THE LITTLE GIRL WAS SCREAMING AND sobbing as her voice played back on the answering machine: "I've been kidnapped by a man with a knife, and oh, my God, here he comes..." Then the phone message stopped abruptly. Linda Inghilleri recognized the voice at once. It belonged In her goddaughter. Katie Beers, just two days shy of her 10th birthday. She was supposed to he with family friend John Esposito, spending the afternoon of Dec. 28 at a nearby indoor amusement park. But when Inghilleri telephoned Long Island's Spaceplex Family Fun Center, she learned the worst. Katie had disappeared—and a frantic Esposito was searching for her. "I'm sorry," he kept sobbing as he spoke to Inghilleri. "I'm sorry."

Immediately police in Suffolk County, N.Y., began an intense, highly publicized search for the 4-foot-tall girl with dark blond hair. But detectives strongly suspected Esposito, 43, from the start. Not only did they discover Katie's hat and coat in the back of his black Nissan pickup truck, they found her handbag in his house. Then they learned that Esposito, a building contractor, had a disturbing history. In 1977 he had pleaded guilty to attempting to abduct a 12-year-old boy from a Long Island shopping mall.

That was enough to launch what Det. Lt. Dominick Varrone freely ad-mils was "a campaign of intimidation." In a predawn raid on Dec. 31, police searched Esposito's home in Bay Shore, N.Y., but came up empty. Three or four cops followed Esposito round the clock, going everywhere he went, even up and down the aisles in the supermarket. They asked his twin brother, Ronald, to try to convince him to take a lie detector test. They even leaned on his lawyer. "We know your guy has her or knows where she is," one officer told attorney Andrew Siben. "He better start talking."

On Jan. 13, Esposito finally broke. He led police to the renovated garage behind his home, which he used as an office. Then, as startled detectives watched; he unscrewed four bolts holding a stereo cabinet in place and eased it out of the wall. Underneath was a rug covering a 200-pound concrete slab so heavy it had to be raised with a block and tackle. It sealed a vertical shaft leading to what can only be called a dungeon—a 6-foot-by-7-foot windowless chamber. Police called out Katie's name and, after what seemed like a very long time, heard her answer softly, "I'm here."

For 16 days the girl had been chained by the neck in a soundproof box—2 feet wide, 7 feet long and 3 feet high—that was mounted inside the chamber. Her only light was from a television set and from a closed-circuit monitor that showed what was going on inside the main house. The room was chilly and damp; moisture seeped through the walls. "This was straight out of Silence of the Lambs" says Clint Van Zandt, supervising agent of the FBI's behavioral sciences lab in Quantico, Va. "It was a prison from medieval times."

Every evening Esposito brought Katie salami sandwiches, pizza and diet soda and gave her enough freedom to go to the bathroom in a jury-rigged ; portable toilet lined with a black plastic bag. "Very often she couldn't hold herself [until Esposito showed up]," Varrone says, "And she relieved; herself under the TV." The stench was intense. Once, Esposito spent time with her watching America Most Wanted on television. The program that night was about her disappearance.

Esposito had dragged the screaming girl into the chamber after he tried to touch her sexually, police say. She had become upset and he panicked. In all, Katie spent 381 hours there, most of the time alone. She worried that she would never be found. And she wondered if stains she saw on the sheets meant other children had been there before her. But Katie, who had already had her share of life's hard knocks. was resourceful. "Sometimes I would think of this as a Home Alone game," Katie told police afterward. "Sometimes I would think about Dorothy [in The Wizard of Oz]. I would say, 'There's no place like home. There's no place like home.' "

For Katie Beers, home was no place for a child either. Indeed, caught between two barely functional families, she was the center of a grim drama devoid of the saving magic of fantasy. When she was 2 months old, her mother, Marilyn Beers, 43, a cab driver who admits she has no idea who Katie's father is, found taking care of her daughter so overwhelming that she gave Katie to a woman she had met in her cab—Linda Inghilleri, 39. For the next five years Linda and her boyfriend, Sal Inghilleri, 39, whom she eventually married, lived in a series of apartments. Then, in July 1988, Sal suffered a heart attack and the Inghilleris moved in with Marilyn Beers, her son, John, then ,11 and her mother, Helen Beers, who owned the house.

The place was squalid, filled with garbage and overrun by eats, roaches, even rats. Katie, then 6, had few friends. Other kids made fun of her because of her messy home, calling her "dirty Katie" and "the cockroach girl." "She was never clean, always underdressed," says Mary Ann Rio, a hairdresser in a nearby shopping center. "On the coldest days she'd wear a thin jacket, no hat, gloves—half the time she didn't have shoes."

