Between 2002 and 2004, three young women, Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry and Georgina “Gina” DeJesus, were kidnapped by Ariel Castro in his home in the Tremont neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio. They were subsequently imprisoned in his house on Seymour Avenue until May 6, 2013, when Berry escaped with her six-year-old daughter and contacted the police. Knight and DeJesus were rescued by responding officers and Castro was arrested within hours.
On May 8, 2013, Castro was charged with four counts of kidnapping and three counts of rape. Castro pleaded guilty to 937 criminal counts of rape, kidnapping, and aggravated murder as part of a plea bargain. He was sentenced to life plus 1,000 years in prison without the chance of parole. One month into his sentence, Castro committed suicide by hanging himself with bedsheets in his prison cell.
Castro was 52 years old at the time of his arrest. He was born on July 10, 1960, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Pedro Castro and Lillian Rodriguez. Shortly after his parents divorced, when he was a child, Castro moved to the mainland U.S. with his mother and three siblings. The family first settled in Reading, Pennsylvania, and later moved to Cleveland, where Castro’s father and several other extended family members were living. Castro had nine siblings in total. According to Castro’s uncle, the Castro family knew the DeJesus family and had lived in the same west Cleveland neighborhood. Castro was a 1979 graduate of Cleveland’s Lincoln-West High School.
Castro met his future common law wife, Grimilda Figueroa, when his family moved into a house across the street from hers in the 1980s. Castro and Figueroa lived with both sets of parents, but moved into their own home at 2207 Seymour Avenue in 1992. Their home was a two-story, 1,400-square-foot (130 m2), four-bedroom, one-bathroom house with a 760-square-foot (71 m2) unfinished basement built in 1890 and remodeled in 1956. According to Figueroa’s sister, Elida Caraballo, when Figueroa and Castro moved into their new home, “all hell started breaking loose”. Caraballo and her husband Frank claim Castro beat Figueroa, breaking her nose, ribs, and arms. He also threw her down a flight of stairs, cracking her skull. In 1993, Castro was arrested for domestic violence but was not indicted by a grand jury.
Figueroa moved out of the home in 1996 and secured custody of her four children. Police assisted in the move and detained Castro, but did not pursue charges. Castro continued to threaten and attack Figueroa after she left him, according to Caraballo. A 2005 filing by Figueroa in Cuyahoga County Domestic Relations Court accused Castro of inflicting multiple severe injuries on her and of “frequently abducting” his daughters. A temporary restraining order against Castro was granted, but was dismissed a few months later. Figueroa died in 2012 due to complications from a brain tumor.
Before his arrest, Castro worked as a bus driver for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District until he was fired for “bad judgment” including making an illegal U-turn with children on his bus, using his bus to go grocery shopping, leaving a child on the bus while he went for lunch, and leaving the bus unattended while he took a nap at home. He was earning $18.91 per hour when he was discharged. At the time of his arrest, Castro’s home was in foreclosure due to three years (2010–12) of unpaid real estate taxes.
Each woman was kidnapped after accepting a ride from Castro. Castro drove each to his home, lured her inside, took her to the basement and restrained her. The Seymour Avenue house where they were held was approximately 3 miles (5 km) from where they had disappeared, in Cleveland’s residential Tremont neighborhood.
– Michelle Knight
Michelle Knight (born April 1, 1981) disappeared on August 23, 2002, after leaving a cousin’s house. Knight was 21 years old at the time. On the day of her disappearance, she was scheduled to appear in court for a child custody case involving her son, of whom she had previously lost custody to the state.
Following Knight’s rescue, police acknowledged that limited resources had been spent on investigating her disappearance, in part because she was an adult. She was believed to have run away voluntarily due to anger over losing custody of her son. According to Cleveland Deputy Police Chief Ed Tomba, Knight “was the focus of very few tips”. Knight’s removal from the National Crime Information Center database 15 months after she disappeared has been criticized. Police and the FBI maintain that her inclusion or exclusion had no bearing on her rescue.
– Amanda Berry
Amanda Marie Berry (born April 22, 1986) disappeared on April 21, 2003, the day before her 17th birthday. Berry was last heard from when she called her sister to tell her that she was getting a ride home from her job at a Burger King at West 110th Street and Lorain Avenue. The FBI initially considered Berry a runaway, until a week after her disappearance, when an unidentified male used Berry’s cell phone to call her mother, saying “I have Amanda. She’s fine and will be coming home in a couple of days”.
