It was a breezy summer day in Cleveland about a decade ago when Michelle “Shorty” Knight put on eyeglasses, blue shorts and a white T-shirt, and went to see her cousin.
Though at age 21, Knight became easily confused with her surroundings, no one thought twice about her visiting family on that day in August 2002.
Her mother believed that she suffered a mental disability. Even so, what could go wrong? After all, the cousin lived near Lorain Avenue.
But that day would be the last time the mother ever saw Knight.
Her grandmother believed Knight just walked out of their lives, she told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
But not her mother. She knew her daughter was troubled by the loss of custody of her son — but to never call home again, even to check in?
Society forgot about Michelle Knight, but her mother didn’t: Barbara Knight papered Cleveland’s west side with posters about her missing daughter.
It would take two years and the additional disappearance of two girls before anyone realized something sinister was unfolding on Lorain Avenue, a bustling street in this Ohio neighborhood.
Her abduction marked the opening chapter into a tale of captivity of three young women that seems so sadistic that the world is now wondering how it went unnoticed for 10 years.
Knight and two teenage girls were prisoners in an urban dungeon, hidden in plain sight just three miles from their abductions.
They were held captive in a two-story house on Seymour Avenue, whose basement foundation was laid in 1890. In 10 years, the women went outdoors briefly only twice.
The four-bedroom, 1,435-square-foot house belongs to Ariel Castro, 52, a longtime school bus driver for Cleveland’s public schools. He’s now charged with the kidnappings and rapes of Knight and two other women. Castro is also accused of being the father of a 6-year-old girl borne by one of the young captives.
How the macabre enslavement of two girls and a woman began has deeply disturbed a nation, if not the world.
The second abduction
Knight was talked into her abductor’s vehicle when he offered her a ride home. He took her to his house instead, according to a police report.
Just eight months after Knight’s abduction, the kidnapper apparently decided he wanted another captive in his home.
That’s when 16-year-old Amanda Berry disappeared on Lorain Avenue, just four blocks from where Knight was taken.
On the damp evening of April 21, 2003, Berry was every bit a teenager: she had pierced ears and a pierced left eyebrow — vogue for her age — and was finishing her shift at the neighborhood Burger King. Everything seemed safe: it was a school night, a Monday, and she worked just a few blocks from her house.
When she didn’t return home, her mother found the absence especially alarming: the following day was Amanda’s 17th birthday.
The mother, Louwana Miller, called police, who opened the case as a missing juvenile.
Her abductor offered her a ride home, saying his son also worked at Burger King, according to the police report.
Now the captivity house had a girl still in the throes of adolescence in her Burger King uniform. She joined a 21-year-old woman who was also a mother separated from her own child.
A week later, Berry’s mother’s hopes were raised when she received a phone call from her daughter’s cell phone, the Plain Dealer reported. But the call apparently wasn’t enough to help investigators.
In their house imprisonment, the girl and the woman were raped by their abductor, authorities say. Knight was allegedly impregnated five times by Castro, but he is accused of starving and repeatedly punching her in the stomach to induce miscarriages each time.
The two captives’ only connection to the outside world was the television, and Berry watched local newscasts of her family and friends holding vigils for her.
Desperate for leads seven months after her disappearance, the FBI released to the public how someone called Berry’s mother from the teenager’s cell phone.
But no meaningful tips came forward.
In that same month, November 2003, Cleveland police removed Knight from the FBI missing person database because police couldn’t locate her family to confirm that she was still missing, authorities said.
Still, investigators kept her case open and checked on it several times.
Then, 19 days before the anniversary of Berry’s disappearance, another girl went missing.
And Lorain Avenue was at the center of it again.
The third abduction
In March 2004, a month before the last person was abducted, Ariel Castro began having serious problems at work.
He received a 60-day suspension for leaving a child unattended on a school bus, school documents show.
Castro was facing several disciplinary issues — unauthorized stop, failure to follow proper radio procedures, failure to effectively carry out job description activities — but documents indicate he was ultimately disciplined for one offense.
The police even went to Castro’s house to investigate the bus incident about an abandoned child. No one answered at the home, and investigators later interviewed him elsewhere, police said.
Less than a month into Castro’s suspension, the last of the three victims was abducted.
Georgina “Gina” DeJesus was barely a teenager — just 14 — when she vanished while walking home from middle school on Cleveland’s west side. She was last seen on Lorain Avenue at a pay phone after school on April 2, 2004, a cold spring day.
In a ghoulish twist, DeJesus actually knew Ariel Castro, her family told CNN affiliate WOIO.
That’s because her best friend was Castro’s daughter, Arlene.
One year after DeJesus’s appearance, Arlene Castro publicly crusaded to find her friend’s kidnapper: She went on the national television program “America’s Most Wanted” to plead for help in finding her friend in spring 2005.
