Before escape, fleeting clues to long ordeal

Trip Gabriel, Serge F. Kovaleski and Erica Goode / New York Times News Service /


Published May 8, 2013 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

CLEVELAND — One neighbor remembered occasional late-night deliveries of groceries to the boarded-up shoebox of a house in a rough-edged West Side neighborhood here.

Another remarked on a porch light that burned at night, even though many of the windows were covered.

“Why would an abandoned house have a porch light on?” he recalled thinking at the time.

Still another said his sister had once seen a figure in an upstairs window, pounding on the glass.

On Tuesday, a stunned neighborhood learned that these were glimpses of a horrifying truth. For about a decade, the police said, three women were imprisoned inside the home at 2207 Seymour Ave.

Those years of captivity came to an end late Monday when Amanda Berry, who had not been seen since she left her job at a Burger King on April, 21, 2003, when she was 17, appeared at the front door of the house, accompanied by a young child, and screamed, “I need help! I need help! I have been kidnapped for 10 years!”

After two neighbors freed her by kicking in the chained front door and helped her make an urgent call to 911, three men were arrested in connection with the case— Ariel Castro, 52, the owner of the house, and his brothers, Pedro, 54, and Onil, 50. Berry and the child, along with Gina DeJesus, who had disappeared while walking home from middle school in 2004, and Michelle Knight, who had vanished at age 20 in 2002, were treated at an area hospital and reunited with their families.

The conditions in the home, a law enforcement official said, were “abysmal at best.”

“They had no ability to leave the home or interact with anyone other than each other, the child and the suspect,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the continuing investigation.

Another official said the FBI had begun questioning the women late Tuesday and had taken photos and helped collect evidence from the house.

The case recalled other kidnappings, like that of Jaycee Dugard, who was held prisoner in California for 18 years; Elizabeth Smart, who spent nine months in torment after being grabbed from her bedroom in Salt Lake City by Brian David Mitchell; and six women who were snatched, held and tortured in Belgium in the mid-1990s.

“These are some of the most catastrophic kinds of experiences a human being can be subjected to,” said Kris Mohandie, a forensic psychologist who has been a consultant in other long-term kidnapping cases.

The perpetrators of such crimes, Mohandie said, have been men “who have had longstanding fantasies of capturing, controlling, abusing and dominating women.”

Such men, he said, use a perverse system of rewards and punishments to create fear and submission in their victims, who quickly lose all sense of self and become dependent on their captors. “Total control over another human being is what stimulates them,” he said.

Escape at last

Angel Cordero, one of two men who helped Berry escape by kicking in the door, said that she appeared ragged — her clothes dirty, her teeth yellowed and her hair “messy” — and that the child with her looked “very nervous,” as though she had never seen anything outside the house before.

Cordero said he held the child while Berry called 911, frantically telling the dispatcher, “I'm Amanda Berry. I've been in the news for the last 10 years.”

At a news conference Tuesday, the authorities pleaded that the three women, now in their 20s and early 30s, be given space to recover from their ordeal.

Meanwhile, neighborhood residents spent the day shaking their heads in disbelief over what the police said had taken place inside the house. Public records show that the property was in foreclosure and the Cuyahoga County prosecutor, Timothy McGinty, described it as in very bad shape.

Neighbors' impressions

Neighbors said, however, that Ariel Castro appeared to be “a regular Joe” who chatted with families on their porches, waved hello in the street and invited neighbors to clubs where he played bass with several Latin bands.

“He was not a troublemaker,” said Jovita Marti, 58, whose mother lives across the street from the house on Seymour Avenue.

But Zaida Delgado, 58, a family friend, said that Ariel Castro also had a darker side.

“There was something not right about him,” she said. “He could be flakey and off the wall. He was also arrogant, like 'I am Mr. Cool, I am the best.' He had an attitude, like 'I am God's gift.'”

Some residents expressed anger at the police, who they said had not done enough to find the missing women.

“The Cleveland police should be ashamed of themselves,” said Yolanda Asia, an assistant manager of a store that rents furniture and appliances. “These girls were five minutes away. They were looking for years and years; they were right under their nose.”

Ties to the family?

In fact, one of the woman may have been a close friend of Ariel Castro's daughter, Arlene. She appeared on the Fox program “America's Most Wanted” in 2005 to talk about her “best friend,” Gina DeJesus. Arlene Castro was identified on the program as the last person to have seen DeJesus before she disappeared and she recounted on the program how they had been walking home from school together that day.

Ariel Castro worked as a school bus driver but had a history of disciplinary problems. In 2004, he was interviewed by the police after “inadvertently” leaving a child on the bus. In 2009, he was called before a disciplinary hearing for negligence and disregard for the safety of passengers. His employment was terminated in November 2012, after another “demonstration of lack of judgment,” according to school district records.

Israel Lugo, who lives three doors down from the Castro house, said Castro would often park the school bus outside the house between the morning and afternoon routes.

“He'll go in the house, jump on his motorcycle, take off, come back, jump in the car, take off. Every time he switched a car, he switched an outfit,” he said.

Julian Cesar Castro, an uncle of the three brothers who owns the Caribe Grocery on the corner of Seymour and West 25th Street, said he and his brother Julio, Ariel's father, had migrated from Puerto Rico.

Julio died in 2004, Julian Castro said. Ariel had a wife, Angie, and children but the marriage ended.

In recent years Ariel had grown more withdrawn, his uncle said. “It could have been because of the hiding personality. He had to have two personalities,” he said.

Despite the three young women's ordeal during a decade of captivity, their discovery was an uplifting moment for relatives, friends and the city.

At DeJesus' parents' home, bundles of balloons were tied to the front fence Tuesday along with a banner that read, “Welcome Home Gina.” Her cousin Cecily Cruz, 26, said she had heard about Gina's rescue Monday from a customer while she was working as a local gas station attendant. She called Gina's family immediately and said she could hear Gina's father in the background shouting, “She's alive! They got my baby!”

Martin Flask, Cleveland's director of public safety, said the endings of most missing persons cases were “usually tragic.” In this case, he said, “All of us are excited and pleased with the outcome, but when you look at what we suspect they experienced, our joy is tempered.”

Encouragement from other survivors —

Kidnapping survivors Jaycee Dugard and Elizabeth Smart have words of wisdom for the three women found this week in Cleveland years after their disappearances.

Dugard was abducted from a California bus stop in 1991 at age 11 and was held captive for 18 years in a backyard, where she gave birth to two children conceived by rape. She made an oblique reference Tuesday to the Cleveland case as she accepted an award in Washington from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

“What an amazing time to be talking about hope, with everything that's happening,” she said in her brief remarks.

Dugard, in a statement released earlier through her publicist, said the women need a chance to heal and reconnect with the world. She said that the human spirit is resilient and that the case reaffirms that people should never give up hope.

Smart, in comments Tuesday on ABC's “Good Morning America,” said she was overjoyed to hear about the happy ending for the Cleveland women.

She said the ordeal highlights the importance of the public staying alert and vigilant. She advised the women to focus on moving forward and let go of the past. She said it's important for others to respect the privacy of those women as they recover from the decade-long ordeal.

— The Associated Press