Tragic Santa Clara County custody case: Dad suspected in girl's death
By Karen de Sá
Posted: 05/13/2009 06:31:55 PM PDT
Updated: 05/13/2009 10:20:15 PM PDT
Powerless and tormented, a Campbell mother awaits the story her daughter's bones will tell.
The remains of Alycia Augusta Mesiti-Allen, 14 when she vanished in August 2006, are now in the hands of toxicologists and coroners. Since March, when cadaver-sniffing dogs found her body buried in the unkempt yard of her father's former Central Valley home, detectives have scoured for evidence from the girl's petite frame.
Those detectives say the clues point to her father, Mark Edward Mesiti, as a suspect in her death and say an arrest is imminent. With a lengthy criminal past, the 41-year-old was still granted custody of Alycia and her older brother in Santa Clara County Superior Court less than a year before the girl went missing.
The death of the smiling teen, who loved horses and Shakira, lays bare the intractable choices that family court judges face every day, but the tragic outcome has everyone who worked on Alycia's case looking back wondering what more could have been done.
The family's legal history is a tangle of allegations traded through restraining orders and court filings. A court investigator described Roberta Allen, now 39, as an unfit mother who had battled with depression. But Alycia's father is now being held on $500,000 bail in a Los Angeles County jail on unrelated charges of child endangerment and running a methamphetamine lab.
Ceres police say they no longer believe Mesiti's story that the girl ran away during a camping trip with friends and her pet Chihuahua. "Dad's story was he was getting phone calls periodically" from the missing girl, said Sgt. James Robbins. "But it doesn't appear she ever left the house."
Alycia and her brother, now 19 and in the military, were placed in Mesiti's care by the family court in November 2005. During the previous seven years, court records show, Mesiti had been convicted of state and federal charges, including bank fraud and drunken driving. He also was charged with domestic violence and ordered to attend anger-management classes after pleading guilty to a lesser charge. After failing to comply with court orders to attend drug- and alcohol-treatment programs, he landed in prison for violating probation.
Nonetheless, Roberta Allen described her years-long legal battle as "very angled toward Mark. I couldn't afford an attorney. He had one."
And over the nine months the children lived with their father before Alycia disappeared, police and child welfare workers fielded repeated warnings of danger in their single-family home in a neat, unremarkable Ceres suburb. Beginning in 2005, the children's court-appointed lawyer, Jonnie Herring, reported her concerns, recommending only a supervised, temporary placement with Mesiti due to "sufficient issues and risks to these minors." In 2006, she reported that Mesiti had failed to comply with court orders to enroll his children in school and remain in touch.
"I am deeply concerned about both minors, especially Alycia," Herring wrote in a report to Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Vincent Chiarello.
Allen said she also reported that the children were often hungry, subject to abuse, and unable to call their mother despite her court-ordered visitation and contact rights. Local police confirm they made visits to the home.
Clearly, the family court had a complex case on its hands with few ideal options when Judge Chiarello granted Mesiti custody. The legal battle had raged for eight years without resolution. The children had been bounced between aunts and grandparents and, in a reflection of the case's complexity, the judge appointed Herring to grant them an independent voice in court. Their parents had gone through mediation, counseling and psychological evaluations.
"There were a lot of issues with both parents," said Scott Sagaria, a San Jose attorney who represented Mesiti in claims his client made against Allen — including that she'd attempted suicide and once hit her son. Noting attorney-client privilege limited his ability to discuss the case, Sagaria added: "There was a lot of conduct by the mother in the case where, in my opinion, the court had very little alternative."
Calls to Mesiti's public defender in his Los Angeles case have gone unanswered.
'No good options'
Chiarello, too, has declined to comment. But Supervising Family Court Judge Susan Bernardini, who spoke only in generalities and not specifically on the Mesiti case, described the difficulty of serving on her bench. "Cases with no good options are a centerpiece of being a judge in family court," she said. "We have to make a decision no one else will make."
