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05.08.13

‘I Just Thought He Was Odd’: Neighbors of the Cleveland Kidnapper on What They Saw

If three women were held hostage for 10 years on your block, would you notice? Christine Pelisek talks to shocked residents of Cleveland’s west side about the red flags they missed.

For many years, 52-year-old Ariel Castro was a neighborhood fixture on Seymour Avenue on Cleveland’s west side, greeting neighbors with a friendly, “Hello, God bless.”

“He would come home with these big ass bags of McDonald’s in his hands,” says Edwin Garcia, 19, who lives just down the street, of the former school bus driver. “We always just thought he was getting himself a big breakfast and lunch.”

What’s obvious now is that something much more sinister was going on inside the Castro home, where police say Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight were held as hostages ever since they vanished without a trace over a decade ago in their teens or early 20s.

“I guess he was checking on them every day,” Garcia said Tuesday night as hundreds of neighbors gathered on the block to watch police investigators carry boxes of evidence out of the house. As more horrific details of the kidnappings emerged, including reports that the three women were repeatedly raped and impregnated, the crowds of people couldn’t help but ask themselves an uncomfortable question: how could they not have known what was going on?

Hector Lugo, 31, described Castro as a low key, polite, well-dressed guy who regularly played Spanish music with his bass guitar after hours at his uncle’s store—which doubled as a speakeasy of sorts—and sometimes allowed the local kids to ride on his ATV. Mostly, he kept to himself, or hung around with his two brothers, Pedro, 54 and Onil, 51. “One of his brothers we called the drunk guy,” Garcia said, because he would drive drunk around the neighborhood on his bike.

Occasionally during a block party, Castro would join a few of the residents for a few hours and knock back a couple of beers. But when he returned home, he would always enter through the back door. “I never saw him walk out of the front door,” said Lugo. “The front windows were covered in plastic. We would put plastic up during the winter for insulation when it was cold but he would never take it down.”

“When Gina disappeared, we all thought, ‘Lock up your kids.’”

“I just thought he was odd,” shrugs Lugo. Now, he says, “you get chills walking past the house.”

The stories of two of the rescued women, Berry and DeJesus, have riveted Cleveland for close to a decade. Berry, whose heroic escape and 911 call this week led to the rescue, has been a constant in local media ever since she disappeared on April 21, 2003, on the way home from her job at Burger King.

Video screenshot

Listen to Berry's 911 call.

On the day Berry went missing, “Everybody was crying,” says Luke Scott, one of the neighbors standing watch on Seymour Avenue. Constant vigils have kept her memory alive. Tips were called in regularly but nothing panned out. (In January, a prison inmate named Robert Wolford was found guilty of obstruction and sentenced to four years after he admitted giving police a fake tip about Berry’s body being buried in a vacant lot in Cleveland. Police dug up the spot and found no remains.)

Berry, then 16, was the second of the three women to disappear. DeJesus, then 14, was abducted on her way home from school about a year after Berry went missing. Her case also garnered media attention, especially when two men were arrested for questioning in her disappearance in 2006. Officers didn't find a body during a search of the men's house, digging up a concrete floor in one of the men’s homes to no avail.

“Everyone was shocked when Amanda went missing,” says Emad Baddour. “When Gina disappeared, we all thought, ‘Lock up your kids.’”

The story of Knight, the first known abduction, is less well-known. Knight was 20 years old when she disappeared in 2002, shortly after her own son had been taken from her custody. The day after she disappeared, her mother, Barbara, filed a missing person report, but the case went nowhere. Many presumably thought she was simply a runaway.

Deputy Police Chief Ed Tomba said on Tuesday that the bulk of the investigations had centered on Berry and DeJesus. Knight, he said, “was the focus of very few tips.”

“We didn’t know about her,” said Scott, Castro’s neighbor.

One officer told The Daily Beast that most likely the reason why the Knight case garnered such little attention was because she was an adult at the time of her disappearance. Knight’s grandmother Deborah told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that police and social workers dropped the case because they believed she ran off, upset at losing custody of her son. Knight’s mother, who also spoke with the paper, said she never believed her daughter would run away and kept searching for her.

For now, the capture of Castro and his two brothers, who are also in police custody, puts an end to the unbelievable saga.

“What these young girls went through, and if you saw them last night, you’d have nothing but compassion and love in your heart for them,” said Deputy Chief Ed Tomba at a Tuesday morning press conference. “We want to let them spend some time with their family and take this process very, very slow and respectful to the family and the young girls’ needs. Our first and foremost concern last night was their physical and mental well-being.”

Tomba says the Castro brothers will be charged Wednesday, but it’s still unclear the exact role each one played in the abductions. “That is one of the great unknowns,” he said. “It will be up to the girls to tell us.”