Authors: John Glatt
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For Emily and Jerry Freund
At Ariel Castro’s sentencing, forensic psychiatrist Dr. Gregory Saathoff described his crimes as “unprecedented,” squarely placing him in an evil class of his own. For more than a decade Castro terrorized Cleveland, abducting girls off the same street and then imprisoning them in his house without arousing any suspicion whatsoever.
The well-respected bass guitarist and mainstay of Cleveland’s Latin music scene cruelly tricked his own daughters’ friends into 2207 Seymour Avenue, brandishing a luger handgun and threatening to kill them if they ever tried to escape.
Over the long years of Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, and Gina DeJesus’s captivity, there were many missed opportunities to catch him. Indeed, after his arrest Castro expressed surprise that he had not been caught years earlier, mocking the FBI for not doing its job properly.
In 2008, I wrote about the Austrian monster Josef Fritzl in
Secrets of the Cellar
, who imprisoned his own daughter, Elizabeth, for more than twenty years, fathering her seven children. Two years later, my book
Lost and Found
chronicled how Phillip and Nancy Garrido had abducted eleven-year-old Jaycee Lee Dugard in 1991, imprisoning her in their Antioch, California, house for eighteen years, with Phillip siring her two daughters.
But Ariel Castro case is perhaps the most cunning and evil of all.
“There are cases where there have been longer term abductions in length,” said Dr. Saartfoff, “but the specific nature of this—to abduct and keep this number of unrelated victims for this length of time within a neighborhood setting is completely unprecedented.”
The Lost Girls
is the result of more than eighteen months of research and scores of interviews, both on and off the record. In September 2013, I spent almost two weeks in Cleveland, speaking to Ariel Castro’s friends and family to get an accurate picture of this evil enigma. I also visited his birthplace of Duey, Puerto Rico, where Castro spent the first six years of his life, which many believe could have shaped his future behavior.
First and foremost, I would like to thank Lillian Roldan for her exclusive interview about her three-and-a-half-year affair with Ariel Castro. Over an emotional lunch in Cleveland, Lillian broke down in tears as she spoke about her feelings for Castro, who she had once hoped to marry. Even now she cannot believe he could be capable of such crimes.
I am also thankful to: Tito DeJesus, Bill Perez, Councilman Brian Cummins, Cesi Castro, Chris Giannini, Craig Weintraub, Scott Taylor, Fernando Colon, Altagracia Tejeda, Angel and Rafael Diaz, Aurora, Daniel, Javier, and Jovita Marti, Angel Cordero, Joe Frolik, and Sgt. Sammy Morris.
Thanks are also due to: Yauco Police Officer Richard Gonzalez for all his help and acting as my translator, Monserrate Baez, Uriel Reyes, Edwin Torres, and Cuyahoga County Court reporter Nancy Nunes.
As always, I would like to thank my editors at St. Martin’s Press, Charles Spicer and April Osborn, for their continuing encouragement and support.
The Lost Girls
is my twentieth true crime book for them.
Much gratitude also to Jane Dystel and Miriam Goderich of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, who are always there for me.
I also want to thank my wife, Gail, Debbie, Douglas and Taylor Baldwin, G.K. Freund, Danny, Cari and Allie Tractenberg, Annette Witheridge, Dan Callister, Virginia Randall, Allen Alter, Roger Hitts, and Ena Bissell.
Around five-fifteen on a sunny spring evening, Aurora Marti dragged her green plastic chair onto her neighbor Altagracia Tejeda’s stone porch for a chat. There was a smell of barbecue in the warm spring air, and it felt good to be out after the long cold winter.
The oldest resident on Seymour Avenue on Cleveland’s tough West Side, Aurora arrived almost half a century earlier. The seventy-six-year-old grandmother was among the first wave of Puerto Rican immigrants who settled in the booming steel town after World War II.
At that time it had been a respectable street, but everything changed in the late seventies when I-90 was built, plowing through the neighborhood to connect Cleveland and Pennsylvania. Within a few years, Seymour Avenue had declined into a dangerous drug-infested no-man’s-land, full of boarded-up clapboard houses and vacant lots.
Predominantly Latino, the impoverished neighborhood’s median annual income is under $15,000 a year, with 70 percent of children failing to graduate high school. At night, drugs and prostitution run rampant, as drivers exit off I-90 to get whatever they need. While some West Side residents describe their under-policed streets as “close-knit,” others complain of heavy drug use and violence.
But crime was the last thing on Aurora’s mind that balmy evening in early May 2013, as she chided Altagracia for not taking her allergy medicine and chatted with their friend Angel Cordero.
Suddenly a frantic scream pierced the evening calm. It came from the white house across the street, flying a Puerto Rican flag. Aurora looked up to see a woman’s hand frantically waving through a narrow gap in the front screen door.
