One of the suspects in the case of three women who were rescued this week, 10 years after they went missing, had been active in neighbourhood searches and vigils for the women, neighbours say.
When residents gathered for a candlelight vigil just a year ago to remember the girl, 52-year-old Ariel Castro was there too, comforting the girl’s mother. Castro, just like everyone else in the tight-knit, mostly Puerto Rican neighbourhood, seemed shaken by the 2004 disappearance of Gina DeJesus and another teenager who went missing the year before.
Now he and his brothers are in custody after a frantic emergency call led police to his run-down house, where authorities say DeJesus and two other women missing for about a decade were held captive. Authorities have until later tonight to bring charges against the men.
Amanda Berry, 27, Michelle Knight, 32, and DeJesus, about 23, had apparently been held captive in the house since their teens or early 20s, police said. A six-year-old girl believed to be Berry’s daughter also was found in the home, police Deputy Chief Ed Tomba said. He wouldn’t say who the father was.
The women were reunited with joyous family members. Berry went to her sister’s home Wednesday morning. Shortly after, her sister Beth Serrano thanked everyone for their effort and support over the years, adding “please respect our privacy until we are ready to make our statement, and thank you.”
The women were rescued after Berry kicked out the bottom portion of a locked screen door and used a neighbour's telephone to call authorities. An officer showed up minutes later and Berry ran out and threw her arms around the officer, a neighbour said.
Police identified the other two suspects as Ariel Castro’s brothers, Pedro Castro, 54, and Onil Castro, 50. Calls to the jail went unanswered, and there was no response to interview requests sent to police, the jail and city officials.
Juan Alicea said the arrests of his wife’s brothers had left relatives “as blindsided as anyone else” in their community. He said he hadn’t been to the home of his brother-in-law Ariel Castro since the early 1990s but had eaten dinner with Castro at a different brother’s house shortly before the arrests were made on Monday.
Police would not say how the women were taken captive or whether they were sexually assaulted. Police spokesman Sammy Morris confirmed today that there were ropes and chains among evidence collected inside the house by law enforcement officials.
Police Chief Michael McGrath told NBC’s Today show that the women were restrained and “released out in the back yard once in a while.” He was “absolutely” sure police did everything they could to find the women over the years. He disputed claims by neighbours that officers had been called to the house before for suspicious circumstances. “We have no record of those calls coming in over the past 10 years,” he said.
Investigators also are talking with relatives of at least one other missing woman from the neighbourhood. The aunt of a 14-year-old girl who disappeared in 2007 near the house where the missing women were found says the girl’s mother has spoken with the FBI about her niece. “We’re hoping for our miracle too,” said Debra Summers, who described her niece, Ashley Summers, as not the type of girl who would leave without coming back.
Ariel Castro owned the home where the three girls were found in a neighbourhood dotted with boarded-up houses just south of the town centre. Almost everyone in the area knew him. Neighbours say he played bass guitar in salsa and merengue bands and gave children rides on his motorcycle.
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 noticing anything out of the ordinary.
Juan Perez, who lives two doors down from the house, said Castro was always happy and respectful. “He gained trust with the kids and with the parents. You can only do that if you’re nice,” Perez said. Castro also worked until recently as a school bus driver. He was friends with the father of Gina DeJesus, one of the missing women, and helped search for her after she disappeared, said Khalid Samad, a friend of the family.
“When we went out to look for Gina, he helped pass out fliers,” said Samad, a community activist who was at the hospital with DeJesus and her family on Monday night. “You know, he was friends with the family.” Antony Quiros said he was at the vigil about a year ago and saw Castro comforting Gina DeJesus’ mother.
One neighbour, Francisco Cruz, said he was with Castro the day investigators dug up a yard looking for the girls. Castro told Cruz, “They’re not going to find anyone there,” Cruz recalled.
Cleveland officials said an internal review of police communications records found that officers went to the house twice since 2000 on unrelated calls. “Media reports of multiple calls to the Cleveland Police reporting suspicious activity and the mistreatment of women at 2207 Seymour are false,” city spokeswoman Maureen Harper said in a statement.
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.
In 1993, Castro was arrested two days after Christmas 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.
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.