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“There is just nothing left of her.”

Karen de Sa reports a heartbreaking story of parental abuse and murder. The criminal father of a young girl received full custody during a divorce and ended up killing her. The method was particularly nefarious. Not only did he sexually abuse her, but he told everyone that the girl had run away.  The mother disagreed and thought something funny was going on, but she was unable to convince the police to investigate. Eventually, they did, and they later found the girl’s body in the backyard. image

Here are some infuriating things about this story:

  1. the fact that a convicted & violent  criminal would gain full custody seems very scary. I realize that some divorce/custody hearings leave no good options, but this seemed to be a situation that begged for strict oversight. 
  2. Economic disparities played a role. “Allen, a former assembly worker now working for a restaurant, was deemed unfit by the court. She had made a frank admission to feeling depressed after what she described as years of persecution by her children’s father. Prior to Chiarello’s decision, records show, Allen told the court she had fled multiple states to get away from Mesiti and even to Canada, where she and the children stayed in battered women’s shelters." But while Mesiti’s court filings were formal, typed responses from his private attorney, Allen’s pleading letters to judges were hand-written. She reluctantly agreed to sign off on the custody order —in large part, she says, because she could not afford to raise the children without the child support payments Mesiti had been ordered to make.
  3. Lack of follow through about runaways. Apparently this was considered a cold case. The murderer/father claimed he received calls from the girl. (But did anyone look at phone records?). In this day and age, it would seem easier to verify someone’s existence.  Just keep in contact with her 20 best friend on a monthly basis. For heaven’s sake, she had a myspace page. It doesn’t add up that a young person like that would just stop communicating with anybody and never be seen. Everyone at some time or another is going to use a cell phone. That should make it easier to trace “legitimate runaways” and make it easier it identify the truly missing.
  4. Lack of neighbor involvement. From a discussion board: "(The residents in the neighborhood) didn’t even know a girl was missing," Charlton said Friday. That is unsurprising given that the father was allegedly the murderer.  But why not have a rule: if a person is missing in a neighborhood, all people in a 1 mile square radius should be notified?
  5. The ex-wife and mother notified the police repeatedly that the story was fishy. “When Alycia disappeared in 2006, Allen said she never believed the girl had simply run off. "I knew in my heart of hearts that she was gone, but no one would listen to me. I was fighting with police, saying ‘She’s not a runaway, she’s a missing person!’" Allen recalled. "But the police stopped taking my calls. They said, ‘She’ll come home, she’ll come home…’"

Domestic violence expert Kathleen Krenek comments:

Mark Mesiti was awarded unsupervised custody in 2005, even though he had a lengthy criminal history including a domestic violence conviction. He violated his probation and was sent to prison. For the seven years previous to gaining custody of his daughter, he amassed a variety of charges. All were red flags. Welfare professionals and Alycia’s mother raised them during the custody battle.

The father was given custody after it was found that the mother was depressed — often the effect of battering — and therefore unfit to care for her daughter. As an alternative to this deadly decision, couldn’t we have wrapped the mom and her kids in supportive services and allowed them to heal together? Abuse is treatable. Homicide is not. Now healing will never happen for the remainder of this family.

I’ve worked with domestic violence for 25 years, and I understand the complexity of family law cases. But the errors in this case are too obvious to use complexity as an excuse.

Victims of domestic violence in family court often present their case without representation, while perpetrators often bring attorneys. The imbalance of power the perpetrators use at home to control the victims follows them into family court. When this imbalance exists, victims may not be able to effectively voice their concerns and articulate their needs. Often we don’t believe them. The myth that they are lying about their abuse to gain the upper hand continues to haunt the system.

This story is both shocking and outrageous.  I don’t want to sound too mad at the social services people; it’s way too easy to second-guess their decisions after the fact. However, is our society so callous that the disappearance of a young teenager no longer sets off alarm bells?

Thankfully, here’s a site called Help Find the Missing  that serves as a discussion board for missing people. If you go to the home page, you can see the current cold cases for your state (here is Texas). The problem with these cases is that the most vulnerable don’t get much media coverage unless there is something unusual about it. People die and disappear every day; so what! The people running this site  are amateur sleuths, but it serves a purpose of making it easy for strangers to find out information about this people and cases quickly. In some cases, a missing person may simply have decided to disappear or leave the country. It’s not impossible that the missing person himself or herself could be following the thread to see what the reaction is!  Each case reads like a mystery; unfortunately, the Alycia Mesiti story has a tragic ending. Before the net, it was next to impossible to follow these cold cases; now though a thread can lie dormant for weeks or months and suddenly become active. It’s reassuring to know that for many of the “solved mysteries,” the last page will contain the answer (good or bad).

On the other hand, there are dangers running such a site. Privacy concerns. It’s easy for outsiders to point the finger at obvious suspect without appreciating the complexity of the cases. (But making guesses in public can be fruitful). Also once these bulletin boards attract the interest of the concerned party, it can start containing leads and nonpublic information (and perhaps even misleading lies)..

I encourage people to follow missing person reports for their state. I looked at the faces on the Texas page and feel spooked (but glad someone is keeping track of them). You can look at the pages of “found safe” people and memorials,  The most frightening thing about  the Karen De Sa story was how traces of the dead person have disappeared:

Mesiti was in jail when his daughter’s memorial was held last month in a Cupertino chapel. During the service, a lifetime of classic childhood moments beamed from photos spanning her short decade-and-a-half: Alycia mugging in an oversized T-shirt, stirring a pot of macaroni and cheese and hugging a Snoopy doll. In the last photos, she posed for her 8th grade prom, a fleeting brush with adolescence.

For her part, Allen tosses endlessly most nights. She tries to stay focused on her last day with Alycia, when she and her daughter ate tuna sandwiches and splashed in a downtown San Jose fountain.

Their next encounter would be three years later at the Stanislaus County coroner’s office.

"I couldn’t even pick up her personal effects," Allen lamented. "There was nothing. There’s just nothing left of her.”

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