Katie spent most of her time running errands for her extended family—especially for Linda, who was confined to a bedroom after losing a leg to complications from diabetes. Neighbors say that Linda would summon Katie by thumping on the floor so she could but cigarettes, candy and food. At least twice a day Katie did the laundry. "She was so tiny, but she was very independent," says Trudy Welsh, who works at the QT Laundromat in West Islip. "She used to stand on the wagons to reach the machines. I felt so sorry for her. She'd be here at 11 at night." Sometimes Katie would talk to Welsh over a cup of coffee. "I'd say, 'Katie, you're not old enough to drink coffee.' And she'd say, 'I've been drinking coffee since I was 4.' "

In 1990. Katie went shopping in a local supermarket but didn't have enough money to pay for the food. Police were called and took her home. After seeing how the family lived, I ho officers contacted child welfare authorities. Case workers visited but didn't find enough wrongdoing to intervene. Not long afterward, a bank foreclosed on Helen Beers's second mortgage and both families were evicted. Katie went with the Inghilleris to a rented bungalow in Bay Shore. There she had her own room, which was decorated in Disney: 101 Dalmatians bedspread, rug and drapes, Beauty and the Beast pictures on the wall. Sal, also a cab driver, says they were happy, but in January 1992 Marilyn Beers took Katie back, accusing Sal of molesting the girl. He was charged with first-degree sexual abuse and is expected to stand trial soon. He denies fondling Katie, but police say he signed a written confession.

Katie moved in with her mother, John and grandmother in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in a converted garage in Mastic Beach, 35 miles east of the Inghilleris. In September she began fourth grade but was soon sent home with head lice. Marilyn cut the girl's hair short and returned her to school, but she was sent home again—for the same reason. She never returned to class. She did, however, return to the Inghilleris, even though Sal was under a court order to keep away from the child. Katie stayed with Linda and Sal on weekends. It was then that she began seeing Esposito—even though Marilyn Beers had accused him of molesting John. Katie's half brother. She never filed formal charges.

Esposito was unmarried and always showering neglected kids with gifts and attention. He maintained a lavish recreation room—unlocked at all times—where kids could shoot pool, play video games and help themselves to bowls of candy. During the 1980s he had tried to join the Big Brothers/Big Sisters Program, but the organization turned him down when it found out about his criminal past. A few years later he reportedly put an ad in a local newspaper. volunteering as a Big Brother. "We thought he was weird," says Phil Vollaro, 17, who grew up down the block from Esposito. "He was nice, but he'd have mood swings.

On Dec. 28. the day Katie disappeared, Esposito promised to take her to Toys R Us and the Spaceplex center to celebrate her upcoming birthday. At the toy store he bought her a Barbie workout tape, a troll doll and a Home Alone 2 Nintendo video game. Their next stop was a 7-Eleven, where a video camera caught Katie buying a Slurpee with a $5 bill and putting the change in her small purse. From there they went to Esposito-home, where he tried to fondle and kiss her. When she became upset, he locked her in the dungeon he had secretly built 18 months before, just after his mother died and he was alone in the house for the first time. There he forced Katie to make the fake kidnapping tape, which he played over a pay phone at a nearby service station. Then, police say, he raced to the indoor amusement park and began a show of looking for Katie.

Near the end of her confinement, Katie told police, she tried to trick Esposito into releasing her. "I told John that I was sick and I had to see a doctor. He said, 'You're going to have to wait.' And he left." She never expected to see him again. "Before he left, he told me that he was going to hang himself and leave a note on him and police would find me." But he went to his lawyers instead, and they called the police. Now, indicted on 11 counts of kidnapping and sexual abuse, Esposito is in an isolated cell, held on $1.1 million bail. Siben; his attorney, says Esposito is depressed: "He's tired, looks like he lost a lot of weight and is having a very difficult time."

Now that Katie has been released, things are looking up for her. She is in a temporary foster home and has already enrolled in school. Meanwhile, a family court is deciding whether Marilyn Beers is fit to raise her. But perhaps more important is the simple fact Katie Beers is alive, something police attribute to the harshness of her life. "She's a feisty little girl," says Detective Varrone. "Some of the things she's been through helped her survive."

JOE TREEN
MARIA EFTIMIADES on Long Island

  • Contributors:
  • Maria Eftimiades.