TORONTO — A tip from a wary subway rider in Montreal ended a nearly three-year hunt for a missing British girl and led to an emotional reunion with her father, authorities said Tuesday.
Police and officials with the Canadian Centre for Child Protection said seven-year-old Pearl Gavaghan Da Massa has returned to her home in Manchester, along with the father who relocated to Canada to find her.
Police allege the girl was abducted in 2008 by her mother, Helen Gavaghan, and spirited through three different countries in an attempt to stay hidden.
The girl was discovered when Gavaghan’s suspicious behaviour sounded an alarm for a Montreal subway passenger, who then contacted police, said Christy Dzikowicz, the centre’s director of missing children’s services.
The man did not recognize Pearl from any of the numerous photos of her distributed throughout the country, but contacted police two weeks ago after becoming worried about the way she was interacting with her mother.
“He thought that the mom was really clinging to the daughter and looking around very concerned and suspiciously,” Dzikowicz said from Winnipeg.
“I don’t think he really knew, he just had a sense that there was something wrong.”
Police investigated the call and immediately notified Pearl’s father, Henry Da Massa, that his child had been located. Da Massa was reunited with his daughter on Sept. 21.
“It was only when we got on the plane that I really knew we were coming home,” Da Massa said in an interview with the Manchester Evening News.
“It was the end of the mayhem and we could finally get back to normality.”
A Facebook page established to assist in the search has since erupted in public expressions of delight that Pearl has been found.
“Pearl is going to know that when her Daddy says he will do anything for her, that it won’t be an empty sentiment,” one reader wrote.
“Thank God you found her,” another said. “Worth shouting from the rooftops,” wrote a third.
The news marks the end of a difficult three-year saga for Da Massa, who had relocated to Toronto in 2010 in order to be more actively involved in the search for his daughter. He could not immediately be reached for comment.
The hunt for Pearl began in December 2008, when Gavaghan allegedly picked her daughter up from a daycare centre in Manchester and never returned.
A friend claimed mother and daughter were headed to India for a month’s vacation, but the pair were tracked to Cancun, Mexico. Three weeks later they crossed on foot into Laredo, Tex.
Little is known about the pair’s whereabouts through 2009, but friend and local pastor Doug Johnson Hatlem said they moved into a Toronto Catholic community early that year and remained for more than a year.
Johnson Hatlem said he came to know the family well under their assumed names of Dana and Belle Flaherty.
He called Gavaghan an excellent mother who provided exemplary care for both her child and others in the community, and who believed she was acting in the best interests of her daughter, he said.
“She was just wonderfully capable as a mother,” Johnson Hatlem said. Pearl, meanwhile, was on the receiving end of a “determined love and care and tenderness,” he added.
Dzikowicz said the girl was found in good health, but will likely face a difficult period as she adjusts back to normal life.
“Parental abduction is an extreme, extreme measure,” she said. “We were concerned about the level to which she’s been isolated, the fact that she hasn’t been enrolled in school and the things that we really expect for our children.”
In his interview, Da Massa said his daughter was told she no longer had a father and is working on reconnecting with parts of her past.
“We’ve had to go back to where we were three years ago and get used to each other again.”
Johnson Hatlem said the girl interacted frequently with local children and excelled in the home schooling she received.
“She was advanced in ways that she was able to keep up academically with my daughter, who was a couple of years older than her.”
Gavaghan, who is the subject of arrest and extradition warrants in the United Kingdom, is currently in custody in Montreal.
The Missing Children’s Society of Canada had posted a $10,000 reward for Da Massa’s safe return, but the offer expired, unclaimed, earlier this year.