published Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

Father in Tennessee of long-missing Amanda Berry hears from her after ordeal

Amanda Berry, right, hugs her sister Beth Serrano after being reunited in a Cleveland hospital Monday, May 6, 2013. Berry and two other women were found in a house near downtown Cleveland Monday after being missing for about a decade.
Amanda Berry, right, hugs her sister Beth Serrano after being reunited in a Cleveland hospital Monday, May 6, 2013. Berry and two other women were found in a house near downtown Cleveland Monday after being missing for about a decade.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Amanda Berry’s sister offers thanks, seeks privacy

CLEVELAND — The sister of Amanda Berry, one of the three women freed after being held captive for about a decade at an Ohio home, has made a brief statement saying the family is thankful for the community’s support but is asking for privacy.

Berry arrived at her sister’s house Wednesday morning.

Charges against the man who owns the home and his two brothers are expected to come Wednesday.


Emotional phone call

One of three women who were found in Cleveland, Ohio, after disappearing a decade ago answered her Tennessee family’s prayers with a phone call.

In eastern Tennessee, Amanda Berry’s father, Johnny Berry, told WJHL-TV that he spoke to his daughter for the first time Monday night by phone at his home in Elizabethton.

“She said, ‘Hi, Daddy, I’m alive,”’ Johnny Berry said. “She said, ‘I love you, I love you, I love you,’ and then we both started crying.”

Although Amanda Berry was born and raised in Cleveland, her father, grandparents and cousins live in Elizabethton. Before she disappeared, she often visited Tennessee during the summers.

Family members said they visited her in Cleveland about three weeks before she went missing.

  • photo
    This undated combination photo released by the Cleveland Police Department shows from left, Onil Castro, Ariel Castro and Pedro Casto.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Suspect was familiar figure

CLEVELAND — In the tight-knit neighborhood near downtown where many conversations are spoken in Spanish, it seems most everyone knew Ariel Castro.

He played bass guitar in salsa and merengue bands. He parked his school bus on the street. He gave neighborhood children rides on his motorcycle.

And when they gathered for a candlelight vigil to remember two girls who vanished years ago, Castro was there, too, comforting the mother of one of the missing, a neighbor said.

Neighbors and friends were stunned by the arrest of Castro and his two brothers after a 911 call led police to his house, where authorities say three women missing for about a decade were held captive.

A 6-year-old girl also was found in the home, and a neighbor said she was at a park a week earlier with Castro, who referred to her as his “girlfriend’s daughter.” Israel Lugo lives down the street from the house where the women were found Monday and said he was stunned to see one of them holding the girl, who was screaming and crying.

Castro and his brothers, ages 50 to 54, were in custody Tuesday but had not been formally charged.

Castro 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. He also performed music at a fundraiser held in her honor, Samad said.

“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 Monday night. “You know, he was friends with the family.”

Tito DeJesus, one of Gina’s uncles, said he played in a few bands with Castro over the past 20 years. He remembered visiting Castro’s house after his niece disappeared, but he never noticed anything out of ordinary, saying it was very sparsely furnished and filled with musical instruments.

“That’s pretty much what it looked like,” DeJesus said. “I had no clue, no clue whatsoever that this happened.”

Castro’s son, Anthony Castro, said in an interview with London’s Daily Mail newspaper that he now speaks with his father just a few times a year and seldom visited his house. On his last visit two weeks ago, he said, his father would not let him inside.

“The house was always locked,” he told the newspaper. “There were places we could never go. There were locks on the basement. Locks on the attic. Locks on the garage.”

Juan Perez, who lives two doors down from the house, has known Castro for decades.

“He was always happy, nice, respectful,” Perez said. “He gained trust with the kids and with the parents. You can only do that if you’re nice.”

He said Castro had an ATV and a motorcycle and would take children on rides. Nothing seemed wrong with it then, he said, adding that he now thinks that was one way Castro tried to get close to the children. He also worked until recently as a school bus driver.

