Mark Owen writes

Captives for a Decade - the Cleveland Sex-Slaves.

Towards the end of my ebook The Sex-slavery Underground I write:
The statistics for young women and girls who go missing every year are staggering. Fortunately the bulk of them turn up alive and well - eventually. And some turn up dead. But there are scores of cases where they are never found. Many of these girls may be dead, but there must be some, at least a few, who are neither cut off from their families by their own choice nor willing participants in some new life they are living, or being forced to live.  It is statistically certain that some of these girls are still alive - sex-slaves in some house, locked in some basement, chained to some wall, languishing in some cell, helpless as some of our example found themselves.
There is, for example, that haunting photo picked up from the ground in a shopping centre carpark showing two children tied up inside a van (below). At the time a young boy, Michael Henley, had disappeared during a camping trip with his family, and an older girl, Tara Calico, had vanished in 1988, leaving her bicycle beside a country road. Tara was 19 at the time. It was believed, with some degree of certainty, that the children in the photo were these two.

Neither the van nor the children were ever located. One cannot help but wonder, was Tara destined for sex-slavery? Is she even today in some situation where escape is impossible? Some of the captors we have studied had momentary lapses in vigilance that provided that instant opportunity for the slave to escape. There is no doubt that with just a little more effort on their part some abductors might even today have their sex-slave still under their control.

The discovery of the three women in Cleveland Ohio highlights once again the need to never give up looking for the missing ones. And especially for police forces to take seriously reports from the public. In many of the cases I have written about, e.g. Natascha Kampusch and Jaycee Lee Dugard, police were easily deflected from their inquiries. In Jaycee’s case the state eventually paid out a large amount in compensation because of the dilatory nature of their policing.

Ariel Castro, the sex-slaver of Cleveland, is now dead. He suicided rather than face the prospect of the rest of his life locked away in a prison cell. It is evident that Mr Castro realized, far too late, that to be locked up in a tiny space day in day, out, month in month out, was anything but fun. This was, of course, the fate of three young women
who had the misfortune to fall into his clutches. At least in prison he wouldn't have been kept chained to the bed or a wall nor been subjected to constant sexual and physical abuse as was the experience of his prisoners.

2207 Seymour Street, Cleveland, Ohio, was just another ordinary house in an ordinary street, but like a handful of other ‘ordinary’ houses in similar stories this one held secrets, probably, also like many such houses of evil, chiefly in the basement but also in rooms shielded from prying eyes by boarded-up windows or with plastic sheeting tacked over them.

On the afternoon of 6 May 2013 a neighbour, Charles Ramsey, heard a female voice calling for help. There was, somewhat to his surprise, a hand coming through a gap in the front door. The door was held, unable to be opened further, by a chain or lock. Ramsey tried to help the young woman behind the door but eventually, realizing from her urgent pleas she was in some sort of distress, he smashed in the timber at the bottom and the woman, Amanda Berry, emerged, together with a 6-year-old female child, her daughter Jocelyn.

He then took them to his house while the woman made an emergency call to 911. Breathlessly she cried out to the operator: ‘I’ve been kidnapped, and I’ve been missing for ten years, and I’m here now, I am free.’  Anxious in case the kidnapper returned and found her, she pleaded with the operator to send the police speedily. The operator didn’t seem to fully comprehend the reality of the situation nor recognize the name of the woman but the police did arrive soon after the operator hung up.

Amanda Berry had not been alone in the house. The building was occupied by a Puerto Rican man, 52-year-old Ariel Castro.  He reportedly owned the building and had lived there for many years although some reports claimed he owed money on it. He was divorced and lived there alone - or had done!

Castro was absent, and this had presented an opportunity for escape, so often thwarted in the past. He had carelessly left an inner door unlocked when he went off to buy takeaway food at a nearby McDonald’s and there only stood one light screen door between Amanda and freedom.

Two other women who soon emerged from upstairs rooms - Georgina (Gina) Lynn DeJesus and Michelle Knight, all like Amanda, captives, and soon the amazing tale of abduction and captivity began unfolding as police and the FBI (who are always involved in kidnapping cases) started investigating the women’s story.  Castro was arrested soon after at the McDonald’s.

The three woman had been abducted many years before, simply by being lured into accepting a ride from Castro. Michelle Knight was the first to fall victim to this predator - on 25 August 2002.  Michelle was aged 21 at the time and was last seen at a cousin’s house. Soon after this she just vanished. At the time she was very upset about losing custody of her young son so police put her disappearance down to this, although her mother Barbara insisted she would not just go off like that. At the time of her release from captivity she was 32 and had been a sex-slave for almost 11 years. Evidently, however, one imprisoned woman was insufficient for the lusts of her captor for less than a year later another victim fell into his trap.

The next to disappear was Amanda Berry, a 16-year-old working at a Burger King store. On 21 April 2003 - just one day before her 17th birthday - Amanda left the store and, like Michelle, simply vanished. She was still wearing her Burger King uniform. Amanda, known to her family as Mandy, had called home to say she was on her way but never arrived. Great efforts were made to find Amanda, with her story featured on America’s Most Wanted, and even a psychic was consulted, who told her mother: ‘‘She’s not alive, honey.’

