May 8, 2013

Cleveland kidnapping case: A joyous reunion, but questions, too

Three women are freed after years in captivity after a neighbor helps one of them escape.

The Washington Post

CLEVELAND - The families of three women who spent years in captivity inside a Cleveland home celebrated their remarkable rescue Tuesday as questions began emerging about why police were called to the house at least twice yet never went inside.

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Amanda Berry, right, hugs her sister, Beth Serrano, after being reunited in a hospital Monday. Berry and two other women were found after being missing for about a decade.

The Associated Press

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This combination photo shows Onil Castro, left, Ariel Castro and Pedro Castro, who were in custody Tuesday.

The Associated Press

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SUSPECTS LIVED AMID THOSE LOOKING FOR MISSING WOMEN

CLEVELAND - In the tight-knit neighborhood near downtown where many conversations are spoken in Spanish, it seems most everyone knew Ariel Castro.

He played bass guitar in salsa and merengue bands. He parked his school bus on the street. He gave neighborhood children rides on his motorcycle.

And when they gathered for a candlelight vigil to remember two girls who vanished years ago, Castro was there, too, comforting the mother of one of the missing, a neighbor said.

Neighbors and friends were stunned by the arrest of Castro and his two brothers after a 911 call led police to his house, where authorities say three women missing for about a decade were held captive.

Castro and his brothers, ages 50 to 54, were in custody Tuesday but had not been formally charged.

Castro was friends with the father of Gina DeJesus, one of the missing women, and helped search for her after she disappeared, said Khalid Samad, a friend of the family. He also performed music at a fundraiser held in her honor, Samad said.

"When we went out to look for Gina, he helped pass out fliers," said Samad, a community activist who was at the hospital with DeJesus and her family Monday night.

Tito DeJesus, one of Gina's uncles, said he played in a few bands with Castro over the past 20 years. He remembered visiting Castro's house after his niece disappeared, but he never noticed anything out of ordinary, saying it was very sparsely furnished and filled with musical instruments.

"That's pretty much what it looked like," DeJesus said. "I had no clue, no clue whatsoever that this happened."

The women -- Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight -- vanished separately a decade ago while in their teens and early 20s only blocks from the 1,400-square-foot house where they were found Monday night. Their rescue came almost by accident, when Berry, now 27, hailed a neighbor while her alleged captor was out, slipped through an obstructed front door with the neighbor's help and frantically called 911.

Yet there had been signs that something was amiss inside the faded two-story house, which was far from isolated and just steps away from a gas station and Caribbean grocery. Neighbors told the Associated Press that in recent years, a naked woman was seen crawling on her hands and knees in the back yard, and pounding was heard on the doors. Police showed up each time but stayed outside, they said.

The home, in a heavily Latino neighborhood, was owned by Ariel Castro, a 52-year-old former school bus driver who was arrested along with his brothers, Pedro Castro, 54, and Onil Castro, 50. Authorities said children and family services investigators went to the home in January 2004, after all three girls went missing, because Ariel Castro had left a child on a school bus.

Investigators "knocked on the door but were unsuccessful in connection with making any contact with anyone inside that home," Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson said at a news conference, adding that officials "have no indication that any of the neighbors, bystanders, witnesses or anyone else has ever called regarding any information, regarding activity that occurred at that house on Seymour Avenue."

The Castro bothers had not been charged as of late Tuesday afternoon, and it was unclear whether attorneys had been appointed for them.

In addition to the three women, a 6-year-old girl was also rescued from the house authorities said. The girl is believed to be the daughter of Amanda Berry.

Berry, now 27, disappeared in April 2003, a day before her 17th birthday, after calling her sister to say she was getting a ride home from her job at a Burger King. Gina DeJesus went missing a year later, at age 14, while walking home from middle school. The oldest of the women, Michelle Knight, disappeared in August 2002, when she was 20 years old.

While Berry's and DeJesus's disappearances prompted widespread attention and media coverage, the case of Knight, who was older and the first to go missing, at the time drew far fewer headlines.

Law enforcement officials said at a briefing Tuesday that there had been no prior reports of suspicious or criminal activity at the house where the women and girl were rescued.

On Monday, while Castro was out, Berry hailed a neighbor, Charles Ramsey, convinced him to help her slip through an obstructed front door by kicking in the lower part and placed a frantic call to 911.

"Help me. I'm Amanda Berry. I've been kidnapped, and I've been missing for 10 years," she told the dispatcher tearfully. "And I'm, I'm here. I'm free now."

Ramsey told a television reporter that he has lived across the street from Ariel Castro's house for about a year and frequently sees him outside, tinkering with his cars or playing with his dogs. They have eaten barbecue and listened to music together, he said.

"Not a clue that that girl was in that house, or that anybody else was in there against his will," Ramsey said. "I see that dude every day."

The women and girls were reunited with their family members and assessed at Metro Health Medical Center, officials said. Sandra Ruiz, who identified herself as the aunt of Gina DeJesus, told reporters that all three rescued women were in remarkably good spirits. "It's just unbelievable . . . these women are just so strong," Ruiz said.

In 2004, Ariel Castro came to police attention when he apparently left a child unattended on his school bus, but authorities who investigated the incident determined that it was accidental, law enforcement authorities said.

Police said they will proceed cautiously when interviewing the three women and will use a specially trained FBI team to gather evidence while, as much as possible, sparing the women the trauma of reliving their captivity.

"The real hero here is Amanda. She's the one who got this rolling," Cleveland Deputy Police Chief Ed Tomba said. "We're just following her lead."

Authorities declined to answer questions about how the women may have been treated while being held captive. They said there is no evidence the kidnappings extended beyond the Cleveland metropolitan area and asked anyone who may have information about the case to call the Cleveland FBI office at 216-522-1400.

 

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