“I’ve been kidnapped and been missing for ten years. I’m here. I’m free now.” These were the shocking words Amanda Berry spoke after she escaped Ariel Castro’s home and called 911 from a neighbor’s phone. Berry, along with Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight, had been held captive for nearly a decade.
Between 2002 and 2004, Ariel Castro kidnapped the three girls and tortured them in his Cleveland, Ohio home. However, the three girls never gave up hope that they would be free someday. Castro might have been the face of pure evil, but the girls have triumphed over their years of trauma.
The First Victim
Ariel Castro claimed his crimes were those of opportunity, and he hadn’t even planned his first kidnapping. When he found his first victim, Michelle Knight, on August 23, 2002, he saw the perfect moment to snatch a vulnerable girl. Knight was on her way to a child custody hearing for her son.
She couldn’t find the building and asked people for help. However, no one could point her in the right direction. That’s when Knight spotted Castro. She recognized him as the father of someone she knew, so she approached him for help. Unfortunately, that’s when everything started to go wrong.
“I Have a Puppy for Your Son”
When we learned about “stranger danger” in school, they taught us not to follow someone when they offer us candy, animals, or anything else that seems enticing. Sadly, Knight didn’t think of Castro as a stranger, so she willingly got into his car when he offered her a ride.
Instead of driving her to family court, Castro started to go in the wrong direction. He said he had a puppy for her son at his house, so Knight went along with it because she would do anything for her child. But Knight couldn’t escape because her door didn’t have a handle inside the car.
Panic Set In
When they arrived at his house, he said the puppies were upstairs, and Knight didn’t know how to get away. She went into the room and immediately knew she was in trouble. Castro closed the door behind him and told her she wasn’t going to leave for a long time.
Knight started begging and pleading to leave because she needed to get her son. That’s when Castro’s true character came out. He snatched the picture of her child from her hands and ripped it into pieces, telling her she would never see him again. The room became her torture chamber for the next decade.
The Second Abduction
A day before her 17th birthday, Amanda Berry got ready for her shift at Burger King. She thought about calling out of work that day because it was her birthday the next day but decided to go anyway. After work, Berry called her sister to say she was getting a ride home.
When a car started to follow her as she left work, Berry recognized Castro because he was her classmate’s father. He told her his daughter was at his house if Berry wanted to see her. Little did Berry know that Castro’s daughter lived in another neighborhood with her mother, his ex-wife.
“She’ll Be Down Soon”
Berry entered Castro’s two-story home on April 21, 2003, thinking she would see her friend from middle school. He claimed his daughter was in the shower, so he started to show Berry around the house while they “waited.” But she never got to leave.
Castro took Berry upstairs, where she saw a woman sleeping in front of a television in one of the bedrooms. She later learned the woman was Knight, who had been there for almost a year. She was led into another completely dark bedroom in which Castro did unspeakable things to her.
An Empty Promise
Castro told Berry that if she were quiet, he would take her home. Unfortunately, that was a complete lie. He chained her to a pole in the basement, shut off the lights, and left her there with the television on. She started screaming and crying as loudly as possible.
She soon learned that no one was coming to rescue her. Berry was terrified that she was going to die and would never make it home. A few days into her captivity, she watched her mom and sister on the news as her abduction made headlines.
He Called Her Family
Berry’s family last heard from her when she left work the night of her kidnapping, and the FBI initially considered her a runaway. However, a week after she disappeared, Castro called her mother using Berry’s cellphone. He was taunting them for his own pleasure.
During the call, Castro said, “I have Mandy. She’s fine and will be coming home in a couple of days.” That was the last they heard anything for years. The strangest part of the call was that no one called her Mandy besides people who knew her.
His Third Victim Was Very Familiar
Not far from where he abducted Berry a year earlier, Castro kidnapped 14-year-old Gina DeJesus. She was on her way home from school on April 2, 2004, when she ran into him. DeJesus was a close friend of Castro’s daughter, Arlene, and he said he couldn’t find her.
