CLEVELAND – To most of his neighbors, Ariel Castro was an upbeat presence on a rundown street, a cheerful school bus driver who befriended local kids and popped into barbecues to say hello and have a beer.
On Tuesday, they sought to reconcile that image with accusations that Castro had imprisoned three young women, abducted in 2002, 2003 and 2004, inside his slightly dilapidated house with the American flag out front.
“I guess he had a great mask to cover a monster,” Juan Perez, who lives two doors down from Castro, said Tuesday.
Colorful balloons flew outside nearby homes to celebrate the release of the three women, who were rescued Monday when one of them escaped and summoned help. On the stretch of Seymour Avenue where Castro, 52, lived, police tape blocked access. Investigators in white scrubs and protective booties removed items from the house and towed away vehicles as police and the FBI gathered evidence in anticipation of filing charges against Castro and his brothers, Pedro, 54, and Onil, 50. That was expected to happen today.
As the three men remained in custody, the three women – Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight – began adjusting to freedom with family and friends who had fought to keep them from being forgotten as the years slipped by.
Berry’s sister, Beth Serrano, had held a vigil for her sister just a few weeks ago at the Burger King where she was last seen. “She never gave up,” said Eva Fonseca, 27, who brought balloons to Serrano’s house Tuesday.
DeJesus’ family kept a banner outside their home with her description, right down to her birthmarks and pierced ears, and a picture of Gina, who was 14 when she disappeared on April 2, 2004.
“If you don’t believe in miracles, I suggest you think again,” DeJesus’ aunt, Sandra Ruiz, told reporters outside the family home, where the banner was joined by bouquets of colorful flowers, balloons, and a “Welcome home, Gina” sign.
Knight, who was 20 when she was last seen Aug. 23, 2002, did not capture the same level of attention as the younger girls. Her grandmother, Deborah Knight, told the Plain Dealer of Cleveland that family members assumed Michelle had left on her own after losing custody of a young son.
All three were on or near busy Lorain Avenue when they were abducted, about five miles from Castro’s house and even closer to their own homes. Berry fled Castro’s home with a 6-year-old girl, who police believe was born to her during her captivity.
After being hospitalized overnight, the three were released Tuesday but remained out of sight of the crowds who spilled into the streets and erupted in cheers after Berry’s startling 911 call Monday evening set off the chain of events that culminated in the Castro brothers’ arrests.
“Help me! I’m Amanda Berry!” the young woman said, her voice shaking, in a breathless call at 5:52 p.m., after she bolted from Castro’s house and ran to a neighbor’s house. “I’ve been kidnapped and been missing for 10 years. I am here, I’m free now,” she told the dispatcher.
At the same time, neighbor Charles Ramsey, who had heard Berry’s cries from the Castro home and kicked in the front door to free her, made his own call to 911. “She needs everything,” the astonished Ramsey told the dispatcher when asked if Berry needed an ambulance. “She’s in a panic. I think she’s been kidnapped.”
Within hours, the Castros were arrested at a McDonald’s restaurant and their alleged victims’ families had been notified, but the mystery of the last decade was far from resolved. Among questions police and the FBI have to answer are whether the Castros can shed light on other missing person cases, whether police who went to the Castro home missed opportunities to rescue the women, and whether neighbors attempted to alert police of a naked woman in Castro’s yard years ago and were ignored.
Nina Samoylicz, who lives a few doors down from Castro, told CNN that she, her sister and a friend spotted a naked woman in his yard about two years ago. “We thought it was weird so we called the cops. They thought we were playing,” Samoylicz told CNN. “They didn’t believe us.”
Perez said he and his sister had heard a blood-curdling scream coming from Castro’s house about three years ago and called police. “There’s a difference between a scream that is someone playing, and one that raises your hair and your goose bumps. That’s what that one was,” said Perez, adding that officers came to investigate but did not find anything.
At a news conference, the city’s deputy police chief, Ed Tomba, defended the department’s handling of the investigation and called the police officers’ policies “solid.” “Every single lead was followed up no matter how small,” he said. “We dug up a couple of backyards. We recanvassed neighborhoods. “
Cleveland’s director of public safety, Martin Flask, said records show police went to Castro’s house once in 2000 – before the three were taken – and again in 2004, but neither visit was in response to a neighbor’s call. In March 2000, Castro called police to report a fight in the street; in 2004, officers visited the address after Castro, a school bus driver at the time, left a child on a bus, apparently inadvertently.
Officers were “unsuccessful” at contacting anyone in the home, said Flask, adding that no charges were filed against Castro in the incident.
The Plain Dealer reported that a 2005 court filing outlined domestic abuse allegations accusing Castro of beating up his former wife, Grimilda Figueroa. Figueroa died in 2012. Her attorney did not respond to a telephone message.
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