3 missing women found safe after nearly a decade


by Becky Mortensen

CLEVELAND (CNN) -- She knew she didn't have long. He would be back soon. After 10 long years in captivity, this was Amanda Berry's chance.

She broke out the bottom of a screen door and screamed, startling a neighbor who came over and helped kick in the door. Then, frenzied, panicked, tearful freedom.

"Help me, I am Amanda Berry," the 27-year-old woman told police in a frantic 911 call from the neighbor's house. "I've been kidnapped, and I've been missing for 10 years. And I'm here, I'm free now."

Cleveland police and the FBI hailed Berry as a hero for her daring escape Monday night that also led to freedom for two other women held inside the house -- Georgina "Gina" DeJesus, 23, and Michelle Knight, 32. All three had disappeared close to a decade ago from the same Cleveland neighborhood.

Police also arrested former school bus driver Ariel Castro, 52, who lived at the house and was identified by Berry on the 911 call.

Authorities also picked up his brothers, Pedro Castro, 54, and Onil Castro, 50. All three are jailed pending charges in the case, police said Tuesday.

"The real hero here is Amanda," Cleveland's Deputy Police Chief Ed Tomba said. "She's the one that got this rolling. Without her, none of us would be here today."

While little is known of what the women went through, Berry seemed to have seized the moment to escape when Castro left the house.

When the 911 dispatcher told her officers would be on their way "as soon as we get a car open," Berry panicked, saying "No, I need them now, before he gets back."

She also indicated she had some knowledge of the outside world, or at least how much coverage her 2003 disappearance had received, telling the 911 dispatcher, "I've been on the news for the last 10 years."

Authorities said Tuesday they had no prior indication anything suspicious was going on at the nondescript home on Seymour Avenue with a Puerto Rican flag hanging from the porch. But a few neighbors said they had called police in recent years after hearing yelling at the house and, in another incident, seeing a naked woman walking in the backyard.

Police Chief Michael McGrath said FBI evidence technicians worked at the house until 5 a.m. Tuesday, and said it will likely be a few more days before they complete their investigation inside the residence.

Investigators also plan to inspect other properties possibly owned by Castro, according to Tomba. They haven't yet interviewed the women in detail to learn details about their abductions and decade in captivity, he added.

"Our first and foremost concern was their mental well being," he said.

He described their reunion with relatives at a Cleveland hospital Monday night as "chaotic."

Witnessing it, he said, allowed for "nothing but compassion and love in your heart for them."

Finally free

The women vanished in separate incidents nearly a decade ago, within blocks of each other, according to police. Each disappeared from the same Cleveland street -- Lorain Avenue -- three miles from the home in which they were found Monday.

Amanda Berry was last seen after finishing her shift at a Burger King in Cleveland on April 21, 2003. It was the eve of her 17th birthday.

Georgina "Gina" DeJesus disappeared nearly a year later, on April 2, 2004. She was 14.

Michelle Knight vanished on August 22, 2002, according to Cleveland Public Safety Director Martin Flask. A family member reported her missing the next day, Flask said. She was 21 years old at the time, Cleveland police said.

The three women and the child were released Tuesday from the hospital where they had been taken for evaluations, a spokeswoman said.

Tomba said all four appeared to be in good condition, if in need of a good meal.

FBI special Agent Vicki Anderson declined to discuss the conditions under which the women had allegedly been held.

She said state charges would likely be filed by Thursday. No federal charges are expected, she said.

The escape

Neighbor Charles Ramsey was sitting down to a fast food meal Monday night when he heard screaming.

"I see this girl going nuts trying to get out of a house," he told CNN affiliate WEWS. "I go on the porch and she says, 'help me get out. I've been in here a long time.'"

Figuring it was a domestic dispute, Ramsey kicked in the bottom of the door and the woman came out with a little girl and said, "Call 911, my name is Amanda Berry," according to Ramsey, who admitted he didn't recognize the name at first.