Berry was featured in a 2004 segment of America’s Most Wanted (re-aired in 2005 and 2006), which linked her to Gina DeJesus, who by that point had also gone missing in Cleveland. They were profiled on The Oprah Winfrey Show and The Montel Williams Show, where self-described psychic Sylvia Browne told Berry’s mother, Louwana Miller, in 2004 that her daughter Amanda was dead, and that she was “in water”. This pronouncement devastated her mother, causing her to take down pictures and give away her daughter’s computer. However, Miller continued to search for Berry until Miller’s death from heart failure in 2006. After Berry was found alive in 2013, Browne received criticism for the false declaration that Berry was dead.
On December 25, 2006, Amanda Berry gave birth to a daughter inside the house where the women were imprisoned. DNA evidence confirmed that Castro was the biological father of the child.
In July 2012, Robert Wolford, a prison inmate who previously lived in the neighborhood where the women disappeared, claimed to have information about the location of Berry’s body and led police to an empty lot on Cleveland’s West Side, where a fruitless search was conducted. Wolford was sentenced in January 2013 to four and a half years in prison for obstruction of justice, making a false report, and making a false alarm.
– Gina DeJesus
Georgina “Gina” Lynn DeJesus (born February 13, 1990) went missing at age 14. She was last seen at a pay phone at about 3 p.m. on April 2, 2004, on the way home from her middle school at West 105th Street and Lorain Avenue. DeJesus and her friend, Ariel Castro’s daughter Arlene, had called Castro’s ex-wife, Grimilda Figueroa, for permission to have a sleepover at DeJesus’ house, but Figueroa had said they could not, and the two girls parted ways. Arlene Castro was the last person to see DeJesus before her disappearance.
DeJesus was taken under the impression that she was being dropped off, and trusted Castro because she was friends with his teenage daughter. Because no one witnessed DeJesus’ abduction, an AMBER Alert was not issued, which angered her father. He said in 2006, “The Amber Alert should work for any missing child…Whether it’s an abduction or a runaway, a child needs to be found. We need to change this law”.
A year after DeJesus’ disappearance, the FBI released a composite sketch and description of a male suspect, described as “Latino, 25 to 35 years of age, 5 feet 10 inches (1.78 m), 165 to 185 pounds (75 to 84 kg), with green eyes, a goatee and possibly a pencil-thin beard”. According to court records, Castro was 5 feet 7 inches (1.70 m), 179 pounds (81 kg); he had brown eyes and a goatee.
DeJesus was featured on a 2004 America’s Most Wanted segment, which re-aired in 2005 and 2006, and which linked her to Berry. The disappearances received regular media attention over the years, as recently as 2012, while family and others held vigils and searched for DeJesus and Berry. Castro was identified by Gina’s family in video footage of two of these vigils, and he reportedly participated in a search party and tried to get close to the family. While a journalism student in 2004, Ariel’s son Anthony Castro interviewed DeJesus’ mother for an article about the Berry and DeJesus disappearances in the Plain Press. Police kept an active investigation open, offering a $25,000 reward for information.
At first when Knight was kidnapped, Castro took her upstairs, tied her hands and feet together, and pulled her up using her hands and feet, and also her neck. He left her there for 3 days and only then, on the third day, he fed her. Prosecutors at Castro’s sentencing wrote that diaries kept by the women “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 kept in locked upstairs bedrooms, where they were forced to use plastic toilets that were “emptied infrequently”. They were fed one meal a day, and allowed to shower at most twice a week.
Knight told police that Castro had impregnated her at least five times and had induced miscarriages each time through beatings: hitting with dumbbells, punching, and slamming her against walls. Starvation was also included. Knight’s grandmother told reporters that Knight would require facial reconstruction surgery due to the beatings she endured; Knight also lost hearing in one ear. At one point, Knight had a pet dog while in captivity, but Castro killed the dog by snapping its neck after it bit Castro while trying to protect Knight. DeJesus told law enforcement she was raped but did not believe she was ever impregnated.
In December 2006, Castro allegedly ordered Knight to assist in the birth of Berry’s child, which took place in a small inflatable swimming pool, and threatened Knight with death if the baby did not survive. At one point, the baby stopped breathing, but Knight was able to resuscitate her. Castro occasionally took the child out of the house, including to visit his mother; the girl called Castro “daddy” and Castro’s mother “grandmother”. In 2013, he showed one of his adult daughters a picture of the child and said that it was his girlfriend’s daughter.
