Eleven years after her abduction and torture by a child predator, a brave young woman is on a mission to inform youth about the very real dangers of online sexual predators.
Photo by Becky Thurner Braddock
Alicia Kozakiewicz went to hell. If she closes her eyes, she can still picture it, hear it, even smell it. Despite what Dante and the ancient Greeks say, hell isn’t a gloomy, subterranean river. Hell is a townhouse in Northern Virginia overrun with cats, comic books and computers. That’s where, for four days in the winter of 2002, Kozakiewicz, then 13, was held captive by a 38-year-old man who abducted her from outside her parents’ house in Pittsburgh. He met her in a Yahoo chat room. According to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, Kozakiewicz should be dead. But like the hero in every epic story since Homer’s The Odyssey, Kozakiewicz managed to escape from the underworld, returning home with newfound strength, wisdom and purpose.
All of this is obvious when you meet her in person — although her appearance and attitude come as a surprise. It is hard to imagine that the stylish, confident 24-year-old, smiling and posing for a picture with TV star Joe Manganiello (of HBO’s “True Blood”) at a party honoring powerful women in the region, experienced the trauma that she did. But as former U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan, whose office coordinated Kozakiewicz’s dramatic rescue and convicted her abductor, puts it: “Alicia is not a victim of child abuse; she is a survivor.”
Kozakiewicz says that her kidnapper, Scott Tyree, a divorced computer programmer now serving a 19-year prison sentence, “stole my innocence.” But, she stresses, he could not take away her will to live, not even as he starved, beat and sexually assaulted her for four days in a basement dungeon stocked with knives, whips, chains and a cage.
Like most teens, Kozakiewicz had been awkward and shy. She weighed only 90 pounds. But in the darkness of Tyree’s basement, she found her courage.
“On the fourth day, I remember thinking, Today is the day I have to fight, and it’s probably going to kill me. I’m probably not going to make it out of this alive, but I am not going down without a fight.” Later that day, when Tyree was at work, Kozakiewicz heard crashing on the front door, “and I hear men screaming, ‘We have guns! We have guns!’” As armed men swarmed the house, “I saw the most beautiful letters in the alphabet: F-B-I, in bold yellow on the backs of their jackets, and I knew I was safe.”
How did she get there in the first place? Former prosecutor Buchanan calls it “grooming.” Tyree didn’t break into the Kozakiewicz house in Crafton Heights to nab her; he broke into her mind. During the eight months they corresponded online, he easily manipulated her.
“He behaved as if he were somebody my age,” Kozakiewicz says, “talking to me about my favorite things back then — the Spice Girls, the Backstreet Boys, the movie Titanic. He became my best friend.” Kozakiewicz explains further: “He took my side no matter what. It made me feel like I was doing the right thing, that I was a good person. He made me feel beautiful and special and unique and important — like I meant something.”
In contrast to that constant validation, “you have people telling you all the time when you are that age, ‘Oh, your skirt’s ugly. Your grades are bad. Your room’s a mess.’ Normal things to hear, but they don’t feel good. And then there’s someone who makes you feel good all of the time.”
But Tyree’s psychological ploy wasn’t just to build Kozakiewicz’s self-esteem. He also sought to alienate her from those closest to her, including her mother, Mary, a stay-at-home mom, and her father, Charles, a car salesman. Child predators like this “make your parents look like they are terrible,” she explains, “and your friends look like they’re not your friends — because he’s always the one making you feel good about yourself.”
Looking back, Kozakiewicz says she now understands “how strong grooming is,” likening the process to “brainwashing.” For example, as a child, she was “scared of the dark, hated cold weather and never went outside alone after dark, ever.”
But on New Year’s Day of 2002 — “one of the coldest, darkest, iciest nights of the year” — Alicia slipped outside to meet Tyree, who drove in from Virginia. On some level, she knew that meeting him was dangerous. Her fear was quickly confirmed, as he grabbed her by the arm, pulled her into his car and warned her that “there’s space for you in the trunk if you give me trouble.”
After that, the clock was ticking for authorities desperately trying to find her alive. Their success was a combination of hard work and good luck. Tyree, as Buchanan recalls, had been careless enough to brag online that “he’d finally got a teen sex slave.” He showed a user a picture of a bound and naked Kozakiewicz in his house.
That man had heard about a missing girl from Pittsburgh, recognized her face and called the FBI. The informant told investigators that Kozakiewicz’s captor's online username was “slave master for teen girls,” one unknown to Kozakiewicz. It was a helpful start, but it still was not enough to find Tyree.
To pinpoint his location, officials needed his Internet Protocol (or “IP”), the unique address given to every computer accessing the internet. With no time to appear before a magistrate to get a warrant for Yahoo’s records, Buchanan and the feds relied on a provision of the Patriot Act that allows the government to search electronic records without a warrant in “exigent circumstances” involving imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury. They roused a Yahoo executive in California in the middle of the night by phone and got the location — Herndon, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C.
Later that day, Kozakiewicz would be rescued and Tyree placed in cuffs before being extradited to Pittsburgh.
