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Kidnapping, rape charges filed in Ohio captive-women case

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
The Washington Post

CLEVELAND - Authorities filed kidnapping and rape charges Wednesday against a man accused of holding a trio of young women captive in a rundown house for the past decade, but his two brothers were absolved of involvement in the crime.

Ariel Castro, 52, was charged with kidnapping the three women and the young child of one of them. He was also charged with raping the three women.

Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight were rescued Monday night, along with Berry’s 6-year-old daughter, after Berry managed to hail a neighbor and break through the lower part of a door.

In a news conference, 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 Thursday.

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 last decade and had never left the property. “We were told that they left the house and went into the garage in disguise,” Tomba said. He said the house was “in quite a bit of disarray” but declined to provide details of the conditions under which the women were held.

He said Ariel Castro waived his Miranda rights and provided “a detailed statement” about the case. Tomba said he is not currently a suspect in any other abductions.

He refused to comment on reports that the three women suffered miscarriages while being held in brutal conditions, including physical restraints.

A Cleveland city councilman, Brian Cummins, said the women were subjected to prolonged sexual and psychological abuse and suffered miscarriages, the Associated Press reported. He said the women were kept in the basement of the house for some time.

Tomba said investigators who interviewed the women and the Castro brothers found nothing that led them to believe that Pedro and Onil Castro were involved in the crimes or had any knowledge of them. Ariel Castro kept everyone at a distance, Tomba said.

The three brothers spoke extensively with investigators, Cleveland Police Chief Michael McGrath said earlier.

Interviewed on NBC’s “Today” show, McGrath said police found ropes and chains inside the ramshackle house on Cleveland’s west side.

“We have confirmed that they were bound,” McGrath said. He said investigators believe the women were kept hidden inside the house during years of captivity.

Ariel Castro lived in the house on Seymour Avenue; Pedro and Onil Castro lived together a few blocks away.

Berry, now 27, was taken to her sister’s Cleveland home Wednesday morning with a police escort, after being questioned about her experience by a specially trained FBI team. Her daughter was with her. The house was festooned with balloons and a huge “Welcome home” banner. Crowds of neighbors and well-wishers, along with a large group of reporters, waited outside.

Berry’s mother died while she was missing, and her father has moved out of state, news organizations reported.

“We have Amanda and her daughter home,” said Berry’s sister, Beth Serrano. “We are elated.” She asked the assembled reporters to respect her family’s privacy as Berry begins to recover from her ordeal.

In the afternoon, DeJesus returned home amid similar fanfare. Wearing a yellow hoodie pulled over her head, she emerged from a black van and was hustled by a sister into the family’s home, past bunches of balloons in the front yard, without saying anything to reporters waiting behind metal barricades.

As DeJesus arrived, her father, Felix DeJesus, pumped his fists in the air and hugged other relatives and a police officer. Well-wishers cheered and chanted, “Gina! Gina!”

Speaking to reporters outside the house soon afterward, DeJesus’s aunt, Sandra Ruiz, urged the community not to “retaliate against the families or the suspects of this crime.” Authorities “will get the job done,” she said. “We need to let them do their job.”

Ruiz also asked the public to “rally together” and help find a missing girl, Ashley Summers, who disappeared in Cleveland in 2007. She appealed to reporters: “Be patient with us. Give us time and privacy to heal. When we’re ready . . . we will talk to you.”

Berry went missing a day before her 17th birthday in 2003, after finishing a shift at a nearby Burger King. Knight disappeared a year earlier and is now 32 years old. DeJesus vanished in 2004, at age 14, while walking home from middle school.

Ariel Castro has a history of violence toward women, according to records in Cuyahoga County Domestic Relations Court. In August 2005, he was ordered to stay away from his ex-wife, Grimilda Figueroa, and their children, after beating Figueroa so severely that he broke her nose twice, broke her ribs, dislocated both shoulders and triggered a blood clot in her brain.

The petition for a protective order says Castro threatened to kill Figueroa and their daughters on multiple occasions. Figueroa had full custody of the children, with no visitation rights for Castro, the records say. But the petition also says that Castro “frequently abducts daughters and keeps them from” Figueroa, their legal custodian.

The protective order was rescinded three months after it was granted, for reasons that are not clear in the court record. The records show that Figueroa’s attorney was not present at the November hearing at which the order was rescinded. Figueroa died last year, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported.

In 1993, Castro was arrested and charged with domestic violence in a case involving Figueroa. But the grand jury declined to indict him, a decision that is not explained in the court records.

Residents of the working-class neighborhood where the Castros and the missing women’s families live are grappling with why they were not rescued sooner — and whether their kidnappings might be related to other disappearances.

Neighbors said police were called to Ariel Castro’s house at least twice in recent years for reports of suspicious activity, but McGrath said police have no records of those calls. Several years ago, the neighbors said, a naked woman was seen crawling on her hands and knees in the back yard. In 2011, pounding was heard on the doors. Police showed up each time but stayed outside, the neighbors said.