But Amanda’s mother, Louwana Miller, never gave up hope, although devastated, but alas, died in 2006 at the age of 44. It is said by relatives that she died of a broken heart, not knowing what had happened to her daughter. About a month after Amanda’s disappearance her phone was used to make a call to her family. A man’s voice at the other end told them Amanda was fine and he was married to her and they would see them soon! There was no further word after that call. Amanda is now aged 27 and had been a sex-slave for ten years. And she was not to be the last victim.

The third to fall into Castro’s trap was 14-year-old Georgina (Gina) Lynn DeJesus. Gina, a 7th grader in special needs classes, had decided to walk home from school instead of tasking the bus on 2 April 2004 when she just vanished. Ironically Gina’s best friend at school was Ariene Castro, daughter of the kidnapper, who lived with her mother. Gina is now aged 23 and had been a sex-slave for nine years.

Law enforcement officials have reason to believe that a fourth young woman may have been kidnapped. Ashley Summers, then aged 14, went missing in the same area and her whereabouts are still unknown. She may have died. There is still no certainty about this but Michelle told police that during the early days of her captivity a fourth woman was held in the basement for some time. Fox News quoted police as saying they found the inscription ‘Rest In Peace’ on the basement wall.

After their rescue the women were taken to a hospital where they were reported to be doing well, having regard to their ordeal, (although Michelle had additional physical problems as we shall see). They were, however, weak and evidently suffering from malnutrition. They were reportedly willing to talk with police and recount details of their ordeal. Soon after the escape police arrested Ariel Castro and also his two brothers, Pedro and Onil. Eventually Ariel was charged with four counts of kidnapping and three counts of rape, but the other two were released. Many more charges were later added.

A police chief well summed up these events: The offender was, he said, ‘operating a private torture chamber and prison in the heart of our city.’ An official who wished to remain anonymous later said the women’s captivity was ‘depraved beyond your imagination.’

That the women were raped is undoubtedly certain and pregnancies resulted, evidently aborted except for one. Ariel Castro is a self-admitted sex offender. In 2004, following the third abduction he wrote a suicide note saying ‘I am a sexual predator. I need help.’ He wondered to himself why he had kidnapped a third girl when he already had two captives. As is obvious, he did not act on his suicide impulse.

Following the release of the captives police reportedly found this note in the house. In it he confessed to capturing the three women. He claimed to be have been abused himself as a child. But evidently if he intended to confess his crimes and release the women his resolve failed. The note had never been put to use.  

When first abducted each captive was initially kept chained in the basement but later three were allowed onto the upper floor, where they were kept locked in separate rooms, although on occasions they would apparently be in the basement. (It was reported that the FBI had removed 200 items from the basement but no details were released.) Castro took precautions to board up any windows that might reveal his evil activities. Some of the bedroom doors had holes cut in the timber, evidently so that food could be passed through to the prisoner within. But this did not mean they were well fed. Indeed they were often left hungry and unfed and mostly their food comprised takeaway meals carried into the house by Castro. Withholding food was one means of keeping the women obedient.

The captives were frequently kept chained or tied and the house had many locked doors. They were evidently kept chained while being moved around to ensure there was no attempt at an escape. And they were ‘rewarded’ from time to time with visits to the toilet and occasional showers.

Castro engaged in a cat-and-mouse game form time to time, leaving a door deliberately unlocked to tempt the slave to escape.  This was a nasty trick employed by another sex-slaver, Bill Benefiel. Amanda had feared this might be the case when she took the risk of calling for help on that fateful day. Punishment for any such attempt took the form of a beating. In fact a police report said the women were beaten repeatedly ‘into submission’. Doubtless the cat-and-mouse game was a fun way for Castro to have another excuse for a beating. On the day Amanda escaped Castro had carelessly left a door unlocked.  He had gone off to buy takeaway food at a nearby McDonald’s and he was there when police arrested him. 

From all accounts it appears likely (but uncertain) Michelle Knight was beaten most. She had been forced by Castro to deliver the baby carried by Amanda Berry, a delivery that took place in a small inflatable swimming pool. She was warned by Castro that if the baby died he would kill her. At one point the baby ceased breathing, according to a police report, and Michelle used mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to keep her alive.

Curiously, Castro did not appear to want to Michelle to bear children. He reportedly impregnated her on at least five occasions and each time he starved her for weeks and punched her in the stomach to induce a miscarriage. He seemed to beat Michelle a lot, sometimes viciously, so much so that since her release from captivity she has reportedly been having reconstructive bone surgery for facial injuries ‘from years of beatings’ and shows signs of hearing loss. She was reportedly often viciously beaten around the head by her captor. Unsurprising then that when police entered the house of horrors Michelle threw herself into the arms of an officer and told him she was having trouble breathing. At the hospital when nurses offered her food ‘she was like a six-year-old with chocolate cake for the first time.’

