Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Shades of Sowell in Seymour Avenue horror house

How can a man make a house a prison for 10 years with no one noticing? That’s the question Cleveland faces today, even as it celebrates Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight’s breakout from captivity.

#miracleinCLE,” everyone's tweeting, joyful that the city’s two most famous missing persons of the 2000s have survived, that DeJesus and Berry have reunited with their families. But that sunny local-news slogan may keep us from seeing the story clearly.

Ariel Castro’s home now appears to be another Cleveland house of horror, second only to Anthony Sowell’s. It’s another house where women were held in captivity and assaulted, where crimes went on for years without anyone detecting them. The difference is, Sowell murdered. Berry, DeJesus and Knight were likely held captive under the threat of murder.

Cleveland faced a lot of questions after Sowell’s serial murders on Imperial Avenue, and the Seymour Avenue story asks them again. Did the neighbors fail the women inside the house? Did the police?

Neighbors are asking themselves why they didn’t see the signs. Meanwhile, rescuer Charles Ramsey’s interviews are flashing around the world, but I haven’t seen anyone quote this part of his Fox 8 interview, about the house where no lights were ever on:

Me and Anthony talked about this last year. But he told me I was paranoid. ‘Cause I just moved onto the street. And I told him something’s wrong with that house. And he said, ‘Just leave it alone, chill.’

So far, police have found no record of any calls or complaints about the house, they said this morning. “At this point, we have no indications that any of the neighbors, bystanders, witnesses or anyone else has ever called,” safety director Martin Flask reported at the morning press conference.

But today, neighbors are telling reporters about a naked woman crawling out of the house and back in, and pounding on the doors from inside the house. (The naked woman story isn't a firsthand account. See these reports from WKYC TV3 and The Guardian.)

The neighbors claim police either didn’t respond, or responded but didn’t enter the house. (Without a warrant, they probably couldn’t.)

{Update, 11:15 pm:  Police say they got no calls about a naked woman outside the home. Plain Dealer reporter Rachel Dissell tweeted skeptically to me tonight about some neighbors' claims: "Lots of attention seeking on Seymour Avenue the further out from last night. By this morning, wholly unreliable."}

{Update, 5/8: The women have told police they only went outside the house twice in 10 years, when Ariel Castro took them into the garage in disguises. See our new post. Also, "captors" is changed to "captor" below. Police have said Castro's brothers, arrested Monday, were not involved.}

Last night, at least, a squad car responded to Berry’s frantic call within two minutes -- but only after she pressed the 9-1-1 dispatcher to move faster.

“We’re going to send them as soon as we get a car open,” the dispatcher said.

“No, I need them now, before he gets back!” Berry insisted.

Three women, not two, emerged from the Seymour Avenue house last night. The fact that Michelle Knight wasn’t famously missing -- we haven’t even seen a picture of her yet -- revives another vexing issue from Imperial Avenue: We treat missing adult women very differently from missing teens. Knight was 20 when she disappeared, and everyone from police to most of her family believed she’d run off. Only her mother felt she’d been abducted.

But despite all the haunting questions the city faces today, it’s also achieved a victory. For ten years, Berry and DeJesus’s families, the police, the media, and the public all kept watching for the two women.

Even in their prison, whether because of their captor or in spite of him, word of the search got to Berry and DeJesus. It must have given them hope to know they weren’t forgotten.

“I’m Amanda Berry,” she said in the 911 call. “I’ve been on the news for the last 10 years.”

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