Officials said Wednesday that based on statements by the suspect and the victims, there was “no evidence” that any of the women were ever outside in the back yard, much less without clothing.

An FBI spokeswoman told the Plain Dealer that investigators are looking for any possible links to the case of Ashley Summers, who went missing in 2007 at age 14, three years after DeJesus disappeared. Because of their similar ages and the proximity of the locations where they were last seen, police have long said they thought the cases of Summers, Berry and DeJesus could be related.

“We are keeping Ashley in our thoughts as we go, every step of the way,” FBI spokeswoman Vicki Anderson told the Plain Dealer on Tuesday. “Whether it is something we find at the house, or someone seeing the stories remembers something, we continue our search for Ashley.”

However, in response to a question Wednesday, Tomba said there was “no new information that has come to light” about Summers.

It remains unclear whether lawyers have been appointed to represent the Castro brothers, who, especially in the case of Ariel Castro, appear to have multiple ties to the families of at least one of the kidnapped women.

Roberto Diaz, who lives nearby, said Castro participated in at least one of the annual marches held in the neighborhood to draw attention to the case of the missing girls. Khalid Samad, a friend of the DeJesus family, told the Associated Press that Castro knew DeJesus’s father and helped search for her after she disappeared. He also performed music at a fundraiser held in her honor, Samad said.

“When we went out to look for Gina, he helped pass out fliers,” Samad, a community activist who was at a hospital with DeJesus and her family Monday night, told AP.

DeJesus’s best friend at the time of her abduction, Arlene Castro, is the daughter of Ariel Castro, and was with DeJesus moments before she disappeared. Arlene Castro appeared on “America’s Most Wanted” in 2005 to draw attention to the DeJesus case.

The girls were walking home from school and hoping to spend the afternoon at the house where Arlene Castro lived with her mother and siblings. But Arlene’s mother said no, the teenager said in the television interview. “And so I told her I couldn’t, and she said, ‘Well okay, I’ll talk to you later,’ and she just walked,” Arlene Castro said.

In addition, Ariel Castro’s son, Ariel “Anthony” Castro, wrote an article for a community newspaper on the search for DeJesus in 2004 while he was a journalism student at Bowling Green University.

Anthony Castro told London’s Daily Mail newspaper that he has little contact with his father and seldom visits his home. “The house was always locked,” he told the newspaper. “There were places we could never go. There were locks on the basement. Locks on the attic. Locks on the garage.”

Arlene Castro is one of three children named in Figueroa’s protective order petition. The others are Emily Castro, also identified as the daughter of Figueroa and Ariel Castro, and Ryan Colon, who is described as Figueroa’s son but not Castro’s. Anthony Castro, who was an adult in 2005, was not named in the petition.

Castro’s worn-looking, two-story house sits on a street packed with small homes with open porches in a heavily Latino neighborhood, just steps away from a gas station and a Caribbean grocery. Cleveland police found only two inquiries involving the address — neither of which are the ones cited by neighbors.

City officials said children and family services investigators had gone to the home in January 2004 — after Knight and Berry had disappeared, but three months before DeJesus went missing — because Ariel Castro, who at the time worked as a school bus driver, 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 G. Jackson said. Officials also said Ariel Castro called police from the house in 2000 — before any of the three women were missing — to report a street fight.

By all accounts, Berry was a typical teenage girl — who wore her hair in a ponytail, had mild acne, liked to shop and loved rapper Eminem — when she disappeared at age 16 on April 21, 2003, while on her way home from her job at a Burger King. She was still wearing her Burger King uniform. Her 17th-birthday party had been planned for the next day.

It was Berry, police and neighbors said, who flagged down a neighbor Monday night and persuaded him to help her kick in the lower part of the house’s front door. From across the street, she called 911.

“Help me. I’m Amanda Berry. I’ve been kidnapped, and I’ve been missing for 10 years,” she told the dispatcher tearfully before describing her alleged captor.

DeJesus, now 23, disappeared while walking home from school on April 2, 2004. She typically covered nearly 40 blocks on the trek, which took her through thriving commercial areas, blocks dotted by churches, and neighborhoods dogged by drugs and prostitution.

The 5-foot-1-inch teen with long, curly dark-brown hair was very close to her family. In March, her aunt, Janice Ruiz Smith, wrote on Facebook — which barely existed when DeJesus disappeared — “To the person who took my niece Gina, please please let her go. . . . She has a family who loves her, and misses her very much. Please let her come home.’’

Perhaps the most mysterious case involved Knight, now 32, who police said vanished in 2002. She apparently was not treated as a missing person because some family members thought she had left home voluntarily.

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Wilgoren reported from Washington. Adam Bernstein, Alice Crites, Jerry Markon, Caitlin Dewey and William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.

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