According to a statement from Cleveland police, officers visited Castro’s home only once following the kidnappings to discuss an unrelated incident. Castro did not appear to be home at the time and was later interviewed elsewhere. Although neighbors claimed to have called the police about suspicious activity observed at the home, police say they have no record of any such calls.
After Castro’s arrest, his son Anthony (whose real name is Ariel Castro Jr.) described his father’s house: “The house was always locked. There were places we could never go. There were locks on the basement. Locks on the attic. Locks on the garage”. He said his father asked him if Amanda Berry would ever be found about three weeks before the women’s escape. Anthony said he told Ariel that Berry was likely dead, and Ariel responded: “Really? You think so?”
WKYC News reported that during Castro’s interrogation, he recalled each of the three abductions in great detail and indicated that they were unplanned crimes of opportunity. According to WKYC’s sources, Castro did not have an “exit plan” and believed that he would eventually be caught. He referred to himself as “coldblooded” and a sex addict. Police found a suicide note in Castro’s home in which he allegedly discussed the abductions and wrote that his money, videos and possessions should be given to the kidnapped women if he were caught.
Escape and rescue
On May 6, 2013, Berry was able to make contact with neighbors, leading to her escape with her 6-year-old daughter, and the rescue of DeJesus and Knight by authorities. According to police, when Castro left the house that day, Berry realized that he failed to lock the home’s “big inside door”, although the exterior storm door was bolted. She did not attempt to break through the outer door because “she thought Castro was testing her”, according to the police report. Previously, Castro tested the women by leaving the house partially unlocked and exits unsecured. If they attempted to escape, he beat them. Instead, Berry screamed for help when she saw neighbors through the screen. Neighbor Angel Cordero responded to the screaming but was unable to communicate with Berry because he spoke little English. Another neighbor, Charles Ramsey, joined Cordero at the house’s front door during the rescue. A hole was kicked through the bottom of the storm door, and Berry crawled through, carrying her daughter; Ramsey said Berry told him that she and her child were being kept inside the house against her will. Upon being freed, she went to the house of another Spanish-speaking neighbor and called 9-1-1, saying, “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”.
Responding police officers entered Castro’s house. As they walked through an upstairs hallway with guns drawn, they announced themselves as Cleveland police. After peeking out from a slightly opened bedroom door, Knight entered the hallway and leaped into an officer’s arms, repeatedly saying, “You saved me”. Soon afterward, DeJesus entered the hallway from another room. Knight and DeJesus walked out of the home, and all three women, plus the child, were taken to MetroHealth Medical Center. Berry and DeJesus were released from the hospital the next day. Knight was discharged on May 10.
Arrest and legal proceedings
Castro was arrested on May 6, 2013. On May 8, he was charged with four counts of kidnapping and three counts of rape, charges that carry prison sentences of 10 years to life in Ohio. Two of Castro’s brothers were also initially taken into custody but were released on May 9 after police announced they had no involvement in the kidnappings.
On May 9, Castro made his first court appearance in Cleveland Municipal Court, where bail was set at $2 million per kidnapping charge, for a total of $8 million. Additional charges were reported to be pending, including aggravated murder (for intentional induction of miscarriages), attempted murder, assault, a charge for each alleged instance of rape, and a kidnapping charge for each day each captive was allegedly held. On May 14, Castro’s attorneys said he would plead “not guilty” to all charges if indicted for kidnapping and rape.
On June 7, a Cuyahoga County grand jury returned a true bill of indictment against Castro. It contained 329 counts, including two counts of aggravated murder (under different sections of the Ohio criminal code) for his alleged role in the termination of one of the women’s pregnancies. The indictments covered only the period from August 2002 to February 2007. The County Prosecutor, Timothy J. McGinty, stated that the investigation was ongoing and that any further findings would be presented to the grand jury. McGinty said that pursuing a death penalty specification would be considered following completion of indictment proceedings.
On June 12, after entering a not-guilty plea for Castro, one of Castro’s attorneys, Craig Weintraub, said that although some of the charges against Castro were indisputable, “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”. He noted, “We are very sensitive to the emotional strain and impact that a trial would have on the women, their families and this community”. Castro was found competent to stand trial on July 3.
On July 12, a Cuyahoga County grand jury returned a true bill of indictment for the remainder of the period, after February 2007. It brought the total to 977 counts: 512 counts of kidnapping, 446 of rape, seven of gross sexual imposition, six of felonious assault, three of child endangerment, two of aggravated murder, and one of possession of criminal tools. On July 17, Castro pleaded not guilty to the expanded indictment.
