Good News

05.07.13

A Miracle in…Cleveland? How the City Is Celebrating Amanda Berry’s 911 Call

The joyful news that three women were found after 10 years has stopped the Ohio city in its tracks—a welcome reprieve from the usual news of poverty and police screw-ups. Plus, Caroline Linton on the case’s unanswered questions.

The news stopped everyone in Cleveland dead in his or her tracks.

Three women who had been missing for close to a decade—Georgina “Gina” DeJesus, Amanda Berry and Michelle Knight—were alive and well. Berry had somehow managed (with the help of a neighbor) to escape through the bottom half of a broken front door of a house on Seymor Avenue on Cleveland’s Westside. She had her 6-year-old daughter, who evidently was born while she was in captivity, with her. All three women were taken to nearby MetroHealth hospital where a huge and jubilant crowd soon gathered and patiently waited for any bit of information on their condition.

When an emergency-room physician came out and announced that all three, despite their decadelong ordeal, were in seemingly good health, the throng went wild with joy.

According to published reports in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Knight was 20 when she was reported missing Aug. 23, 2002, from West 106th Street and Lorain Avenue. Berry was 16 when she vanished April 21, 2003, from West 110th Street and Lorain. DeJesus was 14 when she was last seen April 2, 2004, at West 105th Street and Lorain, walking home from school on Parkhurst Drive.

While Knight’s disappearance barely made news, not a year went past without vigils (which seemingly grew larger, not smaller, with each passing year) being held for DeJesus and Berry. The news brought a raucous joy to Cleveland; a city much in need of any good news residents can get.

Long in the doldrums being suffered by many other cities in the so-called Rust Belt, Cleveland has witnessed its population decline by half over the last 50 years as steel mills and heavy manufacturing plants, once providing the backbone for the entire region, sit shuttered. It's always listed at the top of every ranking of our nation’s poorest cities—when the rest of America catches a case of financial sniffles, Cleveland, it seems, catches pneumonia.

And the joy of the women’s escape didn’t last 24 hours before intense media scrutiny began, examining every aspect of the case, starting with the response from the police dispatcher who took Berry’s 911 call. While it could be argued the dispatcher, who undoubtedly handles hundreds of emergency calls a day, was simply being methodical, she was roundly criticized locally for apparently not knowing who Berry was (and therefore the significance of the call), while more than one national commentator took her to task for not staying on the line longer with an obviously frantic woman who had just told the dispatcher that she had been kidnapped and held captive for 10 years.

Video screenshot

After being rescued by Charles Ramsey, Amanda Berry made a frantic 911 call.

A few hours after the women were safely in the emergency room police announced that Ariel Castro, 52, a former Cleveland school bus driver who had lived in the two-story house since 1992, along with one of his brothers (who remains unnamed at this point) were taken into custody without incident in a McDonald’s parking lot, and yet another brother was later arrested at an unknown location, but also without incident.

The fear is almost palpable among the blogging pundit class in Cleveland that somehow the joyous end to these women’s nightmare will soon fade in a barrage of mostly unfair criticism against Cleveland’s safety forces, a notion that’s reinforced by the fact Boston’s police department faced a degree (albeit small and not long-lived) of unfavorable commentary in regards to their response to the recent bombing.

Such faultfinding probably has as much to do with the zeitgeist as anything else. With no manhunt to launch, and not much of an investigation (in terms of proving that a crime actually occurred) to be carried out, police procedures probably are the only bones of contention for a hungry media to latch onto.

Nonetheless, Boston’s police department has been relatively free of criticism or scandal for years, while Cleveland’s safety forces have been much in the news (locally at least) of late for a series of missteps that has led to Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine castigating the police chief, Michael McGrath, for allowing the department to get out of control.  He cited “systemic failure” of the command structure as the main cause that led to 137 shots being fired by 13 officers into a vehicle carrying two unarmed suspects last fall.

That and other incidents, such as the videotape taken by a police helicopter of another officer using the head of a mentally ill man (who lay handcuffed face down on the ground, surrounded by other officers) for a football led to civil rights lawyers from the U.S. Department of Justice coming to town to launch a top-down review of the Cleveland Division of Police.

Already comparisons are being made in regard to the 2011 Anthony Sowell case, in which the serial killer was convicted of dismembering the bodies of his 11 victims in his Eastside Imperial Avenue home over a period of years while police, allegedly, didn’t take the missing persons reports of their family members seriously enough.

As this case unfolds the questions of how these three women could be kept in a home in the heart of a city for so long without anyone being the wiser will certainly spark much debate, and hopefully some answers that will assist law enforcement in preventing such tragedies in the future.

However, most of the local attention is wisely being turned to the question of how to shield these victims from the hot glare of too much media attention. Their families are being very protective of them, and rightfully so.

Jaycee Dugard, who was abducted in 1991 at age 11 and held captive for 18 years, cautioned the public to give these women time and space to begin healing. 

“These individuals 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 in a prepared statement to People.