Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight were found alive in a Cleveland house just a few miles from where they disappeared individually about a decade ago.
CLEVELAND — The rescue of three Cleveland women from a house about a decade after they were apparently abducted has authorities and neighbors trying to piece together how they could have gone undetected for so long.
Police said Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight had apparently been held captive in the house since their teens or early 20s. They were found just a few miles from where they disappeared.
"If you don't believe in miracles, I suggest you think again," DeJesus' aunt, Sandra Ruiz, told reporters on Tuesday.
Authorities arrested three brothers, ages 50 to 54. One of them, former school bus driver Ariel Castro, owned the home where the women were found, situated in a poor, rundown neighborhood dotted with boarded-up houses. No immediate charges were filed.
A 6-year-old girl also was found in the home, and Deputy Police Chief Ed Tomba said the child is believed to be Berry's daughter. He declined to say who the father was.
Authorities would not say how the women were taken captive, whether they were restrained inside the house or if they had been sexually assaulted. Police said they were trying to be delicate in their questioning of the women, given their ordeal.
Agents searched the home Tuesday afternoon, collecting evidence.
'I'M FREE NOW'
It was the screams for help from Berry, now 27, that alerted a neighbor and led to their release following her frantic 911 call on Monday evening.
"Help me! I'm Amanda Berry. ... I've been kidnapped and I've been missing for 10 years and I'm here. I'm free now," Berry can be heard telling a 911 operator in a recording of the call released by police.
Police arrived to find Berry along with DeJesus, now 23, who vanished in 2004, and Knight, now 32, who went missing in 2002. They also discovered the child, who would have been conceived and born during Berry's captivity.
Berry had last been seen leaving her job at a fast-food restaurant the day before her 17th birthday in April 2003, and DeJesus was last seen walking home from school.
Cleveland authorities and residents grappled with how the young women went unnoticed for so long in a neighborhood where houses sit close together, typically separated only by a driveway.
Children and Family Services authorities went to the house in January 2004 after Castro had left a child on a school bus, Mayor Frank Jackson said at a Tuesday news conference.
They "knocked on the door but were unsuccessful in connection with making any contact with anyone inside that home," he said.
Tomba said that Castro was "interviewed extensively" during that investigation and no criminal intent was found regarding the bus incident.
That visit to the house was more than a year after Knight disappeared and a few months after Berry went missing.
"We 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 mayor said.
Before the disappearances, in March 2000, police said they responded to a call from Ariel Castro reporting a fight in the street, but no arrests were made, Public Safety Director Martin Flask said.
Ariel Castro was arrested Tuesday along with brothers Onil Castro and Pedro Castro.
A relative of the three said their arrests had left their family "totally shocked." Juan Alicea said the men are his wife's brothers and relatives are "as blindsided as anyone else" in their community.
Alicea said he hadn't been to the home of his brother-in-law Ariel Castro since the early 1990s. Alicea said he had eaten dinner with Castro at a different brother's house shortly before the arrests.
Ariel Castro's son, Anthony Castro, said in an interview with London's Daily Mail newspaper that he now speaks with his father just a few times a year and seldom visited his house. He said on his last visit, two weeks ago, his father wouldn't let him inside.
"The house was always locked," he said. "There were places we could never go. There were locks on the basement. Locks on the attic. Locks on the garage."
Anthony Castro, who lives in Columbus, also wrote an article for a community newspaper in Cleveland about the disappearance of Gina DeJesus just weeks after she went missing, when he was a college journalism student.
"That I wrote about this nearly 10 years ago — to find out that it is now so close to my family — it's unspeakable," he told The Plain Dealer newspaper.
Investigators said Tuesday that they had no record of any tips or calls about criminal activity at the house in the years after the victims vanished, but that they were still checking their files.
However, two neighbors said they were alarmed enough by what they saw at the house to call police on two occasions.
Elsie Cintron, who lives three houses away, said her daughter once saw a naked woman crawling on her hands and knees in the backyard several years ago and called police. "But they didn't take it seriously," she told the Associated Press.
