Girl held captive in dungeon by family friend: Survivor speaks
05/04/2016 11:38 am PDT
17 days in Hell: The story of a little girl kidnapped and held captive in a dungeon by a deranged family friend. Katie Beers sits down with Matt Doran to tell her story.
It's been nine long days. The air is dark, dank and bone-chillingly cold.
Ten-year-old Katie Beers crouches, hungry and scared, imprisoned like an animal in an underground dungeon the size of a coffin.
No one can hear her screams. The skillfully built room is soundproofed and padlocked.
Katie's captor arrives once a day to feed her, rape her and tell her he loves her.
This is no imagined scene. For Katie, it was Hell on Earth. And somehow the courageous child managed to survive this most horrifying ordeal.
"I went to Hell and back," said Katie.
Katie Beers had learned how to survive from a very young age. She says she was neglected by her biological mother, Marilyn, and raised by her godmother Linda Inghilleri and husband Sal in Long Island, New York. The ones charged with protecting her were the very ones abusing her.
"From the time I was 2, I was sexually abused, raped, physically abused by my godmother's husband," said Katie.
At 5 years old, Katie says her godmother Linda made her do the cooking, the cleaning, go to the laundromat and the store to buy cigarettes.
"I was pretty much her slave," said Katie.
Life for young Katie was bleak. But there was one bright spot: family friend John Esposito.
"I would say I loved him. He was always a confidant, someone fun to be with," said Katie.
John Esposito showered Katie and her brother with gifts, took them to amusement parks, toy stores and to his house to play.
"He was somebody I would totally trust," said Katie.
But trust soon turned to trouble.
"John Esposito tried getting me to sneak out of my godmother's house to meet with him," said Katie.
Esposito enticed Katie with promises of ice cream, candy and a puppy.
"I would think about sneaking away, but then I was too scared," Katie said.
But soon, John Esposito tried harder. And then one day right before Katie's 10th birthday in December 1992, Esposito's sordid plan went into play.
"John Esposito had bought me a Barbie Dream House and was going to come back later in the afternoon to put it together," said Katie.
Katie says Esposito asked her godmother Linda if he could take her to an indoor arcade. Linda agreed.
"I feel that Linda didn't want to upset John because Esposito would do things for her," said Katie. "He would buy her things, so I feel she was like, 'Oh, he wants to see you? Go, go spend time with him,'" said Katie.
Off they went, enjoying fun at the arcade, then to a store where John bought Katie a video game, knowing the only place she could play was at his house.
"I couldn't really say no, so we went back to his house," said Katie. "Upstairs there's this huge open loft with a game area. He had soda and snacks in there and the only place to sit in this entire room was on his bed.
"But something wasn't sitting well with me," said Katie. "Then he pulled me on to his lap, covered my mouth, told me he wasn't going to hurt me, and then he sexually assaulted me."
Suddenly, John Esposito had gone from hero to villain. Esposito took her to his office, and when he wasn't looking she tried dialing 911.
"He grabs the phone from my hand, carried me and threw me into the closet," said Katie.
It was December 28, 1992. The evening was about to take an even darker turn.
"He had some sort of mechanism that was attached to the coat rod and he was lifting this huge concrete slab out of the ground," said Katie.
Katie says John moved a 200-pound slab of concrete to expose a tunnel.
"So he looks at me and tells me 'Get down there,' and I said no," said Katie. "So then he picked me up and dropped me."
The drop was almost three feet. Inside it was pitch black.
"The next thing I know, he's in there with me, pushing me through this tunnel, and he somehow maneuvered himself in front of me, and opened this door and we were in this underground room," said Katie.
"There were so many thoughts going through my mind," said Katie. "This man who had never been anything but nice to me had turned into this monster who had now sexually assaulted me, and now I'm in this underground room."
Katie suddenly found herself captive in a living nightmare with no end in sight.
John Esposito had been constructing his dungeon for more than a year. And this was day one for petrified Katie in Esposito's barbaric world, the only world she would know for many days to come.
"I remember the walls were yellow because he had the egg-crate foam soundproofing," said Katie. "There was a suspended box in the air that later in the day I learned that's where I was going to be held.
