Cleveland women reunite with families; details begin to emerge
By Ed Payne
Authorities scouring the Cleveland home where officials say three missing women were held for close to a decade have found ropes and chains apparently used to restrain them, the city’s police chief said Wednesday.
“We have confirmation that they were bound, and there (were) chains and ropes in the home,” Chief Michael McGrath told NBC’s “Today.”
Authorities expect to file charges Wednesday against the owner of the home where the women were found and his two brothers, a police spokeswoman said Tuesday.
An administrative judge granted police an extension of the city’s usual 36-hour window to charge suspects, giving them until Wednesday evening to file charges against Ariel Castro, 52, who lived in the home where the women were found, and his brothers, Pedro Castro, 54, and Onil Castro, 50, police Detective Jennifer Ciaccia said Tuesday.
Investigators began questioning the brothers Tuesday night, FBI Special Agent Vicki Anderson said Wednesday.
They were arrested Monday night after one of the women, 27-year-old Amanda Berry, staged a daring escape with the aid of a neighbor. In addition to Berry and a 6-year-old daughter apparently born to her during her captivity, police say Georgina “Gina” DeJesus, 23, and Michelle Knight, 32, also were freed.
The three women disappeared from the same Cleveland street — Lorain Avenue — between 2002 and 2004.
In the days since they escaped, the women have been reuniting with family members they had not seen in nearly 10 years.
“I love you honey, thank God,” Berry’s tearful grandmother Fern Gentry could be heard telling the young woman in a telephone call recorded by CNN affiliate WJHL. “… I’ve thought about you all this time. I never forgot about you.”
Berry sounded upbeat — telling Gentry that she felt “fine” and that the 6-year-old girl also rescued Monday from the Cleveland home is indeed her own.
At the home of Gina DeJesus, balloons dotted the front yard. Also present: a sign that was first hung on a fence outside the home when she was first reported missing nine years ago.
Her 32-year-old sister, Mayra DeJesus, told CNN’s Poppy Harlow Tuesday that Gina — for all the hell she’s gone through — is in “good spirits.”
DeJesus spent the day with family, who didn’t focus on what she’d gone through but more on lifting her up, her sister said.
Fewer details have emerged about Knight.
Her mother, Barbara Knight, told NBC Wednesday that she had not yet spoken to her daughter, but believed that her sons — Michelle’s brothers — had.
“She’s probably angry at the world because she thought she would never be found but thank God that somebody did,” Knight told NBC.
When asked what she would say to her daughter, she said, “I love you and I missed you all this time.”
Police say Berry, Knight and DeJesus were being held in a home just three miles from the area where they were abducted.
They escaped after Berry broke out the bottom of a screen door and called for help Monday evening, startling neighbor Charles Ramsey, who came over and helped kick in the door.
“I’ve been kidnapped, and I’ve been missing for 10 years,” Berry said in a frantic 911 call. “And I’m here. I’m free now.”
Neighbors feel fooled
Some neighbors of Ariel Castro spent Tuesday second-guessing themselves, questioning why they hadn’t noticed signs earlier and if they could have prevented the horrors.
“This is a heartbreaking moment for us, because I’m always out there (and) I’ve heard nothing,” said Daniel Marti, who’s known Ariel Castro since junior high school and lived near him for some 22 years.
“… To us, it was like nothing was happening. But yet it was happening, right in front of our face and we didn’t even know.”
Relatives of the suspects were also troubled by the developments.
Maria Castro Montes, a cousin of the suspects, told CNN Wednesday if other family members had any inkling or suspicion of wrongdoing, they wouldn’t have kept quiet.
‘He didn’t want nobody back there’
The predominantly Latino neighborhood, made up mostly of two-story frame homes, sits within sight of downtown. The gentrification that has spiffed up districts on either end hasn’t extended to the blocks around Castro’s home, where a number of houses are boarded up. But the churches in the neighborhood still ring the bells in their steeples, and the neighbors say they look out for one another.
Authorities and several neighbors say they had no prior indication anything suspicious was going on at the nondescript home on Seymour Avenue, where a Puerto Rican flag hung from the porch.
But after Monday’s discovery, they reflected back and noticed things that, in retrospect, might have signaled something awry.
Marti, for one, asked himself why he didn’t question why Castro — who, he thought, lived alone — would return each day with bags of McDonald’s food, or who would watch the little girl he occasionally took outside. He also recalled how Castro seemed to steer him away from the house when they talked: “Now that I think of it, he didn’t want nobody back there.”
Another neighbor, Israel Lugo, said he saw Castro at the park Sunday with a little girl and asked who she was: “He said it was his girlfriend’s daughter.”
Lugo said his sister got a bad vibe from the house and asked him not to let the children play unsupervised nearby. He said he heard yelling in the house in November 2011 and called police to investigate, but they left after no one answered the door.
