Life after life, or a decade of being held captive by a rapist

Balloons, burgers, and barbecue ribs. Cleveland celebrates another anniversary of the release of Ariel Castro's victims. Even though Amanda, Gina, and Michelle want to erase those years from their memory, the past won’t let them forget.

This story is so unlikely, that when local radio in Cleveland Ohio reported on May 6, 2013, that three women were freed from the hands of the kidnapper, only a few initially believed it. There were also those who believed that the newsreader simply made a mistake. Ten years in captivity?

But soon the names of the abductees were revealed. Amanda, Gina, and Michelle. All three women have disappeared in Cleveland in the last ten years. For city councilors, social activists, and law enforcement personnel, the fact that in their city, in a quiet neighborhood right next door, the drama of these women played out for years, is a disgrace to this day.

Therefore, for nine years now, on May 6, they have been holding ceremonies to commemorate the release of Amanda, Gina, and Michelle. It has not mattered that none of the victims ever appeared at these celebrations.

A man next door

August 23, 2002, Tremont district. 21-year-old Michelle Knight is in a hurry to arrive in time for a meeting with a social worker, to discuss custody of her son Joey. If she was late she could lose Joey forever. Joey has been in court custody since he entered ER with a fall injury. Michelle cannot count on her mother who says at the last minute that she has her own business and can’t drop her off.

Michelle is forced to walk. She wanders around, lost with the destination’s address on a piece of paper. Finally pops into the grocery store to ask for directions. When a man from the neighborhood offers to drop her off at the designated place in 10 minutes, she cannot believe her luck.

She knows him. It’s Ariel Castro, Emily's father, who lives just two houses away from her. Ariel has lived alone since separating from the mother of his children, but Michelle knows his friendly face well. She is not used to nice gestures. Neither from relatives nor strangers. As a child, she was bullied at school. Due to her short stature, she was called a midget. She dreamed of a career in the fire department and later wanted to be a vet.

Everything changed when she was attacked and raped at the age of 17. She became pregnant and had to quit her studies. She did not have the mother's support, and knew that after giving birth she would have to take care of her son alone. Dreams of graduating from high school and college burst like soap bubbles. But she was yet to face the worst.

When she leaves home on August 23, 2002 to attend Joey's custody meeting and misses it, everyone assumes she chickened out, abandoned her little son, and ran away. Only one person, her mother, does not believe in her escape.

Day and night, the woman hangs up leaflets with Michelle's photo all over Cleveland. Eventually, the police agree to place Michelle in the missing persons database. Yet only for a year. After this time, she is removed from the list. It was established, in accordance with the original hypothesis, that Michelle left the family of her own free will.
Nobody suspected that a drama of kidnapped young women was taking place in one of the houses on this quiet street in Cleveland. Photo Matt Sullivan / Getty Images
Meanwhile, just a few blocks from Michelle's cousin's house, where she lived with her mother and son, at 2207 Seymour Avenue, a horror is taking place. When Castro, while giving Michelle a lift, invites her home under the pretext of giving a puppy for her son, she is tied up and locked up. A few months later, Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus will be placed in the other rooms.

Lost connection

Amanda disappears the day before her 17th birthday. On April 20, 2003, she was supposed to take a day off due to the upcoming celebration, but at the last moment she decided to go to work. Later, tied to the radiator, she will repeatedly think whether if she stayed at home that day, nothing bad would have happened.

While coming home from work, she notices a maroon pickup truck behind her. The driver rolls down the window and with a pleasant smile asks if Amanda needs a ride. The girl is relieved. She knows him well. He's the school bus driver and the father of her friend from work. Without hesitation, she gets into the car. They have a nice chat on the way.

At some point, Castro asks if Amanda would like to drop by to see his daughter for some gossip and cake. The girl hesitates a bit, but finally lets herself be persuaded. As they enter the white, two-story house on Seymour Avenue, Castro, calling his daughter, tells Amanda that she must have gone to take a shower. – He started showing me around the house. For the next few years, I was not to get out of it – Amanda will say in one of the interviews, years later.

Castro takes her upstairs and shows the mysterious woman asleep in the bedroom in front of the TV. Later, Amanda will find out that it is Michelle Knight, who has been held at Castro's house for over a year. – He took me to the next bedroom, it was very dark there. It was a very small room, the size of a large closet. All I heard was that I was to take my pants off quickly.

Then Castro takes Amanda to the basement, restrains her wrists and ankles, and puts a helmet over her head. He promises to drive her home, she just needs to be quiet. Four days later, news of Amanda's disappearance makes headlines. Her relatives are losing their minds, and the girl watches her mother and sister on an old TV in the basement. It’s her only window to the world.

