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