“Help me! Help me!” the woman yelled. “My name is Amanda Berry and I’ve been captured for ten years!”
Like everyone in Cleveland, Aurora knew about Amanda Berry and her mysterious disappearance a decade earlier, on the day before her seventeenth birthday. Then, a year later, fourteen-year-old Gina DeJesus had also gone missing a couple of blocks away from where Amanda was last seen. Detectives believed the two girls’ disappearances were connected, and over the years they had become one of the city’s biggest mysteries.
Everybody had a theory of what had happened to Amanda and Gina, with most assuming the worst. Indeed, Aurora had often discussed it with her neighbor Ariel Castro, the owner of 2207 Seymour Avenue opposite, where the woman’s screams were now coming from.
“Amanda Berry’s dead,” Aurora shouted across the street. “Everybody knows that.”
“No,” the woman shouted, “I’ve been kidnapped in this house for ten years by Ariel Castro.”
Aurora had known Castro for more than twenty-five years and liked him. The gregarious school bus driver was popular in the neighborhood, as well as being one of Cleveland’s top salsa musicians. But Aurora also knew he had a terrible temper and could be violent. More than once, he had beaten his former wife and mother of his four children, Nilda Figueroa, so badly that she had run over to Aurora’s house, begging for sanctuary. Then, after one particularly brutal attack during Christmas 1993, Nilda had taken the children and left the house forever.
Since then things had quieted down at 2207 Seymour Avenue. Ariel Castro now lived alone, and had become increasingly reclusive over the years.
Now, as they crossed the street toward the Castro house, Angel Cordero said they should not get involved in his business. But Aurora insisted on helping the woman, telling Altagracia to stand lookout in the middle of the road and warn them if Castro returned.
Aurora and Cordero then came up on the porch and tried to wrench the glass storm door open, with Amanda pushing as hard as she could from the inside.
“Kick it! Kick it!” Cordero told her, but the storm door was chained shut and wouldn’t budge.
Two doors away, Charles Ramsey was eating a burger on his porch, when he heard the commotion. At first he thought someone had been hit by a car, but after seeing Aurora and Cordero rush across the street, he came over to help the screaming woman.
He and Cordero began kicking the bottom panel of the screen door together, until it finally broke. Then Amanda Berry crawled out into the bright sunlight, wearing a dirty white tank top and blue slacks. A few moments later, a little girl crawled out behind her, in a black wig and pink tights.
“Let’s get out of here,” Cordero told them, “because if Ariel comes back he’s going to kill us all.”
After picking up the little girl, Amanda Berry ran across the street to Altagracia’s porch, yelling for a phone to call 911. The child was hysterical, screaming, “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” At one point she tried to run back across the street, and as Cordero restrained her, her dirty wig fell off.
Altagracia then handed Amanda her cordless telephone.
“Help me, I’m Amanda Berry,” she yelled into the phone.
“Do you need police, fire, or ambulance?” replied the 911 operator.
“I need police.”
“What’s going on there?” asked the operator.
“I’ve been kidnapped. I’ve been missing ten years. I’m here. I’m free now.”
Cleveland police officers Anthony Espada and Michael Tracy were in their squad car on Lorain and Twenty-fifth Street, when a Code One alert came in at 5:52
The dispatcher told them she had just received a call from a hysterical woman claiming to be Amanda Berry.
“So my partner and I looked at each other in amazement,” said Officer Tracy, “and said it could be her.”
Officer Tracy then turned on the overhead siren and flashing lights, and hit the accelerator, racing toward 2207 Seymour Avenue.
“Before I could even stop the car she was right there at the window,” said Tracy. “I recognized her as Amanda Berry and I look at my partner … in disbelief.”
Officer Tracy’s first question was if there was anyone else still in the house.
“Yes,” replied Amanda, “Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight.”
Ariel Castro was born on July 10, 1960, in Duey, Puerto Rico, the third child of Pedro “Nona” Castro and Lillian Rodriguez. He had two elder siblings, Marisol Alicea and Pedro Jr., and his younger brother, Onil, was the baby of the family.
Duey is a tiny village on the outskirts of Yauco, the coffee capital of Puerto Rico. Over many generations, the Castro family had become
preeminent family in the isolated mountainous barrio, owning most of the land in a section called La Parra.
Despite the family’s preeminence, however, their living conditions were primitive. Ariel was born in his father’s little wooden shack at the very top of La Parra. At that time there was no running water or electricity, and all the cooking was done over coal on the dirt floor. Every morning, Pedro would drive his jeep several miles down the steep mud track to a well to fill up large plastic water buckets. He would then haul them back up the hill so that his family could wash and have fresh drinking water.