Evil of Cleveland horror house begins to emerge

One of the three women who was held captive for 11 years suffered a gang-rape a year previous, and the baby was later taken from her, writes Kim Palmer, in Cleveland

A YEAR before her abduction in 2002, Michelle Knight was the victim of a gang-rape in junior high school which led to her becoming pregnant, her great-aunt has said.

Now she is free after 11 years and recovering in hospital. A fuller picture of her traumatic past is slowly emerging. For now she is refusing to speak to her family who want to visit her bedside.

Knight is shunning visits from relatives, some of whom thought she was a runaway when she vanished — after her boy, whom she named Joey, was taken away from her and placed in foster care.

Knight, 32, is reported to be in good condition at MetroHealth Medical Centre in Cleveland after her rescue on Monday from a house that became her prison for over a decade.

Neither Knight’s grandmother nor her mother, who moved to Florida but flew back to Cleveland this week, have seen her.

“No, we haven’t — on her request. She does not want to be seen by family,” said Deborah Knight, the grandmother.

The 62-year-old recalled Knight as a delightful girl, outgoing and very helpful. But all that changed when three classmates “grabbed her by the arm and raped her at the school”.

One of Michelle’s two brothers, Freddie Knight, did go to the hospital and visited his sister immediately after the three women were found. They had been held inside the home except for two occasions when they were taken to a garage on the small property, police have said.

“Her skin was white as a ghost,” Freddie Knight said. “She told me she was excited to start a new life.”

He has since spoken to her once by phone but said he would leave her alone at the request of the hospital.

Ariel Castro, a 52-year-old former school bus driver, was charged on Wednesday with kidnapping Knight, Amanda Berry, 27, and Gina DeJesus, 23, and a 6-year-old girl who was born in captivity. He was also charged with raping the three women.

The other captives were released from the hospital on Tuesday, and returned to family homes the next day.

But Knight required additional medical care. A police report said Knight had suffered at least five miscarriages that Castro is accused of having intentionally caused by starving her for weeks and beating her in the abdomen.

Based on this, a prosecutor said he intends to seek aggravated murder charges against Castro, which could carry the death penalty if he is convicted.

Knight was a 20-year-old single mother when she vanished in 2002 after losing a custody battle with child welfare authorities over her son, who was about 3 or 4 years old, Deborah Knight said.

“They took him and she went out and took off and never came back,” said the grandmother.

The police report said the three women were separately offered car rides by Castro, who then took them prisoner, confining them with ropes and chains to his property in a crowded Cleveland neighbourhood for roughly a decade.

During the women’s captivity, CNN reported, their tormentor showed them televised coverage of vigils held by the Berry and DeJesus families, who said they never gave up hope the girls would return home alive.

Castro would give his victims ‘celebratory abduction cakes’ to mark each anniversary of their disappearance.

Knight’s family did not hold vigils and her grandmother said they were certain Michelle Knight was dead. “We didn’t think we would see her again,” Deborah Knight said.

Michelle Knight’s mother filed a missing persons report after she disappeared.

Berry and DeJesus were welcomed home by cheering throngs of well-wishers and a crush of flowers, balloons, and posters.

Now Deborah Knight’s home is similarly festooned with balloons, flowers, and stuffed animals in the hope that her granddaughter will move into the house.

The grandmother’s house is just a few miles from the home where Michelle Knight was held prisoner.

Victim advocacy groups pulled together on behalf of Knight and are organising a balloon release in her honour. “She is no longer forgotten. We want to let her know she is not alone,” the groups said.

Meanwhile, several relatives of Grimilda Figueroa, who left Ariel Castro years ago and died after a long illness last year, painted a nightmarish portrait of Castro’s family life as police made public horrifying details of the abuse endured by the imprisoned women.

He terrorised the mother of his children, frequently beating her, playing twisted psychological games, and locking her indoors in the years before their relationship disintegrated.

RELATIVES described Castro as a “monster” who abused his wife and locked his family inside their own home.

Monica Stephens, Castro’s former daughter-in-law, married Castro’s son in 2004 but split from him in 2006. She recalled how her ex-husband told her he and his mother were beaten by Castro. “They were like hostages in their own house,” she said.

To frighten his wife, Castro kept a mannequin wearing a dark wig propped up against a wall and sometimes drove around the neighbourhood with it.

“He threatened me lots of times with it,” said Angel Caraballo, Castro’s nephew, who used to play with his cousins at the house where the kidnapped women were found. “He would say, ‘Act up again, you’ll be in that back room with the mannequin’.”

Their views were at odds with those of some of Castro’s family and a neighbour, who knew the former school bus driver only as a happy and respectful man.

Figueroa’s relatives said Castro savagely beat her, pushing her down a flight of stairs, breaking her nose, and dislocating her shoulder, among other injuries. Her sister, Elida Caraballo, said Castro once shoved Figueroa into a cardboard box and closed the flaps over her head. “He told her, ‘You stay there until I tell you to get out’,” said Caraballo, who cried as she recounted her late sister’s torment. “That’s when I got scared and I ran downstairs to get my parents.”

The three women said Castro chained them up in the basement but eventually let them live on the home’s second floor. Each woman told a similar story about being abducted after accepting a ride from him.

Knight said Castro forced her to deliver Berry’s baby under threat of death if the baby died. When the newborn stopped breathing, Knight said she revived her through mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Some relatives of Castro said they were shocked by the allegations against him. An uncle, Julio Castro, said it’s been difficult news to absorb. “Of course we have taken it hard. We only knew one Ariel, my sweet nephew. He was a sweet, happy person, a musician. We didn’t have the slightest idea of the second person in him.”

Juan Perez, who lives two doors down from Castro, said Castro was happy and respectful. “He gained trust with the kids and with the parents. You can only do that if you’re nice.”

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