My daughter, Victoria, has been drawing and posting her work on Instagram since high school. She can be found at @imbrian_yoooooo, if you are interested in seeing her work. Being out there on-line and on social media platforms opens anyone up to potential conversations with people they have never met in person. That puts some murkiness onto the type of person you are engaging with and if they are who they claim to be. That’s where this story originates.
So my daughter is posting her art and people are commenting and complimenting her on her work. She started up conversations with a few folks, then was introduced, by them, to a few others and through all of this ended up striking up a friendship with a young lady her age, becoming quite chummy with her over a few month’s time.
The young lady’s name is Maddie and she lives in New Jersey and goes to school in Philadelphia. I didn’t think much about it until Victoria, over summer break, mentions she wants to visit Maddie for her birthday. That made me pause as 1) we have never met Maddie, and 2) Victoria met her on line and not in person. Patricia and I had a conversation and we agreed we didn’t think it was a good idea for Victoria to travel to New Jersey to visit a person she never met in person. We had a discussion with Victoria and she was not pleased with our reluctance, but respected our wishes. We also offered up that Maddie could visit us at the lake. The concept was appreciated, but not acted upon. The summer came to an end, Victoria went back to school and the idea of her visiting someone she met on-line was in the rear view mirror, or so I thought.
During Thanksgiving break, Victoria informed Patricia that she and Maddie were getting closer, in fact, becoming an item. Victoria had informed us she was bisexual when she was in high school, so that aspect wasn’t surprising, even though she only had boyfriends up until this point. However, the on-line aspect still didn’t sit well with us. I know we live in an on-line world, but the concept of meeting someone on line was still murky to me and Patricia. It was concerning.
I realize that meeting someone in person could and does go wrong, but it just felt like the stakes were much higher here for something going the wrong way. So, as a preemptive measure, we offered to fly Maddie up over the Christmas break in order to have, as we would say in sports, a home field advantage. Patricia and I believed it cut the risk dramatically by taking this approach. Victoria was excited and happy with the offer. For some reason, it didn’t work for Maddie. This made me even more suspicious. I began wondering if it was a catfishing scheme and contemplated on all the negative possibilities. Even my son, who is typically telling us we overthink things, started to have some doubts.
Victoria was unhappy about Maddie not coming, but also was put out that we didn’t fully believe Maddie was “real”. She was right, we didn’t. In fact, I started thinking Maddie could have been a front for a human trafficking ring. One thing was for sure, we didn’t want to take the chance of Victoria traveling alone to New Jersey. Of course, at the time of this all happening there were reports of the FBI cracking down on human trafficking operations, and I could have sworn they said it was in New Jersey. Let’s just say my mind went to very dark places.
Trying to be proactive, we came up with another solution. I told Victoria that I would fly to Philadelphia with her over the Christmas break and we could meet Maddie and her mom for lunch. Victoria liked the idea and Maddie and her mom accepted. I was a bit relieved and started to think my mind was running away with me, until I was flipping through channels one night and stopped at the movie, Taken. If Liam Neeson cannot protect his daughter how will I be able to? The scenarios started spinning in my head…
After a meeting one day, I told my partner, Nick Mammola, about my predicament. As a father he was sympathetic and as a partner he wanted me to have peace of mind. So he reached out to a colleague, Lou Bivona, who established the Bivona Child Advocacy Center and is versed in abductions. Lou and I had a call and I told him what’s going on with Victoria and not only did he think I wasn’t crazy, he applauded me on the diligence and all of the steps Patricia and I had taken to that point. He did say it was probably legit and would be fine, but agreed with the steps we had taken. He said to call him at any time and wanted to know how things went after the lunch.
I felt better after the call, but another notion popped into my over-active mind. When talking to Lou about abductions, he mentioned the first thing they do is smash cell phones so that the abductee cannot be tracked. So, I decided it would be a smart idea to go to Best Buy and purchase one of those worldwide GPS trackers. I figured Victoria could put that in her pocket as a precautionary measure. Hey, Lou Bivona didn’t think I was nuts and it was something Liam Neeson would have probably done.
I am feeling pretty good about the steps we have taken and the trip is approaching. I booked lunch at Davio’s in Philly, as I am familiar with the location, and am happy we have come up with a comfortable solution for all parties. Until I started thinking again… “Wait, I’m not trained or tough like Liam Neeson.” “If this a human trafficking ring there will be these big goons that will push me aside like a potato chip in the wind.” “I am ill prepared.” “Damn it!”
As you can see, I was engulfed with this whole thought that there was going to be an abduction. Speaking with Lou helped, but also made me think I could be right about the catfishing scheme. It probably would have been better if he said I was overreacting and a crazy, over-protective dad. But he did not.
I can’t cancel the lunch date, because that would be devastating to Victoria, but I needed to take further precautions. A thought comes to me. My friend, Phil Taub, founded and runs an event, Swim With a Mission, that benefits veteran organizations. At his events there are dozens of Navy Seals. “Maybe Phil knows a Navy Seal in Philadelphia that could watch over us.” I call Phil and tell him my quandary. He thinks I’m most likely overreacting, but there’s enough craziness in the world to have him agree to make a few calls. In less than an hour, he calls me back and he has a Navy Seal available the date of the lunch to watch over us. He puts me in contact with the Navy Seal in Philly, Darren.
I call Darren, tell him the story and ask if I am overreacting. He says I’m not, people look for private security all the time and we go through all the details including his fee. All very satisfying to me. I don’t tell Victoria right off the bat, but I plan on telling her because we have a very honest relationship and I did not want to betray that trust.
The day of the lunch date comes, we fly into Philadelphia early and head to the lobby of the Sofitel Hotel, which is across the street from Davio’s. We sit in the lobby and I say to Victoria I need to tell her something. I said, “Sweetie, you know how all of this has been concerning to me. Well, I hope I am wrong and everything goes right, but just in case I have a guy coming to watch over us for the day.” She chuckles and says, “Which side is he on?” Now I laugh because I know what she means. “He’s a Navy Seal.” She shakes her head at me and states if that makes me feel better she has no problem with it.
Navy Seal Darren shows up and we chat. He begins to tell Victoria the seriousness of human trafficking and abductions and things to do in certain situations. We go to Davio’s and Darren sits at a table where he can watch everything that goes on and keep a close eye on Victoria.
Well, I am happy to say all my concerns did not come into play and Maddie and her mom were as sweet as can be. Maddie’s mom said she, too, was concerned about Maddie traveling to New Hampshire. I am also happy to say that Maddie and Victoria are still together. Maddie is a lovely young lady and has traveled and spent time at the lake. Victoria has since traveled to Philly. So as they say, all’s well that ends well. Of course, now my son, Antonio, wants me to hire a Navy Seal to watch over him… Victoria, Maddie (who now knows about Navy Seal Darren) and basically everyone continue to have a big laugh at me and all the steps I took. I laugh as well, but only because everything went the right way for us. It doesn’t always go the right way. Abduction and human trafficking is a huge issue in the U.S. and around the world. So don’t think it can’t happen to you and be diligent with your kids and loved ones.
I called Lou Bivona after the lunch to thank him and fill him in on the day. He was happy for us and said, “You did the right thing.” I am happy for Victoria and Maddie and I appreciate them for putting up with me and my measures. That being said, I would do it all over again.
If you would like to donate to donate to the Bivona Child Advocacy Center you can do it at: bivonacac.org
If you would like to donate to Swim With a Mission you can do so at: swimwithamission.org