At all hours, the man invaded the security of home and family, yet they would not find out until it was too late. Then they read the letter: "Dear Mother and Father," it began.
The family got its first computer early in 1998, a gift from a sister who built them as a hobby.
The father thought it would help his youngest with her schoolwork, but he couldn't help but view the new equipment uneasily. He worried about lost control and the way things could now come into their home unbidden, like some flu bug coming home with a child at the end of a school day.
He and his wife noticed how e-mail from Internet pornography publishers came unsolicited to their America Online account.
They already were protective of their youngest daughter who, at 12, was not permitted to watch TV after 9 p.m. or to have multiple ear piercings. They made it clear from the get-go that they would be strict with this new machine.
Unlike many of her friends, she wasn't allowed to log on without her parents' permission. They checked her e-mail to be sure she communicated online only with friends.
If they discovered her messaging anyone whom they didn't know, they took away her access privileges and erased the stranger's e-mail address. They kept the computer in the living room, where they could always keep watch.
Not that they were given reason to worry. Their daughter was smart and confident, if somewhat sheltered, and never in any serious trouble. After six months, the father wondered if they were being paranoid. The computer rules were relaxed.
A few months after their daughter turned 13, they gave her permission to sign on by herself.
She was free to roam the Internet, unchaperoned.
In Crooks, S.D., a suburb north of Sioux Falls, 25-year-old Michael Sean Gisi lived with his wife, Lynette, and 4-year-old daughter.
Gisi, a quiet man who drank a few beers a day and a case on the weekend, dreamed of making it big in computers. He had worked for the customer service help line for Gateway 2000, the company that sells computers in the boxes with the cow spots. Now he was a technician for a small computer company.
Gisi's wife was oblivious to their home computer, unaware even if it was connected to the Internet, and oblivious to what her husband was up to. He was on it every day, often viewing child pornography.
There came a time when pictures of young children were not enough. He reached out on the Internet, searching for girls.
He talked online with a 16-year-old from Massachusetts, e-mailing her his picture and hinting that they should meet.
"I look pretty ugly in there," he told her in a message. "I bet you are gorgeous and wouldn't even think of going out with somebody that looks like me, would you????"
The girl changed her e-mail address so Gisi could not contact her. So he looked for someone else and, in an Internet chat room for young teens, he struck up an online conversation with a girl from St. Petersburg. It was August 1998.
Anyone in a chat room can view the messages people send each other, joining the online conversations as though they are all together at a party. To keep their daughter from visiting adult sites, the St. Petersburg girl's parents used controls on their Internet account so she could visit only chat rooms for those her own age. But that didn't prevent Gisi from prowling the underage chat rooms himself.
The first time they met on the computer, the girl told Gisi about a friend who was threatening suicide. Gisi reassured her that the friend probably wasn't serious.
They talked like kids on a playground. She told Gisi she liked to shop, go to the beach and Rollerblade and that she wanted to be a teacher. He liked to swim and watch TV.
They exchanged e-mail addresses so they could talk directly, and privately. They e-mailed almost daily.
Gisi didn't lie about his age, and eventually told her he had a wife and child. The girl lied and told him she was 17.
"You want to know that I love you, well baby, I do. More than life itself. So when hell freezes over, I'll be there for you," Gisi said in one e-mail.
"I trust you completely," the girl said in another. "I was just thinking that you really love me. I mean, it's like every other guy that said he loved me wasn't telling the truth."
They sent each other e-mail roses: -___-.
They exchanged pictures and started talking sometimes by telephone. It was getting harder for the girl to hide her real age.
In late September, she nervously told him she was really 15, still stretching the truth by two years.
"I do love you, no matter what age you are," Gisi wrote back.
She told him she was a virgin. They talked about sex and engaged in phone sex. Gisi promised her he would leave his wife and marry her, or become her guardian.