Ariel Castro himself attended at least two public vigils for the missing girls — while they were allegedly inside his home — relatives told WOIO.
Little did she know that her own father would later be charged with abducting and raping her good friend.
“I would like to say that I’m absolutely so, so sorry,” a tearful Arlene Castro told ABC News this week. “… I’m so sorry for everything.”
In fact, the police report described how DeJesus was allegedly taken: Castro was with daughter Gina when they allegedly approached DeJesus in the area of Lorain Avenue and 105th Street.
Then Castro allegedly returned to DeJesus without his daughter and offered her a ride to his house to meet up with his daughter, the police report said.
When DeJesus disappeared in 2004, even the FBI joined the search: That’s because a total of two girls had disappeared from Lorain Avenue in Cleveland. In reality, there were three persons missing — Knight was the first — but the Cleveland police had removed Knight from the FBI missing person database in late 2003 — 15 months after she was reported missing — because police couldn’t locate her family to confirm Knight was still missing.
Police kept the Knight case open, but 2004 news accounts in the Plain Dealer didn’t include Knight in how the community was searching for only two girls who disappeared on the Lorain abduction corridor.
With two girls and one woman in his house, Castro allegedly made the captives obedient by testing them: he pretended to leave the house and then surprised them. He disciplined them if they sought to escape, a law enforcement source with direct knowledge of the investigation told CNN.
The three women feared their captor. They surrendered for years.
Personal life crumbles for alleged abductor
By late summer 2005, Castro’s common-law marriage was in trouble.
At that time, court records showed the couple had separate addresses, and Castro’s was his house. Records don’t detail the history of the couple’s living arrangements.
His common-law wife, Grimilda Figueroa, once lived in Castro’s house in the Latino neighborhood on Seymour Street on Cleveland’s west side, but it’s unclear exactly when.
For all the time that Castro lived in his house, family wasn’t allowed to venture too deep inside.
Another of his daughters by Figueroa, Angie Gregg, noticed how her father “would take forever” to answer the front door. Then he gave her a hand signal to wait and told her to use the back door.
Once inside, she and her husband enjoyed dinner with her father. Ariel Castro played songs too loud, but she overlooked the noise because her father was a musician who played the bass in a salsa and merengue band.
But sometimes he disappeared from dinner. He gave no explanation for his absence.
Once she asked to go upstairs to see her childhood bedroom, and he charmed her away: “Oh, honey, there’s so much junk up there. You don’t want to go up there,” she recounted.
She didn’t think twice and dismissed it as his just “being a pack rat.”
No one knew that three women were allegedly being held captive there.
It amounted to slavery.
They were first chained in the basement and later allowed to live upstairs on the second floor, the initial incident report said. Though in separate rooms, they interacted sometimes and relied on each other for survival, said a law enforcement source with direct knowledge of the investigation.
How this could happen was captured in a remark by Daniel Marti, a friend to Ariel Castro since junior high school who lived near him for 22 years: “To us, it was like nothing was happening. But yet it was happening, right in front of our face and we didn’t even know.”
Castro never allowed even his own blood to take a hard look inside his house — including Figueroa’s father, Ishmael. The father said that when his daughter and Castro broke up, she moved back in with her parents and never wanted to talk about Castro. It was too upsetting.
Castro was apparently the father of at least two of Grimilda Figueroa’s three children, 2005 court records show. Those two children, both girls, have the Castro surname, and Figueroa’s other child, a son, has a different surname, records show.
In August 2005, Castro was accused of beating Figueroa. He broke her nose twice and her ribs, knocked out a tooth, dislocated each of her shoulders on separate occasions, caused a blood clot on her brain, and threatened to kill her, records show.
He was also accused of frequently abducting his own daughters, court records show. The mother had full custody of the children with no visitation for the father, the mother charged in her petition filed in Domestic Relations Court.
A judge granted a protection order for Figueroa, who also asked the court to place Castro in substance abuse treatment. But the court lifted the order three months later and dismissed the case following several court absences by Castro and then one by Figueroa’s attorney.
Much happens in life during 10 years.
In 2006, distraught and brokenhearted, Berry’s mother died at age 44, the Plain Dealer reported. Since her daughter disappeared, Louwana Miller held vigils, walks and interviews with media to publicize the missing person case. She even appeared on Montel Williams’ talk show in November 2004, and a psychic told her that her daughter was likely dead — which shook the mother.
Miller died with personal conflict.
“I still don’t want to believe it,” Louwana Miller told the newspaper after the show. “I want to have hope but . . . what else is there?”
About this time, her daughter became pregnant by Castro and delivered a baby in a baby plastic pool “so the mess was easier to clean-up,” the police report said.