He pleaded guilty in 2003 to the federal crimes of traveling in interstate commerce for the purpose of engaging in a sexual act with a minor and transporting a minor in interstate commerce with the intent to engage in sexually explicit conduct. He was sentenced to 19 years in prison. Tyree appealed, and in an opinion authored by federal appellate judge (and former Pennsylvania First Lady) Marjorie Rendell, his sentence was upheld.
As Tyree began serving time, Kozakiewicz plunged back into her life. After high school, she studied psychology and forensics at Point Park University, inspired by the FBI agents who saved her.
After graduation, she went to work at Carnegie Mellon University’s Software Engineering Institute, mixing psychology and computer science to help identify people who could threaten a business from the inside.
She has a serious boyfriend, a handsome 28-year-old who runs his own Chicago-based trading research firm. She declined to give his name, noting, though, that her boyfriend had not heard her story before they met, allowing her a fresh start.
One year after her ordeal, at 14, Kozakiewicz started accepting invitations to speak to teen audiences, warning them that as “an average girl, what happened to me could happen to you if you don’t protect yourself online.”
Now 24, she’s still taking that message to school assemblies, Girl Scout troops and other youth groups across the country and Canada. She’s lost track of the number of kids she’s met — “thousands and thousands.”
Her parents, although supportive of her decision, asked her to weigh the costs and benefits of reliving her experience. “Are you OK with not feeling like a super hero?” her father once asked her. “What you are doing is preventative, so you might not know the difference that you make. They’re not likely going to be rescued like you were. You’re stopping them from being hurt. Are you OK with that? Are you OK with not knowing?’”
Kozakiewicz knew the answer. “I said, ‘I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through, and if I can stop that with one child, that’s all that matters.’ No matter how many kids I talk to, that’s always been the motto — just one,” she says, quoting from the Talmud — “to save one life is to save the entire world.”
That decision to speak out makes Kozakiewicz remarkable, says Lucy Berliner, director of the Harborview Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress at the University of Washington. According to Berliner, child victims of sexual abuse and rape have higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder than people who experience other types of trauma, and they more often develop persistent psychological conditions. “By definition, everyone cannot be exceptional,” says Berliner. “But people like Alicia, for whatever reason, have something extraordinary that they bring to bear on their extreme experiences, not just in terms of how they have overcome, but in their commitment to act on behalf of others.
“What they do so well is face up unflinchingly to the reality of their experience, no glossing over or minimizing, and they have found a way to create a narrative for what the experience means.” Their story not only helps others, Berliner says, but also allows them to put the experience in the past and look forward to a good life. “The difference with these survivors is that they cure themselves,” she says.
Kozakiewicz’s talking cure doesn’t just involve speaking to teens. She also has asked government officials for increased funding and resources to combat cybercrimes against children. On October 17, 2007, at age 19, Kozakiewicz testified before the entire House Judiciary Committee, warning Congress that “I found that the boogeyman is real — and he lives on the Web. He lived in my computer, and he lives in yours. While we are sitting here, he is at home with your children.”
Camille Cooper, director of legislative affairs for PROTECT, a nonprofit advocacy group for the prevention of child abuse that has teamed up with Kozakiewicz to push new legislation, recalled that Kozakiewicz’s appearance on Capitol Hill was extremely compelling. “She brought the House Judiciary Committee to tears — even the men,” Cooper recalls. “She speaks truth to power.”
That power has been seen at work in states like Virginia, which added $1.5 million in its budget to fund computer investigations of adults who share child pornography or engage children online for sex. Virginia created the Alicia’s Law Fund, a mandatory penalty assessed to every single felony and misdemeanor conviction in state court that aids those investigations. Since 2008, Cooper reports that $5.6 million has been distributed to Virginia law enforcement and social services under Alicia’s Law and, as a result, arrests for internet-related child crimes are up 200 percent.
In Pennsylvania, a version of Alicia’s Law, House Bill 2100, has been introduced by State Rep. Dan Deasy (D-Allegheny) and is currently in committee. The bill would require the Attorney General to report all leads of suspected traffickers of child-abuse images to local law-enforcement agencies within 24 hours.
Bruce Beemer, a career prosecutor and the Attorney General’s chief of staff, calls the legislation “very well-intentioned but impractical.” He notes that most local departments don’t possess the training or expertise to follow up on these leads and — even if they did — the bill “makes the assumption that an IP address establishes a case. You still have a lot of investigation to do before you can arrest a particular person in a house where a computer contains an illegal image.” If the officers aren’t trained properly, says Beemer, they could harm an ongoing investigation. However, the projected full Alicia’s Law of Pennsylvania will enable the creation of those specially trained law-enforcement teams.
No matter what comes of Alicia’s Law in Pennsylvania, Kozakiewicz says she will continue speaking to young audiences, regardless of the cost. “It’s not easy. It’s really hard to stand up there and speak and share my story,” she explains. “There are times when I break down in tears and want to give it all up and think to myself, I can’t do this anymore.
“And then I go out to give a talk, and a child tells me that they will change what they’re doing online and better protect themselves.” When that happens, Kozakiewicz’s reaction is always the same: “When’s the next one?”
PM contributor Geoffrey W. Melada, a trial lawyer, served as Allegheny County Assistant District Attorney from 2007-2011.