3 missing women rescued from Cleveland home; questions raised over police visits

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

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 eight-room house where they were found Monday night. Their rescue came when Berry, now 27, hailed a neighbor while her captor was out, kicked in part of the front door with his help and frantically called 911.

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Map locates where the women went missing in relation to where they were rescued.
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Map locates where the women went missing in relation to where they were rescued.

Also found in the house was a 6-year-old girl who is believed to be Berry’s daughter.

There had been signs that something was amiss inside the two-story house with faded paint, which sits on a street packed with small homes with open porches just steps away from a gas station and a Caribbean grocery. Neighbors said that several years ago, a naked woman was seen crawling on her hands and knees in the back yard, and pounding was heard on the doors in 2011. Police showed up each time but stayed outside, the neighbors said.

The home in a heavily Latino neighborhood was owned by Ariel Castro, 52, a former school bus driver who was arrested along with his brothers, Pedro Castro, 54, and Onil Castro, 50.

City officials said children and family services investigators had gone to the home in January 2004, when two of the girls were 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 G. 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 brothers had not been charged, and it was unclear whether attorneys had been appointed for them.

On Tuesday afternoon, a Puerto Rican flag flapped listlessly on the porch of the Castro home as investigators in white hazardous-materials suits walked in and out. Crews hoisted a dirty brown SUV onto a tow truck as a crowd drawn by the spectacle watched from less than half a block away.

“Justice came for those young women,” said Hans Massas, 61, a retired worker at an auto-parts store who lives around the corner from the house.

The dramatic rescue of three young women who disappeared doing things as seemingly innocuous as walking home from school or from a job at Burger King produced a flood of emotions from local and federal authorities, who said they had never stopped investigating the cases.

“The nightmare is over. These three young ladies have provided us with the ultimate definition of survival and perseverance,” said Steve Anthony, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Cleveland division. “The families of three young ladies never gave up hope, and neither did law enforcement. . . . Yes, law enforcement professionals do cry.”

In Washington, victims rights advocate and former “America’s Most Wanted” host John Walsh said he did “cartwheels” upon hearing the news from Ohio. “Most of these end where the child is never recovered or wind up like my Adam, murdered,’’ said Walsh, whose son was abducted and killed in 1981.

“To see these three alive, all at the same house, is remarkable to me after 25 years of sad endings,” he said at an awards gala held by the Alexandria-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “This is the most incredible ending to three nightmares.”

Walsh and police hailed Berry as the hero of the saga. By all accounts, she was a typical teenage girl — who wore her hair in a ponytail, had mild acne, liked to shop and loved rapper Eminem — when she disappeared at age 16 on April 21, 2003, while on her way home from her job at Burger King.

She was still wearing her Burger King uniform. Her 17th-birthday party had been planned for the next day.

It was Berry, police and neighbors said, who flagged down a neighbor Monday night and persuaded him to help her kick in the lower part of the house’s front door. From across the street, she called 911.

“Help me. I’m Amanda Berry. I’ve been kidnapped, and I’ve been missing for 10 years,” she told the dispatcher tearfully before describing her alleged captor.

The neighbor, Charles Ramsey, told a television reporter that he has lived across the street from Ariel Castro’s house for about a year and frequently saw him outside, tinkering with his cars or playing with his dogs. “Not a clue that that girl was in that house, or that anybody else was in there” against her will, Ramsey said.

DeJesus, now 23, disappeared while walking home from school on April 2, 2004. She typically covered nearly 40 blocks on the trek, which took her through thriving commercial areas, blocks dotted by churches, and neighborhoods dogged by drugs and prostitution.

The 5-foot-1-inch teen with long, curly dark-brown hair was very close to her family. In March, her aunt, Janice Ruiz Smith, wrote on Facebook — which barely existed when DeJesus disappeared — “To the person who took my niece Gina, please please let her go. . . . She has a family who loves her, and misses her very much. Please let her come home.’’

Castro’s estranged son, Ariel “Anthony” Castro, wrote an article for a community newspaper on the search for DeJesus in 2004 while he was a journalism student at Bowling Green University.

Perhaps the most mysterious case involved Knight, now 32, who police said vanished in 2002. She apparently was not treated as a missing person because some family members thought she had left home voluntarily.

But her mother, Barbara Knight, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper that she always considered her daughter to be a missing person and that long after police stopped searching, she placed fliers on Cleveland’s West Side.

Roberto Diaz, who lives nearby, said Ariel Castro participated in at least one of the annual marches held in the neighborhood to draw attention to the case of the missing girls.

The three women were found to be in good health after medical evaluations and were reunited with family members. Sandra Ruiz, who identified herself as the aunt of Gina DeJesus, told reporters that all three were in remarkably good spirits. “It’s just unbelievable. . . . These women are just so strong,” Ruiz said.

Authorities declined to answer questions about how the women were treated and said they will proceed cautiously in interviews, using a specially trained FBI team to spare them the trauma of reliving their captivity.

Castro, who was born in Puerto Rico, played bass in Latin music bands in the area, Reuters reported. Neighbors said he sometimes parked his school bus in front of the house at lunchtime and would take multiple bags of fast food inside.

In 2005, Castro was accused of attacking his former wife, Grimilda Figueroa, whose injuries included broken ribs and two dislocated shoulders, the Plain Dealer reported. The paper cited court records that were not available online.

Adam Bernstein, Alice Crites and Caitlin Dewey in Washington contributed to this report.

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