The Ohio abductions: A decade of torment in the city of Cleveland

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After a painstaking reconstruction from local reports, David Randall pieces together 10 years of suffering for three women, and the ordeal of their loved ones, all at the hands of Ariel Castro

When the schoolgirl Gina DeJesus went missing in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2004, one family friend was particularly helpful. He handed out flyers, played music at a "Find Gina" fundraiser, joined searches, attended candlelit vigils for her and took the trouble to comfort her mother. And when police, acting on a tip that the missing girl had been murdered and buried, started digging up a city site, he was among the family's watching supporters. But even before the first spade went into the ground, he knew they wouldn't find Gina here. She was at his house, as she had been all along: chained up, and regularly raped by him, the steady profferer of sympathy for her family.

No detail of the decade-long ordeal of three young Ohio women, however grotesque and explicit, could convey better than this the cruel and twisted psychology of Ariel Castro, father, grandfather and something of a character in his neighbourhood. He drove the school bus, played bass in salsa bands in local bars and gave children rides on his motorbike. Sure, he'd later lose his job as a bus driver after collecting one minor black mark too many. Certainly there were twice allegations of domestic violence. But, he could say, nothing was proved, and the cases were dismissed. Move along. Nothing to see here. Just an ex-husband living alone in his heavily mortgaged house at 2207 Seymour Avenue who occasionally took a small girl – the daughter of a girlfriend, he told neighbours – to the local park. In his part of Cleveland, a city with abnormally high crime rates, jobless 55-year-old Ariel Castro didn't seem a threat to anyone but himself.

But he was, and at some stage early in the new century he started to get bad ideas. Very bad ideas. About capturing a girl and using and abusing her for his own gratification. This idea didn't come out of fresh air. As we now know from his late wife's father, Castro often locked his wife in a room while he went out, beat her, and never allowed her to use a phone or to go out alone. So it wasn't such a big step, after divorce, to start fantasising about abducting a fresh "wife" and treating her even worse. One day in 2002, he stopped his car in west central Cleveland and offered a lift to Michelle Knight. She accepted; he took her home to 2207 Seymour Avenue, tied her up and began to act out his fantasies. He would continue to do so every day for the next 11 years.

Michelle Knight was 20, and a single mother who had lost custody of her son to welfare authorities. Thus she disappeared into statistical anonymity as one of the 3,500 or so Cleveland people reported missing every year. No one outside her family was looking for her, let alone any abductor. Castro carried on driving his school bus, and going home to a captive he was now regularly raping.

But one was not enough. On 21 April 2003, Amanda Berry, aged 16, finished her shift at Burger King and, still wearing her uniform, began walking the few blocks home. Castro stopped his car, offered a ride, and Mandy, as the family knew her, hopped in. Castro took her to Seymour Avenue, and tied her up in a separate room from Michelle. Now he had two "wives" to chain, beat and rape.

This time, because of her age and the unlikelihood that she had run away (her money, phone charger and clothes were all at home, and next day was her 17th birthday), a hue and cry was raised. She began to feature in story after story in the city's newspaper, The Plain Dealer. A full police investigation began; vigils were held, posters and flyers printed and searches organised.

And then, five days after Amanda went missing, her mother, Louwana Miller, got a phone call. She later said: "It's this guy and he's telling me Amanda is with him. She's all right and he wants her to be his wife." She begged him to let her speak to her daughter, but, after saying he'd have her home in a few days, he hung up. Moments later, he called back. Mandy wants to be with me, he said. She wants to be my wife. And then he hung up again. She and police thought it was a hoaxer getting a kick out of taunting a distraught mother. Five months later, the FBI revealed it wasn't. The call had come from Amanda's mobile.

The following year, Castro pounced on victim number three: Gina DeJesus, taken from the Cleveland streets on her way home from school. She was just 14. Soon there were not only investigations, vigils, posters and flyers, but the FBI became involved in the case of the missing teenagers, and a $25,000 reward was offered for information about Amanda and Gina.

So now there were three. Castro drove his bus, barbecued with neighbours and sometimes saw his brothers, nearly always at their homes. At his place, an eight-room house with no air conditioning, the lower windows were covered, several doors had heavy locks, and he didn't encourage visitors. Nor did he allow even his family upstairs, and he always played loud music. After all, in three rooms were his captives, controlled by the beatings, assaults and lack of food. They were aware of each other, but only in later years, when he felt he had sufficient power over them, did they ever mingle, and then not for long. On a few occasions, for reasons as yet unknown, he gave them wigs and hats and led them a few steps to his garage.