The three captives were not to know that when they accepted a ride from this man he had a history of domestic abuse. His separated wife (who has since died), Grimilda Figueroa, had experience much violence at the hands of Castro. A 2005 court report stated Castro had ‘broken petitioner's nose (twice), ribs, lacerations, knocked out tooth, blood clot on brain, (inoperable tumor), dislocated shoulder, (twice, once on each side) threatened to kill petitioner and daughters 3 to 4 times just this year.’

Relatives have since told of years of abuse suffered by his wife and how he kept her locked up and beat her brutally. His sister-in-law reported one occasions where Castro pushed his wife into a big cardboard box, closed down the lid and ordered her to stay there until he let her out again, so the idea of having women captive was nothing new to this man. He nearly beat his wife to death in 1993 when she was recovering from surgery. Further, that although the wife had full custody of their three children after they divorced he had ‘frequently abducted them’ and kept them away from their mother.

When the story first broke there was an abundance of reports of neighbours seeing or hearing various suspicious activities at the house - tales of a naked woman seen in the backyard, a chained naked woman, naked women crawling around with collars and leashes ‘controlled by three men’, loud banging noises from the walls and/or doors, and even screams. One is tempted to speculate that perhaps on one or two occasions one or more of the women got into the yard attempting to escape but we have no certain information about these ‘naked woman’ sightings other than more than one neighbour reported them.

And in 2004 someone reported having seen Gina DeJesus getting into a car with a man. The observer provided a sketch for police, a drawing which is extremely close to the appearance of Ariel Castro. And further, the second husband of Castro’s former wife had told police they should check up on Castro if they were looking for missing girls. Also in 2004 someone reported seeing a woman looking out of an upstairs window of the house, to quickly disappear as if pulled away by someone.  In 2011 a neighbour reported seeing a naked woman in the yard with a chain around her neck. 

But evidently police merely knocked on the front door and when their knock went unanswered, they simply walked around the side of the building then went away again, failing to investigate further. A local activist Judy Martin, who founded Survivors/Victims of Tragedy, accuses police of not devoting the same resources to cases involving low-income areas as other areas. They were too ready to dismiss at least two of the girls as ‘teenage runaways, she said. Police debate these claims.

At one point Castro reportedly put up some tarpaulins to block views into his yard.

Castro drove a school bus and had left a small boy in a bus one day in 2004 which resulted in Child Protective Services filing a complaint against him. Police visited his house but when nobody answered the door they simply left. Castro eventually lost his bus driving job and was currently unemployed.

The women reportedly only ever left the house on two occasions, at least according to police, when they were taken from the house to a garage on the property, but the details are unclear. They were said to have been ‘disguised’ when they were moved. It seems probable that they spent most of their time, if not in an upstairs locked room, in the basement, an area of about 76 square meters. Reportedly ropes and chains were found down there and according to police the women were kept bound and/or chained at least some of the time. 

Tito DeJesus, a musician friend of Ariel’s, told reporters that he had been in the house from time to time, the last time about three years before the women’s presence was discovered, but had seen no women while there, although he was only on the ground-floor level. One assumes the captives were kept in the basement during such visits or in an upper-floor room. Evidently Castro managed to keep them silent, probably by threats rather than physical gags. However, the actual details will doubtless become better known when Castro eventually goes to trial.

On some occasions Castro took 6-year-old Jocelyn with him outside the house. Naturally he made sure the three women were held securely while he was absent. And the little girl was never told their names in case she referred to them while outside the house. Jocelyn was reportedly ‘home-schooled’ by her mother. None of the women nor the child had received any medical attention over the years. 

A curious feature of this story is that fact that in 2004 the son of Castro, Ariel ‘Anthony’ Castro, a journalism student at Bowling Green State University, wrote an article for the Plain Press about the disappearance of Gina DeJesus. It was written two months after the girl had vanished. Following the release of the captives an NBC reporter, tracked him down. He said he was ‘stunned’ that the girl he had written about had been imprisoned by his own father.  Castro’s daughter Arlene, who was a friend of Gina’s at school, has also expressed publicly her dismay at her father’s activities.

Anthony Castro also reported that he had visited his father’s home just two weeks before the dramatic events unfolded, quite unaware that three female prisoners were probably locked in the basement at that time.   On an earlier visit his father had actually talked about ‘the missing girl Amanda Berry,’ pondering what might have happened to her after she had been missing for ten years!  He wondered if thought police would ever find her. When Anthony responded saying he thought Berry was probably dead as she had been missing for so long, his father commented: ‘Really? You think so?’

Ariel Castro eventually faced court, deciding to plead guilty to a long string of charges - 937 in all - and agreeing to serve a life sentence plus 1,000 years. By pleading this way he avoided a potential death sentence. At the hearing one of his former captives, Michelle Knight, 32, spoke directly to Castro: 'You took 11 years of my life away. I spent 11 years in hell. Now your hell is just beginning. ... You will face hell for eternity.' Alas, it was not to be, for just one month later Castro was found hanged in his cell; he had taken his own life. He was never going to know the torment of being a helpless captive that his three victims had known. Fittingly, the authorities have since destroyed the 'house of horrors' in Seymour Street.

© Mark Owen, 2013 -