by Eric Sandy
Amanda Berry was screaming into the fresh air, trying to claw her way out of the confines of 2207 Seymour Avenue. It was May 6 and countless lives were about to be irrevocably altered.
Charles Ramsey heard her screaming for help. Charles Ramsey happened to be in the right place at the right time - a point of fate that strung together 10 years of mystery and pain and hope.
Cleveland police began making their way toward the otherwise quiet thoroughfare that shoots off of West 25th Street, just a stone’s throw from I-90. The wreck of a home stood tall in the late afternoon light, almost bracing for the grand reveal of all the secrets waiting within. Soon enough, two other women emerged from the home, and internationally breaking news began spreading a message of joy around the world. Three long-missing women had been found. Alive. Relatively healthy and coherent.
Ariel Castro, 52, and his brothers Pedro and Onil were arrested following the rescue of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight. (May 8 Update: Ariel was charged with four counts of kidnapping and three counts of rape - all first-degree felonies. Pedro and Onil were not charged with anything.) Ariel owned the Seymour Avenue home where the women had been kept. Police sources paint a grim picture of chains, restraints, locked doors, and rape.
“Those guys were walking out of the house with 1,000-yard stares,” said one source.
The details surrounding who knew what in the neighborhood and within the Castro family remain murky at best. But the investigation is plowing on this week, thanks to bravery from unsuspecting corners.
For Amanda’s actions and Charles’s quick assistance, both are lauded as heroes in the community.
But it’s unclear whether their rescue needed to wait so long. Leads came and went during the past decade.
Israel Lugo, a neighbor, told MSNBC that he summoned cops in 2011 after “his sister spotted a woman with a baby in the home, banging on the window ‘like she wants to get out.’”
"The cops came,” he said. “They pounded on that man’s door around 15, 20 times, real hard. They looked in the driveway, they got back in the squad car and left."
“Every single lead was followed up no matter how small,” Cleveland police Deputy Chief Ed Tomba said during a press conference.
But lingering loose ends remain as law enforcement officials, family members, neighbors and investigators work to meld the disparate pieces of this puzzle.
Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus, as sources put it, were close with the Castro family. Emily and Arlene Castro were similar in age to the girls, and they often hung out in the neighborhood.
“These kids all knew each other,” private investigator Chris Giannini says. During and after the girls’ disappearances, in 2004, he employed a man named Fernando Colon - Ariel Castro’s ex-wife’s husband - as a security site supervisor at a local shopping center and got to know the inner workings of the family fairly well.
Colon had fallen under the suspicions of the FBI during their investigation into DeJesus’s whereabouts. By way of marriage, he was somewhat close to the Castro family, and his step-daughters certainly ran in the same circles at the missing teenager. Colon was soon brought in for questioning regarding the disappearances.
But he was cleared following a polygraph test. The man in turn insisted that FBI agents look into Ariel Castro, a man who seemed to attract tumult and disorder throughout his adult life.
“They did not follow up on that,” Giannini says. The Cleveland Division of the FBI offered no comment on the matter when contacted by Scene.
It was 2004, still within the first year of DeJesus’s disappearance. She, along with Berry and Knight, were still regular fixtures in local conversation. Within the Castro family, however, turmoil was bubbling. As Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight grew up painfully inside Ariel Castro’s home, he was fighting to keep the eye of the law far away.
Emily and Arlene Castro, teenagers themselves, did not live with their father. Their mother, Grimilda Figueroa, had married Colon and brought her daughters to live with them over on West 110th Street. Allegations of sexual molestation against Colon soon threatened the stability of the household. Law enforcement once again zeroed in on Fernando Colon, all while Ariel Castro egged them onward. As his daughters continued to accuse Colon of touching them inappropriately - of penetrating them - Ariel Castro began visiting them more frequently and showering them uncharacteristically with gifts. They didn’t spend much time at Castro’s Seymour Avenue house, though. He ensured that much.
The Castro girls’ mother did not believe their mostly frantic allegations. Nor did their older brother, Ariel “Anthony” Castro. Nonetheless, Colon was indicted in late 2004 on 27 criminal charges, including kidnapping and gross sexual imposition, and later offered a light sentence that he couldn’t realistically appeal. Ariel Castro had testified against him in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas. His wife and Castro’s son had testified on his behalf, hoping to clear Colon’s name in this increasing confusing tangle of allegations. Colon’s wife repeatedly told investigators that there was no credence to any of the charges.
This personal history is resurfacing following the arrest of Ariel and his brothers, mostly because it paints one of the few concrete images of life within the family. Ariel Castro had free range of the Seymour Avenue house — his son told the Daily Mail that his father kept the basement, garage, and attic locked and off-limits — and keeping his three kidnapped victims quietly within became a simple task.
"Words can't even explain," Tasheena Mitchell, Berry's cousin, told Scene as she gathered with hundreds of neighbors and family members outside MetroHealth Medical Center Monday night. She was nearly shaking at times.
"I feel blessed. I'm ecstatic,” she said, adding that there was never a day where she gave up hope on finding her cousin. "I think about her everyday."
A neighbor chimed in: "Prayers do come true. It's surreal."
The three women were released from the hospital in good condition Tuesday morning. Unconfirmed reports from family members at the scene, which police and doctors had not publicly commented on as of press time, noted that at least one and possibly as many as five babies were born during the women's captivity. A six-year-old child left the house with Berry as police arrived.
Speculation on the condition of the Seymour Avenue home abounded in the hours and days following the rescue. By any standards, the relative health and coherence of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight was a miraculous turn of events.
