The story hit the news in the waning days of 1992: just shy of her tenth birthday, a girl named Katie Beers had gone missing from a Long Island video arcade. The case sparked a media frenzy, as reporters and TV crews descended on the scene. Day after day, with Beers still nowhere to be found, increasingly disturbing details emerged about the girl’s wretched life: allegations of physical and sexual abuse; a lack of decent food, clothing, or even her own bed; and—like something out of Cinderella —a wicked godmother who kept her out of school, exposed her to two pedophiles, and forced her to act as a personal servant.
Seventeen days later, the truth came out: the family friend who’d claimed to lose Beers at the arcade had hidden her in a bunker under his carport—a dungeonlike space he’d built especially for her. She was freed, to nationwide jubilation. And though her captivity was a horrific two and a half weeks of terror and abuse, it ultimately led to Beers’s salvation: she was taken into a loving foster family, underwent extensive therapy, graduated from college, and is now the married mother of two.
As a reporter for News 12 Long Island, Carolyn Gusoff ’84 was among the throng of reporters jockeying to cover the Katie Beers story. Fifteen years later—after Beers had grown up shielded from the media, and Gusoff had become a fixture in Long Island TV news—the two began collaborating on a book about the case. Published this winter, Buried Memories unfolds in alternating first person—melding Beers’s tale of abuse, abduction, and captivity with Gusoff’s account of reporting the story. “The journalist in me wanted a logical ending and concise answers to broad questions,” Gusoff writes. “Does profound trauma destroy people or can they survive it? How do they recover? Does recovery from trauma come by remembering or by denying the horrors of the past? I had waited a long time to find out if this indelible story could possibly have a happy ending.”
A double major in English and government on the Hill, where she was editor-in-chief for two volumes of The Cornell-ian, Gusoff currently covers the Long Island beat for WCBS.
Cornell Alumni Magazine: What it was like to cover the Katie Beers story?
Carolyn Gusoff: At first, it was a story about a missing child that you thought would resolve by the end of the day, but it quickly evolved into what we in the business call a “giant.” A child missing from a video arcade is every parent’s nightmare, and it became a huge, very compelling story. It’s extremely competitive in the New York City television market, but at the same time we’re human beings, and it was emotional. Every day there were new, skin-crawling tidbits about this girl’s existence, and you couldn’t help but care about her. She was failed by everyone—her family, her schools, the police, the courts. As I say in the book, it was as if an entire community witnessed a hit-and-run, turned its collective head, and kept driving.
CAM: Now that you’re intimately aware of the facts in the case, how accurate do you think the media accounts were at the time?
CG: When we reported it twenty years ago, we only scratched the surface of what Katie Beers went through. The extent of the neglect and abuse she endured was dramatically worse than was reported by me or anyone else. We didn’t know Katie’s side; she now says she was raped by her godmother’s husband and that her godmother, who put herself out there as a loving caretaker, was treating her as a slave, emotionally and physically abusing her. But it’s very hard to size people up in a sound byte.
CAM: Were there lessons you learned in covering the story that have served you later in your career?
CG: As a journalist, we’re supposed to have a healthy sense of skepticism. We question everyone and don’t take what people tell us for truth unless we test it. I think Katie’s story speaks to that. Everybody in her life was twisting the truth and manipulating this little girl. If ever there was an example of “question what you’re told,” this story screams it.
CAM: Was this type of media frenzy unprecedented? Back then, was it a new phenomenon?
CG: That’s an interesting question. It was the same general time as the Joey Buttafuoco-Amy Fisher scandal. It was the birth of “tabloid TV”—Phil Donahue, Montel Williams, Sally Jesse Rafael, “Hard Copy.” This story was tailor-made for those kinds of shows. The characters in Katie’s life—never Katie herself—were wooed by the shows and the public ate it up. Every day, it was on the cover of the New York Post and the Daily News.
CAM: What went through your mind when you found out that she was alive—and had been held in this bizarre bunker the entire time?
CG: It was shockingly good news, which in my line of work doesn’t happen every day. Then the details emerged as to how she was concealed. She was right under our noses, literally; I had walked up that driveway many times. It was astounding.
CAM: After she went into foster care, the district attorney appealed to the media to leave her alone—to give her a chance at a normal childhood. As a journalist, how did you feel about that?
CG: I had mixed emotions at the time. As journalists, we resent being told how to do our job, especially by the elected officials that we cover; it’s our job to monitor their behavior, not vice versa. But looking back, it was the best thing that ever happened to her. The news vans that were circling her school, the reporters who were knocking on her foster parents’ door, slowly packed up and went away. It gave Katie the opportunity to grow up in anonymity, to reinvent herself, and to put the past behind her—and that made all the difference in her recovery.
CAM: In the intervening years, how often did you revisit the story?
CG: On anniversary dates, I would do the math in my head of how old Katie was and wonder how she was doing, but I never sought her out. On the fifteenth anniversary, I realized she would be grown up and could make her own decisions as to whether she wanted to tell her story, and that’s how the book began to take shape.
CAM: What was it like to see her as an adult?
CG: Katie Beers almost had a fictional quality to me. She was a name that I knew so well, yet I had never met her. Even seeing her name in my e-mail inbox had my adrenaline flowing; as a journalist, it was the ultimate exclusive. And as a human being and a mother, I was so happy that she had grown up, that she had survived and was a success story. I wanted to give her a hug—and then I realized, this girl doesn’t know me at all.
CAM: In the book, you mention that in captivity she watched news stories about her abduction—so she’d actually seen you reporting her story.
CG: The television inside the bunker was on twenty-four-seven, and it gave her hope, a connection with the outside world. Knowing I was part of that, and maybe it gave her strength, was tremendously gratifying.
CAM: During your research you had access to audio tapes that her abductor had made of her in captivity. What was it like to listen to them?
CG: That was the most difficult part of the whole process. To hear the voice of a child in misery was devastating—as a mother, as a human being, on every level. You’re a fly on the wall to a crime; you’re listening in real time to a child in torment, sobbing, crying, screaming, trying to soothe herself, conversations that she had with her abductor. It was profoundly disturbing, and yet it helped me understand the nature of the crime. I was in that bunker.
CAM: If that was the hardest part of writing the book, what was the most gratifying?
CG: There are seldom happy endings when you cover the news in eight sentences or less; I seldom get to look back at a story, in hindsight, with lessons learned. I make a point in the book to say that love was the missing ingredient in Katie’s life; it was as if the community came back tenfold and gave her what she lacked. I cover bad news often, so that’s very uplifting. Even in the most awful circumstances, people survive and scars heal.