ONE NEIGHBOUR SAYS a naked woman was seen crawling on her hands and knees in the backyard of the house a few years ago. Another heard pounding on the home’s doors and noticed plastic bags over the windows.
Both times, police showed up but never went inside, neighbours say. Police also paid a visit to the house in 2004, but no one answered the door.
The front door of a house where three women escaped. Pic: AP Photo/Tony Dejak
Now, after three women who vanished a decade ago were found captive on Monday at the run-down house, Cleveland police are facing questions for the second time in four years about their handling of missing-person cases and are conducting an internal review to see if they overlooked anything.
City Safety Director Martin Flask said that investigators had no record of anyone calling about criminal activity at the house but were still checking police, fire and emergency databases.
The house where the women were kept. Pic: AP Photo/Tony Dejak
The three women were rescued after one of them kicked out the bottom portion of a locked screen door and used a neighbor’s telephone to call 911.
“Help me. I’m Amanda Berry,” she breathlessly told a dispatcher in a call that exhilarated and astonished much of the city. “I’ve been kidnapped, and I’ve been missing for 10 years and I’m, I’m here, I’m free now.”
Berry, 27, Michelle Knight, 32, and Gina DeJesus, about 23, had apparently been held captive in the house since their teens or early 20s, police Chief Michael McGrath said.
Undated handout photos provided by the FBI show Amanda Berry, left, and Georgina “Gina” Dejesus.
Three brothers, ages 50 to 54, were arrested. One of them, former school bus driver Ariel Castro, owned the home, situated in a poor neighbourhood dotted with boarded-up houses just south of downtown.
AFP reports that Cleveland police spokeswoman Jennifer Ciaccia told CNN officers plan to interview the suspects today and that they should be brought before a judge to face charges later in the day.
A relative of the three brothers said their family was “totally shocked” after hearing about the missing women being found at the home.
Juan Alicea said the arrests of his wife’s brothers had left relatives “as blindsided as anyone else” in their community.
A 6-year-old girl believed to be Berry’s daughter also was found in the home, police Deputy Chief Ed Tomba said. He would not say who the father was.
Amanda Berry, right, hugs her sister Beth Serrano after being reunited in a Cleveland hospital. To their right is the 6-year-old girl. (AP Photo/Family Handout courtesy WOIO-TV)
The women were reported by police to be in good health, after being examined in hospital, and were discharged to be reunited with joyous family members but remained in seclusion.
In eastern Tennessee, Berry’s father, Johnny Berry, told WJHL-TV that he spoke to her for the first time Monday night by phone at his home in Elizabethton.
“She said, ‘Hi, Daddy, I’m alive,’” Johnny Berry said.
She said, ‘I love you, I love you, I love you,’ and then we both started crying.
Although Amanda Berry was born and raised in Cleveland, her father, grandparents and cousins live in Elizabethton. Before she disappeared, she often visited Tennessee during the summers. Family members said they visited her in Cleveland about three weeks before she went missing.
The head of the FBI in Cleveland, Stephen Anthony, said the families’ prayers for the missing women had been answered.
“The nightmare is over,” he said.
These three young ladies have provided us with the ultimate definition of survival and perseverance. The healing can now begin.
Words can’t describe the emotions being felt by all. Yes, law enforcement professionals do cry.
A collection of celebratory balloons and stuffed animals crowds the entrance to the home of the sister of Amanda Berry. Many people who dropped off balloons said they didn’t know Berry personally but wanted to celebrate her safe return. Pic: AP Photo/Andrew Welsh-Huggins
Police would not say how the women were taken captive or how they were hidden in the neighbourhood where they had vanished. Investigators also would not say whether they were kept in restraints inside the house or sexually assaulted.
Shocking stories emerge
Two neighbours said they called police to the Castro house on separate occasions.
Elsie Cintron, who lives three houses away, said her daughter saw a naked woman crawling in the backyard several years ago and called police. “But they didn’t take it seriously,” she said.