She and Arlene had stopped at a payphone moments earlier to call Arlene’s mom, Grimilda Figueroa, for permission to have a sleepover. Her mother said no, so the girls had parted ways. Arlene was the last person to see DeJesus before she disappeared.
She Trusted Him
Because she was Arlene’s close friend, DeJesus trusted Castro when he approached her. She agreed to help him find her, and they went back to his house. Tragically, DeJesus trusted the wrong person because she was trapped at his home for years after that.
No one witnessed her abduction, so an Amber Alert wasn’t issued. This angered DeJesus’ father because the alert should have worked for any missing child. He said, “Whether it’s an abduction or a runaway, a child needs to be found. We need to change this law.”
Close to Home
The community was shocked by DeJesus’ abduction. Her family was close to Castro’s, and his son Anthony wrote an article in the wake of her disappearance. DeJesus’ mother, Nancy Ruiz, knew Anthony, so she granted him an interview for the newspaper.
Ironically, DeJesus’ mother said, “People are watching out for each other’s kids. It’s a shame that a tragedy had to happen for me to really know my neighbors. Bless their hearts; they’ve been great.” If only she knew one of her neighbors was holding her daughter captive.
The Early Years of Captivity
Knight, Berry, and DeJesus spent years in horror and pain. Castro kept them restrained in the basement before moving them into separate rooms. Their doors had slots to slide food in and out, so there was no opportunity to escape. They had to use plastic buckets as toilets.
Castro enjoyed playing mind games with the girls. He would leave their doors open to see if they would try to escape. When he caught them, he would punish the girls with a beating. Also, instead of birthdays, Castro would make them celebrate their “abduction day.”
Adapting to Survive
When Castro chained the girls up, Berry said the chain was around her stomach in the beginning. She understandably had trouble sleeping at night. Berry said she had to move the whole chain to sleep on her back to avoid lying on the big lock.
The girls learned how to survive in these terrifying conditions even though it seemed impossible at times. Their years in captivity were filled with sexual and physical violence. Time went by, year after year, without anyone knowing what happened to them.
Learning His Ways
The three girls learned a few things during the first few years. They started to understand how to handle Castro, know what was happening in the house, and how to hide their emotions from him. They sensed that he craved their pain because he was a sadist.
Knight, Berry, and DeJesus quickly realized that they had to mask their feelings to hide their turmoil. If Castro saw that they were suffering, it only made him happier, and they didn’t want to give him satisfaction. The years continued like this until something changed.
Amanda Berry Got Pregnant
Due to the sexual abuse, Berry became pregnant. Castro didn’t want a child in his sadistic arrangement, but he let her continue with the pregnancy. When she went into labor, Knight assisted with the delivery.
Berry’s child arrived, and she was happy that the baby was healthy. The girls felt like they were living in a dollhouse, together yet separate. They were always at the hand of the man in control, who came and went as he pleased.
Michelle Knight Was Punished the Most
After Berry had her child, Knight and DeJesus were typically kept together. However, Knight was the rebellious one in the group and was often in trouble with Castro. He’d punish her by withholding food, locking her in the basement, and abusing her more frequently.
Like Berry, Knight became pregnant−at least five times, but none of them came to term. Castro didn’t want more children in the house, so he beat her. The abuse caused permanent damage to her stomach.
Amanda Berry Tried to Find a Sense of Normality
Berry and her daughter, Jocelyn, were kept in a small room locked from the outside. She tried to maintain a sense of normality for her daughter’s sake by pretending to walk to school inside the house. She hoped life would be easier for Jocelyn.
Berry kept a journal of her life and recorded every time Castro assaulted her throughout her time in captivity. The only things helping her survive were her daughter and the hope that her family was still looking for her. She was a fighter from the beginning.
Gina DeJesus’ Family Continued to Search for Her
Like Berry and Knight, DeJesus faced the same abuse. Her family continued to look for her, not knowing that she wasn’t far from home. Castro ran into her mother a few times and took a missing person flyer she was distributing.
