They all were haunted when the brown-eyed girl in the corner house disappeared.
Neighbor Charlene Milam remembers it well: A Friday evening. The mother of Georgina "Gina" DeJesus steps out of the home and says, "My baby's gone." Police cars arrive, and then they leave. Gina never shows up. No one knows what to do.
It was April 2, 2004, and Gina's absence would hang over the neighborhood until she was discovered nine years later. It appears that all this time, while Milam hung yellow ribbons and told her girls they couldn't play outside and tried not to dwell on what happens to a 14-year-old who vanishes, Gina was less than 6 miles away.
"We never assumed she was here ... never in our neighborhood," Milam said.
Cleveland police still had few answers after the rescue Monday evening of DeJesus, Amanda Berry and Michelle Knight, all three long-missing Cleveland women trapped inside a rundown house at 2207 Seymour Ave. on the city's near West Side.
Berry, who was 16 when she went missing in 2003, escaped when a neighbor heard her cries and helped her kick out the bottom of a locked screen door. A 6-year-old child, Berry's daughter, also was freed from the house.
Three brothers have been arrested in the case: Onil Castro, 50, Pedro Castro, 54, and the home's owner, Ariel Castro, 52. The men might be charged today.
Authorities would not say how the women, who now range in age from 23 to 32, were kidnapped or whether they had been sexually assaulted. They said they plan to take interviews slowly and to focus on helping the victims heal. The women were released from MetroHealth hospital yesterday and reunited with their families.
"The nightmare is over," FBI Special Agent Stephen Anthony said. "These three young ladies have provided us with the ultimate definition of survival and perseverance."
Yesterday, neighbors gathered outside of DeJesus' tidy childhood home, where bundles of balloons danced on a chain-link fence and a banner read, "WELCOME HOME GINA." They gathered, too, near the house where DeJesus and the others were locked away for nearly a decade, down a street of crumbling buildings and sagging porches.
There, Monday night's elation had given way to anger and frustration. Sisters Marcie and Melissa Fortuno, single mothers who live on the streets flanking Seymour Avenue, couldn't believe that what happened inside Ariel Castro's house went unnoticed for a decade. Berry's disappearance shook the Fortuno family so hard that their mother took their younger sister and moved out of town.
The problem is "people that turn their heads," said Marcie Fortuno, 28. "If you feel something's happening ..."
"Step into it," finished Melissa Fortuno, 32. "It's like no one cares ... nobody ever sees anything."
But it turns out that somebody might have seen something. While most who knew Ariel Castro described him as unremarkable -- a former school bus driver who drank beer and rode a four-wheeler and always seemed to be alone -- his son told a British tabloid that his father had a peculiar habit: He padlocked his attic, basement and garage doors.
Anthony Castro, a 31-year-old banker who lives in Columbus, told the Daily Mail that family members agreed that his father was capable of kidnapping the women. He said relatives are furious.
"This has been a horrifying and exhausting past 24 hours for me and my family," Anthony Castro said in an email to The Dispatch.
Neighbors, too, began recalling strange behavior yesterday. Cleveland police said they had been to the house twice in 15 years, for reasons unrelated to the women. But two neighbors said they had called for help after seeing a naked woman crawling in the backyard and hearing pounding on the house's doors. They said police didn't take them seriously.
Hector Lugo, 31, who lives two doors down from Ariel Castro, recalled just one unusual scene involving his reclusive neighbor: He said the man took a young child -- a "little girl (who) looks just like him" -- to the park recently.
It struck him later whose child he might have seen.
Over at the DeJesus house, which was guarded from media and onlookers yesterday by police tape and beefy Guardian Angels in red berets, Milam wondered why more people didn't know their neighbors, why they weren't more curious about who lived next door. She pointed to an abandoned house down the street and, perhaps for the first time, wondered what was inside.
"We don't ask questions," she said. "I just don't understand."
By Lori Kurtzman - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio
©2013 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
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