AP Photo: The Plain Dealer, Scott Shaw
Another neighbor, Israel Lugo, said he heard pounding on some of the doors of Castro's house, which had plastic bags on the windows, in November 2011. Lugo said officers knocked on the front door, but no one answered. "They walked to side of the house and then left," he said.
"Everyone in the neighborhood did what they had to do," said Lupe Collins, who is close to relatives of the women. "The police didn't do their job."
Ariel Castro was well known in the mainly Puerto Rican neighborhood. He played bass guitar in salsa and merengue bands. He gave children rides on his motorcycle and joined others at a candlelight vigil to remember two of the missing girls, neighbors said.
Neighbors also said they would see Castro sometimes walking a little girl to a neighborhood playground. And Cintron said she once saw a little girl looking out of the attic window of the house.
Four years ago, Cleveland police came under heavy criticism following the discovery of 11 bodies in the home and backyard of a man who was later sentenced to death. The home was in a poor part of town several miles away from where the missing women were rescued this week.
In the wake of public outrage over the killings, a panel formed by the mayor recommended an overhaul of the city's handling of missing-person and sex crime investigations.
The three women appeared to be in good health and were taken to a hospital to be evaluated and reunited with relatives. A photo released by Berry's family showed her smiling with an arm around her sister. All three were released from Metro Health Medical Center on Tuesday morning. Police said they were taken to an undisclosed location in the suburbs.
A sign outside the home of DeJesus' parents read "Welcome Home Gina."
Her aunt Sandra Ruiz told reporters that she was able to see all three women. She asked that their families be given space.
"Those girls, those women are so strong," she said. "What we've done in 10 years is nothing compared to what those women have done in 10 years to survive."
CRY FOR HELP
The women's escape and rescue began with a frenzied cry for help.
A neighbor, Charles Ramsey, told WEWS-TV he heard screaming Monday and saw Berry, whom he didn't recognize, at a door that would open only enough to fit a hand through. He said she was trying desperately to get outside and pleaded for help to reach police.
"I heard screaming," he said. "I'm eating my McDonald's. I come outside. I see this girl going nuts trying to get out of a house."
Neighbor Anna Tejeda was sitting on her porch with friends when they heard someone across the street kicking a door and yelling. Tejeda said one of her friends went over and told Berry how to kick the screen out of the bottom of the door, which allowed her to crawl out.
Tejeda said Berry, dressed in pajamas and old sandals, was nervous and crying.
Missing women's neighbor makes call to 911
At first Tejeda said she didn't want to believe who the young woman was. "You're not Amanda Berry," she insisted. "Amanda Berry is dead."
But when Berry told her she had been kidnapped and held captive, Tejeda said, she gave the young woman a telephone to call police, who arrived within minutes and then took the other women from the house.
In her 911 call Monday, Berry declared: "I'm Amanda Berry. I've been on the news for the last 10 years."
HOLDING OUT HOPE
The women's loved ones said they hadn't given up hope of seeing them again.
In eastern Tennessee, Berry's father, Johnny Berry, told WJHL-TV that he spoke to her for the first time Monday night by phone at his home in Elizabethton.
"She said, 'Hi, Daddy, I'm alive,'" Johnny Berry said. "She said, 'I love you, I love you, I love you,' and then we both started crying."
Although Amanda Berry was born and raised in Cleveland, her father, grandparents and cousins live in Elizabethton. Before she disappeared, she often visited Tennessee during the summers. Family members said they visited her in Cleveland about three weeks before she went missing.
Berry's cousin Tasheena Mitchell told The Plain Dealer newspaper: "I'm going to hold her, and I'm going to squeeze her and I probably won't let her go."
Berry's mother, Louwana Miller, who had been hospitalized for months with pancreatitis and other ailments, died in 2006. She had spent the previous three years looking for her daughter, whose disappearance took a toll as her health steadily deteriorated, family and friends said.
Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Dugard, who were held captive by abductors at a young age, said they were elated by the women's rescue.
In a statement released Tuesday through her publicist, Dugard said: "The human spirit is incredibly resilient. More than ever this reaffirms we should never give up hope."
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
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