A teenage Roma girl, illiterate and with barely a word of English, was lured away by an opportunistic sexual predator while begging on a Dublin street two years ago.
Irish detectives, who quickly suspected that she had been murdered and her body dumped, began an investigation that provided them with a rare glimpse into the impoverished and insular Roma community from which the young girl came.
Like other Roma families, 19-year-old Marioara Rostas's family came to Ireland from Romania to beg. Begging was the family business, their trade, the only way they knew of making money, gardai were later told. There were estimates that on a good day, a mother and baby or a child could earn €50, not bad here but in Romania, the equivalent of a month's wages.
Some of Marioara's relatives had been here before. In 2007 the Rostas clan set up camp on a busy roundabout on the M50 motorway in Dublin. The group of up to 100 men, women and children passed several months sheltering beneath tents and plastic coverings, earning their keep by begging for money from passing motorists and also from begging excursions to the city centre.
However, the makeshift camp on the middle of a busy roundabout, with children running around, could not be ignored by the authorities and the Rostas were repatriated back to Romania on flights paid for by the State.
Several months later, the Rostas clan was back, squatting this time in an empty period cottage in Donabate, north Dublin, which they shared with other Roma families and their children.
Marioara's parents and her younger brother, who are from Timisoara, flew to Dublin on Ryanair flights to join the commune. Marioara joined them later on December 7, 2007. The extended family lived in the derelict house, without running water or electricity and rain coming through the dilapidated roof.
The conditions shocked detectives who called there to investigate Marioara's disappearance. The environment was dirty. Babies slept practically in the open air. Part of the grounds outside was used as a lavatory.
Like other Roma children in the clan, Marioara and her brother were schooled in the practice of begging. They were packed off to appointed spots in Dublin's city centre, sometimes with babies in their arms, taking up their usual spots from early morning on places such as Baggot Street and Pearse Street. In the evenings, they would trawl the cafe-lined pavements off Grafton Street for loose change.
As with other Roma children, Marioara and her brother had little or no English beyond the stock phrases they used when begging for money.
Marioara had been in Dublin for just three weeks when she disappeared. She was begging with her little brother on Lombard Street in the south city on a Sunday afternoon in January 2008.
A dark-haired man pulled over in a silver Ford Mondeo and Marioara approached him for money. Her brother watched as he rolled down his window to chat to his sister. When he saw her get into the car, he went over to see what was going on.
The driver gave him €10 and although he couldn't understand exactly what was said, the boy heard the word "McDonald's" and assumed the motorist was taking his sister for something to eat.
Marioara's family never saw her again. She managed to make one chilling phone call the day after she disappeared. She called a brother back in Romania, because none of her family in Dublin had mobile phones.
She told him she was being held against her will and she had been violated. She had no idea where she was and tried to spell out the letters of a street sign she could see from the window of the house where she was being held.
Three days after she vanished, her disappearance was reported to gardai. Her father had struggled for a while to find someone in the Roma community who had enough English to report her missing.
That was on January 8, 2008. More than two years later, Marioara's body has still not been found. Anonymous calls to gardai from witnesses -- who have yet to come forward -- say she was brought to a house in the south city, raped and shot and her body rolled in carpet and dumped in the Dublin mountains.
The chief suspect, a southside gangland figure, has been arrested and questioned, as were members of his family. By the time detectives located the house where she was said to have been murdered, it had been burnt to the ground -- but seven bullet holes were still visible in the walls.
News last week that unobtrusive begging is to be legalised means that proffering an empty cup and politely asking for change -- however irritating it is for those on the receiving end -- is officially a legitimate means of earning a buck.
But in some ways, it also legitimises a way of life with a dangerous, darker side.
On an internet chat forum on which anonymous 'clients' are invited to swap views on prostitutes or their sexual predilections, one said he was looking for a Roma girl.
"There were a couple of Roma girls in Mountjoy Square about a year or so ago. I'm looking for another genuine Romanian/ Romany chick." One of the more printable replies advised him to "walk by any Bank of Ireland, they should be outside selling theBig Issue." On another forum, a man boasted he had picked up a Roma girl for €50.
There is mounting evidence that, in some communities at least, begging is a racket organised by gangsters in which woman and children are exploited for cash. Last month, police in Britain linked up with colleagues in Romania to smash a gang that had trafficked 15 Roma children to Britain where they were put to work begging on the streets. Police raided several Romanian homes and found machine guns, jewels and expensive cars paid for by the earnings of child beggars.
In Finland, Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen last week asked people not to give money to beggars to stop what is a relatively new phenomenon there. There has been a proliferation of Roma beggars and the government is reportedly concerned about links between begging and organised crime.
In Dublin, garda sources say there is little doubt that, in some cases, begging is an organised business in which women and children are put to work to extract as much money as they can from passers-by, with dangerous and sometimes fatal consequences.