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Police facing questions  in rescue of three women

Authorities visited home in January ’04

The families of three women who spent years in apparent captivity inside a Cleveland home celebrated their remarkable rescue yesterday as questions began emerging about why the police were called to the house at least twice since 2000 yet never went inside.

The women – Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight – vanished separately a decade ago while in their teens and early 20s only blocks from the 1,400-square-foot house where they were found Monday night. Their rescue came almost by accident, when Berry, now 27, hailed a neighbor while her alleged captor was out, slipped through an obstructed front door with the neighbor’s help and frantically called 911.

Yet there had been signs that something was amiss inside the faded two-story house, which was far from isolated and just steps away from a gas station and Caribbean grocery. Neighbors told the Associated Press that in recent years, a naked woman was seen crawling on her hands and knees in the backyard, and pounding was heard on the doors. The police showed up each time but stayed outside, they said.

The home, in a heavily Latino neighborhood, was owned by Ariel Castro, a 52-year-old former school bus driver who was arrested along with his brothers, Pedro Castro, 54, and Onil Castro, 50. Authorities said children and family services investigators went to the home in January 2004, after all three girls went missing, because Ariel Castro had left a child on a school bus.

Investigators “knocked on the door but were unsuccessful in connection with making any contact with anyone inside that home,” Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson said at a news conference, adding that officials “have no indication that any of the neighbors, bystanders, witnesses or anyone else has ever called regarding any information, regarding activity that occurred at that house on Seymour Avenue.”

The Castro bothers had not been charged as of late yesterday afternoon, and it was unclear whether attorneys had been appointed for them.

The dramatic rescue of the three young women, who disappeared while doing things as innocuous as walking home from school or from a job at Burger King, produced a flood of emotions from local and federal authorities, who said they had never stopped investigating the cases.

“The nightmare is over. These three young ladies have provided us with the ultimate definition of survival and perseverance,” said Steve Anthony, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Cleveland division. “The families of three young ladies never gave up hope, and neither did law enforcement. . . . Yes, law enforcement professionals do cry.”

In Washington, D.C., victims’ rights advocate and former America’s Most Wanted host John Walsh said he did “cartwheels” upon hearing the news from Ohio. “Most of these end where the child is never recovered or wind up like my Adam, murdered,” Walsh said at an awards gala held by the Alexandria, Va.-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Walsh’s son, Adam, was abducted and killed in 1981.

“To see these three alive, all at the same house, is remarkable to me after 25 years of sad endings,” he said. “This is the most incredible ending to three nightmares.”

In addition to the three women, a 6-year-old girl also was rescued from the house authorities said. The girl is believed to be the daughter of Amanda Berry.

Berry, now 27, disappeared in April 2003, a day before her 17th birthday, after calling her sister to say she was getting a ride home from her job at a Burger King. Gina DeJesus went missing a year later, at age 14, while walking home from middle school. The oldest of the women, Michelle Knight, disappeared in August 2002, when she was 20 years old.

While Berry’s and DeJesus’s disappearances prompted widespread attention and media coverage, the case of Knight, who was older and the first to go missing, at the time drew far fewer headlines.

Law enforcement officials said at a briefing yesterday that there had been no prior reports of suspicious or criminal activity at the house where the women and girl were rescued.

On Monday, while Castro was out, Berry hailed a neighbor, Charles Ramsey, convinced him to help her slip through an obstructed front door by kicking in the lower part and placed a frantic call to 911.

“Help me. I’m Amanda Berry. I’ve been kidnapped, and I’ve been missing for 10 years,” she told the dispatcher tearfully. “And I’m, I’m here. I’m free now.”

Authorities declined to specify what charges the Castro brothers are likely to face or to detail how they were placed under arrest. Pedro and Onil Castro have addresses elsewhere in Cleveland, the police said.

Ramsey told a television reporter that he has lived across the street from Ariel Castro’s house for about a year and frequently sees him outside, tinkering with his cars or playing with his dogs. They have eaten barbecue and listened to music together, he said.

“Not a clue that that girl was in that house, or that anybody else was in there against his will,” Ramsey said. “I see that dude every day.”

The women and girls were reunited with their family members and assessed at Metro Health Medical Center, officials said. Sandra Ruiz, who identified herself as the aunt of Gina DeJesus, told reporters that all three rescued women were in remarkably good spirits. “It’s just unbelievable . . . these women are just so strong,” Ruiz said.

Asked in Spanish about her niece’s condition, Ruiz, who said she was raised in Puerto Rico, answered in her native tongue that DeJesus, her family, Berry and Knight all were well.

“Gina is well. All the girls are well,” Ruiz said in Spanish. “Thank God.”

In 2004, Ariel Castro came to police attention when he apparently left a child unattended on his school bus, but authorities who investigated the incident determined that it was accidental, law enforcement authorities said. Castro also summoned the police to his home in 2000 to report a fight in the street, authorities said.

The police said they will proceed cautiously when interviewing the three women and will use a specially trained FBI team to gather evidence while, as much as possible, sparing the women the trauma of reliving their captivity.

“The real hero here is Amanda. She’s the one who got this rolling,” Cleveland Deputy police Chief Ed Tomba said. “We’re just following her lead.”

The length of time that the women have been missing, and the young age at which they vanished – especially in the cases of DeJesus and Berry – are reminiscent of the 18-year ordeal of Jaycee Lee Dugard, who was kidnapped at age 11 while walking to a school bus stop in South Lake Tahoe, Calif.

Dugard was kept in a concealed area behind the home of Phillip Craig Garrido, a convicted sex offender, and his wife, Nancy Garrido, in Antioch, Calif. During her time in captivity, Dugard gave birth to two daughters.

The kidnapping was discovered in 2009, after Garrido aroused suspicion during a visit with the two girls to a police office at the University of California at Berkeley. In April 2011, the Garridos pleaded guilty to kidnapping and sexual assault. Dugard later wrote a memoir, A Stolen Life, about her ordeal.

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