CLEVELAND — The woman’s voice was frantic and breathless, and she was choking back tears. “Help me. I’m Amanda Berry,” she told a 911 dispatcher. “I’ve been kidnapped and I’ve been missing for 10 years and I’m, I’m here, I’m free now.”
Those words led police to a house near downtown Cleveland where Berry and two other women who vanished separately about a decade ago were found Monday, exhilarating law enforcement authorities, family members and friends who had longed to see them again.
“Prayers have finally been answered. The nightmare is over,” said Stephen Anthony, head of the FBI office in Cleveland. “These three young ladies have provided us with the ultimate definition of survival and perseverance. The healing can now begin.”
Police Chief Michael McGrath said Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight had apparently been held captive in the house since their teens or early 20s.
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Authorities arrested three brothers, ages 50 to 54. One of them, former school bus driver Ariel Castro, owned the home, situated in a poor, rundown neighborhood dotted with boarded-up houses. No immediate charges were filed.
A 6-year-old girl also was found in the home, and Deputy Police Chief Ed Tomba said the child is believed to be Berry’s daughter. He declined to say who the father was or where the child was born.
Authorities would not say how the women were taken captive, whether they were restrained inside the house or if they had been sexually assaulted. Police said they were trying to be delicate in their questioning of the women, given their ordeal.
Investigators also said today that they had no record of any tips or calls about criminal activity at the house in the years after the victims vanished, but that they were still checking their files.
However, two neighbors said they were alarmed enough by what they saw at the house to call police on two occasions.
Elsie Cintron, who lives three houses away, said her daughter once saw a naked woman crawling on her hands and knees in the backyard several years ago and called police. “But they didn’t take it seriously,” she said.
Another neighbor, Israel Lugo, said he heard pounding on some of the doors of Castro’s house, which had plastic bags on the windows, in November 2011. Lugo said officers knocked on the front door, but no one answered. “They walked to side of the house and then left,” he said.
Neighbors also said they would see Castro sometimes walking a little girl to a neighborhood playground. And Cintron said she once saw a little girl looking out of the attic window of the house.
Four years ago, Cleveland police came under heavy criticism following the discovery of 11 bodies in the home and backyard of a man who was later sentenced to death. The home was in a poor part of town several miles away from where the missing women were rescued this week.
In the wake of public outrage over the killings, a panel formed by the mayor recommended an overhaul of the city’s handling of missing-person and sex crime investigations.
The three women appeared to be in good health and were taken to a hospital to be evaluated and reunited with relatives. A photo released by Berry’s family showed her smiling with an arm around her sister. All three were released from Metro Health Medical Center on Tuesday morning. Police said they were taken to an undisclosed location in the suburbs.
A sign outside the home of DeJesus’ parents read “Welcome Home Gina.”
Her aunt Sandra Ruiz told reporters that she was able to see all three. She asked that the family be given space.
“Those girls, those women are so strong,” she said. “What we’ve done in 10 years is nothing compared to what those women have done in 10 years to survive.”
Investigators celebrated the news almost as much as the families.
“Words can’t describe the emotions being felt by all. Yes, law enforcement professionals do cry,” the FBI’s Anthony said.
The disappearances of Berry and DeJesus never left the minds of police. Investigators twice dug up backyards looking for Berry and continued to receive tips about the two every few months, even in recent years. But few leads ever came in about Knight, who was the first of the three to disappear, in August 2002.
The women’s escape and rescue began with a frenzied cry for help.
A neighbor, Charles Ramsey, told WEWS-TV he heard screaming Monday and saw Berry, whom he didn’t recognize, at a door that would open only enough to fit a hand through. He said she was trying desperately to get outside and pleaded for help to reach police.
“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.”
Neighbor Anna Tejeda was sitting on her porch with friends when they heard someone across the street kicking a door and yelling. Tejeda said one of her friends went over and told Berry how to kick the screen out of the bottom of the door, which allowed her to crawl out.
Tejeda said Berry, dressed in pajamas and old sandals, was nervous and crying.
At first Tejeda said she didn’t want to believe who the young woman was. “You’re not Amanda Berry,” she insisted. “Amanda Berry is dead.”
But when Berry told her she had been kidnapped and held captive, Tejeda said, she gave the young woman a telephone to call police, who arrived within minutes and then took the other women from the house.
In her 911 call Monday, Berry declared: “I’m Amanda Berry. I’ve been on the news for the last 10 years.”
Police said Knight disappeared in 2002 at age 20 and is 32 now. Berry, now 27, disappeared at age 16 on April 21, 2003, when she called her sister to say she was getting a ride home from her job at a Burger King. About a year later, DeJesus vanished at age 14 on her way home from school.
They were found just a few miles from where they disappeared.
Police identified the three suspects as Ariel Castro, 52; Pedro Castro, 54; and Onil Castro, 50.
Attempts to reach Ariel Castro in jail were unsuccessful. There was no public phone listing for the home, which was being searched by dozens of police officers and sheriff’s deputies.
Police did go to the house twice in the past 15 years, officials said.
In 2000, before the women vanished, Ariel Castro reported a fight in the street, but no arrests were made, Public Safety Director Martin Flask said.
In 2004, officers went to the home after child welfare officials alerted them that Ariel Castro, a school bus driver, had apparently left a child unattended on a bus, Flask said. No one answered the door, according to Flask. At some point in the investigation, police talked to Castro and determined there was no criminal intent, he said.
The women’s loved ones said they hadn’t given up hope of seeing them again.
Berry’s cousin Tasheena Mitchell told The Plain Dealer newspaper: “I’m going to hold her, and I’m going to squeeze her and I probably won’t let her go.”
Berry’s mother, Louwana Miller, who had been hospitalized for months with pancreatitis and other ailments, died in 2006. She had spent the previous three years looking for her daughter, whose disappearance took a toll as her health steadily deteriorated, family and friends said.