"It was basically a box within the box. Maybe two feet off the ground," said Katie. "It had a door on it with a padlock. In there it had one of those blue camping mattresses. There were a couple of blankets and a TV in the corner. There were handcuffs and a chain on the wall, which he put around my neck a couple of days in."
Then Esposito told Katie he needed her to record a message: "'Aunt Linda, a man kidnapped me and he's got a knife. Oh no, here he comes. I've got to go.'"
"I asked him what he was doing and he told me he was going to play that recording for Linda, my godmother, and he was going to keep me down there for a while," said Katie.
Esposito locked Katie in the smaller box and left to make two stops: First to a payphone, calling Katie's godmother to play the recording. Then, to the arcade to report Katie missing -- all an elaborate ruse to make cops believe Katie had been abducted at the arcade by someone else.
But former Suffolk County Police Chief of Detectives Dominick Varrone was already onto John Esposito after he interviewed him the next day.
"I asked him 'What do you think happened, John?' And his answer, I remember to this very day, troubling: 'Something dirty happened,'" said Varrone.
While cops looked at others like Sal, Linda and even Katie's mom, Marilyn, John Esposito's past soon raised deep concerns.
"We learned that he had been involved in the abduction of a 7-year-old child 15 years prior to Katie's disappearance," said Varrone.
Esposito became the prime suspect. But cops had no idea where Katie was, and couldn't charge him.
Down in the dungeon, Katie spent all of her time thinking about how to escapeh.
One day, while roaming free in the bigger box, she found some loose keys.
"I grabbed one and threw it under my pillow, praying he wouldn't ever look there," said Katie.
Then came what Katie thought was her big break. Hearing people upstairs, she screamed and banged on the ceiling, but the noise only led to more terror.
"He heard me, apparently. The police that were upstairs had not," said Katie. "So after that he decided it would be a good time to restrain me.
"He actually decided to put this chain around my neck, which meant I was stuck in place about 23 hours," said Katie.
Miraculously, the key she found fit the lock around her neck. From that point on she could remove the chains -- at least until her captor returned.
"I would actually go as far as counting how many links he had chained me, so that way I could set it up exactly the way he had put it," said Katie.
Clueless to Katie's exact whereabouts, cops were at Esposito's house every day looking for her.
"He was very confident we wouldn't find anything. At this moment Katie is right under his feet," said Varrone.
"It was absolutely devastating," said Katie.
But their visits brought a small piece of solace.
"As time went on and the police were there constantly, his time down there with me became less and less, which wasn't a bad thing because I hated the man and it gave him less opportunity to sexually assault me," said Katie.
Katie says her other savior was a TV in the box -- her only source of light and the only way to mark the time, something to give her hope.
"I was able to watch the news coverage on me, so I knew people were still searching for me and they hadn't given up hope and because they hadn't given up hope, I hadn't given up hope," said Katie.
Still, she had no idea if she'd ever leave the small dark prison.
"I never thought he was going to kill me because he truly believed he was in love with me," said Katie. "I don't know if that's what he was trying to do when he was raping me, trying to express it physically, but I think he truly believed that this 40-year-old man as in love with a 10-year-old child."
Katie counted the days. Several days had passed. It felt more like an eternity. It seemed Esposito's sick predatory game would never end.
"I was raped several times by Esposito," said Katie. "If I didn't do what he had asked me to do, he would hit me."
Police were at Esposito's main house around the clock, clueless to her condition.
"He insisted through his attorneys that the residence team leave the unattached garage and stay in the main house," said Varrone.
Esposito knew what he was doing. The dungeon was directly below the unattached garage.
Katie's hope of being rescued would come and go just like the cops.
"I would hear people upstairs and then it would die down when Esposito came down," said Katie. "OK, another day I guess."
But the walls were starting to close in on Esposito.
"We were amping up the pressure on him, following him wherever he went, looking to do polygraphs on all of his family members," said Varrone.
Not giving up, Katie was working on Esposito, too, manipulating him, trying to break him down.
