Direct Mail Cards Lead to Girl Kidnapped Two Years Ago
PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ When Robert Bondello checked his mail last week, he glanced at a card labeled, ``Have you seen us?″ and saw a mugshot of himself and his daughter Krystle. He panicked.
Bondello drove 288 miles to his mother’s home in Riverside, Calif., dropped off 7-year-old Krystle and disappeared. Meanwhile, a neighbor who knew the Bondellos also saw the photos on the direct-mail coupons and called the toll-free number listed.
Eight days after the cards were mailed to 57 million homes _ and two years after Krystle was kidnapped _ the little girl and her mother, Toni Bondello, were reunited.
Mother and daughter hugged at the Ontario, Calif., airport, ready to return to Krystle’s hometown, Bensalem Township, just outside Philadelphia.
``It was wonderful. I just grabbed this child and held on for dear life. I didn’t let go of her the whole entire night,″ Mrs. Bondello said Thursday.
The FBI was still looking for Bondello. If caught, he will face kidnapping charges in Bensalem Township.
The FBI and missing-children advocates say the 3-by-6-inch cards that have featured a different child each week for 10 years represent one of the most effective ways of finding missing youngsters. The cards are mailed along with a package of coupons for various services and products.
Krystle is the 75th child found because of the mailings, said Mona Davis, a spokeswoman for ADVO Inc. of Windsor, Conn., the direct-mail company that runs the program. The FBI says 194 new child-abduction cases were reported last year.
A decade ago, company employees suggested printing pictures of the missing child on one side of a card in the packet.
``In many cases we have children who are the ones who see the card,″ Davis said. ``They bring in the mail for their parents, and they recognize somebody they go to school with or they’re on the bus with.″
The listed number rings the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Arlington, Va., which passes information to the FBI.
``It’s an extremely useful resource,″ said Ben Ermini, director of case management for the center. ``ADVO probably generates 40 percent of the leads that come into the national center.″
Krystle was just a few weeks from starting kindergarten in August 1993 when her mother took her to Bondello’s house so he could take her on a trip to Chicago to see friends. The Bondellos had been separated about six months and agreed to share time with Krystle.
``I dropped her off, hugged and kissed her, and I said, `I’ll see you in a week,‴ Mrs. Bondello recalled.
One week turned into two weeks, then months, then more than two years. Mrs. Bondello alerted authorities.
Bondello, now 44, took a job at an auto body and paint shop in Merced, Calif., where he had no friends or family, and put Krystle in school, Mrs. Bondello said. The father and daughter used assumed names.
He told Krystle nothing about where her mother was or why she couldn’t see her, Krystle said. ``He just said he didn’t know,″ the girl said.
The FBI put up fliers nationwide, placed ads in newspapers and magazines, alerted state police and school districts, and still came up cold, said John Schaefer, the agent assigned to the case.
``We didn’t have one really concrete lead,″ Schaefer said. ``The biggest break was the ADVO thing.″
Schaefer said he was immediately flooded with calls when photographs and descriptions of Krystle and her father were featured in ADVO’s Dec. 4 mailing.
One, from an anonymous neighbor in Merced, was legitimate. The FBI tracked Bondello to Merced and called his mother in Riverside, who said she had the girl.
``We had interviewed her previously a number of times, and we felt she was in contact″ with Bondello, Schaefer said.
The reunion was emotional for Mrs. Bondello, but in all the confusion Krystle was understandably ``sort of distant,″ Mrs. Bondello said. ``We just have to take it day to day now.″