He instructed her to keep quiet about their online romance, to keep it on the "down low," a tall order for a love-lost teen. She wrote "I Love Mikey" in white-out ink on the cover of her math book. Her friends, who loved to gossip about the cutest boys in middle school, pestered her about the identity of the mysterious boyfriend. She didn't breathe a word.
Her parents suspected nothing. They took away her computer privileges a few times for spending too much time online, but they figured she was just gossiping with friends.
She and Gisi began discussing a rendezvous in St. Petersburg.
"The problem is," she told him, "I don't know where we are going to meet. My parents would kill me if you came to my house."
Gisi told his best friend, Richard Chetwood, about his "girlfriend."
"I can't wait until she comes of age," Gisi told him via e-mail. "I have a very good feeling she'll be worth the wait."
When Chetwood learned that Gisi wanted to visit Florida, he told his friend he "was crazy and on the verge of ruining his life."
By early October, Gisi had broken up with his wife.
A week later, he visited Kay Jewelers at the Empire Mall in Sioux Falls. A clerk showed him a diamond solitaire ring, on sale for $157.94. He paid cash.
Two weeks before his Florida trip, the girl told him the truth about her age.
No matter, Gisi was headed south.
He arrived the week before Thanksgiving.
She met him after school, at a 7-Eleven. He was sitting on the hood of his rental car, and they hugged in the parking lot. He dropped her at her house with plans to meet the next day.
Gisi checked into a hotel on Treasure Island, telling management he didn't want any housekeeping services during his stay.
The next day, a Thursday, the girl skipped school and they did the town. They ate lunch at Checkers and visited The Pier in St. Petersburg. Gisi stopped at a Wal-Mart and bought a disposable camera.
They finished their day in his hotel room, doing what they had long discussed online. She refused to have unprotected sex, waiting in the room while he hurried to the store to buy condoms.
Over the weekend, the girl told her parents she was spending the night at a friend's house. She and Gisi had sex three more times.
They walked hand in hand on the beach, out to a spot on the sand where an older sister had been married the year before. They watched the sun melt into the Gulf of Mexico.
Before he returned to South Dakota, Gisi told her he would marry her when she was old enough, and gave her the promise ring he had bought at the jewelers. It was too big for her tiny finger. She put it back in the box.
Gisi told her he wanted to take her back with him, but he couldn't just yet. He didn't have the money.
He left for the airport.
Home in South Dakota, Gisi scratched together the cash for a $160 Greyhound bus ticket for a one-way trip from St. Petersburg to Sioux Falls.
He had it waiting for her at the bus station. He arranged for her to pick it up using a password, knowing she was too young to have any identification to claim it.
Her password was "Alligator."
Gisi spent Thanksgiving with his wife and child. His wife wanted a reconciliation, but Gisi told her that he was in love with someone else, a woman he had met on vacation.
The following Monday, after the girl's parents left for work, she took a cab to the bus terminal on Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) Street N. She carried $60, her babysitting money.
She left her parents a two-page note, taped to a wall by the front door:
I had to leave . . . Where I am, I'm fine, and am with a trusted friend. I love you guys very much and hope that you guys aren't mad at me. I am sorry to leave you . . . Everything isn't turning out the way I want it to, but will soon.
Her mother found the note that afternoon when she returned from her accounting job. The parents frantically called their daughter's friends, then the police, to report her missing. Finally, they dialed +69 on the phone in their daughter's room to get the last number she had dialed.
They got the Yellow Cab company, which eventually said that the fare they had picked up at the house had been dropped off at the bus station.
The manager at the bus station faxed them the itinerary of the bus carrying their daughter. With all its stops, the parents figured they could catch it.
As they drove north on Interstate 75, they used a cell phone to call police along the way, hoping someone could stop the bus.
Late in the evening, the bus stopped in Cordele, Ga., about 75 miles past the Florida line. As the girl got out to use the bathroom, a police officer asked her for a name.
As she headed back to the bus minutes later, the officer told her to get her bags, they were going to the police station.
She cried as she watched TV there, fearing the confrontation, the questions, fearing for Gisi.