Another neighbour, Israel Lugo, said he heard pounding on some of the doors of the house in November 2011. Lugo said officers knocked on the front door, but no one answered. “They walked to side of the house and then left,” he said.
Police did go to the house twice in the past 15 years, but not in connection with the women’s disappearance, officials said.
In 2000, before the women vanished, Castro reported a fight in the street, but no arrests were made, Flask said.
In 2004, officers went to the home after child welfare officials alerted them that Castro had apparently left a child unattended on a bus, Flask said. No one answered the door, according to Flask. Ultimately, police determined there was no criminal intent on his part, he said.
A sheriff deputy stands outside a house where three women escaped: Pic: AP Photo/Tony Dejak
Castro was arrested two days after Christmas in 1993 on a domestic-violence charge and spent three days in jail before he was released on bond. The case was presented to a grand jury, but no indictment was returned, according to court documents, which don’t detail the allegations. It’s unclear who brought the charge against Castro, who was living at the home from which the women escaped Monday.
Castro, 52, was well known in the mainly Puerto Rican neighborhood.
He played bass guitar in salsa and merengue bands. He gave children rides on his motorcycle and joined others at a candlelight vigil to remember two of the missing girls, neighbours said. They also said they would sometimes see him walking a little girl to a neighbourhood playground.
A “Welcome Home Gina ” sign hangs on a fence outside the home of Gina DeJesus. Pic: AP Photo/Tony Dejak
Tito DeJesus, an uncle of Gina DeJesus, played in bands with Castro over the last 20 years. He recalled visiting Castro’s house but never noticed anything out of the ordinary, saying it had very little furniture and was filled with musical instruments.
I had no clue, no clue whatsoever that this happened.
Also arrested were Castro’s brothers Pedro Castro, 54, and Onil Castro, 50.
Four years ago, in another poverty-stricken part of town, police were heavily criticised following the discovery of 11 women’s bodies in the home and backyard of Anthony Sowell, who was later convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
The families of Sowell’s victims accused police of failing to properly investigate the disappearances because most of the women were addicted to drugs and poor. For months, the stench of death hung over the house, but it was blamed on a sausage factory next door.
In the wake of public outrage over the killings, a panel formed by the mayor recommended an overhaul of the city’s handling of missing-person and sex crime investigations.
Ariel Castro’s son, Anthony Castro, said in an interview with the Daily Mail newspaper that he now speaks with his father just a few times a year and seldom visited his house. He said on his last visit, two weeks ago, his father wouldn’t let him inside.
“The house was always locked,” he said.
There were places we could never go. There were locks on the basement. Locks on the attic. Locks on the garage.
Anthony Castro, who lives in Columbus, also wrote an article for a community newspaper in Cleveland about the disappearance of Gina DeJesus just weeks after she went missing, when he was a college journalism student.
Many of the women’s loved ones and friends had held out hope of seeing them again,
For years, Berry’s mother kept her room exactly as it was, said Tina Miller, a cousin. When magazines addressed to Berry arrived, they were piled in the room alongside presents for birthdays and Christmases she missed. Berry’s mother died in 2006.
Just over a month ago, Miller attended a vigil marking the 10th anniversary of Berry’s disappearance.
Members of the FBI evidence response team carry out evidence from a house where the women were held. Pic: AP Photo/Tony Dejak
Over the past decade or so, investigators twice dug up backyards looking for Berry and continued to receive tips about her and DeJesus every few months, even in recent years. The disappearance of the two girls was profiled on TV’s “America’s Most Wanted” in 2005. Few leads ever came in about Knight.
Knight vanished at age 20 in 2002. Berry disappeared at 16 in 2003, when she called her sister to say she was getting a ride home from her job at a Burger King. About a year later, DeJesus vanished at 14 on her way home from school.
Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Dugard, who were held captive by abductors at a young age, said they were elated by the women’s rescue.