Knight delivered the baby, and Castro allegedly told Knight if the baby stopped breathing, he’d kill her, the report said. In fact, Knight breathed into the baby’s mouth when the infant stopped taking in air at one point, the report said.
“What’s most incredible here is that this girl who knows nothing about childbirth was able to deliver a baby that is now a healthy 6-year-old,” a police source familiar with the investigation told CNN.
Authorities haven’t released the birthday of the child — a daughter — but they have said she’s now 6 years old. That means she would have been born in 2007 or 2006 — depending on her birthday — about the time her grandmother died without ever having seen her.
More personal woes for alleged abductor
By 2009, Castro was again in trouble at work.
He was accused of making a U-turn in front of an elementary school with students aboard.
“This action was not only dangerous to the students and other motorists, it was totally unnecessary,” the Cleveland school system’s interim transportation director, Ann Carlson, said in an internal letter.
He was suspended 60 days, later reduced to 55.
In 2011, Castro was suspended for using his school bus to do his grocery shopping.
By October 2012, Carlson, now the transportation director, had enough: This time, she was recommending the school system fire Castro for leaving his bus at a school and going home, two blocks away.
Castro didn’t notify the bus depot or dispatch that he was leaving the bus unattended, school documents said.
In a hand-written response, Castro said his route was canceled for the day. That’s why he left his bus, he said in school documents.
“I went home to rest, I’ve been helping depot with many routes that needed coverage. I felt tired…,” he wrote. “Scranton is my school so I didn’t think anything wrong with parking there. I do apologize. Thanks, Kindly, A. Castro.”
Last November, the school board fired Castro. He was reportedly making $18.91 an hour as a bus driver.
Also last year, Castro’s former common-law wife died of a brain tumor. She and her family blamed Castro and his alleged beatings of her as the cause of her death, family members said.
Last month, Ariel Castro became a grandfather for a fifth time — to a boy borne by Arlene Castro, the best friend of Amanda Berry, the second captive in Ariel Castro’s home.
Wrote Castro on his Facebook page: “Congrats to my Rosie Arlene. Wishing you a fast recovery. She gave birth to a wonderful baby boy. That makes me Gramps for the fifth time, (2boys 1girl 2boys. Luv you guys!”
Castro didn’t provide an accounting of the other four grandchildren. (Another of his daughters, Emily Castro, is now serving a 25-year sentence in an Indiana prison after a judge found her guilty but mentally ill for cutting the neck of her 11-month-old daughter in an attempted murder in April 2007.)
On May 2, life was good for Castro.
That day, he wrote on his Facebook page: “miracles really do happen, God is good :)”
He didn’t elaborate.
Four days later — last Monday — the nation was aghast with how life could be anything but good within Castro’s home.
That was the day when Berry — the sole captive to become a mother — did something daring.
She noticed the big inside door was unlocked, though Castro wasn’t home, the police report said. The exterior, storm door was still locked, however, and she was afraid to break it open.
So she screamed for help.
It was heard Monday night by a neighbor who had just returned from McDonald’s with a half-eaten Big Mac in hand.
The screaming fell upon the ears of neighbor Charles Ramsey as if “a car had hit a kid.”
He and another man, Angel Cordero, ran to the Castro house.
Shouting from within four walls that were her prison since 2003, Berry announced: “I’ve been trapped in here. He won’t let me out. It’s me and my baby.”
Cordero says he broke down the door to the house. Ramsey called 911.
Berry told Cordero to hurry: “Let’s get out of here, because if that guy comes he’s going to kill us. If he finds me here, he is going to kill me and he’s going to kill you.” Her daughter was wearing only a diaper and soiled shirt, he said.
Now free, Berry also called 911 from a neighbor’s house.
It was as if she made a declaration to the world:
“Help me, I am Amanda Berry,” she told the dispatcher. “I’ve been kidnapped and I’ve been missing for 10 years. And I’m here, I’m free now.”
That police call led to the rescue of the two other women.
After 10 years and 15 days of captivity and rape — more than a third of her 27 years — Berry never lost her sense of self.
How life returns to three women who spent their youth in captivity — and for a 6-year-old girl, her entire life — may take longer than the years that were taken away from them.
Their alleged abductor, Ariel Castro, is being held in jail in lieu of $8 million bail on four counts of kidnapping and three counts of rape. The prosecutor has indicated additional charges are forthcoming.
For now, Knight has yet to speak even to her mother, who has no idea where she is recuperating. A source close to the investigation only says she’s in a safe, comfortable place. She was held captive the longest.
Berry, accompanied by her daughter, and DeJesus each received a hero’s welcome when authorities drove them to family homes.
The world awaits when the women tell the story in their own words.