A Little Girl Buried Alive

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A LOT OF PEOPLE SENSED THERE was something wrong in the life of 10-year-old Katie Beers. No one seemed in a position to do much about it. To the neighbors in West Islip, a Long Island suburb, she was the wide-eyed little girl who roamed the streets at all hours, sometimes coatless in the winter. Child- protection authorities had built up a fat dossier on her makeshift family. They knew that sometimes Katie stayed with her unmarried mother in a filthy, roach-infested house where rusted cars and an old refrigerator decorated the lawn. But sometimes she was in the charge of her godmother, who summoned the girl to run errands by pounding on the floor of the bedroom where she spent much of the day.

Then there was John Esposito, a 43-year-old family friend, who lavished gifts on Katie and her teenage half-brother. On Dec. 28, Esposito reported that Katie had vanished from a video-game arcade where they had gone together. He didn't say he was the one who abducted her. Last week the girl was rescued from a small underground chamber where Esposito had kept her hidden for 16 days. Most of that time, Katie was kept in a coffinlike loft, 2 ft. by 3 ft., that contained a mattress, pillows and a television; often, she was chained by the neck. Every day Esposito brought his prisoner meals. Police suspect that sometimes he stayed to fondle her.

After weeks under a close police watch, a frightened Esposito finally directed investigators to the soundproof bunker. Authorities who later questioned the girl said she told them she was forced into the room after refusing sexual advances from Esposito. Katie "told us she was screaming when she was thrust into this," said Detective Lieut. Dominick Varrone.

An independent contractor, Esposito quietly built the chamber 18 months ago beneath his home, a converted garage behind the house where he grew up. So well concealed that police posted on the property did not suspect it was there, the room could be reached only by using a block and tackle to lift a 200-lb. concrete trapdoor hidden beneath a carpet. Then it was necessary to climb down a 7-ft. ladder to a narrow passage that led to the mini-dungeon. Though it had only a camp toilet, the room was equipped with ventilation and a closed-circuit TV that enabled Esposito to keep an eye on his living quarters upstairs.

While a suburban childhood was never so idyllic as baby-boomer folklore would have it, it was never supposed to be anything like Katie's, in a fractured family with sexual predators circling at the edges. Her mother Marilyn Beers, 43, wasn't married to the girl's father and says she is not even sure who he is. When Katie was two months old, Beers handed her off to Linda Inghilleri, 39, a godmother who became a surrogate parent, though by some reports not much of one. From first grade on, Katie was absent from school much of the time. She spent many days instead doing laundry and shopping. Inghilleri sent her out regularly for candy, takeout food and cigarettes.

In recent years the two women squabbled over custody of the girl. Last year Marilyn Beers took her back for some time after accusing Inghilleri's husband Sal, 39, of sexually molesting the child. With his trial pending, Sal Inghilleri says the allegation is a ploy to prevent his now estranged wife from gaining custody.

Last year Katie's mother also lodged a complaint with police against John Esposito, saying that she suspected him of molesting her son John, 16, a claim that he now supports. During the investigation into Katie's disappearance, it emerged that in the late 1970s Esposito pleaded guilty to the attempted abduction of a seven-year-old boy from a shopping mall. In 1988 he applied to join the Big Brothers/Big Sisters organization, which offers role models to children from single-parent homes. When suspicious officials turned him down, he used a supermarket bulletin board to offer himself as a freelance mentor.

Last week Esposito pleaded not guilty to second-degree kidnapping in Katie's case. Police are searching the area around his home for signs that he may have used his dungeon to imprison other children. After Katie's rescue, child- welfare authorities went to court seeking an order to keep the girl from returning to her mother, who has promised to fight to regain custody. "I love her and can't wait for her to get back home," said Beers. To dramatize her own custody claim, Linda Inghilleri hung yellow ribbons on her house.

Suddenly, the girl whom no one seemed to take responsibility for is much in demand. Listen carefully, and you can hear the clicking of car phones as agents rush to sign up TV-movie rights. The scriptwriters will have a field day with Katie's worst moment, on New Year's Eve, when she sat chained in her dungeon, watching on the closed-circuit television as police searched for her upstairs. "I yelled for them," she reportedly told police after her release. "But they couldn't hear me." That's been her problem all her life.