Bhupendra Mane thought he was doing his friends a favour and setting up new parents for a cash windfall. But what looked like a lucrative casting call for a would-be Bollywood baby turned into a frantic search for a one-month-old infant and a "nightmare" the baby's father wouldn't wish on anybody.
Now, baby Roma safe, the New York model and singer charged with abduction in connection with the incident remains in police custody, having been denied bail in a brief court appearance Saturday.
Viral Patel, who works as a Web designer in Etobicoke, never intended to make his baby daughter a child star. "A one month baby? No, I didn't. It's not possible, it's not practical."
But when his wife Sejal got a call from a friend passing on a job offer that sounded too good to be true, he figured it was worth looking up. "This was just an opportunity: Somebody wants to shoot a movie, and they want to shoot a one-month-old baby girl."
Mr. Mane, who has done other modelling and acting work in the Toronto area, is used to checking the online wanted lists for gigs. A listing promising $15,000 for an Indian baby girl needed for a local Bollywood movie shoot seemed like any others.
"I always check Craigslist and all this stuff. … It's always been real," he said. "I sent the information on to some friends. I figure if they're getting $15,000 for a one-day shoot … somebody would get big money that day."
Mr. Mane got in touch with the woman who posted the ads on Craigslist - the display name from the e-mail responses came up as "Diane Miller." In e-mails Mr. Mane forwarded to The Globe, the woman asked for photos of the prospective infants. The baby in question had to be female, she wrote.
"For a boy he's the cutest thing," reads a Dec. 27 e-mail in response to a photo Mr. Mane had forwarded from a friend and parent of a two-week-old baby boy. "But we need a very, very cute little girl."
In response to another photo of a prospective baby sent Dec. 29, the woman identified as Diane Miller wrote, "she's cute, what's her background, she looks kind of like a boy?"
Mr. Mane, who had been working as middleman for the woman and prospective parents, got another e-mail Dec. 30:
"… bring the little girl in asap to Etobicoke," it read. "tell the parents only one person and bring her, we are not dealing with the drama. We just spent five hrs trying to screen this girl and the mother would not let us just take one picture."
Mr. Mane told The Globe he didn't know the woman and never met her.
The Patels didn't know that.
When Mr. Patel got the call Thursday, he was told to show up around 9:30 p.m. When he pressed Mr. Mane for more details, he was told to wait and ask in person. But he knew other couples - one of them from his own building - were going, and that assuaged some of his doubts.
Almost as soon as Mr. Patel walked into the building, Ms. Patel waiting in the car, the woman who called herself Diane "looked at my baby and said, 'She's perfect,' " he said.
As they were sitting in the adjoining room, he said, the woman asked to hold Roma. Mr. Patel agreed, and then was given a sheet of paper to write down his contact information.
"There was a door, like, three feet away from where I was sitting. She said, 'I am just taking the baby outside for an audition,' " Mr. Patel said.
When she didn't come back, Mr. Patel said, he went out the door to find that what he thought was just another room actually led to a front entrance he didn't know about. The woman, he said, was gone.
Once he found out via a panicked phone call what had happened, Mr. Mane says, he was beside himself.
"I was so scared I was crying. I was praying to god ... to bring that baby back."
A call to police and three agonizing hours later, Roma was back in her parents' arms. It was like getting his child back from the dead, Mr. Patel said.
"It was like Dec. 31 was her real birthday. … What can I say? For us, the big news is we got our baby back."
Michelle Marie Gopaul, 24, has been charged with abduction of a person under 14 years of age. She appeared in court at Toronto's Old City Hall Saturday, and was denied bail. Her next court appearance is Tuesday.