Castro’s personnel file with the Cleveland public school district, obtained by The Associated Press through a Freedom of Information request, shows he was hired in 1990 as a bus driver after saying on his application that he liked working with children.

The personnel file includes details on his dismissal, approved by the school board last fall after he left his bus unattended for four hours.

Police identified the other two suspects as the 52-year-old’s brothers, Pedro Castro, 54, and Onil Castro, 50.

A relative of the three brothers said their family was “as blindsided as anyone else.”

Juan Alicea said he hadn’t been to the home of his brother-in-law Ariel Castro since the early 1990s but had eaten dinner with him at a different brother’s house shortly before the arrests Monday.

Lucy Roman lives next to a house she said is shared by Pedro Castro and his mother. She said police arrested him Monday night.

“I feel sorry for her,” Roman said of the mother. “She’s a very nice lady.”

Several residents said they saw Ariel Castro at a candlelight vigil for the missing girls.

Antony Quiros said he was at the vigil about a year ago and saw Castro comforting Gina DeJesus’ mother.

One neighbor, 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.

Castro’s Facebook page identifies him as a Cleveland resident and says he attended the city’s Lincoln-West High School. His interests include Virginia Beach, the Chinese crested dog breed and Cuban-born salsa singer Rey Ruiz.

On April 11, he wrote to congratulate “my Rosie Arlene” and wish her a fast recovery from giving birth to “a wonderful baby boy. That makes me Gramps for the fifth time. Luv you guys!”

CLEVELAND — One neighbor says a naked woman was seen crawling on her hands and knees in the backyard of the house a few years ago. Another heard pounding on the home’s doors and noticed plastic bags over the windows.

Both times, police showed up but never went inside, neighbors say. Police also paid a visit to the house in 2004, but no one answered the door.

Now, after three women who vanished a decade ago were found captive Monday at the run-down house, Cleveland police are facing questions for the second time in four years about their handling of missing-person cases and are conducting an internal review to see if they overlooked anything.

City Safety Director Martin Flask said Tuesday that investigators had no record of anyone calling about criminal activity at the house but were still checking police, fire and emergency databases.

The three women were rescued after one of them kicked out the bottom portion of a locked screen door and used a neighbor’s telephone to call 911.

“Help me. I’m Amanda Berry,” she breathlessly told a dispatcher in a call that exhilarated and astonished much of the city. “I’ve been kidnapped, and I’ve been missing for 10 years and I’m, I’m here, I’m free now.”

Berry, 27, Michelle Knight, 32, and Gina DeJesus, about 23, had apparently been held captive in the house since their teens or early 20s, police Chief Michael McGrath said.

Three brothers, ages 50 to 54, were arrested. One of them, former school bus driver Ariel Castro, owned the home, situated in a poor neighborhood dotted with boarded-up houses just south of downtown. No charges were filed.

A relative of the three brothers said their family was “totally shocked” after hearing about the missing women being found at the home.

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 Monday.

A 6-year-old girl believed to be Berry’s daughter also was found in the home, police Deputy Chief Ed Tomba said. He would not say who the father was.

The women were reported by police to be in good health and were reunited with joyous family members but remained in seclusion.

The head of the FBI in Cleveland, Stephen Anthony, said the families’ prayers for the missing women had been answered.

“The nightmare is over,” he said. “These three young ladies have provided us with the ultimate definition of survival and perseverance. The healing can now begin.”

He added: “Words can’t describe the emotions being felt by all. Yes, law enforcement professionals do cry.”

Police would not say how the women were taken captive or how they were hidden in the neighborhood where they had vanished. Investigators also would not say whether they were kept in restraints inside the house or sexually assaulted.

Four years ago, in another poverty-stricken part of town, police were heavily criticized 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.

