His sweaty hand squeezed her hand tightly as they made the five-hour drive to his home, saying things like, “Shut up. Be good. The trunk’s cleaned out for you.” Terrified, 13-year-old Alicia Kozakiewicz wondered how she might escape or if she would live to see her family again. Finally, late that night, Scott Tyree arrived with his captive at his home in Herndon, Virginia. He escorted her to his cold basement. There she could see sadistic devices hanging on the wall. And over the next several days Tyree would rape her, beat her, and share images of his new sex slave to his buddies over the internet.
It has been 10 years since Tyree abducted Alicia outside her home on New Year’s Day, 2002. As she told me the details of her story, she never once said his name. She only referred to him as “the monster.” She recounted for me the details of her four-day-long nightmare.
But for Alicia, the story doesn’t begin the day of her abduction. It begins months earlier in a chat room. Parents, you won’t want to miss what she has to say.
Groomed for Abduction
Earlier in 2001, Alicia met “Christine,” a red-haired 14-year-old girl, online. They became very close, sharing secrets, problems, and girlhood crushes. To the lonely, bored Alicia, Christine represented what she really wanted in a good friend. Even after finding out that “Christine” was really a 31-year-old man named John, this only shook her for a few hours before continuing communication with him. After all, he had been a good friend to her, hadn’t he?
John introduced Alicia to Scott Tyree. He too was thoughtful, gentle, courteous, and respectful. He seemed to be there for her, waiting on the other end of her computer whenever she needed him. If she got in a fight with her mom, Tyree was there to take her side. If she got a bad grade, Tyree was there to validate her intelligence. When she got in a fight with friends at school, he was there to be a friend when it seemed no one else was. Slowly, for over half a year, Tyree played on Alicia’s teenage vulnerabilities until she was convinced she needed him.
As time went on, Tyree introduced more and more sexual topics into their online conversations. She began parroting back to him the things she thought he wanted to hear. Words were exchanged. Photos were sent. At times they would instant message each other through the night. Facilitated by the anonymity of the internet, bit by bit Tyree chiseled away at Alicia’s inhibitions.
The process is called grooming. “Grooming is essentially brainwashing,” Alicia told me. “It is taking you apart bit by bit, and putting you back together into who this person wants you to be.” Grooming is “a premeditated behavior intended to secure the trust and cooperation of children prior to engaging in sexual conduct,” says Dr. Raymond Choo, Senior Lecturer at the University of Southern Australia. Offenders, he says, “take a particular interest in their child victim to make them feel special,” and then over time introduce a sexual element to the relationship, desensitizing the child to sexual topics and behavior.
Grooming is something child predators have done since before the days of the World Wide Web, but as Alicia sadly learned, the internet has become another medium for predators to groom potential victims.
Related: 3 Ways to Safeguard Your Kids from Unseen Internet Dangers
The Million-to-One Rescue
“He was very abusive and extremely sadistic,” Alicia shared with me. “He was an absolute monster: the kind you would watch in a horror movie. He was terrifying and completely overpowering in every single way.”
The morning of January 4, Alicia was chained to the floor with a leather collar around her neck. Before leaving for work at Computer Associates International, Tyree looked into her eyes and said, “Alicia, I’m beginning to like you too much. Tonight we’re going to go for a ride.” Alicia believed this would be the last day of her life.
But Tyree had made one fatal error. The night of her abduction, shortly after arriving home, Tyree posted an instant message to an online friend in Tampa, Florida: “I got one.” He then posted a picture of Alicia using his webcam. At first the man believed it was fake, but later went to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette website and found a story about a missing girl along with Alicia’s photo. He knew then Tyree was serious. Later Tyree sent images of Alicia with her arms bound above her head, being beaten, and she was crying.
The Florida man called the FBI the evening of January 3 from a payphone, saying he had information about a missing girl. The next morning the informant called back and gave investigator’s Tyree’s Yahoo screen name: “masterforteenslavegirls.” Using this information, investigators reached a Yahoo vice president in California requesting the IP (Internet Protocol) address. And after placing a call to Verizon representatives in Texas, at 11:30 a.m. they finally learned his name: Scott William Tyree.
It was around 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Tyree was due home any minute. Alicia remembers the moment she heard the pounding at the door. Frightened and traumatized, she crawled under the bed to hide. “We have guns! We have guns!” she heard. Entering her room they found her, stood her up, and draped her in a coat to cover her nakedness. And then—as she says in her 2007 testimony before Congress—”Then I saw the most beautiful letters in the alphabet—FBI—in bold yellow on the backs of their jackets. And I knew that I was safe.”
Scott Tyree was arrested the same day at his place of employment. He is now serving a 19-year prison sentence.
Could It Happen to Your Kids?
It has been a decade since Alicia’s abduction and rescue. After much therapy and years of healing, Alicia decided to start speaking about her experiences to teens. She’s been in countless classrooms and school assemblies. She’s helped out with educational films for the FBI, Enough is Enough, PBS, and the Pennsylvania Attorney General, to name just a few. She’s taken her message everywhere from Oprah to U.S. legislators.
Alicia’s story may seem fantastic—like something we might see on Law and Order: SVU or a made-for-TV movie. In many ways it is fantastic, but there are also elements of Alicia’s story that are very typical of online predation.