And Nina Samoylicz, who lives nearby, said she called police about two years ago after spotting a naked woman in the backyard of Castro’s house. Samoylicz said when she called out to the woman, a man told the woman to get in the house, then ran in himself.
“She was just walking around and naked,” Samoylicz said. “We thought that was weird. We thought it was funny at first, and then we thought that was weird, so we called the cops. They thought we was playing, joking, they didn’t believe us.”
She said she had also seen tarps covering the backyard.
But Sgt. Sammy Morris, a Cleveland police spokesman, told CNN that the department had no record of a 911 call reporting a naked woman at Castro’s address. And Wednesday, a city spokeswoman said flatly that there was no truth to claims that any reports were made.
“Media reports of multiple calls to the Cleveland Police reporting suspicious activity and the mistreatment of women at 2207 Seymour are false,” spokeswoman Maureen Harper said in an e-mailed statement.
In fact, authorities never had any indications that the women were being held in the home or that anything suspicious was going on there, Cleveland Public Safety Director Martin Flask said. Neighbors had not provided any tips, he added.
Police had visited the home twice, authorities said Tuesday, once after Castro called about a fight in the street and another time to investigate Castro — a former school bus driver — on an unrelated incident involving a child who had been left on a bus.
The 2004 incident was the first of four exhibitions of “bad judgment” that led to Castro’s November firing by Cleveland’s school district, according to records released Tuesday night.
“He previously had been suspended for 60 days for leaving a child on a bus; 60 days for making an illegal U-turn in rush hour traffic with a bus load of students, and last school year for using the bus to do his grocery shopping,” the letter recommending his dismissal states. His firing came after he had left his bus unattended outside a school after his preschool routes had been canceled, without notifying his dispatcher or depot.
Tito DeJesus, a bandmate of Castro’s, said he had been inside the bass player’s home once, about two years ago, to help deliver a washer and dryer he’d sold to the suspect and saw “a normal environment.” DeJesus said he isn’t related to the rescued Gina DeJesus but had known the family for years.
“It didn’t seem to be a place where women were being held against their will,” he said. “Of course, mind you, I didn’t go throughout the entire house. I was just at the beginning of the house, in the living room, but it seemed normal.”
Berry was last seen after finishing her shift at a Burger King in Cleveland on April 21, 2003. It was the eve of her 17th birthday. DeJesus disappeared nearly a year later, on April 2, 2004. She was 14.
Knight vanished on August 22, 2002. She never returned after going to a neighborhood store to use a pay phone, cousin Brenda Dinickle told CNN’s Zoraida Sambolin.
The family reported her missing the next day, Flask said. She was 21.
Dinickle described her cousin as mentally challenged.
“She had a mind of a child. She was slow,” Dinickle said.
Nicknamed “Shorty,” because of her diminutive 4-foot, 7-inch stature, the family thought Knight might be with the brother of a brother-in-law, but had no phone number to contact him.
News of her discovery came as a shock to brother Freddie Knight, who didn’t know she was missing until he saw the story on TV.
“I was freaking happy as hell, because I didn’t know my sister was kidnapped,” he said. “My mom never tells me anything.”
Knight said their mom, who now lives in Naples, Florida, kicked him out of the house when he was 14 and they remain estranged.
CNN not could immediately confirm the details of Knight’s account.
Knight said he met with his sister at the hospital and gave her a hug, saying the ordeal had left her traumatized.
“I hugged her because she wanted a hug,” he said. “My sister is going to move on, forget the past … , leave it behind, start anew.”
The three women and the child were released Tuesday from the hospital where they had been taken for evaluations, a spokeswoman said. Cleveland’s Deputy Police Chief Ed Tomba said all four appeared to be in good condition, if in need of a good meal.
‘We’re hoping for a miracle’
Investigators had previously speculated that the disappearances of Berry, DeJesus and another girl, 14-year-old Ashley Summers, may have been connected. Summers’ family last saw her in July 2007, when she was 14.
“We did in fact believe there was an association between the Berry case and the DeJesus case as well as the Summers case,” said former FBI agent Jennifer Eakin. Eakin is now a case manager at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, which in 2008 held a comprehensive review of the cases with the FBI and Cleveland police.
Now the Summers family is hoping that the Cleveland investigation will yield information about Ashley, her aunt, Debra Summers, said.
“We’re hoping for a miracle,” she said.
Vicki Anderson, the spokeswoman for the Cleveland FBI office, said investigators will question the three women found Monday in the hope that they know something about Summers’ disappearance.
CNN’s Zoraida Sambolin reported from Cleveland and Ed Payne reported and wrote in Atlanta. Matt Smith, Greg Botelho, Michael Pearson, Tory Dunnan, Martin Savidge, Jason Hanna, Josh Levs, Steve Almasy, Laura Ly and Rande Iaboni also contributed to this report.