The families of Sowell’s victims accused police of failing to properly investigate the disappearances because most of the women were addicted to drugs and poor. For months, the stench of death hung over the house, but it was blamed on a sausage factory next door.

In the wake of public outrage over the killings, a panel formed by the mayor recommended an overhaul of the city’s handling of missing-person and sex crime investigations.

This time, two neighbors 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 neighbor, 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.

“Everyone in the neighborhood did what they had to do,” said Lupe Collins, who is close to relatives of the women. “The police didn’t do their job.”

Police did go to the house twice in the past 15 years, but not in connection with the women’s disappearance, officials said.

In 2000, before the women vanished, Castro reported a fight in the street, but no arrests were made, Flask said.

In 2004, officers went to the home after child welfare officials alerted them that Castro had apparently left a child unattended on a bus, Flask said. No one answered the door, according to Flask. Ultimately, police determined there was no criminal intent on his part, he said.

Castro was arrested two days after Christmas in 1993 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.

Castro, 52, was well known in the mainly Puerto Rican neighborhood. He played bass guitar in salsa and merengue bands. He gave children rides on his motorcycle and joined others at a candlelight vigil to remember two of the missing girls, neighbors said. They also said they would sometimes see him walking a little girl to a neighborhood playground.

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 noticed anything out of the ordinary, saying it had very little furniture and was filled with musical instruments.

“I had no clue, no clue whatsoever that this happened,” he said.

Also arrested were 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.

Ariel Castro’s son, Anthony Castro, said in an interview with London’s Daily Mail newspaper that he now speaks with his father just a few times a year and seldom visited his house. He said on his last visit, two weeks ago, his father wouldn’t let him inside.

“The house was always locked,” he said. “There were places we could never go. There were locks on the basement. Locks on the attic. Locks on the garage.”

Anthony Castro, who lives in Columbus, also wrote an article for a community newspaper in Cleveland about the disappearance of Gina DeJesus just weeks after she went missing, when he was a college journalism student.

“That I wrote about this nearly 10 years ago — to find out that it is now so close to my family — it’s unspeakable,” he told The Plain Dealer newspaper.

On Tuesday, a sign hung on a fence decorated with dozens of balloons outside the home of DeJesus’ parents read “Welcome Home Gina.” Her aunt Sandra Ruiz said her niece had an emotional reunion with family members.

“Those girls, those women are so strong,” Ruiz said. “What we’ve done in 10 years is nothing compared to what those women have done in 10 years to survive.”

Many of the women’s loved ones and friends had held out hope of seeing them again,

For years, Berry’s mother kept her room exactly as it was, said Tina Miller, a cousin. When magazines addressed to Berry arrived, they were piled in the room alongside presents for birthdays and Christmases she missed. Berry’s mother died in 2006.

Just over a month ago, Miller attended a vigil marking the 10th anniversary of Berry’s disappearance.

Over the past decade or so, investigators twice dug up backyards looking for Berry and continued to receive tips about her and DeJesus every few months, even in recent years. The disappearance of the two girls was profiled on TV’s “America’s Most Wanted” in 2005. Few leads ever came in about Knight.

Knight vanished at age 20 in 2002. Berry disappeared at 16 in 2003, when she called her sister to say she was getting a ride home from her job at a Burger King. About a year later, DeJesus vanished at 14 on her way home from school.

Jessica Aponce said she walked home with DeJesus the day the teenager disappeared.

“She called her mom and told her mom she was on her way home and that’s the last time I seen her,” Aponce said. “I just can’t wait to see her. I’m just so happy she’s alive. It’s been so many years that everybody thinking she was dead.”

Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Dugard, who were held captive by abductors at a young age, said they were elated by the women’s rescue.

“We need to have constant vigilance, constantly keep our eyes open and ears open because miracles do happen,” Smart said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s CEO, John Ryan, said Berry, DeJesus and Knight likely would be honored by his group.

“I think they’re going to be at the top of the list,” he said.

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