"I knew eventually I'd have to tell them what happened," she said.
Her parents arrived and hugged her. There were no recriminations, no questions. On the six-hour drive home, they let her sleep in the back seat.
Only after they arrived home did they gently question her.
She told them she met a boy her own age online. Her mother wasn't buying it. They called the St. Petersburg police and then the FBI.
The girl finally told them the truth.
At the St. Petersburg police station, she talked to detective Dave Klippel, a veteran sex crime investigator.
She was confused. Her parents told her Gisi took advantage of her, preyed on her emotions, but she still loved him and didn't want to betray him.
Police finally convinced her to call Gisi so they could tape him making admissions. She participated, reluctantly.
As Klippel listened, Gisi expressed dismay that the girl was not on the bus headed to him. She told him that she wanted to tell her parents about their relationship.
Gisi groaned repeatedly and seemed to hyperventilate, his voice tortured.
"Honey, you can't tell them the sex part," he said. "That's the one thing that you cannot tell them. You do realize that, don't you?"
"Why can't I?"
"Um, honey, how old am I?"
"Well, yeah, but . . ."
"And how old are you?"
As the family arrived home from the police station, the phone was ringing.
It was Gisi calling to assure the parents that his intentions were good. He wanted their approval for the relationship.
"You're messing with a 13-year-old's mind," the father said.
"The only thing I'm guilty of is falling in love with her," Gisi countered.
Before slamming down the phone, the father told him, "If you come back here, I'll kill you."
Two days later in South Dakota came the inevitable knock on Gisi's door. It was Klippel and an FBI agent.
In his kitchen, nervously tapping his hand on the table, Gisi confessed all. He said it was love. All he had done was follow his heart.
He told the officers he had a new Internet account, blushing when he gave them his password: "F_- me."
He began to cry when they arrested him for having sex with an underaged girl, asking if there is an exception "if we're going to get married."
Driving to jail, a tearful Gisi asked Klippel, "Why don't people understand?"
The FBI searched Gisi's office. In the garbage by his computer, they found a drawing that looked like a wolf, which they considered fitting. They also found a crumpled note. In an unsteady hand, Gisi had practiced writing the 13-year-old girl's name, giving her his last name, as though they were married.
Gisi was extradited to Florida and stayed in the Pinellas County Jail, unable to meet the $250,000 bail.
Though he wasn't allowed contact with the girl, he managed to smuggle her a four-page letter. In it, he professed his undying love.
"Most guys in this situation would be cursing their girlfriend out, calling her a stupid b__," he wrote. "I can't and I won't. You just got scared, as I did. I forgive you, if you forgive me."
The girl cried when she read the letter and hid it in a dresser drawer. She didn't tell her parents.
But her father, now 46, discovered it as he put her clothes away one summer day. He took it to police, and jailers isolated Gisi so he could not contact her, suspecting he was trying influence her testimony.
Now Gisi was angry at his true love. "I hope she's not waiting for me," he wrote a friend. "I wouldn't love her after this bulls_-. I don't like liars . . . These girls all seem to have one thing in common. They're sluts!!"
After more than a year in jail, Gisi finally got his day in court last month.
He glared at the teenager as she told the jury about the sex and her confusion over the relationship.
Gisi's lawyer, John Swisher, disputed the number of times they had sex. But he presented no witnesses, leaving it to prosecutors Magda McSwain and Bill Burgess to meet their burden of proof.
After two hours of deliberations, Gisi stood before the jury, the girl seated in the courtroom.
Her tears flowed freely as the verdict was announced: guilty as charged on all counts. Gisi hung his head.
Outside the courtroom, the father asked his daughter: "Do you love him still?"
She nodded. "Yes."
Pinellas Senior Judge Helen Hansel is scheduled to sentence Gisi on Friday. Under state guidelines, his convictions on 14 felonies, including lewd and lascivious acts on a minor and handling and fondling a child under 16, call for a sentence of 71 years to life in prison. He has no previous criminal record.
