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Trust, betrayal and abandonment


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The girl who said her name was Valery Lozada was wide-eyed and chatty. She was in a fluffy red dressing gown and carried a furry Flopsie rabbit toy and her feet were bare on the cold pavement. It was midnight on a frosty October evening in 2005 and she had been dumped in the street in the middle of downtown New York. Valery Lozada was just four years old. Her story, when it was gently extracted from the angelic-looking youngster was so incredible that it captured the hearts of people around the world. It was a tale of trust, betrayal and abandonment... a tale which, thankfully, had a happy ending.

It began on the streets of the residential suburb of Queens when the man that Valery called "Daddy" — 32-year-old Bolivian doctor, Cesar Ascarrunz, had  roused her from a deep sleep in her mother's apartment in New York's Rego Park district. He bundled her into his car and drove her through the deserted streets to the wealthy residential district of Queens with its impressive squares of brownstone houses. Ascarrunz then lifted the sleepy youngster out of the car, pointed to a large house with a gleaming black front door and told her to knock on the door and ask for help. Then he drove away.

Businessman Kevin Flood was getting ready for bed when he heard a noise in the street outside and looked out to see a tiny child trying to reach the knocker of the house next door. She was in her nightclothes and clutching a cuddly toy.

"I rang the police and then hurried downstairs to see what was going on." By the time he reached the street, a neighbour, Georgina Visacki had wrapped the child in a blanket and taken her indoors.

"We tried to comfort her," Kevin Flood said. "We gave her some juice and a cookie and tried to calm her down. Her hair was tousled, as though she had just been woken up. I couldn't see any sign of abuse and neglect she was just an adorably bewildered little girl who wanted her mum.

"A crowd of neighbours had gathered by now. One brought her a pair of socks and another a fleece jacket. She said her name was Valery and that the man she called daddy had left her in the street."

Kevin Flood walked round the streets near his home searching for the little girl's father assuming there had been some mistake. Maybe his car had broken down? Perhaps he was ill?

"But there was nothing and no one. I just couldn't believe it. How could any adult, let alone a parent, do this to a little girl? It's tough and scary enough for anyone being lost in New York on a cold night, let alone a child."

While a foster-mother cared for Valery, police launched a search for her real parents. Who was Valery? Where did she live? Why had she been abandoned in such a heartless manner? Welfare workers tried to coax information out of the child but with little success.

She said she had a cat named Gary, loved pizza, hated pickles and knew to brush her teeth morning and night. But she was unable to give her address or even the area of her house.

When no one came forward to claim the child, police took the unusual step of letting press and TV reporters talk to her and take pictures.

When local television reporter Melissa Russo chatted to Valery the child answered all the questions with extraordinary calm. When asked to describe her mother, her answer melted the hearts of the most hardened newsmen. "She looks like a princess," she said.

"I was so touched by her," said Melissa Russo. "She was so charming, articulate and sweet." The tactic to publicise Valery's plight eventually worked. Among the hundreds of people phoning in with information was Valery's great-uncle who provided the first details of the child's mother.

She was 26-year-old Monica Lozada, an immigrant from Bolivia. She had been living in the Queen's area of New York for the past year with Cesar Ascarrunz. Now both Monica and Ascarrunz had disappeared and for the sake of Valery, finding where they were became a matter of urgency.

Sharman Stein, New York's child welfare communications director, said the decision to let Valery talk publicly was based on the belief that the child would be her own best advertisement. "We wanted to get her face to as many people as possible."

It worked. A week after Valery had been left to wander the midnight streets of New York, police got their breakthrough: Cesar Ascarrunz was found in a seedy rented apartment masquerading under a false name. Arrested and questioned, he said he was a doctor who had come to New York to gain more qualifications which would enable him to practise in America. He had been living with Monica and Valery for over a year. "We are a lovely little family," he told detectives. "I don't know why I have been arrested since I have done nothing wrong."

Ascarrunz claimed that two weeks earlier he had driven Monica and her daughter to JFK airport because they were flying back to Bolivia to see Monica's family. He claimed he had no idea how Valery had ended up wandering the streets barefoot or where Monica was now. He suggested that someone at the airport must have abducted them, abandoned Valery in Queens and driven off with her mother.

But when police searched airport passenger lists there was no record of bookings by Monica to Bolivia or anywhere else. And neighbours and staff at the restaurant where Monica worked part-time said they had last seen her on September 21, the day before her daughter was found wandering the streets. Confronted by these facts, Ascarrunz finally changed his story.

He confessed to killing Monica after a an intensely violent argument over Valery's upbringing.

"She was always out, working and socialising," he told detectives. "In my country we are taught that a mother must dedicate herself to her children. "I sometimes thought that Monica was more interested in her own life than Valery's and I didn't like that."

He claimed that this resulted in constant arguments which eventually developed into violent rows. "I was already under a lot of strain. I was in the middle of exams to get a licence to practise in the States but she didn't care about that." He said that on the night of the fatal argument, "Monica screamed at me. Then she picked up a knife and tried to stab me. I picked up a pillow in self-defence and tried to fend her off. Suddenly she went limp and I tried to revive her by cutting her throat to create an airway.

"When she didn't respond, I panicked and put her body in a black refuse sack. Then I woke Valery and carried her out of the apartment so she wouldn't see what had happened to her mother." He explained that he later dumped the body in a rubbish tip. Monica's body was found a week later in a landfill site in Pennsylvania.

Six months later Cesar Ascarrunz was found guilty by a New York District Court of murder, reckless endangerment, abandonment and endangering the welfare of a child and was jailed for 32 years without the possibility of parole. He told the court: "I wanted someone to take Valery in and give her the life she deserved. I thought that by leaving her in a nice neighbourhood someone good would take care of her."

There was certainly no shortage of offers to do just that ... Valery's story had captured so many hearts that thousands of dollars were pledged to ensure her future well-being and dozens of couples offered to adopt her.

Finally, Valery's grandmother, Roxanne Rivera, travelled from La Pazz to look after the little girl and Valery's real father, Juan Carlo Saavedra, became her legal guardian and she returned to relatives in Bolivia.

"She is a strong and determined little girl," said Roxanne "and it's wonderful to see that she is finally smiling again."

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