"This isn't the ending we usually get to these stories," Dr. Gerald Maloney, who works in the Emergency Room at MetroHealth, said.
Family members and friends spent the day and the night - every waking hour - rejoicing. It was the best of all possible family reunions, save for the void left by Berry’s mother’s death in 2006.
Louwana Miller, bereft of her daughter and any semblance of meaningful information about her disappearance, died of a broken heart, friends and family have said. She spoke with Scene in 2003, seven months after Berry disappeared. Already at that point, Miller openly feared, the city had given up on her.
"Me and her was very close," Miller said. "She always called when she was going someplace." She was last seen a day before her 17th birthday as she left for a shift at Burger King on West 110th and Lorain. Miller acknowledged that much of Cleveland bent over backward in the weeks following the disappearance, working to maintain awareness and follow up on any possible light. But news cycles demand change, and Miller was soon lamenting the loss of her daughter to few outside of her immediate social circle.
She offered stirring words in 2003, complete with the silver lining that truly never escaped her:
“One good thing is that they haven't found her body.”
Family members, of course, wished openly that Miller could be here now.
Ariel Castro spent much of the past decade working as a bus driver for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. According to police, his most notable interaction with the law occurred when he left a child on a bus in 2004, resulting in a call from Cuyahoga County Children and Family Services. “He was interviewed extensively,” Tomba said.
Castro would eventually be fired in November 2012 after leaving a child on his bus.
Public Safety Director Martin Flask said at the same press conference Tuesday morning that Children and Family Services were not able to make contact with Ariel after visiting his home. It’s unclear what developments really followed the report of a child being left on the bus, but no charges were ever brought about in that case.
Once again, Tomba’s words at the Tuesday morning press conference hang in the air: “Every single lead was followed up no matter how small,” he said. Unavoidable thoughts hearkening back to Anthony Sowell’s 2011 serial murder convictions hang in the air, as well. The rescue at the Seymour Avenue house will bear out a legacy on the backs of all involved, much like Cleveland’s other high-profile crimes.
Stories revolving around Castro’s work as a bus driver and his interactions with family members fill out characteristics about the man - elements of his personality that may have led to both the kidnapping and to his evasion from law enforcement.
In 1993 and 2005, Castro was accused of domestic violence from his one-time wife. The former charges were reduced to mere disorderly conduct, while the latter incident offered grisly imagery of a fractured marriage still capable of wreaking havoc. Castro broke his ex-wife’s nose and ribs, dislocated her shoulders, knocked out one of her teeth and battered her so hard that a blood clot formed on her brain, according to filings in court. In an interview with investigators after the fact, Castro denied ever being abusive toward her.
That filing effectively killed Castro’s chances at even partial custody of his children. Nevertheless, as sources familiar with the man report, his penchant for manipulation pulled Emily and Arlene back into his gravitational pull at times.
Several years after the gross sexual imposition conviction of Colon blew over, Emily Castro gave birth to a girl. It’s unclear who the father was - though speculation points to either a former boyfriend who now lives in Cleveland or, according to the private investigator, something much more untoward, evil, and incestuous.
Emily was living in Fort Wayne, Ind., where she attempted to murder her 11-month-old daughter by slashing her throat four times in 2007. She was later convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
“It is certainly a mystery as to how this happened or why this happened,” Allen Superior Court Judge John Surbeck told The Journal Gazette at the time.
It is indeed a mystery that may yet hold more clues as to who Ariel Castro has been all these years. Any answers that lay within may illuminate a gap in local law enforcement’s own investigations.
The Regional Fusion Center and the Cleveland Police Department currently maintain a list of 96 missing persons in the area. Some of them have been missing since the mid-2000s. One was last seen in 1995.
Each person carries with them a story, a life.
Women like Ashley Summers and Christina Adkins have garnered attention in the region, thanks to widespread reporting and an insistent base of family and friends that maintains the vigil.
Summers was last seen at her West 96th Street home, near Madison Avenue, in July 2007. The FBI has not come close to solving the mystery of Summers’ whereabouts, though various reports indicate the possibility that she has been held against her will and that foul play has not been an immediate suspicion in her case. The FBI had tied the investigation into Summers' disappearance into those of Berry and DeJesus as recently as 2009, though the department never explained why.
It took about 10 years for three of the most prominent names on the city’s list of missing persons to come off that roster and back into some semblance of normalcy. Ten years for three names.
WEWS posted an interview Monday night with Charles Ramsey, the neighbor who found Berry as she was running out of the house. In the hours following the rescue, that interview went about as viral as it could go, hitting all corners of the Internet and bestowing upon Ramsey a heroic bit of worldwide fandom. “I heard screaming…And I see this girl going nuts trying to get outside,” he said. “I go on the porch and she said, ‘Help me get out. I’ve been here a long time.’"
He had been working over a meal from a nearby McDonald’s just moments before - a fact that figured prominently in the Internet’s collective gushing. The fast food corporation reached out on Tuesday, writing: “Way to go Charles Ramsey- we'll be in touch.”
Ramsey stepped into local history Monday night, precisely as the names Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight re-entered local conversation with fervor and optimism.
All of their actions, which won out over the evil brewing on Seymour Avenue this past decade, are a testament to the power of will in this community and to the need for hope in the face of darkness. This matter of profound significance was not ushered in by way of police investigations or federal law enforcement insight. Three long-missing women are safe and out of harm’s way today solely due to the faith they fostered and the bravery they summoned.
Going forward, the weight of unanswered questions is countered only by the overwhelming joy resounding through Cleveland and the rest of the world.