Mother's tale highlights hazards of Internet chat rooms

Brattleboro Reformer/November 14, 2002
By Patrick Armstrong

Brattleboro -- Her daughter first met the much older California man when she was 16 in an Internet chat room. Now, just a month after her 18th birthday, she has gone with him to California, and Ila St. Francis wants to make other parents mindful of the risks of chat rooms. "If there's one thing I wanted to say in this interview, it's that I probably can't save my child," said St. Francis, "but just to make other parents aware about it."

St. Francis described her daughter, Amanda, as having a slight learning disability, affecting both her comprehension and the speed at which she processes information. St. Francis estimates that Amanda's maturity level is that of a 14- or 15-year-old; she has a number of younger friends and is interested in the activities of a younger age group, she said.

Thus, when Amanda first started entering Internet chat rooms about two years ago, she was discussing things in rooms catering to the age category of 13-to-15-year-old people, said St. Francis. And it was there she met "Joey."

Joey was first described by Amanda as being 16, said St. Francis. A photo of a young blond man in what appears to be a prom tuxedo was allegedly sent to Amanda by Joey early in their electronic correspondence. A year later, Joey "turned" 19, said St. Francis, and eight months later, she heard that Joey was 25.

St. Francis took the computer away and spoke with officers at the Brattleboro Police Department, she said.

A couple of months ago, St. Francis found out that her daughter was again receiving e-mails from Joey, getting them from computers at school and libraries. From one printed e-mail, St. Francis found Joey's full name and address.

With the help of Windham County Sheriff's Department Investigator M. "Pete" Peterson, St. Francis learned that Joey was really Joseph Cantorini, a Ukiah, Calif., a man in his 30s who was convicted in the past of having sex with an underage girl.

"He lied about his age," said St. Francis. "He lured this little girl in by telling her he was 16."

Cantorini is on parole for receiving stolen property, said Jerry Cardoza, a parole officer with the California Department of Corrections. Cantorini is not on parole for having sex with an underaged girl, and is not a registered sex offender, said Cardoza. However, he added, as part of the conditions of his parole, he cannot physically interact with a minor. But the correspondence with Amanda over the Internet is not considered personal contact, so it was not in violation of Cantorini's parole, said Cardoza.

"What these people don't understand is that Internet contact leads to physical contact," said St. Francis.

Cantorini allegedly sent two bus tickets on two separate occasions to Amanda before she turned 18, said St. Francis. Peterson discussed the issue with Amanda at Brattleboro Union High School, where she was a senior this fall. However, Amanda apparently did not listen.

"It's very obvious that this guy has brainwashed her," said Peterson. "I told her about the criminal record -- she's convinced I made that up."

A forensic search of Amanda's computer indicated one graphically pornographic image, though where the image came from is unclear, said Peterson. An e-mail describing graphic sexual acts was allegedly sent to Amanda on Sept. 14, and signed, "Love Always, Your Husband, Joey." Peterson said that such an e-mail, sent to a minor, could be a misdemeanor violation, punishable by up to one year in prison, a $1,000 fine, or both. However, Peterson said it was unlikely that the state of Vermont would extradite anyone from California for that offense.

Amanda turned 18 on Oct. 6. St. Francis said that, on Oct. 11, her stepson found Amanda packing a backpack and preparing to leave. When he tried to stop her, Amanda went to the state police barracks in Brattleboro. State police were able to detain Amanda for a little while, said St. Francis, but not for long.

"I told them she may be chronologically 18, but she's not 18," said St. Francis. "They said the law doesn't allow for that."

On Nov. 7, a car registered to Cantorini was seen in Brattleboro, according to St. Francis and Peterson. Cardoza said that he approved Cantorini driving across the country, in the company of his sister, who is over 30 and has no criminal record, to meet with Amanda.

"The reason we let him do it is he has six weeks left on his parole," said Cardoza, adding that, if things do not work out, or Amanda is fearful for her safety or no longer wants to be there, it will be easier to send her home while Cantorini is still on parole.

"He's been on parole for three years. He hasn't so much as spit on the sidewalk for three years. He's been a model parolee," said Cardoza. "Another six weeks and we won't have any control over this."

"He's not a child molester, he's not somebody who snatched somebody," Cardoza added. "He's just an immature 34-, 35-year-old guy who thinks he's 18."

Amanda was last seen getting on a town bus at 4:05 p.m. according to her mother; she never made it home. St. Francis said that a friend of Amanda's received a phone call from the girl 24 hours later, with Amanda saying she was in Nebraska. Peterson said Amanda has been listed as a missing person.

Cardoza said on Wednesday afternoon that Cantorini and Amanda were on a Greyhound bus because Cantorini's car broke down. The bus was scheduled to arrive in Ukiah early Friday morning, said Cardoza, and he is scheduled to meet with Amanda and talk with her individually during the day Friday.

"My feeling is, she'll get out here, see how they live -- he's on Social Security and disability -- and leave in a couple weeks," said Cardoza.

Peterson said he had been in contact with law enforcement personnel in the area, and asked them to go to Cantorini's residence.

"All we can do is ask that they make sure she's OK, and verify that she's there of her own free will," said Peterson.

Legally, there is little that St. Francis and Peterson can do, Peterson admitted.

"She can do what she wants to do," he said.

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