Three Cleveland women, found alive after vanishing for about a decade in their own neighborhood, were freed from a house that authorities tried to visit several years ago, police said on Tuesday.
Three brothers, one of them a school bus driver who owns the house in Cleveland, Ohio where three women and a child were found on Monday, are under arrest, police said at a news conference.
Police identified them as Ariel Castro, 52, Pedro Castro, 54, and Onil Castro, 50. [embedgallery id=146543]
Amid jubilation over the discovery, authorities and residents quickly questioned whether the women had been held inside the house for years without anyone noticing. All three young women vanished separately - in 2002, 2003 and 2004 - within a few blocks of the house where they were found.
Authorities attempted to visit the home in 2004 on a matter unrelated to the disappearances but were unable to enter, police said.
Monday evening's rescue, described as a "miracle" by one family member, unfolded with a frantic emergency call from a woman who told a 911 operator she was Amanda Berry, who disappeared in April 2003 and was the subject of years of searches.
She had escaped from the modest, two-story house in the low-income neighborhood on Cleveland's West Side with the help of a neighbor who told police he heard screaming and helped her kick out a locked screen door.
Police arrived to find Berry, now 27, along with Gina DeJesus, 23, who vanished in 2004, and Michelle Knight, now 32, who went missing in 2002, police said. They also found a 6-year-old girl who police said was Berry's daughter. She would have been conceived and born during Berry's captivity.
SEARCHES OVER THE YEARS
The disappearances of Berry and DeJesus were well known in Cleveland, although Knight's disappearance had attracted less attention, police said. Just last month a vigil was held to mark the ninth anniversary of DeJesus' disappearance.
Anthony Quiros, 24, who grew up next door to the house where the women were found, said bus driver Ariel Castro had been an onlooker as police dug up a Cleveland lot looking for remains in the case on a tip that proved false.
"He also came to a vigil and acted as if nothing was wrong," said Quiros. He said he saw Castro comforting DeJesus's mother about a year ago.
Born in Puerto Rico, Castro played bass in Latin music bands in the area. Neighbors said he sometimes parked his school bus in front of the house at lunchtime and would take multiple bags of fast food inside.
They said he was divorced more than a decade ago and his ex-wife had since died.
On a Facebook page believed to belong to Castro, he said last month that he had just become a grandfather for a fifth time. Court records show Ariel Castro was arrested in 1993 on a domestic violence charge that was subsequently dismissed. I
Tito DeJesus, who said he used to play Latin music with Castro, said on CNN he had been in the house two years ago and saw nothing suspicious. He said the living room was filled with bass guitars.
Berry had last been seen leaving her job at a fast-food restaurant the day before her 17th birthday in April 2003, and Gina DeJesus was last seen walking home from school.
Authorities said they were trying to determine if there had been any clues they were in the house, located in a neighborhood where houses are typically separated only by a driveway.
Two houses to one side of the Castro house were boarded up on Tuesday.
Children and Family Services authorities went to the house in January 2004, more than a year after Knight disappeared and eight months after Berry went missing, because Ariel Castro had left a child on a school bus, Mayor Frank Jackson said at the news conference.
They "knocked on the door but were unsuccessful in connection with making any contact with anyone inside that home," he said.
Police said Castro had been interviewed extensively during that investigation and no criminal intent was found regarding the child left on the bus.
"We have no indication that any of the neighbors, bystanders, witnesses or anyone else has ever called regarding any information, regarding activity that occurred at that house on Seymour Avenue," the mayor said.
After their rescue, the three women were taken to a nearby hospital, where they were reunited with family and friends, and released on Tuesday.
"If you don't believe in miracles, I suggest you think again," DeJesus' aunt Sandra Ruiz said to reporters on Tuesday in Cleveland. Her comments were televised by local station WJW.
"This is a miracle," Ruiz said. But she added: "Watch who your neighbor is because you never know."
The case is not the first time Cleveland has witnessed a horrific story close to home that raised questions about the thoroughness of police investigations.
In 2009, police discovered a home in Cleveland where Anthony Sowell had imprisoned and killed 11 women. Family members of some victims filed suit against the city, complaining about the police's handling of the case.
Sowell was convicted in 2011 and is on death row.
A man who helped to look for DeJesus, Pastor Angel Arroyo, said he and her family members had handed out flyers years ago in the neighborhood where she was found.
"We didn't search hard enough. She was right under our nose the whole time," Arroyo said.
FBI and other law enforcement officials were searching the house as well as other properties, said police, who did not elaborate.
During her 911 call, Berry can be heard giving the dispatcher Ariel Castro's name and urging police to come quickly. She indicated that she knew her disappearance had been widely reported in the media.
"Help me! I'm Amanda Berry. ... I've been kidnapped and I've been missing for 10 years and I'm here. I'm free now," Berry can be heard saying in a recording of the call released by police.
The discovery of the three women was reminiscent of the case of Jaycee Dugard, who was snatched from her northern California home at age 11 by a convicted sex offender, Phillip Garrido, and kept in captivity for 18 years before being rescued in 2009.
During that time she was repeatedly raped by her abductor and gave birth to two girls fathered by him.
Dugard released a statement on Tuesday. "As simple as it sounds, these women need the opportunity to have the privacy to heal and reconnect."
"I know individuals are strong in spirit and can be resilient in crisis. I wish them the best in their journey," she said.