Alicia knows by experience she is not an anomaly. In her travels to schools all over the country, she has met many teens who, like herself, have started venturing into risky relationships online.
Thanks to research funded by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and the Department of Justice, hundreds of case level interviews have been conducted concerning sexual offenses against minors that started with online encounters. The first wave of this research concerned cases in late 2000 and early 2001 (shortly before Alicia’s own abduction).
- Like Alicia, who was 13 at the time, most victims (75%) were ages 13-15 years old. None were younger than 12.
- Like Tyree, most (95%) did not try to pass themselves off as minors online. Some predators (25%) shaved a few years off their true age, but still said they were adults.
- Like Alicia, most victims (61%) did not come from broken homes, but rather lived with both biological parents.
- Like Tyree, most offenders (64%) spoke with their victims online for more than a month before meeting face-to-face.
- Like Alicia, most victims (76%) first meet their offender in a chat room.*
- Like Tyree, most offenders (80%) brought up sexual topics with their victims online, and in only 21% of cases did the offender lie about their sexual interest in the victim.
One major difference between Alicia’s story and most other cases of predation is the level of brutality and violence. Only 5% of cases 10 years ago involved any violence or the threat of violence, and only 3% involved abduction. In most cases (83%) the victim chose to go somewhere with their offender after meeting face-to-face, and most victims (73%) willingly met with their offender on more than one occasion. In fact, half of the cases involved teens who, after the offender’s arrest, said they still felt close to or in love with their offender. Most cases of online predation are cases of statutory rape.
In other words, as far as her abduction and sadistic rape is concerned, cases like Alicia’s are somewhat rare. But as far as her online interactions with Tyree are concerned, Alicia’s case is a prototype. Most cases of predation are not violent sex crimes, says Dr. David Finkelhor, Director of the Crimes against Children Research Center (CCRC). “But they are criminal seductions that take advantage of common teenage vulnerabilities. The offenders lure teens after weeks of conversations with them, they play on teens’ desires for romance, adventure, sexual information, understanding, and they lure them to encounters that the teens know are sexual in nature with people who are considerably older than themselves.”
Dr. Finkelhor says what puts kids most in danger is being willing to talk about sex online with strangers. Kids who have a pattern of multiple risky activities online, like meeting lots of people through online text or video chat, are most at risk. Kids must avoid “behaving like an internet daredevil,” Finkelhor says. Like Alicia, these could be the shy kids looking for someone to meet. Many of them are kids who have a lot of conflicts at home or at school. Many struggle with loneliness or depression. To these kids, a warm, affirming relationship with an adult can seem very attractive. Mix in teenage sexual inquisitiveness, and the disinhibition effect of the Internet, and you have a recipe for disaster.
Beyond Predators: Children Used for Pornography
As I spoke with her, what seemed to be on Alicia’s mind were the countless children who are enduring brutal sexual abuse, at the hands of strangers or (more likely) people they know. She asked me, “If somebody told you that the little girl down the street was being raped, would we do nothing about it?”
Some like Alicia are taken from their homes, trafficked across states or national lines, where they are either used as sex slaves or prostituted in underground brothels. Also like Alicia, images of these children are shared online.
Nonetheless, this kind of sexual brutality is far more commonly committed by perpetrators in a child’s own family or social circle. Researchers at the CCRC state that in spite of all media attention online predators have received, “offenders who victimize children and youth within their families or networks of acquaintances are much more common than those who use the internet to meet victims.”
The Wyoming Attorney General’s Office produced a map showing the locations of half-a-million identified individuals who are trafficking in images of child pornography. Sharing this with me, Alicia was quick to correct this label: “These are actually crime scene images of child rape. I think the term ‘child pornography’ waters it down a bit.” Moreover, one in three dots on the map marks the location of a hands-on child abuser.
This map was introduced as evidence to the House Judiciary Committee by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla. “Law enforcement knows who they are and where they are,” Wasserman Schultz said. “What shocked me the most and what compelled me to get involved in this issue is that due to a lack of resources, law enforcement is investigating less than 2 percent of these known 500,000 individuals.”
This is why Alicia has been traveling throughout the country to convince legislators to pass what has become known as “Alicia’s Law.” Having passed in Virginia and Texas, Alicia is now going after the 48 others states. This law provides law enforcement agencies the resources needed to fight crimes against children, especially when related to trafficking and child pornography.
Alicia has also helped to spearhead the Not One More Child campaign. Hoping for more immediate action, she is petitioning President Obama and the 50 state governors to declare a state of emergency to do something about the untold thousands of kids suffering at the hands of traffickers and child pornographers.
“I certainly believe that I was rescued for a reason,” Alicia told me. As my interview with her ended, my heart was heavy, but not nearly as burdened as Alicia felt for the children who have yet to be rescued. More than anyone, she knows something of their nightmare. “They stand beside me,” she said, “the voices who’ve been silenced by fear, by shame, by the grave.”
* When “wave 2” of this research was completed in 2006, one notable change was the new use of social networking sites as a medium for predators to communicate with their victims. These sites were largely uncommon when Alicia was 13. But it is important to note that none of the cases studied involved an unknowing victim who was stalked and abducted merely because of personal information posted on their social network profile. Rather, whereas victims would typically use chat rooms to meet strangers 10 years ago, today, both chat rooms and social networks can serve this function. Whatever online medium is used, the teens most at risk are the same today as they were a decade ago.