By Thomas J. Sheeran And John Coyne
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 a decade ago were found Monday, elating family members and friends who had longed to see them again.
Authorities later arrested three brothers, ages 50 to 54. A relative said one of them is the homeowner, his nephew Ariel Castro.
Police Chief Michael McGrath said he thinks Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight were tied up at the house and held there since they were in their teens or early 20s.
A 6-year-old also was found in the home, and Cleveland police Deputy Chief Ed Tomba said Tuesday that the girl is believed to be Berry’s daughter. He declined to say who the father was.
The women appeared to be in good health and were taken to a hospital to be evaluated and reunited with relatives. They were released from Metro Health Medical Center on Tuesday morning.
Authorities declined to say whether the women were restrained or if any of them had been sexually assaulted.
Neighbour Juan Perez told NBC’s “Today” show that he rarely saw Castro or anyone else at the house.
“I thought the home was vacant. I thought he probably had another property and he would just come and check and see if everything is OK.” Perez said. “I didn’t even know anybody lived there.”
The women’s escape and rescue began with a frenzied cry for help.
A neighbour, 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, 50, 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 get out.
Speaking Spanish, which was translated by one of her friends, Tejeda said Berry was nervous and crying. She was dressed in pyjamas and old sandals.
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’d been kidnapped and held captive, Tejeda said she gave her the telephone to call police, who arrived within minutes and then took the other women from the house.
On a recorded 911 call Monday, Berry declared: “I’m Amanda Berry. I’ve been on the news for the last 10 years.”
She said she had been taken by someone and begged for police officers to come to the home on Cleveland’s west side before the man returned.
“I’ve been kidnapped, and I’ve been missing for 10 years,” she told the dispatcher. “And I’m here. I’m free now.”
Police said Knight disappeared in 2002 at age 20 and is 32 now. Berry 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.
Berry is now 27, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Authorities didn’t provide a current age for DeJesus. They were found just a few miles from where they had vanished.
Police identified the three suspects as Ariel Castro, 52; Pedro Castro, 54; and Onil Castro, 50.
Julio Castro, who runs a grocery store half a block from where the women were found, said Ariel Castro is the homeowner and his nephew.
Attempts to reach Ariel Castro in jail were unsuccessful Monday. There was no public phone listing for the home, which was being searched by dozens of police officers and sheriff’s deputies.
Officials said Tuesday they had no records of anyone calling about criminal activity at the house where three kidnapped women were kept for years before being found. They also had no records of code violations or fire department calls.
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, apparently left a child unattended on a bus, Flask said. No one answered the door at Castro’s house, and police later determined there was no criminal intent, he said.
The women’s loved ones said they hadn’t given up hope of seeing them again.
A childhood friend of DeJesus, Kayla Rogers, said she couldn’t wait to hug her.
“I’ve been praying, never forgot about her, ever,” Rogers told The Plain Dealer newspaper.
Berry’s cousin Tasheena Mitchell told the newspaper she couldn’t wait to have Berry in her arms.
“I’m going to hold her, and I’m going to squeeze her and I probably won’t let her go,” she said.
Berry’s mother, Louwana Miller, who had been hospitalized for months with pancreatitis and other ailments, died in March 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.
Councilwoman Dona Brady said she had spent many hours with Miller, who never gave up hope that her daughter was alive.
“She literally died of a broken heart,” Brady said.
Mayor Frank Jackson expressed gratitude that the three women were found alive. He said there are many unanswered questions in the ongoing investigation.
Associated Press writer Kantele Franko in Columbus contributed to this report.