May 13, 2013

Cleveland suspect's past hinted of dark traits

Before taking three girls captive for a decade, Ariel Castro had a domineering attitude toward his wife and others.


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Sheriff’s department workers board up the home of kidnapping suspect Ariel Castro at 2207 Seymour Ave. in Cleveland after FBI personnel removed several items Friday.

Washington Post photo by Michael Williamson

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In Cleveland, the Castro brothers found a universe of transplants. Neighbors erected poles in their yards to display the Puerto Rican flag; Spanish was the language of choice. There was such a concentration of people from Yauco that a social club would sprout in years to come: "The Spirit of Yauco." The nearby park would be named for the Puerto Rican baseball star Roberto Clemente and a school for Luis Munoz Marin, the political legend often referred to as the "Father of Modern Puerto Rico."

The Castro brothers achieved a version of the American dream. Nano opened his own business, a used-car lot. Cesi bought real estate and opened a grocery store more than four decades ago. It remains a social hub as much because of the green plantains that he stocks in the cooler as for the neighborhood gossip exchanged on the park benches out back.

"In a lot of ways, Cesi is like a godfather over there," says Edwin Nunez, a Puerto Rican musician. "Very respected by the community."

But his brother's family was troubled. Nano abandoned his three sons, including Ariel, when they were young, Cesi Castro says in an interview. "Their mother raised them all by herself," Castro says.

Ariel was his favorite, Cesi Castro says, his "special nephew." Ariel was the one with the smarts. "There are very few people who can teach themselves how to play the bass," Cesi Castro says.

As a young man, Ariel Castro mastered "the plena," a folkloric style of Puerto Rican music. But he could do it all, "definitely a pro," recalls Alberto Fermin, who played in a band with Castro for two years. Salsa, merengue, jazz. He evolved into one of the top three Latin bass players in the city, says Nunez, who played plena with Castro at cultural events in the 1990s. It wasn't just a hobby. Castro may have worked factory jobs, but he also saw music as a way to make extra income, Fermin says.

The young bass player had an eye for women, and one day in the early 1990s, he called over a little boy, Ismael Figueroa Jr., who lived in the apartment across the street to ask about his teenage sister. This was someone he wanted to meet.

In the beginning, the romance between the 20-something Ariel Castro and Grimilda Figueroa went fine. But it quickly deteriorated.

In the early 1990s, the unmarried couple lived on the second floor of the home of Figueroa's parents. Once, Castro shoved Figueroa down a steep flight of stairs, family members recall. Her father, aided by a pack of neighbors and relatives, beat Castro in retaliation. He didn't fight back. "He didn't fight no man," Figueroa Jr. says.

Things only got worse when the couple moved to their own place; Castro's beatings of his common-law wife became more frequent and more severe, Figueroa's relatives say.

He exhibited strange, domineering traits. Grimilda Figueroa became a near prisoner in her home, says a sister, Elida Caraballo. Castro padlocked doors from the outside when he left. One day, Caraballo went into their house and saw Castro shoving Figueroa into a cardboard box and closing the lid.

"You're not going to get out of that box until I tell you to get out of that box!" Castro yelled, according to Caraballo.

He liked to play power games, Caraballo says. He'd act as if he were leaving, then sneak back into the house and monitor the phone line from an extension in the basement. If Figueroa called anyone, he'd be furious and beat her. As far back as 1993, Ariel Castro was charged with domestic violence against Figueroa, but a grand jury declined to indict him, and the case was dropped.

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