Nor is there any record of police calling at the home to investigate neighbours' suspicions or sightings. Of the two visits they did pay, the principal one was January 2004, after Castro left a child on his school bus while he popped into a restaurant. Officers knocked, got no answer and went away. Castro was reprimanded by his employer, and, until he was fired in November last year for leaving his bus unattended for four hours, remained as a driver.

It was also in 2004, after he captured Gina, that Castro wrote a letter found in his home by police last week. "I don't know why I kept looking for another," he wrote. "I already had two in my possession." Possession. Something he'd acquired. To do with what he wished.

And the agony of the girls' families went on. Bedrooms were kept as they were when Amanda and Gina disappeared, yellow ribbons tied around their homes and gardens. And, when the ones for Gina began to look a little tatty, her mother gathered them, washed and pressed them, and arranged them on her bed. Every night after work, Gina's father Felix DeJesus would search the streets for her. They might have been slowly losing their minds with anxiety, but they never lost faith. Not when anniversaries and appeals came and went without any news, nor when malicious rumours about the girls reached their ears. Funds were launched, fundraisers staged and pressure kept up on media, police and FBI to produce something – anything – to show their girls were not forgotten.

The official investigations were extensive. Hundreds of statements were taken, empty properties searched, bloodhounds deployed, bumper stickers and posters printed, national TV appeals made, hotlines set up, and, in 2005, a sketch of a suspicious character seen in the vicinity of Gina's last known whereabouts was circulated. As the years went by, age-progressed photofits of the two younger girls were produced. But nothing. In a house just a mile or so from where the girls were last seen, meanwhile, Castro was still beating and abusing his captives.

In another room across the city, Amanda's mother had put cards and letters to her on a dresser, folded her clothes and hung her rosary on a doorknob. Her toothbrush was the only possession not there; it was given to police t record her DNA. Just in case. Downstairs, as a Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter found, was a sleepless Louwana, "living on cigarettes and blind faith. Sitting on a couch in a cloud of smoke, she uses the coffee table as a desk, with two phones ready, a stack of business cards from detectives and FBI agents, and ashtrays brimming with butts". Even then, just months after her daughter's disappearance, she was beginning to despair. "My daughter, she said, "is fading from the world."

In March 2004, a body was found, and Louwana had to wait two weeks for tests to find it was not Amanda's. Six months later, Louwana talked to a psychic, the final refuge of the desperate parent. "She's not alive, honey," the psychic told her. "You'll see her in heaven." And with that, say family, went Louwana's hopes. Eighteen months later, aged 44, she died. It was her heart, said the death certificate. Indeed it was.

The vigils went on. Then, in September 2006, police got a tip-off that Gina's body was buried under a garage at the home of a registered sex predator. They dug up the floor but found nothing. Yet another false alarm in the agony of her parents.

Over at 2207 Seymour Avenue, there was about to occur the only precisely datable event in Castro's 11-year degeneracy. On Christmas Day 2006, in a child's paddling pool in the basement, Amanda Berry gave birth to his child, a girl. Her midwife – told by Castro that if the infant died, then so would she – was Michelle Knight. The baby lived, but Michelle was to become something of an expert on lost babies. In her decade-long incarceration, she had five miscarriages – all of them, according to police, caused by Castro's starvation of her and punches to the stomach.

And so the ghastly half-life, half-death of the young women and their families went on. More appeals, photofits and false leads, such as the one which led to waste ground being futilely dug for Amanda's body only last July. More calls from detectives, more fearing to leave the house in case a vital call was missed. And more vigils, such as the one last April for Gina, attended by Castro. And the anxiety continued to tell. As Amanda's sister, Beth Serrano, put it: "Constant stress. Not knowing. Is she OK? Is she coming home? What's being done to her? What has happened to her? You never know what you're gonna hear, what's the outcome gonna be."

No one did. Not until last Monday evening when a neighbour heard a woman's screams for help coming from Castro's home. He rushed over and found Amanda Berry clawing at a door that would only open wide enough to get a hand through. They both kicked in the flyscreen; she and her daughter wriggled out. Police were called, and it was finally over. Amanda said it was her first chance to escape in 10 years. Had she managed to loosen a lock on an internal door, or had Castro, absent on an errand, at last got careless? Or did he realise that the end was approaching? He was behind with payments for his home, and repossession loomed.

Castro is now in custody and faces life in prison, or possibly even a death sentence. Michelle – a young woman reportedly estranged from some of her family – was released from hospital on Friday. Amanda and Gina are with their families to begin the slow process of healing. The media, and the people of Cleveland, should consider the words of Jaycee Dugard, the California girl of 11 seized by the sex offender Phillip Garrido and held captive and raped by him for 18 years. She urged that their ordeals should not define the women. "This isn't who they are," she said. "It is only what happened to them."

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