On July 26, 2013, Castro pleaded guilty to 937 of the 977 charges against him, including charges of kidnapping, rape, and aggravated murder, as part of a plea bargain which called for consecutive sentences of life in prison plus 1,000 years, both without parole. Under the plea deal, Castro gave up his right to appeal and could not profit in any way from his crimes. He also forfeited his assets, including his home, which prosecutors said would be demolished. Castro was asked by Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Michael Russo, “You will not be getting out, is that clear?” to which Castro responded, “I do understand that, your honor”. Castro also made comments about his “addiction to pornography” and “sexual problem”, but was cut off by Judge Russo, who said such issues could be discussed at the August 1 sentencing hearing. A law firm representing Berry, DeJesus, and Knight released a statement that the three women were “relieved by today’s plea. They are satisfied by this resolution to the case, and are looking forward to having these legal proceedings draw to a final close in the near future”.
At the sentencing hearing on August 1, 2013, Castro was sentenced to life in prison, plus 1,000 years. He was also fined $100,000. The court forfeited all of his property and assets to the Cuyahoga County government.
Before his sentencing, Castro addressed the court for twenty minutes, in which he said he was “a good person” and “not a monster”, but that he was addicted to sex and pornography, and had “practiced the art of masturbation” from a young age. He claimed that he had never beaten or tortured the women, and insisted that “most” of the sex he had with them “was consensual”. He shifted between an apologetic tone and blaming the FBI for failing to catch him, as well as his victims themselves, insisting to the court that when he had sex with them he discovered they were not virgins. He would alternatively shift back into apologetic comments, saying: “I hope they can find in their hearts to forgive me because we had a lot of harmony going on in that home”.
The court also heard from Knight and family members of Berry and DeJesus. Knight told Castro, “You took 11 years of my life away. I spent 11 years in hell, now your hell is just beginning. I will overcome all this 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”.
On July 9, 2013, Knight, Berry and DeJesus broke their public silence for the first time since their rescue by releasing a video statement thanking the public for their support. An attorney for Berry and DeJesus said the women “still have a strong desire for privacy” and did not wish to speak to the media about their ordeal. The Cleveland Courage Fund, a bank account set up to help the women in their transition to independent life, had collected approximately $1.05 million at the time of the video’s release. Before Berry’s disappearance, her grandfather had promised to give her a classic Chevrolet Monte Carlo from the year Berry was born. He kept the car after her kidnapping, in case she was found alive. Following her rescue, Berry called her grandfather and asked if he still had the car, which he did, although it was in need of restoration from having gone unused. Several automotive shops offered to perform the restoration for free.
In an interview with People on the first anniversary of her freedom, Knight discussed some of her ordeals as well as her life leading up to her abduction. Since her rescue, she legally changed her first name to Lily (later revealed in full as Lilly Rose Lee) and began to get several tattoos as her way of coping with the healing process. Knight also revealed that her son was adopted by his foster parents while she was in captivity, and that while she wants to see him, she doesn’t want to bring him into the ordeal she has had to deal with, and plans to see him after he becomes an adult. Knight plans on opening a restaurant, wants to marry, and adopt children. Knight also plans on reuniting with Berry and DeJesus in the future, but is focusing on getting her own life on track at the present time.
– House demolition
As part of Castro’s plea bargain, the house where he had held the women captive was demolished on August 7, 2013. Knight was present and handed out yellow balloons, which she said represented missing children, to the gathered crowd. The balloons were released before DeJesus’ aunt began the demolition with a swing of a crane.
– Castro’s Death
On the evening of September 3, 2013, one month into his life sentence, Castro was found hanging by a bedsheet in his cell at the Correctional Reception Center in the Pickaway Correctional Institution. Prison staff performed CPR on Castro before he was taken to the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, where he was pronounced dead shortly thereafter. The following day, Franklin County coroner Dr. Jan Gorniak announced that a preliminary autopsy had found the cause of Castro’s death to be suicide by hanging.
On October 10, 2013, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction briefly released a report that suggested Castro may have died accidentally from auto-erotic asphyxiation, rather than suicide. Gorniak rejected that possibility, standing by her ruling of suicide. The report also said two prison guards had falsified logs documenting their observation of Castro hours before he was found dead. Castro was not on suicide watch at the time of his death, but had been subject to routine checks every 30 minutes due to his notoriety.
A consultant’s report was released on December 3, 2013, and officially 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.” The Ohio State Highway Patrol also reviewed the case and reached the same conclusion.