Last year, Jamie Camacho, a Cleveland taxi driver who’s been singing with local Latin bands for decades, made a stop at a vigil to mark the disappearance of Gina DeJesus. He was just “cruising by” when Mr Camacho saw a motorcycle belonging to Ariel Castro, whose house on 2207 Seymour Avenue is just a couple of blocks up from Mr Camacho’s on Walton Avenue, on the west side of town.
Mr Camacho knew Ariel as a neighbour and a bass guitarist who frequented many of the same gigs and clubs. He eventually found the 52-year-old in the crowd and they got talking. Jamie expressed his hope that Gina, who went missing in 2004 while walking home from middle school, and Amanda Berry, another local girl who went missing in 2003, would be found alive.
“I said I wish the creep who took them is caught and put in one of those open prisons – not locked up by himself – so the other prisoners can beat him up,” Jamie said this week after Ariel and his brothers, 54-year-old Pedro and 50-year-old Onil, were arrested in connection with the abduction of Gina, Amanda and Michelle Knight, who went missing in 2002.
“Ariel said he agreed with me,” Jamie said. “He said, ‘Yes, I agree.’”
Now, as forensic teams pore over the house on Seymour Avenue, Jamie and the wider Cleveland community are struggling to comprehend the horrors that lurked behind its doors, and to make the allegations fit with their memories of the three Castro brothers.
Of the three suspects, Ariel was known the widest: a school bus driver who was fired from his job last year, and whom local musicians knew for his skill as a bassist. According to county documents, he bought the two-storey, four-bedroom house with a 760 sq ft basement for $12,000 from Edwin and Antonia Castro in 1992.
The surrounding area has a large Hispanic population which has grown significantly in recent decades. Ariel’s family are said to have been among the earlier arrivals, with some members moving to Ohio from Puerto Rico soon after the Second World War. The brothers’ uncle Edwin opened Cleveland’s first Latino record store in the late 1970s, although it is not known whether it is this Edwin who sold Ariel the house.
The Seymour Avenue property currently faces foreclosure because Ariel owes thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes on it. Pictures of the inside of the house that have emerged show a padlock on the door to the basement. Ariel’s son, 31-year-old Anthony, has said the basement was off limits to him on the occasions he visited the property since graduating from high school. The same went for the garage and the attic. “There were places we could never go,” he said from Columbus, where he lives.
Tito DeJesus, a Cleveland area pianist who knew Ariel but who is not related to Gina DeJesus, last visited the property in 2011. He was moving from a house to an apartment and had sold his washer-dryer and other household items to Castro. “I was helping him move [them],” Mr DeJesus said. “I was only there for a few minutes. He invited me in for a beer. But I had to hurry – I had a gig. There was regular furniture. I didn’t go very far inside. He had his instruments out and about and used [them] as decorations.”
Today, Cleveland’s police chief Michael McGrath revealed that the house also contained chains. “We have confirmed that they [the women] were bound, and there [were] chains and ropes in the home,” he told NBC. Once in a while, the captives were released into the backyard, he added.
Israel Lugo, who lives two houses down from 2207 Seymour Avenue, has spoken of how he, his family and other neighbours called the police three times between 2011 and 2012 after noticing odd goings-on at the Castro house – including seeing three women or girls with leashes around their necks crawling around the back yard. The neighbours who saw this told Mr Lugo that the women were being controlled by three men. They rang the police but the authorities never responded, he told USA Today. Other neighbours have spoken of regularly seeing Castro bring large bags of McDonald’s to his house, while some have recalled seeing a little girl in the attic window.
Police, meanwhile, are known to have visited the house on a number of occasions, including once when Ariel Castro was accused of leaving a child on a school bus, but they are not reported to have ventured inside. The incident with the child is one of a number of missteps – including using his bus to go grocery shopping – that appear to have caught up with Castro last year, when he was fired.
As far as Tito, Jamie and others were aware, Ariel had lived by himself after his marriage broke down more than a decade ago. A 2005 court filing shows that, years after Ariel parted ways with his wife Grimilda Figueroa, who took custody of their children, he was accused of beating her so severely that he twice broke her nose, broke her ribs, dislocated both shoulders and triggered a blood clot in her brain. Ms Figueroa, whose lawyer also claimed Castro frequently abducted his daughters despite having no custody rights, died last year. Mr Camacho last saw Ms Figueroa around seven years ago when he ran into her at a nightclub, long after she’d left Ariel, reportedly in the 1990s. “She said he was too possessive with her. She said [sometimes] he would lock her in the house when he went out,” he said.
Ariel’s brother Pedro is reported to have lived with their mother. Locals said they had seen him around Seymour Avenue but didn’t know him. Nelson Roman, a close friend of the brothers, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that Pedro was a bright student at high school and once worked at a local factory. But that came to an end when he began drinking heavily. Mr Roman said that in recent years Pedro had been living off state benefits.
Neither Pedro nor the youngest brother, Onil, were ever married, according to Mr Roman. Ariel’s son Anthony has said that Onil owned a house and lived alone after splitting many years ago with a live-in girlfriend with whom he had two sons.
Mr Roman, meanwhile, added that Onil also drank heavily, although he earned a living working as a handyman until he was hurt while working as a labourer. In recent years, he is said to have been receiving workers’ compensation cheques.
“I was flabbergasted. I had no idea,” Mr DeJesus said, recalling the moment he heard about the women held captive at Ariel’s house.