By Ed Payne
CLEVELAND (CNN) — The first time most of America heard Amanda Berry’s voice was on a frantic 911 call.
“I’ve been kidnapped, and I’ve been missing for 10 years,” the 27-year-old woman said on the call, which was made on Monday. “And I’m here. I’m free now.”
A day later, Berry could be heard again. This time talking to relatives, she seemed positive, even upbeat — telling her grandmother Fern Gentry in Tennessee that she’s “fine” and that the 6-year-old girl also rescued Monday from a Cleveland home is indeed her own.
“I love you honey, thank God,” her tearful grandmother said, in a call recorded by CNN affiliate WJHL. “… I’ve thought about you all this time. I never forgot about you.”
Details have been slow to emerge about Michelle Knight — the first of the women to disappear and the oldest of the three at 32.
Her missing persons report from the Cleveland Police Department describes her as having “mental abnormalities” and many family members seemed to be unaware that she was missing.
At the home of 23-year-old Georgina “Gina” DeJesus, who along with Berry and Michelle Knight were allegedly held captive for years in a Cleveland house, balloons dotted the front yard. There was also a sign strung along a fence, the same one that had been there since Gina was first reported missing nine years ago.
Her 32-year-old sister, Mayra DeJesus, told CNN’s Poppy Harlow on Tuesday that her sister — for all the hell she’s gone through — is in “good spirits.”
DeJesus spent the day with family, who didn’t focus on what she’d gone through but more on lifting her up, her sister said.
Berry, Knight and DeJesus each disappeared from the same Cleveland street — Lorain Avenue — three miles from the home in which they were found Monday evening. They escaped after Berry broke out the bottom of a screen door and called for help Monday evening, startling neighbor Charles Ramsey who came over and helped kick in the door.
Three men have been jailed in the women’s disappearance — 54-year-old Pedro Castro, 50-year-old Onil Castro and 52-year-old Ariel Castro, who neighbors said lived at the house. All three are expected to be charged in the coming days.
Some neighbors of Ariel Castro spent Tuesday second-guessing themselves, questioning why they hadn’t noticed signs earlier and if they could have prevented the horrors.
“This is a heartbreaking moment for us, because I’m always out there (and) I’ve heard nothing,” said Daniel Marti, who’s known Ariel Castro since junior high school and lived near him for some 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.”
‘He didn’t want nobody back there’
The predominantly Latino neighborhood, made up mostly of two-story frame homes, sits within sight of downtown. The gentrification that has spiffed up districts on either end hasn’t extended to the blocks around Castro’s home, where a number of houses are boarded up. But the churches in the neighborhood still ring the bells in their steeples, and the neighbors say they look out for one another.
Authorities and several neighbors say they had no prior indication anything suspicious was going on at the nondescript home on Seymour Avenue, where a Puerto Rican flag hung from the porch.
But after Monday’s discovery, they reflected back and noticed things that, in retrospect, might have signaled something awry.
Marti, for one, asked himself why he didn’t question why Castro — who, he thought, lived alone — would return each day with bags of McDonald’s food, or who would watch the little girl he occasionally took outside. He also recalled how Castro seemed to steer him away from the house when they talked: “Now that I think of it, he didn’t want nobody back there.”
Another neighbor, Israel Lugo, said he saw Castro at the park Sunday with a little girl and asked who she was: “He said it was his girlfriend’s daughter.”
Lugo said his sister got a bad vibe from the house and asked him not to let the children play unsupervised nearby. He said he heard yelling in the house in November 2011 and called police to investigate, but they left after no one answered the door.
And Nina Samoylicz, who lives nearby, said she called police about two years ago after spotting a naked woman in the backyard of Castro’s house. Samoylicz said when she called out to the woman, a man told the woman to get in the house, then ran in himself.
“She was just walking around and naked,” Samoylicz said. “We thought that was weird. We thought it was funny at first, and then we thought that was weird, so we called the cops. They thought we was playing, joking, they didn’t believe us.”
She said she had also seen tarps covering the backyard.