On the fourth day, Castro moves her to an upstairs bedroom and chains her to a radiator. On the seventh day, he takes her cellphone and makes a call to her family. Amanda's sister Beth picks up. She hears: “I have Mandy. She wants to be with me. " Nobody spoke like that to Amanda, except for people who were very close to her.

Life after life, or a decade of being held captive by a rapist

On May 6, 2013, Cleveland witnesses a miracle: Amanda, who has been missing for years, tells the police that she has been kidnapped but is alive.

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A distraught Beth notifies the FBI. It is 2003. At the time work was already underway to implement a technology that allows for tracking of mobile phones. It is established that Amanda's phone is about 30-40 blocks from where she lives. Investigators scour the area for a week, working 24 hours a day. But Castro never used Amanda's phone again.

Meanwhile, in a small, dark, cramped room, Amanda has a bucket at her disposal instead of a bathroom. She has a shower once a week. She usually has to take it with Castro. She mainly eats chips or crackers.

When Castro is not looking, Amanda writes. Using a special code, she keeps track of how many times a day she is raped.

School friend

A year after Amanda Berry's abduction, Castro goes hunting again. Five blocks from the street where he kidnapped Amanda, he waits for his next victim. 14-year-old Gina DeJesus is also friends with one of Castro's daughters, Arlene. Castro knew her father well.

On the day Gina is kidnapped, she and Arlene are returning from school. They finally part ways and when Gina turns back, she notices her friend's father's pickup truck. Castro asks if she has seen Arlene and asks her to help him find her. He drives Gina to his home, and asks her to help him move the stereo. At one point, he starts touching her, and when Gina screams that this is not appropriate and that he will have problems because of it, Castro backs off and rushes her to go home.

However, he asks her to use the back door. Gina doesn't know that they lead not to freedom, but a dark cellar.
May 9, 2013. The Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Office, Ohio, has released a photo of Ariel Castro, 52, accused of kidnapping and sexually abusing three women. Photo Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Office via Getty Images
Initially, Gina is Castro's favorite. After staying in the basement for a while, she gets the nicest room and better food. This makes things at the house even tenser. At the start Castro separates the victims, yet then allows them to talk and spend time together. Favoring one of them gives rise to conflicts.

Medium says she's dead

Meanwhile, Amanda watches all the talk shows hoping to see her mother Louwane Miller again. A year later, Mrs. Miller appears on a program featuring a well-known medium. She declares that Amanda is dead. When Berry watches this on the other side of the glass screen, she becomes hysterical. She screams to her mother that she is fine, that she is alive, here, so very close.

Unfortunately, Mrs. Miller will not live to see her daughter's release. She dies of heart failure three years after Amanda's disappearance and a few weeks before the birth of her granddaughter.

Little Jocelyn is born on Christmas Day. Amanda looks at her and knows that it is her baby after all. And she loves her. As Jocelyn grows, she notices more and more things. When she asks her mother what the chains on her wrists are called, she replies that they are special bracelets. Jocelyn is almost 3 years old when Castro decides to free Amanda's hands. It gives her a little bit of freedom that Michelle and Gina can only dream of.

Open door

May 6, 2013. Baby Jocelyn comes downstairs and then runs back upstairs, saying she can't see her daddy anywhere. Amanda's heart begins to beat faster. She already knows if she is ever to try, then it is now. For the first time in 10 years, she sees that her bedroom door is open, just as is the front door. There is still the alarm, and another pair of doors but Amanda believes she can handle them.

When Gina, convinced that Amanda was caught by Castro, runs to tell Michelle, Amanda tries to open the last door.

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At one point, the neighbor Charles Ramsey notices her and rushes to help, but the door resists. Desperate, Amanda starts kicking at the door to get out, Ramsey tries to calm her down and finally opens the gate. The young woman gets out and begs him to dial 911.

And so, on May 6, 2013, the city of Cleveland witnessed a miracle: Amanda Berry, who has been missing 10 years ago, tells the dispatcher that she has been kidnapped, but she is alive and was close to her home all this time.

After calling for help, Amanda returns to get her daughter. He still trembles. She realizes that the fact that she is outside, among other people, does not mean that she is safe. Castro could still come back at any time.

When the police arrive, Gina and Michelle don't leave the house right away. They can't believe they are free. They think it's a show and the cops are actors. When they finally agree to go outside, squinting their eyes against the daylight, they give their personal information to the deeply moved policemen.

