What were you doing in 2002? I was still in school, and really had no idea of the horrors the world had to offer. Unfortunately, not everyone had the same experiences as your or I. In 2002, a decade of torture and despair started at the hands of Ariel Castro.
Michelle Knight, who was 21 years old at the time, was kidnapped by Castro on August 23, 2002 in Cleveland, Ohio. She accepted a ride from Castro after leaving her cousin's house and was never seen again. Knight was the oldest of Castro's victims, which police admit is part of the reason their investigation was not as focused on her. It was just assumed that Knight had run away after losing custody of her son.
Amanda Berry was Castro's next victim. She disappeared in April of 2003, just one day before her 17th birthday. Berry called her sister just moments before she was kidnapped, saying she was getting a ride home from her job at Burger King. For about a week, the FBI just labelled Berry as a runaway. However, when an unidentified male called Berry's family using her cellphone, they knew it was serious
"I have Amanda. She's fine and will be coming home in a couple of days," the call said.
Georgina "Gina" Lynn DeJesus disappeared when she was just 14 years old. She was abducted on April 2, 2004 by Ariel Castro, who she willingly got into the car with. DeJesus was friends with Arlene Castro, Ariel's teenage daughter, so she never thought twice about getting a ride home from him. Arlene and Gina had wanted to have a sleepover, but Arlene's mom said no, which is when Ariel offered to drive her home. No Amber Alert was issued for DeJesus's disappearance because it was believed she had just run away.
"The Amber Alert should work for any missing child ," DeJesus's father said in 2006. "Whether it's an abduction or a runaway, a child needs to be found. We need to change this law"
One by one the girls were taken into captivity, but none of them could have imagined the horrors they were about to face.
The Decade Of Torture
Knight endured the most torture, as she was in Castro's captivity for the longest amount of time. When he first brought Knight home, Castro tied her hands and feet together, then pulled her up using her neck. He left her there for three days before he gave her any food.
Castro abused all the girls, sexually and physically, and conditioned them to be afraid of everything. Diaries kept by the women during captivity "speak of forced sexual conduct, of being locked in a dark room, of anticipating the next session of abuse, of the dreams of someday escaping and being reunited with family, of being chained to a wall, of being held like a prisoner of war, of missing the lives they once enjoyed, of emotional abuse, of his threats to kill, of being treated like an animal, of continuous abuse, and of desiring freedom".
The women were fed once a day and were only allowed to shower twice a week.
Knight has been the most open about the trauma she experienced, and explained that Castro impregnated her five times but would induce miscarriages each time. He'd hit her with dumbbells, punch her, and slam her against the walls. DeJesus told law enforcement she was raped, but doesn't think she was ever impregnated.
Berry was impregnated by Castro, and in 2006 she went into labor. Knight was ordered to help in the delivery of Berry's child, and Castro threatened to kill Knight if the baby did not survive. Berry gave birth in an inflatable swimming pool, and when her daughter was born she stopped breathing momentarily. Luckily, Knight was able to revive the baby. Castro would take the baby out to meet his family, and she called him "dad."
Police reports also revealed that "all three women victims stated that Ariel chained them up in the basement, but eventually he let them free from the chains and let them live upstairs on the second floor." However, when Castro had guests over, "he would bring the women upstairs to the attic, tie them up, and tape their mouths. He would also then play music extremely loud."
Castro would often test the women as well, leaving doors unlocked and exits available. He would then hide himself nearby and if they tried to escape, he would beat them.
But one incredible act of bravery from Amanda Berry is what ultimately set the girls free.
Amanda Berry is credited for saving the life of the three abducted women, as well as the life of her daughter. On May 6, 2013, the women were left alone in the house by Castro, which was not unusual. Berry, however, realized that her captor had forgotten to lock the "big inside door" which was keeping them contained. Castro had remembered to deadbolt the storm door, however, so the women couldn't just walk out to freedom.
Berry knew better than to try and break out the storm door, as Castro had a history of testing and tricking the women. Instead, Berry saw the neighbors through a screen and began yelling for help. Angel Cordero, a neighbor of Castro, heard the screaming and came to help, but he spoke little English and was not able to communicate with Berry. Another neighbor, Charles Ramsey, showed up and helped kick a hole through the bottom of the storm door so that Berry and her daughter could crawl through. According to Ramsey, Berry told him they were all being held against their will. When she escaped, Berry ran to a neighbor's house and called 911.
"Help me, I am Amanda Berry, I've been kidnapped, and I've been missing for 10 years. And I'm here. I'm free now!"
