On New Year’s Day in 2002 we had a family dinner. As I was clearing the table before I put the apple pies out for dessert, Alicia said she wasn’t feeling well and asked to go upstairs. I said: “Sure, go ahead.” Later, when she didn’t respond to my call, I sent her brother up. He said: “She’s not in her bedroom.” She was gone just like that.
I had never been concerned about Alicia’s internet use. She was 13, and although she was on the internet a couple of hours a day, all the kids in Pittsburgh were. I used to tell her: “Go outside, do something, go and play.” But she’d show me the monitor, and all her friends were there chatting with each other. We trusted that she was safe. Kids stopped reading books, they wrote things online, they did their homework online. They had profiling pages that they could fill out with their favourite things and a picture. It was a baffling thing to us as her parents but we never imagined she would come to any harm.
Alicia was a shy child, she didn’t run the streets, there was nobody’s home she would have gone to at dinner time on New Year’s Day. It was one of the coldest days of the year, icy, snowy and dark. We checked the yard, looked in the basement, finally we called the police. They said: “She’ll be home by morning, she’s probably with a friend,” and they left. It’s surreal, you move into a different realm of consciousness because there’s no answer. You sit there in the dark and you stare. You’re totally helpless. No warning. There was no sign of forced entry. She took nothing with her, no coat, no boots. She’d received money for Christmas. It was still on her dresser.
I was not computer savvy at the time, I was a stay-at-home mum. My husband was a salesman in an office where people were starting to e-mail and there were urban legends of internet predators, and it was him who made the link. He told the police, they took away the computer, went through its history but they saw nothing. On the second day we were told that recovering her would probably be a million to one shot because there were no clues. We got her quickly into the media through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and posters went up.
But my husband was right. In the apparent safety of her bedroom my daughter had met a man online, a 38-year-old computer programmer from Herndon, Virginia, whom she had been introduced to in a chat room. He had persuaded her to meet him. We learned later that he was divorced. His daughter had just spent Christmas with him; she was my daughter’s age. He dropped his own daughter off at the airport and then drove into Pittsburgh to pick up mine. His intention was to make her his sex slave. My daughter believes she had a very short shelf life. He held her captive in a dungeon he had created in his basement, he raped her, he abused her, he beat her, he tortured her, he kept her chained with a locking dog collar around her neck.
We found her only because he showed a video of himself with her to a crony of his, another weirdo. This man called the FBI, fearing that the predator was going to kill my daughter, and that he would be an accomplice because he had seen the abuse.
The FBI broke into the house, I think it was on January 5. It was all one long day to me, I never slept, I never ate. We had a phone call from the FBI saying we needed to come down immediately. It had been four days, and three quarters of all stranger abducted children are dead within three hours. I thought I was going to identify my daughter. They ushered us into a room and the agents told us they had managed to save her. That was the best moment of my life. She was a five-hour drive away in Virginia. The next morning they flew us there and we got her back. But we will always ask: Could we have done more? And how could we have known?
When kids socialise online there is no such thing as a stranger, and we parents were simply not aware of that. Kids have their real life flesh and blood friends at school, these friends introduce them to a friend who goes to a school in the next town but they’re not a stranger because they have a friend in common. Friends have friends who have friends and maybe a month or two later, or perhaps just days, they’re speaking to the most unsavory of characters and as parents you have no idea.
Kids don’t think. They assume everything is OK because they know the name of this guy’s puppy, his sister, his mother, all of which can be false. To this day, I have no idea what this predator told my daughter. When you’re horribly traumatized your brain refuses to remember some things. Alicia, too, has huge gaps in her memory. I know she and the predator talked about everything but I don’t know the details, partly because Alicia doesn’t remember a lot, and partly because any sexual element is not something we talk about. It’s too painful. But I know that he gradually became her best friend, he supported her emotionally, listened to her problems.
Thirteen is a difficult age, her friends were starting to do crazy things and she felt that she wasn’t fitting in any more. I realize now that those feelings can be manufactured by the predator. He pulls you apart. Just as a husband abuses his wife, a predator online will pull a child away from her family and friends, to make her dependent on him. If the child has a bad grade at school, he’ll say: “That’s fine, your teacher’s stupid.” If your friends say something not nice, it’s: “Do I ever say things like that?” Age doesn’t exist on the Internet, you believe what you read. This man appeared to offer my daughter unconditional love.
When we got Alicia back it was very painful. The child that is returned to you after something like this is not the child that left. But we were lucky, she was alive. The law enforcement officers did not denigrate Alicia, they told her she was a hero for having survived, that she kept her head, did what she had to do to keep herself alive. The predator got 20 years. His name was Scott Tyree but we don’t use it because it gives him credence. He doesn’t deserve a name, he doesn’t deserve any more of my daughter’s life than he’s taken already.
Did I miss any signs of internet “grooming”? I don’t call it grooming, I call it internet seduction. It’s starry little princesses dreaming of Prince Charming and getting the bogeyman instead.
The problem for parents is that most teenage children are argumentative, spend a lot of time in their room, enjoy spending hours on the internet late at night. So how do you work out what is simply the behavior of a normal adolescent, and what is putting them in danger?
When we found Alicia on the computer late at night she would say: “I forgot to do my history paper,” and sure enough there would be a history paper. What parent is going to say: “Don’t be conscientious, don’t stay up and finish that paper.” Of course you say: “Honey finish it up quick and get to bed.” If you’ve raised your child well, you assume your child isn’t doing anything reckless. I certainly did.
What parents have to realize is that the internet is the focus of our children’s lives. What they’re doing online is the same thing that everyone is doing: they’re seeking love, attention, they’re bored. Anything that they can’t do in real life, they can do online, and engaging in a virtual world is now part of their growing up. If they have a bad day, they can go online and be somebody else, if you’re 12 and have braces you can go online and be 23 and a femme fatale. It’s a game, it’s fun, whatever’s offered to them they grab without thinking. Some parents find it hard to understand their children’s growing awareness of their sexuality but our kids are sexually aware, they see sexualized ads every day, they talk about sex on the internet. All we can do is make our children aware that the dangers out there are very real and that this can happen to them.
Alicia is 21 now and still has flashbacks, nights when it’s hard to sleep. She has done well in school, she’s studying psychology and forensics at university and wants to join the FBI and eventually work with traumatized children. But life is harder for her than it would have been. We try to make sure that what happened to her doesn’t happen to others. We go into schools and speak with kids about it. There’s no lecturing, it’s an open dialogue — this can happen to you and this is how. Alicia doesn’t say: “Don’t go on Myspace or Facebook,” because kids are going to do that. But she does try to teach them to be aware of differentiating between who is a stranger and who isn’t. And to make the danger real to them, she shows them her missing posters and the newspaper stories from when she was found — with headline such as “Girl found safe but tied up”.
Alicia describes the internet as possibly the greatest social experiment of all time but one in which children can be the sacrificial guinea pigs. I use the analogy of a loaded gun. No one warned us about it yet they blamed us when the kids started to shoot themselves.