Sitting in a car as it hurtled through the freezing night, my heart pounded in my chest.
Breaking the silence, the stranger beside me barked. ‘Be good, be quiet!’ He told me the boot had been cleaned out for me, so I was terrified. I faced the real possibility I was going to die.
Up until this point I’d been a typically shy, quiet 13-year-old girl. It wasn’t until I started using online chatrooms with friends that I found a confidence I didn’t have before.
Tapping away in my living room, my mum nearby, I felt incredibly safe. I had no reason to believe it would lead to the most traumatic experience of my life.
Chatting to friends and then friends of friends is how I met ‘him’. Now I refuse to use his name, he is a monster to me. Back then, of course, as far as I was concerned he was just this boy into the Spice Girls and Titanic, like me.
I didn’t know I was being groomed. He always listened and said what I wanted to hear: ‘Your teacher is stupid,’ or, ‘Why tidy your room when it’s your mum’s job?’
Soon I was spending hours online oblivious to the danger ahead.
It was New Year’s Day 2002 that I’d secretly arranged to meet him.
After dinner, I said I had a stomach ache and left the table. At 7pm, I nipped outside in the cold without a coat. I didn’t plan to be out for long.
Walking up my street, a voice kicked in. My intuition told me to go home, but it was eight months too late.
As I turned, I heard my name being called. There was no boy there, it was a man. The next part is a blank, but suddenly I was trapped in a car and I couldn’t get out.
After a terrifying five-hour journey, we arrived at his house. He’d taken me from my safe, warm home in Pittsburgh to an unfamiliar place in Virginia.
Pulling me down a flight of steps, we ended up in a basement full of strange devices, including a cage. ‘It’s OK to cry,’ he said coldly, ‘this is going to be hard for you.’
Again, the details are a blur, but I remember him removing my clothes, locking a dog collar around my neck and dragging me upstairs. Up in his bedroom I was chained to the floor.
I felt the pain of him ripping my hair – I had braids from a family holiday in the Caribbean, so he pulled them at the roots.
Then he broke my nose and raped me. I’ve blanked out much of the experience. I know I could regain memories through hypnosis, but why would I want to?
In the four days that followed I was chained up, raped, beaten and tortured. I did whatever I had to do to survive, no matter how humiliating, painful, or disgusting. I did it because I wanted to live and hoped people might be looking for me. Hope was all I had.
I fantasised about mum and dad bursting through the door, but on the fourth day, before he left for work, he said, ‘I’m beginning to like you too much, tonight we’re going for a ride.’ I fully expected him to kill me on his return.
Lying on the floor naked, weeping, I felt pure despair. How could I escape? I was just 13 years old and 6 stone, he was over 21 stone.
People ask why I didn’t scream when he left. The truth is, I wasn’t sure he’d even gone. I pictured him waiting behind the door and panicked that any noise I made would prompt him to kill me on the spot.
Suddenly there was crashing and banging, and men shouting, ‘We have guns!’ The chain allowed me to move around the room, so thinking he’d sent them to kill me, I hid under the bed. I was ordered out naked to the barrel of a gun, I thought I was going to die, then I saw FBI – the three most beautiful letters – on his jacket.
I was saved. The relief, after being imprisoned for four days, was unbelievable.
My abductor had tripped up after livestreaming a video of him abusing me to a group online. When one of the guys realised he could be implicated as an accomplice, he called the police. Using the IP address they tracked me down.
At the hospital and police station I was so traumatised I could hardly speak, but I do remember seeing a dolls’ house after a forensic examination.
It made me realise that what I went through happens to kids younger than me, even babies. How can you begin to comprehend that?
That evening I was taken to a wonderful foster family. I sat up all night waiting for my parents. I didn’t know they couldn’t get a regular flight – media attention my rescue had generated forced them to take an FBI plane the next day instead.
I thought I’d done something wrong, that they didn’t love me anymore. Being finally reunited with them was incredible. They ran towards me and my dad gave me this hug that was so special, there are no words.
Back in Pittsburgh things should’ve been amazing, but as mine was one of the first big cases of internet luring, society didn’t understand how it happened. People blamed my parents – even distant relatives – and we were treated horribly.
Before the trial (he was eventually sentenced to 19 years and seven months in prison) the FBI needed me to identify myself in the videos. I had to watch myself being tortured. Being abused is indescribable, but to see it through the eyes of your abuser is another thing entirely.
That’s why I now fight so hard against child exploitation, I know how it feels to have people watch your suffering and enjoy it.
Despite the cuts and bruises, physically I was intact. Psychologically I was broken – nightmares and flashbacks came daily.
My experience left a hole, but I decided to fill it by raising awareness. I started to tell my story in schools. At first it was hard, but seeing the kids’ response was worth it.
I could give my pain purpose. The Alicia Project was born. Rebuilding trust is still hard, in others and in myself. But now I’ve fallen in love and my partner is so supportive of my mission.
I’ll never forgive the monster who did this, so instead I focus on getting Alicia’s Law (which helps fund internet-crime-against-children task forces, like the one that rescued me) passed in every US state. I was given a second chance at life, so now I choose to use that to save others.
How to keep your kids safe online- Alicia’s advice:
? Recognise that any child can become the victim of an internet predator. Predators don’t discriminate on gender, ethnicity, education, socioeconomic status, income, or religion.
? Teach them to never share private or identifying information with a person online who isn’t known or trusted in real life. A predator can use it to groom and/or locate them.
? Strengthen privacy settings on all social networking sites and check they remain unchanged after updates.
? Disable geotagging on all mobile devices. It can automatically pinpoint and disclose their location. This option can usually be found under ‘Settings’.
? Monitor their activity. This includes desktops, laptops, tablet computers, and mobiles. Don’t feel that you’re ‘spying’. You’re the parent. This is your responsibility.
? Know their passwords on all devices. Check them regularly.
? Educate yourself on the apps they are using. Ask for an explanation and a demonstration.
? Maintain loving, open, and respectful lines of communication while setting enforceable rules for online safety. Assure them that they can always come to you for help in an uncomfortable or potentially dangerous situation.