MUKILTEO — April Cameron’s stomach was in knots when she picked up the phone.
There was no getting around what she had to do. Cameron and her co-worker, Tia Harris, were worried about a little girl who had just left the Lynnwood department store where they worked selling clothes. The girl came in with a woman who was shopping for a bathing suit.
Harris saw the child first.
The girl’s eyes and teeth looked so big. She was gaunt, all hard angles. Her cheeks were hollow. Gone was any trace of a child’s roundness. The girl trembled as if she were cold.
The certified nursing assistant spotted a deep gash on the child’s wrist. The girl trailed after the shopper, keeping her hands at her sides and her head down. She said nothing and stood against the hard fitting-room door.
“‘I’m not comfortable with this. Something is wrong,’” Harris remembered thinking.
She knew what this was.
Harris went back to the storeroom where Cameron was writing the week’s schedule.
“I think I have to call CPS,” Harris said. Before she did, she asked her friend to take a look.
Hours later, Mukilteo police rescued the girl from the house where she lived with her adoptive brother and his girlfriend. They brought her to the police station, where she pleaded for food, more than she could eat in one sitting.
She was admitted to an Everett hospital, where doctors diagnosed her with severe malnutrition and a painful kidney infection.
That day, Aug. 15, 2011, the girl weighed just 51 pounds. Her body had shed nearly all its fat and had begun metabolizing muscle for energy. Doctors characterized her as cachectic, a condition sometimes seen in patients in the advanced stages of cancer and AIDS.
At 10 years old, she was wasting away.
Scars crisscrossed her back and stomach, mementos left by being whipped with electrical cords. She later testified that her brother’s girlfriend, Mary Mazalic, stuffed a ball in her mouth to muffle her cries. The girl was forced to wear diapers, sleep in a bathtub and was locked in a dog crate. She was burned with lit cigarettes.
Mazalic gorged on fast food in front of the girl. The child fed herself by stealing food from the family dog.
The fifth-grader wished she were dead.
She was broken, hollowed out. Cameron and Harris saved her.
“If it weren’t for the two women in the store, the girl could have died,” Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Lisa Paul said.
Two years later, sitting across from Harris and Cameron as they share details about that day, what comes into focus is why these two strangers did right by the girl. Their paths, it seems, were meant to cross. Together, they recognized a child on the verge of disappearing.
Cameron, 33, aches to be a mother. She and her husband can’t have children, and the emptiness leaves her with the acute sense that motherhood is a gift. When she repeats the cruel things Mazalic said about the girl, Cameron breaks down into tears.
The anger wells up again. It is so unfair. Mazalic was given the chance to be a mother. She chose instead to be a monster, telling neighbors and teachers that the girl was violent, a liar and thief.
She hissed those words to the clerks in the store that day, ignoring the child’s slumped shoulders.
“She had no right to talk to that little girl that way or about her like that. She was standing right there. She was degrading her,” Cameron said.
In those moments, Cameron was a mother and a protector to a child without one.
Harris, 33, has four children. She also was starved and assaulted as a child. She holds the details private, but she understood why the girl asked for so much to eat at the police station. She hoarded food, too. She has felt the same desperation and hurt. She knows the pain will anchor the girl to the past in ways that will threaten to crush her all over again.
“I saw her because that was me,” Harris said.
Cameron was the first to approach the girl in the store.
“She’s better with kids,” Harris said, smiling at her friend.
Mazalic emerged from the dressing room when the clerk greeted the child. Cameron, a former day-care teacher, wanted to give the woman the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the girl was so skinny because she was sick.
Then Mazalic began talking, saying she was going on a cruise.
No, the girl wasn’t going along; she’d been kicked out of school. She was caught stealing. She was a liar. Mazalic kept calling the girl a “klepto.”
The vitriol could not be reasoned away. Cameron began jotting down notes. By then, she, too, was convinced they would be calling Child Protective Services.
The plan was unspoken. The women kept Mazalic talking, playing up their years of retail experience. They tried to tease out details about who the woman was and where she lived. Intuitively, the clerks worked to get the girl away.
Harris enticed Mazalic to the front of the store to look at a bathing suit cover-up. The girl stayed behind with Cameron.
“She didn’t say ‘Help me.’ She just looked at me, told me where she went to school and that she lived near a fire station. She didn’t say another word,” Cameron said.
Mazalic paid and left. They got her name from the credit card receipt. They couldn’t find the number to CPS in the phone book. Harris called a relative, who looked it up for them online.
“I felt like throwing up,” Cameron said. “What if I’m wrong?”
She planned to leave an anonymous tip, worried that she’d lose her job if the bosses found out she’d reported a customer.
The CPS worker who answered the phone was patient. She urged Cameron to divulge her name, explaining that anonymous tips can take longer to investigate. Cameron relented. She couldn’t shake the feeling that the girl was in trouble.
The next day Mazalic called the store and demanded to know why Cameron had called CPS, blaming the women for her troubles.
“It was like I was punched in the gut,” Cameron said.
