A teenager who was adopted by a pedophile and endured years of Internet-distributed sexual torment -- tracked from afar by the Toronto police sex-crimes unit -- pleaded yesterday with U.S. legislators for laws to help govern cyberspace.
"If we can put a man on the moon, we can make the Net safe for kids," 13-year-old Masha Allen told the House subcommittee on oversight and investigation in Washington.
As bad as the abuse the Russian-born girl suffered after being adopted for cash by an American pedophile is the knowledge that hundreds of pictures depicting her degradation still circulate around the world.
"For five years I was held hostage by a monster," Masha testified.
Wearing spectacles and speaking in a soft American accent, she read from a searing prepared statement that was packed with horror and raised startling questions about international adoption procedures.
Masha spoke of being born in Russia to a father who abandoned her and an alcoholic mother who once stabbed her in the neck, and of living in an orphanage where "no one ever came to check on me."
In July of 1998, she was five years old, she told the committee, when the friendly man from Plum, Pa., about 20 kilometres from Pittsburgh, showed up to adopt her.
"The abuse started the night I got [to the United States] He made me sleep in his bed from the very beginning. He molested me all the time. . . . He even pretended to marry me. . . . And he told me that if I ever told about what was happening to me, something bad would happen to me."
No one in Pennsylvania ever inquired about how she was faring in her new home, she testified -- even though it was a requirement under the Russian adoption agreement.
"And there are a lot of other kids like me too," she said. "But no one seems to care about this."
Masha's face was one the Toronto police sex-crimes unit knew for years, before finally discovering the child's identity.
As the 11-officer staff struggled to keep track of the child sex abuse mushrooming on the Internet, they first learned of Masha late in 2003 through a British detective who had duplicated the pictures from an underground Internet newsgroup.
She looked to be about 6, and Detective Sergeant Paul Gillespie later described the hundreds of images of degradation and torture as among "the worst we've ever seen."
The pictures had been shot in a variety of locations, including one that looked like a North American resort hotel.
Sensing an emergency, Det. Sgt. Gillespie and colleagues took a bold and unprecedented step: In February of 2005, they released pictures of the hotel, but with Masha's image deleted, in hopes that someone could recognize the furniture, decor or a nearby fountain.
They also released photos of a different young girl, thought to have been a witness in the abuse.
It worked. Within minutes of the pictures being broadcast on the Toronto Police Service website and several television stations, two telephone callers had identified the location as Disney World, in Orlando.
That prompted the Florida State Police to pitch in, and within a few weeks a match was made between the pictures of Masha and images stored in the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the principal U.S. clearing house for Internet sex crimes.
From there, a semi-satisfactory ending to the story emerged.
Masha, as it turned out, had been rescued two years earlier by a suburban Chicago detective, who, through tracking child pornography on the Net, located divorced engineer Matthew Mancuso in Plum.
When the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation raided Mr. Mancuso's home in May of 2003, agents had expected to find child pornography, which they did. But they also found the 10-year-old Russian-born girl, for whom Mr. Mancuso had paid $15,000.
The sexual abuse began on her first night in her new home. Masha told the subcommittee yesterday it never ceased. Not only did he rape and torture her, he also sold at least 200 pictures of the abuse on the Net.
Mr. Mancuso went so far as to limit his captive's food intake so she would look even younger than she was, she testified yesterday, noting that her image is prized among child-porn collectors.
In November of 2005, Mr. Mancuso -- who had also molested his biological daughter -- was sentenced to 35 to 70 years in prison. That was on top of 15 years he received a year earlier for child-pornography offences.
Now 46 years old and in a Massachusetts facility for sex offenders, he is unlikely ever to be released, authorities say.
"A person like Matthew can never be rehabilitated," Masha told the subcommittee, voicing concern about the comforts and privileges her tormentor receives, and regret he was not jailed longer.
Yesterday was not the first time Masha had spoken out. Now living in Douglasville, Ga., with a new family, she has appeared on television shows, including The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Prompted in large part by what happened to her, federal legislation dubbed Masha's Law, has been introduced in the U.S. Senate.
The new law would triple to $150,000 the penalty for downloading child porn. It would also allow victims, upon reaching 18, to sue anyone who buys, sells or distributes pictures of them as children.