CLEVELAND (Reuters) - As three Cleveland women reunited with their families on Tuesday after vanishing for about a decade in their own neighbourhood, police scoured the house they escaped from for clues on how they could be held captive for so long with no one noticing.
Cleveland authorities said there was one attempt to visit the home in 2004 on an unrelated matter but no one answered the door. They said they combed through records and found no other calls to the house nor reports of anything amiss in the years the women were missing.
But neighbours said they had made more than one call to police about suspicious activity at the house.
Amanda Berry, 27, who disappeared in April 2003, along with Gina DeJesus, 23, who vanished in 2004, and Michelle Knight, 32, who went missing in 2002, were held captive at the house.
Rescued with them on Monday was a 6-year-old girl who police said was Berry’s daughter. She would have been conceived and born during Berry’s captivity.
Israel Lugo, a neighbour, said he called police in November 2011 after his sister saw a girl at the house holding a baby and crying for help. He said police came and banged on the door several times but left after no one answered.
Lugo said about eight months ago, his sister saw Ariel Castro, who owns the house, park his school bus outside the house and take a large bag of fast food and several drinks inside.
“My sister said something’s wrong ... That’s when my mom called the police,” he said. Lugo said police came and warned Castro not to park the bus in front of his house.
Cleveland police, who had brothers Ariel Castro, 52, Pedro Castro, 54, and Onil Castro, 50 arrested as suspects in the case, did not immediately respond to repeated requests seeking comment about the reported calls.
At a news conference on Tuesday, Mayor Frank Jackson said: “We have no indication that any of the neighbours, bystanders, witnesses or anyone else has ever called regarding any information, regarding activity that occurred at that house on Seymour Avenue.”
Monday evening’s rescue, described as a “miracle” by one family member, unfolded with a frantic emergency call from a woman who told a 911 operator she was Amanda Berry, the subject of years of searches.
Berry had escaped from the two-story house in the low-income neighbourhood on Cleveland’s West Side with the help of a neighbour who told police he heard screaming and helped her kick out a locked screen door.
The disappearances of Berry and DeJesus were well known in Cleveland, although Knight’s disappearance had attracted less attention, police said. Just last month a vigil was held to mark the ninth anniversary of DeJesus’ disappearance.
Anthony Quiros, 24, who grew up next door to the house where the women were found, said Ariel Castro had been an onlooker as police dug up a Cleveland lot looking for remains in the case on a tip that proved false.
“He also came to a vigil and acted as if nothing was wrong,” said Quiros. He said he saw Castro comforting DeJesus’s mother about a year ago.
Born in Puerto Rico, Ariel Castro played bass in Latin music bands in the area. Records show he was divorced more than a decade ago and his ex-wife had since died. He is known to have at least one adult daughter and son.
On a Facebook page believed to be his, Castro said last month that he had just become a grandfather for a fifth time. Court records show he was arrested in 1993 on a domestic violence charge that was subsequently dismissed. I
Neighbour Anthony Westry said a little girl often could be seen peering out the attic window of the Castro house.
“She was always looking out the window,” he said. Castro would take her to the park to play very early in the morning, “not around the time you would take kids to play,” he said.
Berry had last been seen leaving her job at a fast-food restaurant the day before her 17th birthday in April 2003, and Gina DeJesus was last seen at a telephone booth as she was walking home from school.
A man who helped to look for DeJesus, Pastor Angel Arroyo, said he and her family members had handed out flyers years ago in the neighbourhood where she was found.
“We didn’t search hard enough. She was right under our nose the whole time,” Arroyo said.
The neighbourhood houses are typically separated only by a driveway. Two houses to one side of the Castro house are boarded up.
Children and Family Services authorities went to the house in January 2004, more than a year after Knight disappeared and eight months after Berry went missing, because Ariel Castro had left a child on a school bus, the mayor said.
They “knocked on the door but were unsuccessful in connection with making any contact with anyone inside that home,” he said.
Police said Castro had been interviewed extensively during that investigation and no criminal intent was found regarding the child left on the bus.
By law, the Castro brothers must be charged within 36 hours of their arrests, which took place on Monday evening.
“BELIEVE IN MIRACLES”
After their rescue, the three women were taken to a local hospital, reunited with family and friends, and released.
“If you don’t believe in miracles, I suggest you think again,” DeJesus’ aunt Sandra Ruiz said to reporters on Tuesday in Cleveland. Her comments were televised by local station WJW.
“This is a miracle,” Ruiz said. But she added: “Watch who your neighbour is because you never know.”
The case is not the first time Cleveland has witnessed a horrific story close to home that raised questions about the thoroughness of police investigations.
In 2009, police discovered a home in Cleveland where Anthony Sowell had imprisoned and killed 11 women. Family members of some victims filed a lawsuit against the city, complaining about the police’s handling of the case.
Sowell was convicted in 2011 and is on death row.
FBI and other law enforcement officials were searching the Castro house as well as other properties, said police, who did not elaborate.
Neighbour Joe Popow said he found it chilling to have known Castro.
“After all this has happened, I think, Oh my God, what did I miss? This person came to my house,” he said.
During her 911 call, Berry can be heard naming Ariel Castro as the man she was fleeing from, and she indicated she knew her disappearance had been widely reported in the media.
“Help me! I‘m Amanda Berry. ... I’ve been kidnapped and I’ve been missing for 10 years and I‘m here. I‘m free now,” Berry can be heard saying in a recording of the call released by police.
The discovery of the three women was reminiscent of the case of Jaycee Dugard, who was snatched from her northern California home at age 11 by a convicted sex offender, Phillip Garrido, and kept in captivity for 18 years before being rescued in 2009.
During that time she was repeatedly raped by her abductor and gave birth to two girls fathered by him.
Dugard released a statement on Tuesday, saying: “As simple as it sounds, these women need the opportunity to have the privacy to heal and reconnect.”
“I know individuals are strong in spirit and can be resilient in crisis. I wish them the best in their journey,” she said.
Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg, Greg McCune and Atossa Araxia Abrahamian; Writing by Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Grant McCool, Bernard Orr