A short time later, a Mukilteo police officer called the store. Investigators wanted the women to give written statements. The girl was in protective custody, and the cops were launching a criminal investigation.
‘Straight to the heart’
Mazalic wasn’t the child’s foster mother. The state Department of Social and Health Services had no idea the girl was even in Washington. Her adoptive mother, Genevieve Alexis of New York, had sent the girl to Mukilteo in 2010 to live with her son, Derron Alexis. Mazalic is his former live-in girlfriend.
The New York woman was paid $56,000 a year to care for the girl and nearly a half dozen other adopted children. She didn’t want the girl in special-education classes. The teachers in New York wouldn’t listen, so she and Mazalic schemed to enroll the girl in a mainstream classroom here without telling teachers about the girl’s past.
It was summer vacation when she was rescued. No teachers or school counselors had seen the girl in months. No one was looking over Mazalic’s shoulder. She didn’t have to come up with excuses why the girl wasn’t in school or why she stole food from other students.
Mazalic didn’t count on Harris and Cameron.
A police sergeant and Detective Lance Smith went to the store. The women asked for the girl’s name. They were told she was in the hospital and that she was starving. She had begged for food at the police station. There were whip marks all over her body.
The news triggered a physical reaction in Harris. She had felt the same hunger pains that drove the girl to eat from the dog’s bowl. Harris didn’t want anything to do with what came next.
She ignored calls and email messages, urging her cooperation. Eventually, she revealed her past. The police and prosecutor were asking her to relive something she’d lugged around since she was a kid. Being starved had left Harris at war with her own body and food. She was having flashbacks. They trigger emotions that, no matter what has happened between then and now, can undo her.
She was grateful the prosecutor and detective were compassionate. Years of sitting across from victims had taught them that scars are easily reopened. Paul and Smith understood her sacrifice.
Cameron hungered for news of the girl. She needed to know the child was OK. Who was taking care of her now?
“That situation spoke straight to the heart and straight to the gut,” Cameron said.
Face to face
The girl spent two weeks in the hospital. A week after she was released, she began telling a CPS social worker about Mazalic’s cruelty. It took longer for her to talk about Alexis. They denied any responsibility. Paul prepared to take both to trial. Mazalic was first.
Paul needed the store clerks as witnesses. Their testimony would be powerful. They would tell jurors how, in a short time, they knew the girl was emaciated. They would repeat the appalling words Mazalic used as the girl cowered nearby.
“They would prove that you didn’t need to be an expert to tell she was starving and abused,” Paul said.
Cameron met with Paul before Mazalic’s trial. The veteran prosecutor asked her once again to describe the girl’s appearance in the store. Cameron wept.
“She doesn’t look like that anymore,” Paul told her.
Cameron wanted to see the child again. She longed to know that the girl was growing, happy.
The women first testified in September 2012, about a year after calling CPS. Once they were finished, they sat in the back of the courtroom, listening to the pediatrician who treated the girl at the hospital. She had been in danger of dying from the neglect. The doctor’s testimony rattled Harris.
The women agreed they had to be there when the girl testified. They wanted to bear witness, for her.
“I needed to see her. I wanted to see if she looked better,” Cameron said.
The clerks held hands as the girl, who was 12, wearing a pink dress and a matching hair bow, sat in front of the jury and stole nervous glances at Mazalic.
“I was the worst kid on earth,” the child said, trying to explain why she’d been starved.
It was too much for Harris. In tears, she left during a break in the girl’s nearly two hours of testimony and didn’t come back.
“This case wrecked me emotionally,” she said. “I did it anyway because it was the right thing to do. I’d do it again.”
Mazalic was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison. A jury convicted Alexis in November. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison for his part in his adopted sister’s abuse. Neither offered the child an apology when given the chance to speak in court.
Cameron and Harris are relieved the trials are behind them. They agreed to speak out now in large part because of another girl, a child who was not saved. A few months before Mazalic walked into the store, a teenager adopted from Ethiopia died from in her back yard in nearby Sedro-Woolley. She was beaten and starved, then died of hypothermia when her adopted parents locked her outside as a punishment. The pair were sent to prison this year.
Horrible things happen behind closed doors, Cameron said.
“People may look the other way, think that it’s a private matter to be handled in the family,” she said. “We can’t do that anymore. You have to speak up when you know something is wrong.”
Many people have suffered abuse, Harris said.
“People should be able to look at someone like (the girl) and know that needs to be reported,” she said. “I didn’t want her to be me.”
Mazalic and Alexis nearly crushed the girl. She endured and held on until two strangers found her.
Cameron trusted her maternal instincts. Harris stood up for a child who couldn’t stand up for herself. They were their best selves when the girl needed them most.
“If there were more people like these two women, there would be less children suffering,” Paul said.
The girl is now building a new life. Cameron spent a minute with her after Mazalic was sentenced. The child was somewhat overwhelmed by the adults who crowded into a small room.
Cameron smiled at her.
“I don’t know if you remember who I am, but I will never forget you,” she said.
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; firstname.lastname@example.org.