He gave the flyer to DeJesus in a display of cruelty. Her family, along with Berry and Knight’s families, held public vigils for the missing girls. Castro sadistically attended two of the vigils and participated in a search party. He tried to get closer to the DeJesus family.
It Seemed Like It Would Never End
As the years passed by, the girls thought they would never see the outside world again. Their hopes of freedom declined, until one warm day in May 2013, over a decade since Knight was abducted. Everything was about to change.
Knight said the day felt eerie as if she could sense something was going to happen. Castro left the house to go to the nearby McDonald’s, but he forgot to lock the door behind him. Berry’s daughter went downstairs and came back to tell her that “Daddy’s car is gone.”
A Window of Opportunity
For the first time in ten years, Berry’s door was unlocked, and Castro wasn’t home. Berry knew she only had a small window of opportunity, so she had to take the chance. She ran down to the front door, which was unlocked but wired with an alarm.
Berry managed to stick her arm out through the screen door and started screaming for help. Luckily, one of the neighbors, Charles Ramsey, was walking by, and she got his attention. Ramsey tried pulling off the door, but he couldn’t get it open.
Ramsey continued to help Berry get through the door. He started kicking it until she was able to crawl through. She then called her daughter to crawl through too. Once she was out, Berry and Ramsey found a neighbor with a phone and they called 911.
She told the operator that she was Amanda Berry and the police needed to come before Castro came back. The police arrived shortly after and rescued Knight and DeJesus. On May 6, 2013, the girls were rescued after their years of horrific experiences.
A Shocking Reality
When Berry was freed, she learned her mother had passed away in 2006. While she was still in captivity, she would watch the Montel Williams Show featuring psychic Sylvia Browne. Berry would pray that her mother would appear on the show to see the psychic.
A year after Berry’s kidnapping, her wish came true, and her mom appeared on the show. Browne told Berry’s mom, “I’m sorry. She’s not alive.” Berry broke down crying as she watched her mom lose hope. Berry’s sister believes her mom died of a broken heart.
When the girls left the house for the first time, Knight said the sun was bright and warm, like God was shining a light on her. DeJesus recalled that the police looked like they had seen a ghost when they found her. Everyone was in disbelief.
The women and Berry’s daughter were taken to the hospital to be checked out. Berry and DeJesus were released a day later, but Knight stayed four nights for observation. Knight had been beaten so severely that she needed facial reconstructive surgery.
The End of Ariel Castro
As the women earned their freedom, Castro lost his. He was arrested for kidnapping and rape, and his brothers were also brought into custody. However, his brothers were released a few days later when it was confirmed that they had no involvement in the case.
During Castro’s first court appearance on May 9, 2013, his bail was set at $8 million three days after his arrest. Additional charges were pending, including aggravated murder (for intentional induction of miscarriages), attempted murder, assault, each instance of sexual assault, and each day of captivity.
He Made Bizarre Claims
Castro told the police about each kidnapping in great detail when he was interrogated. However, he planned to plead “not guilty” at his trial. He claimed the crimes were not as bad as they appeared because his victims were willing partners who lived in comfort.
The kidnapper argued that everything was consensual, and the women had asked for it. Castro tried to paint himself and the three women as equal victims of his sexual addiction. He was equal parts defiant and repentant in court but 100 percent delusional.
Michelle Knight Testified Against Castro
Knight sat not too far behind Castro during his trial as he rambled on for 20 minutes about his home being one of “harmony.” He denied the beatings and said he wasn’t a violent person but wanted to maintain “a normal family.” Knight (and everyone else) knew he was lying.
Using his name for the first time, Knight provided a victim impact statement. She had never referred to him by his name to keep him from having power. She called him a hypocrite for attending church on Sundays just to come home and torture them. He took a decade of her life away.
