“Help me! I'm Amanda Berry,” the frantic voice begins on the emergency call to a Cleveland police dispatcher. “I've been kidnapped and I've been missing for 10 years and I'm here. I'm free now.”
The dispatcher is almost cold. “Don't tell me your story,” she says. “Save it for the police — they're on their way.”
It was a bigger story than the dispatcher knew. “I am Amanda Berry. I have been in the news for the last 10 years,” the caller goes on. She had reappeared, free and alive.
More than that, the world was about to learn that not only had she just escaped, with a neighbour's help, from a house where she had been held captive all that time, but that two other missing women had been in there with her. And a child.
Events at 2207 Seymour Avenue began unfolding late on Monday afternoon when the neighbour, Charles Ramsey, heard a commotion. “I heard screaming,” he said. “I'm eating my McDonald's. I come outside. I see this girl going nuts trying to get out of a house.” He forced the door open and Ms Berry crawled out, followed by a six-year-old girl.
Mr Ramsey, speaking to reporters yesterday, acknowledged that when he began dialling 911, he, too, had not quite cottoned on to the name of the young woman he was helping. Then it struck him — this was Amanda Berry, the missing girl that most people had given up for dead long ago. That was at 5.52pm. The police arrived two minutes later and forced their way in.
It may be days before all the grim secrets of 2207 Seymour Avenue are fully disclosed. Yet this has been a fast-moving drama. Once inside, the police found two other women who also had been on their missing persons list for a decade or so. They were Gina DeJesus (23), who vanished in 2004, aged 14, while walking home from school, and Michelle Knight, who was 18 or 19 when she went missing in 2002.
It also was not long before they had arrested three men on suspicion of holding the women captive for all those years — the owner of the house, identified as 52-year-old Ariel Castro, a former school bus driver for the city, and his two brothers, Pedro and Oneil, also in their 50s, who seemingly lived close by.
All three men remained in custody last night, yet the questions only multiplied. What had happened to the women at the address — a detached house with a small garden — during all those years? How had none of them managed to break out until Monday? In a tight neighbourhood with many other Latin immigrant residents, did no one ever have any suspicions? And did the police fall down on their original investigation?
It appears that Ariel Castro and the police were not strangers. In 2000, he called officers about a fight outside his home. Then, in January 2004, he came under investigation for leaving his bus at the depot with a child still inside. Police came to his home but left when no one answered. He was eventually interviewed by the authorities who accepted it had been an “inadvertent” mistake.
Ms Knight went missing in 2002, Ms Berry in April 2003; both were almost certainly in the property at the time. Ms DeJesus vanished three months after the police came knocking.
What we will learn from the women of Seymour Avenue may be slow to materialise. Last night the local TV station, Channel 3 News, quoting unnamed police sources, claimed the women were forced to have sex with their captors and that there may have been multiple pregnancies in the house, some of which did not reach full term. The same sources also reported that the women were beaten and that investigators found patches of “disturbed” dirt in the property's back yard.
At a first press conference yesterday, Cleveland Police Chief Michael McGrath described the women as “the ultimate definition of survival and perseverance”, but said his officers would take their inquiries slowly.
“Some questions may impact their emotions, their state of mind right now,” he said. “You are going to have to be patient with us.” He did indicate, however, that he believed the women had been tied up in the home, while witnesses claimed to have seen chains hanging from the ceiling.
Police also said that the six-year-old girl inside was Ms Berry's daughter. Who the father might be, they would not say, but she was clearly born in the house. Neighbours reported seeing Ariel Castro often walking with a girl through the neighbourhood.
Yesterday, Ms Berry was photographed in hospital with her daughter and her older sister, Beth Serrano, who has continued to search for her since their mother died in 2006. Ms Serrano's husband, Ted, told the local station WOIO: “She said Amanda's OK, she's got a daughter. She said she looks good.”
The other victims' families were equally delighted and disbelieving.
Ms Knight's mother told Cleveland's The Plain Dealer: “So much has happened in these 10 years. She has a younger sister she still has not met.”