But Sgt. Sammy Morris, a Cleveland police spokesman, told CNN that the department had no record of a 911 call reporting a naked woman at Castro’s address.
In fact, authorities never had any indications that the women were being held in the home or that anything suspicious was going on there, Cleveland Public Safety Director Martin Flask said. Neighbors had not provided any tips, he added.
Police had visited the home twice, authorities said Tuesday, once after Castro called about a fight in the street and another time to investigate Castro on an unrelated incident involving a child who had been left on a school bus.
The 2004 incident was the first of four exhibitions of “bad judgment” that led to Castro’s November firing by Cleveland’s school district, according to records released Tuesday night.
“He previously had been suspended for 60 days for leaving a child on a bus; 60 days for making an illegal U-turn in rush hour traffic with a bus load of students, and last school year for using the bus to do his grocery shopping,” the letter recommending his dismissal states. His firing came after he had left his bus unattended outside a school after his preschool routes had been canceled, without notifying his dispatcher or depot.
Tito DeJesus, a bandmate of Castro’s, said he had been inside the bass player’s home once, about two years ago, to help deliver a washer and dryer he’d sold to the suspect and saw “a normal environment.” DeJesus said he isn’t related to the rescued Gina DeJesus but had known the family for years.
“It didn’t seem to be a place where women were being held against their will,” he said. “Of course, mind you, I didn’t go throughout the entire house. I was just at the beginning of the house, in the living room, but it seemed normal.”
Berry was last seen after finishing her shift at a Burger King in Cleveland on April 21, 2003. It was the eve of her 17th birthday. DeJesus disappeared nearly a year later, on April 2, 2004. She was 14.
Michelle Knight — the first to disappear — vanished on August 22, 2002. She never returned after going to a neighborhood store to use a pay phone, cousin Brenda Dinickle told CNN’s Zoraida Sambolin.
The family reported her missing the next day, Flask said. She was 21.
Dinickle described her cousin as mentally challenged.
“She had a mind of a child. She was slow,” Dinickle said.
Nicknamed “Shorty,” because of her diminutive 4-foot, 7-inch stature, the family thought Knight might be with the brother of a brother-in-law, but had no phone number to contact him.
News of her discovery came as a shock to brother Freddie Knight, who didn’t know she was missing until he saw the story on TV.
“I was freaking happy as hell, because I didn’t know my sister was kidnapped,” he said. “My mom never tells me anything.”
Knight said their mom, who now lives in Naples, Florida, kicked him out of the house when he was 14 and they remain estranged.
CNN not could immediately confirm the details for Knight’s account.
Knight said he met with his sister at the hospital and gave her a hug, saying the ordeal had left her traumatized.
“I hugged her because she wanted a hug,” he said. “My sister is going to move on, forget the past … , leave it behind, start anew.”
The three women and the child were released Tuesday from the hospital where they had been taken for evaluations, a spokeswoman said. Tomba said all four appeared to be in good condition, if in need of a good meal.
‘We’re hoping for a miracle’
Investigators had previously speculated that the disappearances of Berry, DeJesus and another girl, 14-year-old Ashley Summers, may have been connected. Summers’ family last saw her in July 2007, when she was 14.
“We did in fact believe there was an association between the Berry case and the DeJesus case as well as the Summers case,” said former FBI agent Jennifer Eakin. Eakin is now a case manager at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, which in 2008 held a comprehensive review of the cases with the FBI and Cleveland police.
Now the Summers family is hoping that the Cleveland investigation will yield information about Ashley, her aunt, Debra Summers, said.
“We’re hoping for a miracle,” she said.
Anderson, the spokeswoman for the Cleveland FBI office, said investigators will question the three women found Monday in the hope that they know something about Summers’ disappearance.
CNN’s Zoraida Sambolin reported from Cleveland and Ed Payne reported and wrote in Atlanta. Matt Smith, Greg Botelho, Michael Pearson, Tory Dunnan, Martin Savidge, Jason Hanna, Josh Levs, Steve Almasy, Laura Ly and Rande Iaboni also contributed to this report.
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