His mother, Joanne Contreras, will be there. She knows her son was wrong but said he doesn't deserve life. She said the girl must share blame.
"They make it look like he's a sex abuser with kids," she said. "He's not like that. By the time he realized how old she was, he had already fallen in love with her. It was too late."
Shortly after Gisi's arrest, the girl's parents split up, after 26 years together. The father, a construction supervisor, retained custody of the girl. He said he and his wife, who is 43, had other problems, but Gisi "was the straw that broke the camel's back."
The girl recently attended her prom, but not before Dad met her date and laid down strict rules. He set a curfew.
The girl, almost 15 now, made it home with 45 minutes to spare.
She is the youngest in her family by six years. Three sisters and a brother already are grown and living away from home.
Her parents taught all their children that they could tell their parents anything, that they should keep no secrets. They didn't expect perfection, just honesty and responsibility, and now they are left to wonder how things got so away from them, right under their noses.
"Maybe we got lazy," the father said about relaxing the computer restrictions.
The computer is still in their apartment. The girl uses it for homework, as well as surfing the Internet. The father has talked to her about strangers, about men with ugly desires, men without fear of consequence.
"I'm going to have to trust her," he said. "I've asked her, "Do you know what you're going to do next time?' "
Next time, she tells him, she will keep no secrets.
_ St. Petersburg Times researchers CARYN BAIRD and KITTY BENNETT contributed to this report.
"Love till eternity"
Back and forth went the e-mail, how they couldn't STAND to be apart, how INCREDIBLE it was to hear the other's voice, what would happen if her parents found out. A few excerpts:
Her to him
Date: Tue, 15 Sep 1998 08:47:52 EDT
My Mikey =)
... I am sorry this is going to be so short, im not supposed to be on the computer. I wish you would get this in the daytime, cause then I would give you my number, its just, if my sister answers the phone, I will be dead, you know? My parents are very strick in their old age, hehehe. Im just playing, they have always been strick, kinda hard on you when your growing up and everyone else gets to do stuff except you. Oh well. I really gotta get going. I am dreadfully sick, and once again, my mother is making me stay home from school. AAAHHHHH!!!! Oh well. I will hopefully talk to you soon. Luv ya.
Him to her
Date: Tue, 15 Sep 1998 20:36:54 -0500
Still not feeling better?? I'm sorry.. You are not in love with me, YET?!!?? Give it time, it may happen.. If you give me your phone number and I call and your sister answers, I'll just say I'm a friend from school.. Would that work??? Anyways, I am at work so I gotta go. Luv ya and get better. -___
Her to him
Date: Wed, 30 Sep 1998 08:23:30 EDT
Hey baby, I liked the P.S. part, it made me laugh, melting butter on my stomach huh? hehehe...
I think it would be great if we lived together. God, why do I keep doing this to you? I have to tell you something. I am so sorry. I would make a horrible wife. I mean, I havent told you the whole truth, oh god, I can just imagine how disappointed you are with me. Well, her goes, ok, im15, but im in 9th. I got held back a school year. I dont know why I kept lying to you. I am so sorry. I just hope you forgive me. Although, you may think that I am, well, a liar, but, please don't think that. I am begging you to forgive me. I cant live without you. Please, god, I cry too much. I am just begging you. Please forgive me. But, I have to go. I love you so much. Im not lying when I say that. I am so sorry. Bye!
P.S. I really am sorry!
Love always, no matter what,
About this story
In reporting this story, the St. Petersburg Times reviewed court documents, transcripts of trial testimony, the FBI report of the agency's investigation, e-mails recovered from Michael Gisi's computer and transcripts of the call between Gisi and the girl after her aborted trip to South Dakota.
Gisi, through his attorney, chose not to be interviewed.
The Times interviewed prosecutors, the St. Petersburg police detective who investigated the case and the father of the girl. The mother declined to be interviewed. The newspaper respected the father's wish that his daughter not be contacted. The names of the girl and her parents are not included in this story because of the nature of the charges.