Ms Knight's cousin Tesheena added: “I'm going to hold her, I'm going to squeeze her and I probably won't let her go.”
Last night, as FBI specialists scoured the house, officials insisted they had never stopped looking for new leads. “Not a year went by... when we didn't have some lead generated by the public or by the families,” FBI agent Stephen Anthony said.
There was shock in the neighbourhood, expressed even by Julio Castro, an uncle of the three men, who owns a grocery shop on a nearby corner.
“Stunned, stunned,” he said, adding that he had mostly lost touch with Ariel and had not been to the house for five years. “None whatsoever,” he said when asked if he had been given any reason to think something was wrong inside. When more police began arriving on Monday evening, locals who had heard the startling news lined the streets to cheer. “This isn't the ending we usually have to these stories,” Gerald Maloney, a doctor at Metro Health Medical Centre, where the three women were first taken, said.
In a bizarre twist, it emerged that a son of Ariel Castro — Ariel ‘Anthony’ Castro — wrote a news article about one of Cleveland's vanished young women in 2004 for a journalism course.
It was published and focused on Ms DeJesus, who now, it seems, was being held by his father. In it he describes a neighbourhood traumatised by the disappearances.
Last night he insisted he was unaware of the secrets of 2207 Seymour Avenue. “This is beyond comprehension,” he said. “I'm truly stunned right now.”
The dramatic phone call
Amanda Berry: Help me, I'm Amanda Berry.
Operator: Do you need police, fire or ambulance?
Berry: I need police.
Operator: Ok, and what's going on there?
Berry: I've been kidnapped, and I've been missing for 10 years. And I'm here. I'm free now.
Operator: Ok, and what's your address?
(The operator tries to figure out where she is.)
Berry: I'm across the street. I'm using their phone.
Operator: Ok, stay there with those neighbours and talk to the police when they get there.
(The operator repeats her instructions several times.)
Berry: Ok, are they on their |way right now? I need them now.
Operator: We're gonna send them as soon as we get a car open.
Berry: No, I need them now before he gets back.
Operator: All right. We're sending them, Ok?
Berry: Ok. I mean, like, right now.
Operator: Who is the guy who went out?
Berry: His name is Ariel Castro.
Operator: All right. How old is he?
Berry: He's like 52.
Operator: All right, and a...
Berry: And I'm Amanda Berry. I've been on the news for the last 10 years.
Operator: Ok, I got that, dear... what is his name again?
Berry: Uh, Ariel Castro.
Operator: And is he white, black or Hispanic?
Berry: Uh, he's Hispanic.
Operator: What's he wearing?
Berry: I don't know cause he's not here right now. That's how we got away.
Operator: When he left, what was he wearing?
Operator: The police are on the way. Talk to them when they get there.
The missing teenagers and |the agony of their families
Amanda went missing on April 21 2003, the day before her 17th birthday. She had just finished work at Burger King and called to say that she was getting a lift home. She never returned. The search was too much for her mother, Louwana Miller, to bear, and she died from heart failure aged 44 in April 2006. Last summer her surviving family thought they had a breakthrough in the case when a 26-year-old, Robert Wolford, claimed she was buried in a vacant lot in the city. Wolford was jailed for four-and-a-half years for obstruction of justice, making a false report and raising a false alarm.
Michelle Knight was between 18 and 20 when she vanished, but her case did not receive the same attention. Her grandmother told the cleveland.com website last night that she thought Michelle left of her own free will after her son was taken from her custody. Michelle's mother reported seeing her with a man at a Cleveland mall.
Gina DeJesus (14), was last seen near a payphone on her way home from school in April 2004. She was with a classmate at the time; her mother had just refused to let Gina stay over at her friend's house even though it was a Friday. In 2006 police received a tip-off that she had been buried under a garage, but no body was found. Her family refused to accept her death, and yesterday her cousin, Sylvia Colon, told the BBC: “Gina's mother... led the crusade. She knew her daughter was alive. She felt it. Gina was very close to her parents. Every year there was a vigil — we were living in hope she would come home, and she did.”