CLEVELAND — One neighbour says a naked woman was seen crawling on her hands and knees in the backyard of the house a few years ago. Another heard pounding on the home’s doors and noticed plastic bags over the windows.
Both times, police showed up but never went inside, neighbours say. Police also paid a brief visit to the house in 2004.
Now, after three women who vanished a decade ago were found captive at the peeling, rundown house Monday, Cleveland police are facing questions for the second time in four years about their handling of missing-person cases and are conducting an internal review to see if they overlooked anything.
City Safety Director Martin Flask said Tuesday that investigators had no record of anyone calling about criminal activity at the house but were still checking police, fire and emergency databases.
The three women were rescued after one of them kicked out the bottom portion of a locked screen door and used a neighbour’s telephone to call 911.
“Help me. I’m Amanda Berry,” she breathlessly told a dispatcher in a call that exhilarated and astonished much of the city. “I’ve been kidnapped and I’ve been missing for 10 years and I’m, I’m here, I’m free now.”
Berry, 27, Michelle Knight, 32, and Gina DeJesus, about 23, had apparently been held captive in the house since their teens or early 20s, said Police Chief Michael McGrath.
Three brothers, ages 50 to 54, were arrested. One of them, former school bus driver Ariel Castro, owned the home, situated in a poor neighbourhood dotted with boarded-up houses just south of downtown Cleveland. No immediate charges were filed.
A 6-year-old girl believed to be Berry’s daughter was also found in the home, said Deputy Police Chief Ed Tomba. He would not say who the father was.
The women were reported by police to be in good health and were reunited with family members but remained in seclusion.
“Prayers have finally been answered. The nightmare is over,” said Stephen Anthony, head of the FBI in Cleveland. “These three young ladies have provided us with the ultimate definition of survival and perseverance. The healing can now begin.”
He added: “Words can’t describe the emotions being felt by all. Yes, law enforcement professionals do cry.”
Police would not say how the women were taken captive or how they were hidden in the same neighbourhood where they vanished. Investigators also would not say whether they were kept in restraints inside the house or sexually assaulted.
Four years ago, in another poverty-stricken part of town, Cleveland’s police force was heavily criticized following the discovery of 11 bodies in the home and backyard of Anthony Sowell, who was later convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
The victims’ families in the Sowell case accused police of failing to properly investigate the disappearances because most of the women were addicted to drugs and poor. For months, the stench of death hung over the house, but it was blamed on a sausage factory next door.
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.
This time, two neighbours said they called police to the Castro house on separate 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 said.
Another neighbour, Israel Lugo, said he heard pounding on some of the doors of the house 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.
Neighbours also said they would see Castro sometimes walking a little girl to a neighbourhood playground. And Cintron said she once saw a little girl looking out of the attic window of the house.
“Everyone in the neighbourhood did what they had to do,” said Lupe Collins, who is close to relatives of the women. “The police didn’t do their job.”
Police did go to the house twice in the past 15 years, but not in connection with the women’s disappearance, officials said.
In 2000, before the women vanished, Castro reported a fight in the street, but no arrests were made, Flask said.
In 2004, officers went to the home after child welfare officials alerted them that Castro had apparently left a child unattended on a bus, Flask said. No one answered the door, according to Flask. Ultimately, police determined there was no criminal intent on his part, he said.
On Tuesday, a sign hung on a fence decorated with dozens of balloons outside the home of DeJesus’ parents read “Welcome Home Gina.” Her aunt Sandra Ruiz told reporters that her niece had an emotional reunion with family members.
“She recognized everyone,” Ruiz said, who asked that the family 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.”
Many of the women’s loved ones and friends had held out hope of seeing them again, holding candlelight vigils and tacking missing posters on streetlights.
For years, Berry’s mother kept her room exactly as it was, said Tina Miller, a cousin. When magazines addressed to Berry arrived, they were piled in the room alongside presents for birthdays and Christmases she missed. Berry’s mother died in 2006.
Just over a month ago, Miller attended a vigil marking the 10th anniversary of Berry’s disappearance.
Over the past decade or so, investigators twice dug up backyards looking for Berry and continued to receive tips about her and DeJesus every few months, even in recent years. The disappearance of the two girls was profiled on TV’s “America’s Most Wanted” in 2005.
But few leads ever came in about Knight, who was the first of the three to disappear, vanishing at age 20 in 2002.
Berry disappeared at 16 in 2003, when she called her sister to say she was getting a ride home from her job at a Burger King. About a year later, DeJesus vanished at 14 on her way home from school.
Police identified the three suspects as Ariel Castro, 52; Pedro Castro, 54; and Onil Castro, 50. Attempts to reach Ariel Castro in jail were unsuccessful.
Castro was a bass player in several salsa and Latin bands in Cleveland. But he lasted only two gigs with one group because he was always late, said Miguel Quinones, manager of Grupo Fuego.
Jessica Aponce, 24, said she walked home with DeJesus the day the teenager disappeared.
“She called her mom and told her mom she was on her way home and that’s the last time I seen her,” Aponce said. “I just can’t wait to see her. I’m just so happy she’s alive. It’s been so many years that everybody thinking she was dead.”
Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Dugard, who were held captive by abductors at a young age, said they were elated by the women’s rescue.
“We need to have constant vigilance, constantly keep our eyes open and ears open because miracles do happen,” Smart said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”