A girl to keep in his secret dungeon: The man who reported little Katie Beers missing was, it appears, her captor all along. Keith Botsford reports

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Indy Lifestyle Online
KATIE BEERS, aged 10, is the talk of all America. She is the subject of films and books in the making; she has a sheriff as her agent; she receives the sympathy of millions. This little girl was, on 16 January, released after 16 days as a prisoner in a box two metres long, 65cm wide and 90cm high, suspended from the ceiling of a secret cell in the home of John Esposito, a 43-year-old building contractor. He allegedly held her prisoner in his private dungeon and sexually abused her.

Esposito reported Katie missing just after Christmas, after an outing to an amusement arcade. The police searched his house, because he was the last person to have seen the child. Katie saw the police on a video monitor, but was unable to attract their attention. So there she stayed.

The cell was underneath an addition to the garage of Esposito's home in a well-off part of Long Island. To find it you had to go into Esposito's office, which contained, besides the usual desk and calendar, a bookcase.

This is not just an ordinary bookcase. It has two wheels at the back. Although it doesn't have many books, it is heavy. Four long screws have to be taken out before it can be moved.

Under the bookcase is a carpet, under the carpet, foam matting, under the matting linoleum tile, and on the tile is a strip of velcro. Another strip of velcro is attached to the wall, so that you can hold the linoleum up out of the way. Esposito is a handyman, and this is the way to dreams.

Under the linoleum is a slab of concrete. You pull on two chains and up comes the slab. You have almost arrived. All you have left now is a trapdoor and a two-metre long shaft heading down. Then a door in the wall. Then another two-metre corridor, and a battery-powered wrench with which to open another door. Beyond that door is paradise, the secret garden.

Down that shaft, and past those doors, went Katie Beers.

Katie's life had been going down a tunnel from the start. The child of an unknown father ('I was out drinking one night,' her mother, Marilyn, said, 'and . . . well, it just happened, so crucify me'), she was brought up by a trio of women: her unemployed mother, her godmother and her grandmother, Helen, whose contact with the child was limited to banging her cane on the floor when she needed an errand run.

Katie, a bright, outgoing, almost excessively polite girl who liked school, spent much of her time on the streets in this seaside commuter suburb near New York, fetching beer and junk food for her various 'families'. She dealt with adult men daily: she liked them, reciprocated their friendship. They said she was very grown-up for a little girl. To one man, a florist, she gave a hand- painted tulip she'd made; to a local grocer, she exclaimed: 'You're a nice man, Omar.'

Esposito was one of those grown-up inmates in her fantasy search for a missing father. He was self-employed; reclusive; probably sexually immature, apparently never having dated, much less married. Esposito is a cipher: one of the many who, in America's leafy suburbs, never rise to the surface - men who are known, and also not known. Three weeks have gone by since the kidnapping with which Esposito is charged, but no details of his life have surfaced. His own lawyer knows no more than that he is suicidal, and in jail reads the Bible.

The few landmarks in Esposito's life run to a pattern: they involve children. Fifteen years ago he pleaded guilty to unlawful imprisonment, involving a seven- year-old boy he took into his home. 'I just wanted a friend,' he said. In 1988, he applied to become a 'Big Brother', a member of a voluntary organisation in which an adult 'adopts' a troubled child. Esposito was refused when he admitted his conviction.

But children figure in his life. They played ball in his yard, he hung around swimming pools, he gave elaborate and expensive presents. In a word, he cherished a generalised childhood, and one can guess he did so either because he did not have an innocent one himself, or he did, and had since lost it.

Katie lived not far from Esposito, in a poorer quarter. On the eve of Katie's 10th birthday, the two met, as they had often met before. Stopping on the way for crushed-ice drinks, a toy shop and an amusement arcade - from which he was to tell police she 'disappeared' - he took her to his home, where she, appropriately, played a 'home alone' video game. At that point, her evidence is that 'he started kissing me'. The kisses may have been naturally affectionate; they may have been no more than that.

But then he went to work on his bookcase, unrolled his rug and took her down to her cell, where he may or may not have fondled her (he has not admitted to charges of sex abuse). On the second day, terrified of discovery, and because Katie was banging on the ceiling, 'he handcuffed me and had a chain around my neck'.

Once a day, Esposito brought her junk food; she asked him to come twice a day; he said he couldn't. She said she was sick and needed a doctor; Esposito said she'd have to wait. He let her out to a lavatory outside her box once a day; some of the time she could not hold off that long and soiled her mattress and sheet.

Then Esposito broke down and led the police to her hideaway; she was rescued and placed in a foster home, and has gone back to school.

Much piety is being put about, concerning 'latchkey kids' and Long Island Lolitas, the breakdown of family values, child abuse, the failure of the state to protect the young. But in truth, there is never just one victim. Esposito suffers from his own inadequacies and his need for companionship and affection. Late 20th-century life is a transaction, sex its currency.

Katie and Esposito were friends, familiars, and in a way peculiar to their desperate situations, allies. But nothing could have led Katie to expect that Big John would step beyond the established complicity of their relationship. True, the worst did not happen, which is fortunate; equally true, the bond of trust between them was broken, which is tragic. The responsibility for breaking it was Esposito's, but it is no less tragic for that.

(Photograph omitted)