month, an Orlando detective came to interview her. That was the first time she was aware that pictures of her were posted online.
“She asked if [the images] could be taken off the Internet,” Faith said. All the detective could answer was “no.”
Faith says that Mea was shaken but wants to tell her story to help other children in the same situation, and to make sure that Mancuso is held fully accountable for what he did.
His 15-year sentence derives only from the child pornography charges; he has not been prosecuted for his alleged systematic rape and abuse of his adopted daughter.
In Pennsylvania, the Allegheny County police set aside their charges while the federal authorities tried their case. Faith thought they had been too slow to resume the prosecution -- one detective told her there was no hurry since Mancuso had 13 years to go.
“That made me so angry,” she said. “I’m in a hurry. Mea is in a hurry. She wants to close the door on this, and she doesn’t want to worry about that guy getting out of prison when she is 25. She wants him in there for life.”
Faith said that the Allegheny County district attorney told her at one point that they would not prosecute rape charges because they didn’t think Mea was ready to testify. When Faith passed that on to Mea, the normally soft-spoken girl demanded to speak to the D.A.
Faith dialed the phone and handed it to her.
“She said, ‘I want to know why you dropped the charges. You didn’t ask me, and I do want to testify,’ ” Faith recalled.
Faith decided to use the publicity about the search for Mea and her rescue to put pressure on the district attorney’s office to follow through.
Last month, she contacted an Orlando television station, WESH, and allowed it to do a story, obscuring Mea’s face.
Three weeks after the story aired nationally, the district attorney’s office announced that Mancuso would be arraigned soon on 11 additional counts, including rape. He had been charged with those crimes in November. Michael Manko, spokesman for the D.A.'s office, said the timing of the arraignment, scheduled for Thursday, was unrelated to the news program.
Pursuing the case is part of a long healing process that, as Faith knows firsthand, never really ends. But Faith hopes to teach Mea that it was not her fault. She wrote a poem for her daughter saying she could leave her past behind like an old cocoon and emerge into the world brand new, a butterfly.
Mea has restarted counseling after a brief break. She is planning a summer trip to Orlando, to “conquer it.” But she recently decided not to go back to Disney World just yet, and to go to Sea World instead.
It is a big step on a lengthy journey, but Mea has taken the hardest one and allowed herself to trust again.
In a Mother’s Day letter to Faith that she illustrated with flowers and rolled up like a scroll, Mea wrote:
“Dear Mumzie, I really love you so much. With you, I feel safe. Thank you for being there for me and for being my mom.”