School bus driver and brothers questioned as abducted teenagers are found alive
‘I’m Amanda Berry. I’ve been kidnapped and I’ve been missing for 10 years’
The three Cleveland women found alive after vanishing in their own neighbourhood for about a decade were rescued from a house that authorities tried to visit several years ago, police said today.
Three brothers, one of them a school bus driver who owns the Cleveland house where the three women and a child were rescued, are under arrest, police said at a news conference.
A relative of one of the women, teenagers when they disappeared, described their survival as “a miracle” as Cleveland authorities and residents grappled with how they went unnoticed for so long.
Police said a 6-year-old girl rescued with them is believed to be the child of Amanda Berry, now 27, whose screams for help alerted a neighbour 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,” Ms Berry can be heard telling a 911 operator in a recording of the call released by police.
Police arrived to find Ms Berry along with Gina DeJesus, now 23, who vanished in 2004, and Michelle Knight, now 32, who went missing in 2002, police said.
They also discovered the child, who would have been conceived and born during Berry’s captivity, police said. Ms 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.
After their rescue, the three women were taken to hospital, where they were reunited with family and friends, and later released.
“If you don’t believe in miracles, I suggest you think again,” Ms DeJesus’ aunt Sandra Ruiz said to reporters in Cleveland. Her comments were televised by local station WJW.
“This is a miracle,” Ms Ruiz said. But she added: “Watch who your neighbour is because you never know.”
Ariel Castro (52), a school bus driver, was arrested, as were his brothers Pedro (54) and Onil (50), police said.
“We believe we have the people responsible,” Cleveland Deputy Police Chief Ed Tomba said. Cleveland officials said they were investigating how the young women could have gone unnoticed in the neighbourhood 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 the news conference.
They “knocked on the door but were unsuccessful in connection with making any contact with anyone inside that home,” he said.
Deputy police chief Tomba said Castro was “interviewed extensively” during that investigation and no criminal intent was found regarding the child left on the bus.
That visit to the house was more than a year after Ms Knight disappeared and a few months after Ms 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.
FBI and other law enforcement officials were searching the house on the west side of Cleveland, close to where each woman was last seen. Deputy Tomba said police were also investigating other properties but did not elaborate.
A mood of jubilation grew as word spread that the women had been found alive in the blue-collar, Latino neighborhood where the two-story house was cordoned off with crime-scene tape. But residents said too that they were perplexed by the case.
A man who helped to look for Ms DeJesus, Pastor Angel Arroyo, said he and her family members had handed out flyers years ago in the neighborhood where she was found.
“We didn’t search hard enough. She was right under our nose the whole time,” he said.
During her 911 call, Ms Berry can be heard giving the dispatcher Castro’s name and urging police to come quickly. She indicated that she knew her disappearance had been widely reported in the media.
The neighbour who came to her aid told police he heard Ms Berry trying to get out of the house and helped her kick out the bottom of a locked screen door.
“The real hero is Amanda,” Deputy Tomba said. “She’s the one that got this rolling.”
There was no word on the fate of a fourth missing girl, Ashley Summers, who disappeared from the same vicinity in July 2007 at age 14.
The discovery of the three women was reminiscent of the case of Jaycee Dugard, who was snatched from her northern California home at age 11 by a convicted sex offender, Phillip Garrido, and kept in captivity for 18 years before being rescued in 2009. During that time she was repeatedly raped by her abductor and gave birth to two girls fathered by him. Similar cases of abduction and incarceration have been reported during the past decade in Austria and Italy.