Starting over

In captivity, Amanda gave birth to a daughter. Michelle got pregnant with Castro five times but lost it every time because she was starved and beaten. She also almost lost her eyesight. Castro sneered that DeJesus and Berry had the loved ones who desperately wanted to find them, and no one was looking for Michelle.

When Michelle was released from captivity, her mother immediately gave an interview, insisting that she wanted to see her daughter as soon as possible. But Michelle didn't want to have anything to do with her family. During Castro's trial in August 2013, she said to her mother: “I have my life back. I spent 11 years in hell. Now your hell is just beginning.

The court sentenced the Cleveland kidnapper to life and 1,000 years in prison for three kidnappings and 937 rapes. A month later, Castro took his own life.

Meanwhile, Michelle was doing everything in her power to find her son taken from her years ago. Following her disappearance, Joey was adopted by a foster family. When the world found out that Michelle, missing for more than a decade, was alive, Joey's adoptive parents immediately declared that they did not want her to see their son because it would be too painful for him.

Despite the passing of years, Joey, now an adult, has not met with his biological mother, but Michelle never gave up hope that someday he will get in touch with her. Not so long ago, on social media she posted wishes for her son’s 22nd birthday. "Wherever you are, I hope all your dreams will come true," she wrote.

Three years after regaining her freedom, Michelle got married. “I had no hope that anyone would want me after what had happened over the years. The whole world has heard the story of how I was raped, ” – she wrote in her biography. - “Who would want me after this? Nobody even wanted to give me a job. Employers claimed that my experiences and how many people had heard about me would complicate office work. It was all just another reminder that trying to be a normal person is impossible. "

But in the years that followed, Michelle gained a sense of normalcy and regained her self-esteem. Perhaps time healed some of the wounds, and perhaps the name change also helped. She didn't want to be "that'' Michelle Knight anymore. - “I decided to change my name. I kept figuring out different names. Then I saw this piece in a newspaper, saying that lilies were pure of heart. The middle name was an inspiration from my friend who was there for me in difficult times." And finally the surname, taken from her son's middle name. This is how Lilly Rose Lee was born.
A freeze frame from the recorded speech of the victims that was aired during the trial of Ariel Castro: from the left:Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus. Photo Angelo Merendino / Getty Images
Lilly began to be ready not only for a normal life but also for love. She met Miguel Rodriguez, a 39-year-old courier through mutual friends on social media. They talked on the phone for a while, until they accidentally met by bumping into each other at a restaurant. However, as their bond strengthened, Lilly was worried about physical intimacy. In addition to being sexually abused by Castro, she was also abused as a child by a relative. “I was concerned that any sexual intimacy would be similar to what Castro did to me. However, when it happened, I realized I had nothing to fear. The experience was completely different. The difference was love” – she said. In captivity, still as Michelle, she thought a lot about her wedding. Castro gave her a pencil and paper that she used to draw her future wedding dress. “When you are incapacitated and have nothing to do but wait until you are taken advantage of, envisioning the details of a wedding that will never happen was a survival strategy of sorts. By focusing on the impossible, I felt relieved, " – she writes.

Lilly found not only love but also got a job. She works in gastronomy, helps train dogs, and provides support to victims of violence, although she emphasizes that she tries not to live in the past. - “Life stuns me. I just go out the door and now can do things that before were taken from me. "

Two years after their release, DeJesus and Berry graduated from high school and published a memoir together. They too would like to erase the past from their memory but are unable to cut themselves off from it. Amanda began working with a local station hosting a show on missing persons in the Cleveland area. DeJesus established a support center for the families of people who disappeared.

When Gina went missing, we fought as a family to get any kind of help. It was devastating, says DeJesus's cousin Sylvia Colon. The DeJesus Foundation is located on the same street where she spent nine years in captivity.

Castro's house no longer exists. It was demolished and wiped off the satellite images. A garden was planted in its place. Every year white lilies blossom there.

– Maria Radzik

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by sj


„Finding Me: A Decade of Darkness, a Life Reclaimed: A Memoir of the Cleveland Kidnappings” Michelle Knight, Michelle Burford
„Hope: A Memoir of Survival in Cleveland” Kevin Sullivan i Mary Jordan
„The Lost Girls: The True Story of the Cleveland” John Glatt „Essays from Seymour Avenue: Me, Ariel Castro, and the Captive Cleveland Women” Jon Horst Hoyer

Main photo: Gina DeJesus was returning from school and disappeared from this street in Cleveland in 2004. Then it turned out that she got into Ariel Castro's car. Photo Michael S. Williamson / The Washington Post via Getty Images
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