Two women who were kept for years against their will in an Ohio house finally returned home on Wednesday, as police prepared to charge three brothers in connection with the abductions.
Amanda Berry, 27, was brought under police guard to her sister’s home in Cleveland and was welcomed by a huge cheer from hundreds of neighbours. The house was festooned with balloons and placards, one saying “We never lost hope” and another reading “We missed you very much”. Gina DeJesus, 23, had a similar rapturous welcome home. A third woman who was imprisoned, Michelle Knight, 30, remained out of the spotlight on Wednesday. When they went missing, Berry was 16, DeJesus 14 and Knight 21.
Berry burst free from the house on Seymour Avenue on Monday, with a six-year-old daughter born in captivity, leading police to the grisly scene where they discovered ropes and chains. Since their release, the women had been staying at an undisclosed location with expert investigators.
Arriving at her sister’s home, Berry did not stop before the bank of TV cameras and reporters that had assembled in expectation that she might say her first words in public, other than the 911 call she made on Monday night.
Instead her sister, Beth Serrano, delivered a brief statement, engulfed by a huge media scrum. “We have Amanda and her daughter home,” she said. “I want to thank the public and the media for their support and their encouragement over the years. At this time our family would request privacy so my sister and niece and I can have time to recover.”
After welcoming DeJesus home, her aunt, Sandra Ruiz, made a similar request for privacy and asked that people not seek retaliation against the suspects. “I’m asking God to watch over all of us, and the last thing the family is asking is that we as a community do not go retaliate against the family or the suspects of this crime.” She praised the police and FBI, and they should be left to “do their job”.
Police were preparing to charge the three suspects: the owner of the house, Ariel Castro, 52, and his brothers, Pedro, 54 and Onil, 50. The routine 36-hour time limit was extended to 48 hours to allow additional questioning of the victims and suspects. Berry mentioned Ariel Castro in her 911 call as the man from whom she was trying to escape, but law enforcement officials have not given any further indication about what role each man is suspected of playing.
Michael McGrath, the Cleveland police chief, revealed that ropes and chains were among several hundred items removed from 2207 Seymour Avenue. He told NBC that the three victims, held captive for between nine and 11 years, were bound and only “very rarely” allowed outside the house for short walks in the backyard. McGrath said the women were in good physical condition, “considering the circumstances”.
Federal investigators dressed in white jumpsuits, to avoid contaminating evidence, have been coming through the house and yard, recovering the first clues to how the women were treated over their prolonged imprisonment. Several vehicles were taken away for laboratory examination, as well as dozens of items wrapped in black plastic sheets.
Cadaver dogs have also been brought to the crime scene, suggesting that the FBI want to rule out the possibility of human remains being buried in the house or yard. None have so far been found, according to Martin Flask, Cleveland’s director of safety. “A thorough search of the scene … did not reveal human remains,” he said.
Authorities attempted to dampen frenzied speculation that has been swirling around Seymour Avenue by pushing back on reports from Castro’s neighbours that over the years they reported unusual activity that the police failed to act upon. In the most lurid accounts, neighbours said that a naked woman in chains had been seen crawling on her hands and knees in the back yard of the house.
But Cleveland city hall released out a statement that read: “Media reports of multiple calls to the Cleveland police reporting suspicious activity and the mistreatment of women at 2207 Seymour are false.”
Police chief McGrath also disputed the reports, saying that police had checked their records and found only two interactions with Castro. The first, in 2000, was before the first of the victims was abducted. Officers responded to a call by the suspect regarding a fight outside his house. The second, in 2004, was in relation to an incident in which he left an unattended boy on the school bus he was driving.
“If officers in this district had any indication there was a problem, they would have been here, as we have been all over these missing cases,” McGrath told Fox News. Castro was fired from his job as a school bus driver last November.
At the home of Berry’s sister in west Cleveland, residents of this poor but normally quiet part of the city expressed joy at the homecoming. Andrea Berr said she had come to stand outside the Berry family home to show her support. “I’m feeling happy,” she said, “but sad too that her mother wasn’t here to see this.”
Berry’s mother, Louwana Miller, died in 2006 having spent three gruelling years searching for her lost daughter.
Shelly O’Brien, who lives directly across the street from Berry’s sister, said she was rejoicing for the family. She remembered seeing signs going up in the street soon after Perry disappeared in April 2003. Her friend Danielle Rodriguez, sitting on the stoop of O’Brien’s clapboard house, said that the disappearance of Berry, along with that a year later of Gina DeJesus, had had a big impact locally. “It changed the neighbourhood. After that, you wouldn’t let your kids walk down the street without watching them like a hawk.”
Barbara Knight, the mother of Michelle Knight, the first victim to be abducted, arrived in Cleveland from her home in Florida. Circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Michelle Knight remain unclear. Shortly before she went missing, Knight was taken away from her mother by social services; police suspected at the time that she had run away in distress.
In an NBC interview, Barbara Knight indicated that a possible rift with her daughter might still be preventing them being reunited 11 years after Michelle disappeared. “The way I understand it from certain people, maybe she didn’t want anything to do with me,” she said.
The mother added: “I love you and I missed you all this time. Hopefully whatever happened between us – if something did – I hope it heals.”