In Cleveland, joy at women’s release, but anger over missed clues
The little girl wore pink tights. Just a sliver of a child, skinny and shy.
Moises Cintron watched Ariel Castro lift her out of a red pickup truck and take her hand. “A little affection,” Cintron observed. They stopped at the fence, as always, so the girl could pet Cintron’s mini Dobermans, then walked to the park across the street.
Cintron always wondered about this 6-year-old girl, whom he frequently saw Castro take to the playground. But Cintron didn’t ask. He didn’t want to be labeled a “bochinchoso” – slang for a gossiper, a mark of shame in the neighborhood of Puerto Rican transplants.
A day later, the police would be arresting Castro and accusing him of holding three women captive for years. The rescue was triggered by Amanda Berry, who disappeared a decade ago on the day before her 17th birthday. She managed to get the attention of a neighbor who helped free her and call 911. Yesterday afternoon, the police escorted Berry to her sister’s home, and she brought with her a daughter: a 6-year-old who likes to pet mini Dobermans.
Sense of unease
Alongside the euphoria at their salvation is a sense of unease, a feeling that Castro isn’t the only one who might be at fault. Castro’s brazenness may very well have served as a veil. But he also may have benefited from a kind of code of silence or, at a minimum, an unwillingness to point fingers, some suspect.
“I believe a lot of people knew what was going on and now they’re staying quiet because they’re hiding, because if the police find out they knew something, the police will come for them,” said Tomas Rodriguez, 79, a retiree in Vieques Island, Puerto Rico.
That’s hard for some to accept. “I don’t know about that,” said Carmelo Negron, a retired construction worker. “How could someone know about something like this and not say something?”
Four counts of kidnapping
Castro, 52, was charged yesterday with four counts of kidnapping – one for each of the captive women and one for the child born while they were being held – and three counts of rape. In a news conference, the police said Castro’s two brothers – Pedro Castro, 54, and Onil Castro, 50 – had nothing to do with the abductions and rapes, although they both have outstanding warrants for separate misdemeanor cases and will go before a judge on those matters today.
The police say they discovered ropes and chains in the home and that the women were bound. A paternity test is being conducted to determine the father of Berry’s child. “We know that the victims have confirmed miscarriages, but with who, how many and what conditions, we don’t know,” Cleveland council member Brian Cummins, who was briefed on the case, said according to the Associated Press.
Disgust with authorities
On Castro’s block, frustrated neighbors turned their rage at the authorities. Neighbors who live three doors down from Castro say that the police have been contacted at least twice to report disturbing activity at the home where the women were held. Neighbor Israel Lugo said he called the police two years ago after his mother, Elsie Cintron, a distant relation of Moises, saw a child’s forlorn face in an attic window of Castro’s house and heard banging noises. Elsie Cintron says officers knocked on the door of Castro’s home but left when no one answered.
Then last year, she said, her daughter, Nina Samoylicz, burst into the house to tell the family about a disturbing sight: She’d seen a naked woman on all fours with a dog collar around her neck in the backyard of Castro’s home.
“Ariel was kicking her,” Lugo recalled Samoylicz saying. This time they didn’t call the police, Lugo said – it was so shocking that they almost didn’t believe her. But, not long after, Lugo spoke with several elderly women who said they had noticed the same thing, he said. The women called the police, he said, but officers never came. “I was furious; it’s pathetic,” Lugo said.
Cleveland officials have pushed back against those accounts, saying they have no records of the calls. “We have gone through our call system a number of times to make sure,” said Maureen Harper, a city spokeswoman.
Ed Tomba, deputy chief of the Cleveland police, told reporters that before they were rescued Monday, the captive women had been out of the house briefly only twice in the past decade and had never left the property.
Anger at community
Those who haven’t aimed their disgust at the police have sneered at segments of the community. Charlene Milam, a neighbor of one of the captive women, scoffed at statements by Castro’s neighbors who say the police weren’t responsive. “You could have done something,” Milam said. “If they don’t come, you make another call.”
And she was particularly peeved about the neighbors’ response to spotting a naked woman in Castro’s yard. “Buddy, if I see somebody naked, I’m going to go over and investigate myself,” she said.
Milam lives in a nearby neighborhood, two doors away from the family of Gina DeJesus, who went missing in 2004 and was rescued in the same house as Berry. Yesterday, her family’s house was festooned with balloons and banners welcoming her home. Milam held up a card that she had kept in her van all these years with a police sketch of the suspect, a drawing that she said was vaguely reminiscent of Castro. “I believe the police did the best they could,” Milam said.
Still, Castro seemed to go about his life as if he feared little, as if he could act with impunity, as if he was invincible, untouchable, immune. He didn’t shrink from society; he stepped out front. He played bass guitar in salsa bands and tore down the street on a loud motorcycle. He even participated in at least one of the marches held each year to draw attention to the disappearances of Berry and DeJesus, who was 14 when she went missing. (A third woman, Michelle Knight, missing since 2002 when she was 20, was also freed Monday.)
The neighborhood where Castro seemed to exist with such ease lies on Cleveland’s working-class west side. The area has attracted Puerto Rican migrants for decades. Many, including Castro’s father and uncles, came from the small coffee-growing town of Yauco in southwestern Puerto Rico. These transplanted Yaucanos have erected a social club to celebrate their home town and hold an annual coffee festival.
Castro lived half a block from a small grocery store and neighborhood hangout. The store is owned by his uncle, the patriarch of a large extended family, Julio Cesar “Cesi” Castro, one of the neighborhood’s most prominent businessmen and a frequent contributor to local political campaigns. On the walls, alongside posters advertising Puerto Rican heritage events, are signed photos of Bill and Hillary Clinton with typed inscriptions thanking the elder Castro for his support.
Ariel Castro could often be found at the store, which has a small backroom stage for musical performances. But in the past few years, friends began to notice a cooling in his relationship with the rest of the family, said Edwin Nunez, a salsa band leader who has performed with Castro. Negron said friends who played music with Castro were no longer being allowed inside his house.
Still, Nunez said few could have imagined his former bandmate being involved in any sort of crime. Or maybe, Moises Cintron said, it was just that no one wanted to know what was really going on with Castro. They might have preferred to see him simply as the man in the park with the little girl.
“That helped him,” Cintron said. “It helped him to stay doing what he was doing for so long.” No questions were asked. Cintron held his right index finger to his lips and said: “Shhh.”