"I would ask John different questions, trying to get him to think about the long term of him kidnapping me," said Katie.
Around 14 days in, Katie came up with a clever strategy.
"I told him I wasn't feeling well," said Katie.
"Very fascinating the way she was able to play him," said Varrone. "She wasn't really sick, but I think this truly alarmed him."
With police closing in and the possibility of Katie dying, on day 17 John Esposito cracked.
"He went to his attorneys and told them he knew where Katie was. He had her all the time," said Varrone.
Esposito finally led detectives to Katie in the sadistic underground dungeon.
"I was scared to death because he never came down that early in the day, and then after he entered the larger room I heard other voices," said Katie. "I remember them saying 'We're the police, you're safe now.'"
Katie stayed frozen, unable to move, not trusting what they said. Then she realized it was really over.
"I hightailed it through the tunnel as fast as I could," said Katie.
Detectives feared they would see a broken little girl.
"We were amazed to see a 9-year-old look like she just come back from the movies," said Varrone. "She's sitting on the sofa, bubbly, upbeat, happy. And we just knew from that moment on that she was going to be a survivor."
But it took Katie a long time to believe she was truly safe.
"The true realization for me that I was being rescued was when I went through the gates off the property," said Katie. "I was scared to death because there was media everywhere. The next day I went to live with my foster family and that was when I felt the sigh of relief, like 'Wow, it's over. That part is over.'"
Esposito was taken into custody. The bunker was documented and then excavated
"Everyone wanted to know how we didn't find her," said Varrone. "I'm thinking, 'How do we defend this'? But it was easy to defend because when anyone saw the video of what he had created and the steps you had to take to get down into this dungeon, everyone understood how you would not find it."
Among the items in the dungeon full of evidence, cops found a voice-activated recorder
"It was documenting some of her screams for help," said Varrone. "You hear her screaming and banging, 'I missed my birthday! John, take me back take me back,' and it's just heart-wrenching and just unbelievable what this poor girl had to endure.
"These recordings are the most chilling tapes that you want to hear," said Varrone. "We had experienced homicide detectives break down in tears."
A resilient Katie soon began the process of healing. Therapist Mary Bromley helped Katie in the months and years that followed, learning how to deal not only with the kidnapping, but with the sexual, emotional and physical abuse she endured eight years before at the hands of Sal Inghilleri.
"She was very upbeat," said Bromley. "She had spent her whole life to trying to please adults, and I knew that was a defense mechanism."
In the early sessions, Bromley says she used art and play therapy to help Katie break through the barriers.
Bromley says there are two kinds of sexual offenders, and Sal Inghilleri was the scarier of the two.
"He was a sadistic offender," said Bromley.
John Esposito was the other.
"He was a fixated offender, doesn't want to kill the child," said Bromley. "She was more afraid of Sal than Esposito."
Reportedly, John Esposito thought he was saving Katie from what was happening at home with Sal and Linda.
Thankfully, Katie wouldn't have to face Esposito in court. He pleaded guilty to kidnapping and was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
But Katie would have to face Sal Inghilleri. She had to take the stand to testify against him.
Sal Inghilleri was found guilty of sexually abusing Katie and was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Both Sal Inghilleri and John Epsosito have since died in prison.
Neither Katie's biological mother Marilyn nor her godmother Linda were ever charged with any crime.
"She did what she had to survive," said former detective Dominick Varrone. "I think her 'Cinderella'-like background, the sexual abuse she endured, prepared her for the event. She's resilient."
And the friendship between Katie Beers and Dominick Varrone is something Katie very much cherishes.
"For 17 days I was his life," said Katie. "He ate, slept and breathed my case. He was one of the ones that just did not give up. He was the one that knew that John Esposito had me. And I am grateful of the relationship I have with him."
"The first 10 years of my life were horrible. If it hadn't been for the abduction, I don't think I would have ever gotten out of that cycle of abuse," said Katie.
While researching her book, Katie reveals she talked with Esposito in prison. He told her in part: "I know I'm guilty of my crime, but I believe I've been punished enough. I mean I didn't kill anyone, and when I started my crime, I really thought it would be good for both of us."