Dec. 1, 2005 -- Earlier this year, Toronto police took an extraordinary step in their search for a little girl who was being subjected to the worst kind of abuse imaginable.

She was the subject of pictures that had been showing up in the hands of pedophiles. They showed her tied up and raped repeatedly, and police could see her growing older in the photos. They feared the abuse was still going on.

So they digitally removed her from the photos — only showing her surroundings — and asked the public for help.

Months later, Toronto police learned that her abuser had already been jailed, and that she had been placed with a foster family.

She told her story for the first time to ABC News. She was interviewed in the presence of her new adoptive mother, her therapist and adviser — all of whom hope that airing her story might help her heal.

"It's like he stole my childhood," the young girl, Masha, said. "He took away five years of my life that I could never get back."

From Nightmare to Nightmare

Masha was born in a small, industrial city in southern Russia. She doesn't remember her father, and says her mother was an alcoholic. When she was 4, Masha says, her mother stabbed her in the back of her neck during a drinking binge. When authorities responded, they took Masha away to live in an orphanage.

It was a sad and desperate existence, but because adoption is rare in Russia, Masha expected to live there until she turned 18. Then one day, a divorced 41-year-old American showed up saying he wanted to adopt her.

Matthew Mancuso had found Masha through an adoption agency in Cherry Hill, N.J. He said he wanted to adopt a 5- or 6-year-old Caucasian girl, and Mancuso picked Masha out from a videotape sent to him by the adoption agency.

Masha said Mancuso was friendly and brought her gifts. But there was also something strange about him. "I remember asking him if I was gonna get a mother, and he'd say that he wasn't married, and that he didn't think I would," she said.

The nightmare began when Masha flew home with Mancuso to his modest, middle-class house on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. When it was time for bed that first night, he didn't send her to her room — he told her to get in bed with him.

He wasn't wearing any clothes, she said. The first couple of nights, he touched her leg or chest. Then he started touching her private parts. And then, a few days later, he started raping her repeatedly — and taking sexually explicit photographs.

"I'd make myself think of other things when it was happening," she said. "But it always came back to me — couldn't stop it."

To keep her silent he used rewards — as well as threats. "He'd tell me not to tell anyone, or else something bad would happen," Masha said. "He wouldn't tell me what it would be, but he'd just say something bad would happen. So I just didn't tell anybody, 'cause I was afraid."

A Desperate Search by Police

The road to Masha's rescue began hundreds of miles away in the Chicago suburb of Palos Heights. Police Sgt. Mike Zaglifa had been posing as a pedophile on the Internet, where obscene pictures of children are often traded like baseball cards.

There is a limited supply of child porn, and so pedophiles are always looking for arousing new images — so when Masha's fresh pictures appeared, this caused a feeding frenzy.

Zaglifa pretended to want them too, and struck up a conversation with someone using the handle "NkdSister." After chatting with him for a bit, he had a gut feeling — and traced NkdSister's Internet address to Pittsburgh.

On May 27, 2003, federal agents Denise Holtz and Tom Clinton visited Mancuso's home, looking for the photos advertised on the Internet. When they pulled up, they saw Mancuso and Masha outside. They immediately separated them, and Clinton says he could tell Mancuso was concerned. "He wasn't happy that we were there and it was obvious to us," he said.

The agents found computer disks with child pornography — but the biggest discovery was to come from Masha herself. Holtz remembers her asking: "Is this about my secret?" An agent had taken Mancuso inside his house, but even there, he tried to keep Masha from talking by yelling out to her.

But Masha spoke anyway. "It was like, I finally had someone to talk to. So once I said something — I said everything else. It just all came out," she said. Masha was finally rescued at the age of 10. She says she doesn't know what she would have done if they didn't come. "I guess I'd still be waiting, like I did for five years," she said.

Any Safeguards?

It turns out Masha was not Mancuso's first victim. His ex-wife, Doreen McDade, and his 28-year-old daughter, Rachelle, told ABC News he had done this before. He had molested Rachelle as a child, they said.

"I feel so much guilt for what happened. When I first found out that he adopted a little girl I should have spoke up, I should have said something. I feel somehow responsible," Rachelle said.

But McDade and her daughter both say they were never contacted by adoption authorities. Instead, Mancuso's agency relied on a home study prepared by a Pittsburgh social worker. It states: "Mr. Mancuso is very capable, willing and well-prepared to provide a stable and loving home."

"It doesn't appear that they talked to anybody about Mancuso, that they simply took what Mancuso said to them at face value and placed this child with him," said Maureen Flatley, a lobbyist who specializes in adoption and child welfare.

She has also been hired by Masha's lawyer to find out how a pedophile could have adopted a young child.

Tom Atwood, president of the National Council on Adoption, says he saw the study that was performed on Mancuso, and said it was "fairly typical." But he adds that Masha's adoption is not defensible. "Something went wrong, clearly." Adoption experts are especially troubled by the fact that, according to Masha, there were no home visits when she got to Pittsburgh. Just one, they say should have turned up some disturbing details — like the fact that Masha had no bedroom.

"They sold her to a complete stranger. And let her go," Flatley said.

While post-placement supervision is required in Pennsylvania for domestic adoptions from foster care, no such law exists for international placement. And while more than $500 million has been spent on Russian adoptions since the fall of the Soviet Union, Flatley said, "The policy seems to be, if the check clears, the kid is yours."

Mancuso paid tens of thousands of dollars for his adoption of Masha. But Atwood said typically, "people do not provide adoption service for money. They are motivated by desiring to help children have families."

Jeannene Smith, the woman who arranged the adoption, refused to discuss the adoption, citing constraints in New Jersey law. But she issued a statement to ABC News, which said: "The unearthing of this horrific experience has further strengthened our resolve to advocate for policy and law enforcement tools to help prevent applicants with criminal motives from becoming adoptive parents in the future."

Light at the End of the Tunnel

Two weeks ago, in a courtroom in Allegheny County, Pa., Mancuso pleaded guilty as charged. The judge called it one of the most heinous cases of child abuse she had ever seen and sentenced him to a minimum of 35 years in prison.

He had already received a 15-year prison sentence in February 2004 on federal child pornography charges.

Prosecutors for the state of Florida have announced they too will try Mancuso for the crimes they say he committed against Masha on a visit to Disneyworld.

Mancuso has said nothing to Masha since he was sentenced. "He never apologized to me," she noted.

Meanwhile, his actions continue to victimize her. Her pictures are still out there. But she is bravely putting all that behind her. Now 13, she lives in a quiet suburb of another American city with her new adoptive mother.

She's said she's going public to give hope to other abused children out there.

"Even if they are afraid to tell somebody, no matter what they think is going to happen, it's going to be for the better," she said. "If they tell somebody, it's going to change."

 

 

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