Knight’s Words Were Powerful
As she continued her statement, Knight said she thought about her son every day she was held captive. She addressed Castro by telling him his captivity was just beginning. Knight added, “I will overcome all of this. I can forgive you, but I can’t ever forget.”
Knight told the court that writing the testimony made her a stronger woman and helped her realize there is more good than evil. Berry’s sister read a statement on her behalf because she didn’t want to come to court. DeJesus didn’t appear or send a representative.
Accepting His Fate
Although the prosecutors pushed for the death penalty, Castro narrowly avoided it by pleading guilty to 937 of the 977 charges against him. It was ruled that he couldn’t have contact with the victims, to which he said, “Even my daughter?” The judge said she was a victim too.
Castro never took responsibility for his crimes and showed no remorse because he believed he did nothing wrong. He was eventually sentenced to life plus 1,000 years in prison on August 1, 2013. Before his sentencing, he blamed the FBI for failing to catch him.
He Was Almost Caught Earlier
Castro had three children from his first marriage. His son Anthony reported that areas of his father’s house were inaccessible when he visited. He also said that a few weeks before the girls escaped, his father asked him if Berry would ever be found.
Castro’s neighbors also claimed to have called the police about suspicious activity observed at his house, but they didn’t have records of the calls. He was even interviewed about the kidnappings after DeJesus was abducted, but no one caught on to what he was hiding.
Berry’s Daughter Met Castro’s Family
After Jocelyn was born in 2006, Castro occasionally took her out of the house to visit his mother. She called him “daddy” and Castro’s mom “grandma.” He also showed a picture of Jocelyn to one of his adult daughters and said she was his girlfriend’s daughter from a previous relationship.
He told other people that Jocelyn was his granddaughter. Castro didn’t try to hide Jocelyn, even though it could have led to his arrest much sooner. Berry taught her to read and write, and she probably also taught her to stay quiet to keep her safe.
There Wasn’t an “Exit Plan”
Castro knew he would eventually be caught but didn’t have an “exit plan.” When police raided his home, they found a suicide note, which detailed the abductions. He wrote that it was the girls’ fault for getting in a car with a stranger.
He referred to himself as “coldblooded” and a sex addict. Besides his confession, Castro’s note also stated that his money and possessions should go to his victims if he were caught. The letter was written in 2004 when police investigated him for an unrelated matter.
Taking the Easy Way Out
Although he wasn’t sentenced to death, there was no chance that Castro would get out of jail. He lasted a little more than a month in prison, in conditions much better than his victims faced. On September 3, 2013, he was found dead in his prison cell.
Castro committed suicide because he knew he would die there anyway. Although Castro was not on suicide watch, he was subjected to checks every 30 minutes due to his notoriety. He had made a shrine-like arrangement of family pictures next to a bible.
Returning to Their Families
After being released from the hospital, Berry and DeJesus were met with cheers, balloons, and strong hugs. The women began their new lives surrounded by family and friends. Although they wanted their privacy, they thanked the public for their support.
Both of their families were overwhelmed with emotion to have Berry and DeJesus home safe. Berry went home with her daughter to her sister’s house, and DeJesus gave reporters a thumbs-up as her family walked her into their house. No one ever gave up hope on these two.
Michelle Knight Had a Different Experience
Before she was abducted, Knight and her twin brother lived in an abusive household. They didn’t have furniture in their home or a stove. She had to cook food on a space heater and said it would take four hours to cook a hot dog.
When she was 14, Knight ran away and became homeless. Because of her history, the FBI removed her from the list of missing people after 15 months. No one was looking for Knight and didn’t even know she was missing. Meanwhile, large campaigns were launched for the other two victims.
Knight Almost Didn’t Survive
When the women were rescued, Knight was bleeding, and her body resisted antibiotics. The doctors told her she only had two days to live, but that didn’t stop her from singing or dancing because she was free. Knight was put on 14 medications before she recovered.
She was held captive the longest and suffered the harshest abuse out of the three victims. However, she miraculously survived the ordeal and continues to thrive. Unfortunately, she didn’t have a grand homecoming like Berry and DeJesus when she left the hospital.