"They were crazy, screaming, 'Help, call police, please help.' ... They were desperate, crying, running," said Angela Garcia, whose aunt provided the phone for Berry to call police.
Neighbors had no idea what was going on, according to Ramsey. There were no indications that these women were being held.
"I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man's arms. Something is wrong here. Dead giveaway," Ramsey said. "We see this dude every day. I've been here a year. I barbecued with this dude. We eat ribs and listen to salsa music."
Police swarmed Castro's house. They entered the dwelling and announced their presence, which is when Knight peeked around the corner to make sure it was really police.
“As we neared the top of the steps, Officer Espada hollered out, ‘Cleveland Police,’ at which time … Knight ran and threw herself into Espada’s arms,” the police report said, according to WKYC. “We then asked if there was anyone else upstairs with her, when [DeJesus] came out of the bedroom.” In police audio tapes, women can be heard crying in the background. Then an officer tells the 911 dispatcher: “We found ’em. We found ‘em.”
Time was up for Ariel Castro, and he was about to face hell.
The Arrest and Charges
Ariel Castro was arrested the same day as the women escaped. He was charged with four counts of kidnapping and three counts of rape. He was held on bail for $8 million. Castro was additionally charged with aggravated murder (for the miscarriages), attempted murder, assault, a charge for each rape that occurred over 10 years, and a kidnapping charge for each day each captive was held.
Castro's attorneys tried to have the aggravated assault charges dropped, saying it was in the best interests of the families.
"It is our hope that we can continue to work toward a resolution to avoid having an unnecessary trial about aggravated murder and the death penalty," attorney Craig Weintraub noted. "We are very sensitive to the emotional strain and impact that a trial would have on the women, their families and this community."
That, obviously, didn't stick. Castro stood trial on July 26, 2013, and pleaded guilty to 937 of the 977 charges against him. It was part of a plea bargain, in which Castro gave up his right to appeal and couldn't profit from his crimes. Castro also gave up his assets. The judge did not hold back when speaking to Castro in court.
"You will not be getting out, is that clear?" to which Castro responded, "I do understand that, your honor."
Castro claimed it was his "addiction to pornography" and "sexual problem" that contributed to his crimes, but the judge told him to save it for sentencing. On August 1, 2013, Castro was sentenced to life in prison, plus 1,000 years, plus a $100,000 fine.
During his sentencing hearing, Castro claimed most of the sex he had with the women "was consensual."
"I hope they can find in their hearts to forgive me because we had a lot of harmony going on in that home," Castro said.
Knight, who was at the sentencing hearing, spoke to Castro.
"You took 11 years of my life away," she said. "I spent 11 years in hell, now your hell is just beginning. I will overcome all that has happened, but you will face hell for eternity. I will live on, you will die a little every day as you think of the 11 years of atrocities that you inflicted on us... I can forgive you, but I will never forget."
After the sentencing, it was time to begin the healing process, but Castro wasn't ready to deal with prison.
Where Are They Now
On September 3, 2013, just one month into his prison sentence, Castro hung himself with a bed sheet in his cell. CPR was performed, but Castro could not be revived. It was originally stated that his cause of death was suicide by hanging, but one month later it was revealed that it's possible he died of auto-erotic asphyxiation.
A consultant's report finally concluded that "all available evidence pointed to suicide, including a shrine-like arrangement of family pictures and a Bible in Castro's cell, an increasing tone of frustration in his prison journal and the reality of spending the rest of his life in prison while subject to constant harassment."
Michelle Knight has since changed her name to Lily Rose Lee. She has written a book about her traumatic past and appeared on shows like Dr. Phil. Lee's young son was given up for adoption after she went missing, and the survivor says that to this day he doesn't know who she is. His new family has kept Lee updated and sent along photographs, but she doesn't want him to be saddled with her traumatic past. Lee says she plans on meeting her son in person after he becomes an adult.
DeJesus and Berry have become extremely close friends and have stayed in touch since their horrific experience. They admit they don't talk to Lee anymore, but don't think it's necessarily their fault.
“I think we did like each other at one point in the beginning,” DeJesus says. “Toward the end, me and Amanda started to open up and talk, and we became friends. Michelle and Amanda were struggling because I think [Castro] was playing them against each other; so, I think, they never got along.”
As for Berry, she now faces the struggles of raising a daughter who is half of her torturer. She says she's determined to give her daughter a "normal" life, which means waiting to tell her about her father.
“I don’t want this to affect her the wrong way when she’s a teenager. Maybe she learns everything and it just messes her up,” says Berry, now 29. “Hopefully, I can help her grow to be a great woman.”
Considering all these women have been through, it's incredible how well-adjusted they have become.