Pearl Da Massa was told she did not have a father. She was instructed to tell strangers her name was “Belle Flaherty.” For three years she cycled through Mexican hostels, Texas bus stations and Toronto group shelters with her mother, trying to keep one step ahead of an international police hunt.
It all came to an end last Friday, when Montreal police investigating an unrelated complaint unwittingly discovered the British seven-year-old whose face had been featured on missing posters, in newspaper reports and Interpol alerts since her fourth birthday.
A photo released by Toronto Police Service on December 10, 2010
“It was the end of the mayhem,” her father, Henry Da Massa, told the Manchester Evening News.
For 13 months, the Manchester-based jazz musician has been in Toronto, searching full-time for his daughter. On Sunday night, he and Pearl returned home.
“We’ve had to go back to where we were three years ago and get used to each other again,” he said.
He had last seen the girl in December 2008, when he dropped her off at the Old Moat Children’s Centre in Manchester, where her mother, Helen Gavaghan, was scheduled to pick her up.
The pair had struck up a romance in a Manchester jazz club in 2003 and Pearl was born the following year. However, the relationship quickly soured and by 2008 they were separated. A judge granted the parents joint custody of Pearl only a few weeks before she disappeared.
The next day, one of Ms. Gavaghan’s friends called him to tell him she had taken Pearl on a one-month vacation to India. It was the last he heard of her.
But over the next few months, British investigators began to pick up details of the pair’s true whereabouts.
Ms. Gavaghan and Pearl spent the night in an airport hotel, before leaving early the next day for Mexico. The woman was carrying a suitcase packed with more than $ 15,000 in cash.
Manchester Police were able to trace her movements through Mexico and the southern United States, following a paper-thin trail of hotel records.
A photo released by Toronto Police Service on December 10, 2010 of Helen Gavaghan, then 33
“Investigations by both Greater Manchester Police and the father have shown that Helen had gone to great lengths to cover her tracks,” read a 2009 release by the High Court of Justice of England and Wales.
Using a passport in the name of Meta International, Ms. Gavaghan crossed into Canada in mid-January, 2009. Once over the border, she changed her name again to Dana Flaherty and checked into a Toronto shelter for homeless families.
When staffers approached Ms. Gavaghan with concerns about the girl not attending school and being denied medical care, she slipped away to live in a communal home housing U.S. war resisters, police later determined.
In an April press conference, Toronto Police called for Ms. Gavaghan to turn herself in. “The understanding is that Pearl has not been in school, that she has been doing home schooling and living in an alternative community,” Constable Wendy Drummond, a spokeswoman for the Toronto Police, said in April. “There is concern that her growth and maturity is not progressing as it should.”
By early summer, investigators suspected Ms. Gavaghan had moved again.
“The heat was a little bit too much because of all the publicity,” said Ted Davis, an investigator with the Missing Children Society of Canada, which had offered a $ 10,000 reward for Pearl’s return.
With the help of the Toronto Fugitive Squad, the society expanded its media campaign across Canada. “We knew she used public transit and buses, so those are some of the places we set up,” said Mr. Davis.
The girl’s face was soon appearing in newspapers, TV broadcasts and bulletin boards across the country.
Meanwhile, Mr. Da Massa kept a campaign on the Internet. His website, MissingPearl.org, was filled with photos of his daughter as a four-year-old and frequent police updates on Ms. Gavaghan’s whereabouts.
On Monday afternoon, all the site contained was a photo of Mr. Da Massa and the seven-year-old sitting together on a concrete stoop.
“I never advocate that a child should lose access to either parent, but if one parent is going to strive to take the child from the other parent, then steps have got to be taken to stop that,” said Mr. Davis.
Ms. Gavaghan remains in police custody in Canada where she will likely face extradition to Britain to face kidnapping charges.
“She’s going to have to deal with the legal ramifications in Britain and start dealing with being a mother again,” Mr. Davis added.