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December 09, 2007
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Los Angeles officer has a knack for finding people

By John Spano
The Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES Los Angeles Sheriff's Det. Mario Loffredo spent six months looking for a boy who didn't exist and found him.

As one of the detectives investigating former Roman Catholic priest and pedophile Michael Stephen Baker, Loffredo was told to find a potential molestation victim named in an internal church document.

The document, which the archdiocese was forced to turn over after a long court battle, was in Baker's personnel file and showed that church officials had looked into -- and dismissed -- an allegation that the priest had a boy in his room at a South Los Angeles parish church in 1996. According to the document, which was described to The Times by authorities, the boy, the boy's sister and their mother were all interviewed, and all denied that there was an improper relationship.

Detectives didn't buy it.

But the leads were thin.

The boy had a common Hispanic surname, the incident had occurred nearly a decade earlier and nobody from the parish knew who the youngster was or how to find him.

That's why Loffredo was called in.

A short, balding man who was born in Ecuador and speaks Spanish fluently, Loffredo is known for finding people others can't.

Faced with the task of running down a boy -- now a young man -- with a common last name, the investigator dug in. He drew a five-mile radius around the church Baker had been assigned to at the time, St. Columbkille's on South Main Street. He figured that if he checked out every school in that area, at every level, public and private, he was bound to find the man.

He was looking for a man born in 1980, 1981 or 1982. He then flipped through yearbooks. Twenty schools were checked, and 240 men were found and interviewed.

Loffredo worked mostly nights and weekends, the times when residents were most likely to be home. But after six months, Loffredo, 57, who is Catholic and has sent his children to Catholic schools, faced the prospect of failure.

In desperation, he decided to take a different approach. If the man could not be found, he would try to find the sister.

Using public records databases, Loffredo identified 20 women within the ZIP Code of St. Columbkille's that he wanted to interview. His first choice was a woman who had grown up just two blocks from the parish church. In less than a week, he found her in El Monte.

"I asked her, 'Were you a member of the church?' She said yes. I asked her if she had a brother, and she said yes," Loffredo recalled.

Then he asked the key question: "Did you know Father Baker?"

"She said 'Yes, he's my brother's godfather.' " She said her family had been very close to the priest, who had befriended them. She mentioned that Baker, her brother, a girlfriend and she had once spent a couple of days together in Palm Springs on a short vacation. Loffredo knew that the church document said Baker had allegedly taken the boy to Palm Springs.

The woman said her brother was married and still lived near the church.

Loffredo was excited but confused. The brother's last name was not the one in the report from the archdiocesan files. Why did everything fit except the name?

The sister explained that she and her brother had different fathers. Their mother had given the boy her own maiden name and the daughter a different surname.

Everybody at St. Columbkille's, where she had been an altar girl and her brother an altar boy, knew that, she told Loffredo.

At last, there it was, Loffredo thought. The archdiocese had misidentified the victim. He had been looking for a man who didn't exist.

If Loffredo knows how to find people, his boss, Sgt. Dan Scott, knows how to interview them.

Scott has done hundreds of child abuse interviews, one of the most difficult tasks a cop can take on. The cases depend almost entirely on finding a willing, believable victim: "There are no fingerprints, no smoking guns, no blood spatter, just the word of a child," he said.

The first interview was at the man's small home. When Scott mentioned Baker's name to the man, "we immediately knew something was there," he said. "The expression on his face was heartbreaking."

"He had tears. He started crying," Loffredo recalled.

Knowing that the man's wife was in the next room, Scott gently suggested that they talk more the next day.

Loffredo drove him to the police station, and on the way, he got the satisfaction that comes only from doing his job right.

"We were chatting, and I told him how long it took me to find him. Then he hugged me and thanked me for never giving up," said Loffredo said. "He said he never would have come forward."

In three hours, the detectives knew everything. The priest had showered the fatherless family with attention and gifts, taking brother and sister to movies and on trips, providing them with chores to make money.

The sexual abuse began slowly. The man told police that on one overnight visit, Baker had given him a hot drink, and he had quickly fallen asleep. When he woke the next morning, he was wet and sore and only later came to understand that he had been sexually assaulted.

During one molestation in the rectory, Baker mingled their blood before the St. Columbkille's altar and declared that they were joined forever, the man said.

"He would break down crying and tell the deepest, darkest secrets that he had been harboring for years, secrets that came close to destroying his life," Scott said.

The detectives interviewed his mother and spoke with the sister again. Both were stunned, the mother saying she felt as if she had handed her son to the devil.

There was one final question: Wasn't the mother suspicious after the church investigation? Didn't she worry after hearing the allegations against Baker?

What investigation? the women asked.

Neither mother nor daughter had ever been questioned by anyone from the church, or anyone else, about Baker.

Nor had the victim, despite what the report said, he told investigators.

Loffredo said the only person who knew about Baker and the boy was a nun who worked in the parish, the victim said. Once, she had walked into Baker's second-story room and found them together, kissing. She left without saying a word.

A week later, Loffredo and Scott interviewed the nun at a retirement home in the San Fernando Valley. She denied knowing anything about any abuse.

On the drive back, Loffredo told Scott he thought she was lying.

"I bet she's already on the phone with [Cardinal Roger] Mahony," he said.

The next day, Loffredo received a letter from the archdiocese that correctly identified the victim.

Michael Hennigan, a lawyer for the archdiocese, confirmed that the church later provided detectives with the man's correct surname. He said the church did not deliberately mislead investigators. Asked about detectives' assertion that church officials had not interviewed the victim or his family, he said: "I'm not aware of any reason why church officials would have ... said they had interviewed people they had not interviewed."

Last week, Baker pleaded guilty to sexually abusing the boy and another victim. Loffredo watched as Baker was escorted out of the courtroom to serve a 10-year prison sentence.

Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times

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