In the case of a tragic outcome, she added, "You wonder and you look back and you always say: Is there anything anyone could have done?"
Allen, a former assembly worker now working for a restaurant, was deemed unfit by the court. She had made a frank admission to feeling depressed after what she described as years of persecution by her children's father. Before Chiarello's decision, records show, Allen told the court she had fled multiple states to get away from Mesiti and even to Canada, where she and the children stayed in battered women's shelters.
But while Mesiti's court filings were formal, typed responses from his private attorney, Allen's pleading letters to judges were handwritten. She reluctantly agreed to sign off on the custody order — in large part, she says, because she could not afford to raise the children without the child-support payments Mesiti had been ordered to make.
"There were plenty of red flags going up all over the place," she said, "but they wouldn't see them."
When Alycia disappeared in 2006, Allen said she never believed the girl had simply run off. "I knew in my heart of hearts that she was gone, but no one would listen to me. I was fighting with police, saying 'She's not a runaway, she's a missing person!' " Allen recalled. "But the police stopped taking my calls. They said, 'She'll come home, she'll come home.' "
And so for 2 1/2 years, Allen went mad with worry. Alycia's disappearance was not elevated to a homicide investigation until the longtime detective on the case retired and Sgt. Robbins, the Ceres investigations supervisor, ordered up a fresh round of interviews.
Robbins declined to give specifics because the case is still pending, but he said those interviews turned up "detailed information we didn't have the first time." Police obtained a search warrant for Mesiti's former home on Alexis Court, which he is said to have abandoned a few months after Alycia vanished.
The case broke open with the discovery of Alycia's remains. Within days, police burst into Mesiti's Los Angeles apartment and say they found evidence of a meth lab. Now, he and the girlfriend he had lived with in Ceres face a series of court hearings on drug and child-endangerment charges; the girlfriend's 12-year-old daughter had been living with the couple when they were arrested March 28.
Mesiti was in jail when his daughter's memorial was held last month in a Cupertino chapel. During the service, a lifetime of classic childhood moments beamed from photos spanning her short decade-and-a-half: Alycia mugging in an oversized T-shirt, stirring a pot of macaroni and cheese and hugging a Snoopy doll. In the last photos, she posed for her eighth-grade prom, a fleeting brush with adolescence.
For her part, Allen tosses endlessly most nights. She tries to stay focused on her last day with Alycia, when she and her daughter ate tuna sandwiches and splashed in a downtown San Jose fountain.
Their next encounter would be three years later at the Stanislaus County coroner's office.
"I couldn't even pick up her personal effects," Allen lamented. "There was nothing. There's just nothing left of her."
Contact Karen de Sá at firstname.lastname@example.org or 408-920-5781.
TIMELINE OF ALYCIA"S DISAPPEARANCE
Nov. 22, 2005: Santa Clara County Superior Court places Alycia Mesiti-Allen with father, Mark Edward Mesiti.
Aug. 15, 2006: Alycia, 14, goes missing; her father reports she ran away after leaving for a camping trip with friends and a pet Chihuahua.
January 2009: Ceres police Sgt. James Robbins takes over the department"s investigative unit and has detectives review their cases. As a result, Alycia"s family members are contacted again and new undisclosed information leads to a search warrant.
March 26, 2009: After police obtain a search warrant, a body is unearthed outside the Ceres home where Alycia had been living with her father at the time she disappeared.
March 28: Mark Mesiti, 41, is arrested in Los Angeles along with his 39-year-old girlfriend on suspicion of running a methamphetamine lab and endangering the girlfriend"s 12-year-old daughter. Mesiti is being held on $500,000 bail.
March 31: Authorities confirm that a body found in Ceres was that of Alycia Mesiti-Allen. Ceres police describe Mesiti as a suspect in his daughter"s death, although he has not been arrested on those charges.
Source: Mercury News reporting and Ceres police