She Snuck Out of the Hospital
After spending five days in the hospital, Knight quietly left without seeing her family. When she was discharged, she asked for privacy from the public and her family. Her mother flew from Naples, Florida, and briefly visited Knight. But Knight declined visitors after that.
Knight’s mom told the press that she wanted to be with her daughter and help her heal, but she was shut out. Knight wanted to recover from the decade of torture privately, and she didn’t want to be with her family because they hadn’t even looked for her.
Building a New Life
As she began her new life, Knight changed her name to Lillian Rose Lee. She started getting tattoos to cope with the healing process. Although she never thought it was possible, Knight found love and married Miguel Rodriguez on the third anniversary of her escape.
After writing two memoirs about her experience and healing from the trauma, Knight started traveling as a public speaker. She also launched Lily’s Ray of Hope, a foundation supporting women and girls who are victims of domestic violence, human trafficking, and child abuse.
She Hopes to See Her Son
When Knight was kidnapped, her son was eventually adopted by his foster parents in her absence. After her escape in 2013, she wanted to see him, but she didn’t want to bring him into the ordeal she had gone through. Knight plans to see him when he becomes an adult.
After she got married in 2016, Knight and her husband talked about adopting children to start their family. Unfortunately, her years of abuse and torture have made it unlikely for her to give birth naturally. At least she knows her son had a loving home.
Amanda Berry Got Her Life Back
Two years after she was freed, Berry graduated from high school. She and DeJesus co-wrote a memoir titled Hope: A Memoir of Survival in Cleveland in 2015. Berry turned her attention to spotlighting missing people in Northeast Ohio after watching news segments of people looking for her.
Now, Berry hosts a daily news segment on Cleveland’s Fox 8 because she wants missing people to know the public hasn’t forgotten about them. Berry gushed about her daughter and said, “I’m so proud of how much she’s grown as a person. She’s very caring.”
Gina DeJesus Quietly Returned to Normality
Although the memories of the experiences will never go away, DeJesus started her journey to heal when she was reunited with her family. Like Berry, she completed her high school degree in 2015. Because she was abducted before her 15th birthday, DeJesus had a quinceanera when she was freed.
In more recent years, DeJesus joined forces with the Northeast Ohio Amber Alert Committee. She works to make plans for survivors and their family members. She said she enjoys helping people in her community because they helped when she came home.
Berry and DeJesus Don’t Speak to Knight
Castro’s three victims will always have a bond because of their shared experiences, but the girls went their separate ways. DeJesus and Berry remain close but haven’t spoken to Knight. DeJesus said she spent years chained to Knight, and they were once friends.
Castro played mind games with them so that they wouldn’t trust each other. Berry and Knight never got along, but they have wished each other the best. Knight said, “I’m letting them go their own way, and they’re letting me go my way.” She hopes they can reunite one day.
Castro’s House Was Demolished
As part of the plea bargain, the house where Castro kept his victims was demolished on August 7, 2013. Knight was present for the event and handed out yellow balloons to represent missing children. The balloons were released before the demolition began.
DeJesus’ aunt got to man the excavator and take the first swings at the house’s facade. The lot was turned into a garden, and it has been completely blurred from Google Maps. DeJesus also opened a foundation for missing children and adults on the same street where Castro’s house once stood.
Their Story Was Turned Into a Movie
In 2015, Lifetime released Cleveland Abduction, a TV movie based on Castro’s kidnappings. The film starred Taryn Manning from Orange Is the New Black, Raymond Cruz, and Joe Morton. There were also several books written about the case by the victims and specialists.
Charles Ramsey, who helped Berry get out of the house, also published a book. He titled it Dead Giveaway: The Rescue, Hamburgers, White Folks, and Instant Celebrity… What You Saw on TV Doesn’t Begin to Tell the Story. That’s quite the title for someone who was only a minuscule part of the story.