Free from the house where they had been held captive, Berry pleaded for a phone.

"They were crazy, screaming, 'Help, call police, please help.' ... They were desperate, crying, running," said Angela Garcia, whose aunt provided the phone for them to call police.

Ramsey also called 911, less than a minute later.

"She's like, 'This (expletive) kidnapped me and my daughter,'" he told 911.

When police arrived, Knight and DeJesus "came out of the house on their own," Tomba said.

DeJesus's mother, Nancy, met with her daughter at the hospital, cousin Sylvia Colon told CNN's "Piers Morgan Live." She had never given up hope of finding her daughter alive.

"She has always said that she just could feel it, a link a mom can feel, but she always believed Gina was alive and well," Colon said. "She always believed that. I just want to say what a phenomenal Mother's Day gift she gets this Mother's Day."

Neighbors report strange behavior

Nina Samoylicz, who lives nearby, said she called police about two years ago after spotting a naked woman walking around the backyard of Castro's house, and called out to her. She said a man told the woman to get in the house, then ran in himself.

"She was just walking around, and naked," Samoylicz said. "We thought that was weird. We thought it was funny at first, and then we thought that was weird so we called the cops. They thought we was playing, joking, they didn't believe us."

She said she had also seen tarps covering the backyard.

Another neighbor, Israel Lugo, said his sister got a bad vibe from the house and asked him not to let the children play unsupervised nearby. He said he heard yelling in the house in November 2011 and called police to investigate, but they left after no one answered the door.

But authorities never had any indications that the women were being held in the home or that anything suspicious was going on there, Flask said. Neighbors had not provided any tips, he added.

Police had visited the home twice, authorities said Tuesday, once after Ariel Castro called about a fight in the street and another time to investigate Castro on an unrelated incident involving a child who had been left on a school bus.

Neighbors reported seeing the 6-year-old who left the home with Berry out playing sometimes at a neighborhood park.

Lugo said he saw Castro at the park Sunday with a little girl and asked who it was.

"He said it was his girlfriend's daughter," Lugo told CNN.

The suspects

Of the three brothers arrested, Ariel Castro was the only one to live at the home where the three women were apparently held, police said. The others lived elsewhere in the city.

Their uncle, Julio Castro, told CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360" on Monday that his family had grown up in the same west Cleveland neighborhood and knew the DeJesus family.

Castro told CNN's Martin Savidge on Tuesday that family members were "surprised" over the developments.

"Shame on you," Julio Castro said, when asked what he would say to his nephews.

Ariel Castro used to work as a bus driver for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, according to district spokeswoman Roseann Canfora. She did not have specifics Monday night on how long he was employed, when he left or whether he was fired or left voluntarily.

Ramsey told reporters the suspect wasn't known for anything exciting -- "until today."

"We see this dude every day. I've been here a year. I barbecued with this dude. We eat ribs and listen to salsa music," Ramsey said.

"We never saw the girls there, and we were always outside," he said. "We only saw the guy."

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson said there were "many unanswered questions regarding this case, and the investigation will be ongoing."

"I am thankful that these three young ladies are found and alive,' he said Monday.

Other cases

While amazing, such discoveries are more common now, said John D. Ryan, CEO of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

"To us at the National Center, this is not something that we find shocking any more," he said. "The fact is, we have seen more and more long term missing cases end up in the victim being rescued many years after their original abduction."

The most widely reported such incident in recent years was that of Jaycee Dugard, who was freed in 2009 after 18 years of captivity behind the home of a California couple.

Dugard released a statement Tuesday saying the women who broke free in Cleveland "need the opportunity to heal and connect back into the world.

"This isn't who they are. It is only what happened to them," Dugard said. "The human spirit is incredibly resilient. More than ever this reaffirms we should never give up hope."

In another case, Ryan said last year a 43-year-old man was found and reunited with his mother after being abducted at the age of 2.