Luis Soto said he’d spent countless hours searching for his cousin, Gina DeJesus, who disappeared at the age of 14 in 2004.
“I’ve gotten on my motorcycle and I’ve driven up and down these streets for some sign, and there’s been nothing,” Soto said quietly. “And here it’s been right in front of our faces all this time.”
Emotions ranging from joy to anger were among the reactions Tuesday in a west-side neighborhood buzzing after the astonishing rescue of three young women who police suspect were kidnapped and kept in an aging, two-story home for more than a decade.
Now, Cleveland police are facing questions about their handling of the case and are conducting an internal review to see if they overlooked anything.
Police Chief Michael McGrath said DeJesus, Amanda Berry and Michelle Knight had apparently been held captive in the house since their teens or early 20s.
The break in the case came when the 27-year-old Berry kicked out the bottom of a locked screen door at the home and used a neighbor’s telephone to call 911. Choking back tears, she breathlessly told the dispatcher: “Help me. I’m Amanda Berry. I’ve been kidnapped and I’ve been missing for 10 years and I’m, I’m here, I’m free now.”
Police arrived to find the two other women, along with a 6-year-old girl who authorities said was believed to Berry’s daughter. Police would not say who the father was or where the child was born.
“Prayers have finally been answered. The nightmare is over,” said Stephen Anthony, head of the FBI in Cleveland. “These three young ladies have provided us with the ultimate definition of survival and perseverance. The healing can now begin.”
He added: “Words can’t describe the emotions being felt by all. Yes, law enforcement professionals do cry.”
Authorities arrested three brothers, ages 50 to 54. One of them, former school-bus driver Ariel Castro, owned the home, situated in a working-class area dotted with boarded-up houses. No immediate charges were filed.
Dean Kavouras, a chaplain for Cleveland police and the FBI, said law enforcement had pursued leads on the case for years. Upon learning that the women were still alive late Monday night, he said he and others at first thought it was a joke.
“They (police) are on an emotional roller-coaster,” he said. “This vindicates all the work they’ve put into this case.”
Israel Lugo, 39, said Castro, his longtime neighbor, was mostly an “average Joe” with whom he had hung out over the years.
“He hung out with his family, drank a couple beers with us, went four-wheeling with us. He was just a typical man, you know what I’m saying?” Lugo said.
But Lugo and others said they’d seen signs that something was amiss.
Another neighbor, Elsie Cintron, said her daughter once saw a naked woman crawling on her hands and knees in the backyard several years ago and called police.
“But they didn’t take it seriously,” she said.
And Lugo said he heard pounding on some of the doors of Castro’s house, which had plastic bags on the windows, in November 2011. Lugo said officers knocked on the front door, but no one answered.
Neighbors also said they would see Castro sometimes walking a little girl to a neighborhood playground. And Cintron said she once saw a little girl looking out of the attic window of the house.
Authorities would not say how the women were taken captive, whether they were restrained inside the house or if they had been sexually assaulted. Police said they were trying to be delicate in their questioning of the women, given their ordeal.
As for whether police overlooked hints about the women’s fate, city Safety Director Martin Flask said Tuesday morning: “At this point, I can confirm that we have no indications that any of the neighbors, bystanders, witnesses or anyone else has ever called regarding any information, regarding activity that occurred at that house.”
However, he said authorities were still checking all databases of calls to police, fire and emergency services.
On Tuesday night, FBI agents, some wearing white hazmat suits, continued to search the house and remove boxes and bags of evidence while hundreds of bystanders and media members, a crowd that gathered throughout the day, looked on. Multiple vehicles were towed away.
About three miles away, a red-and-white banner reading “WELCOME HOME GINA!” hung on the DeJesus family’s two-story’s home on 71st Street. “WE LOVE YOU” was written in multi-colored chalk on the sidewalk.
The house was also surrounded by dozens of media and onlookers. People were allowed past yellow police tape one at a time to drop off flowers and tie balloons to a chain-link fence surrounding the home.
Jackie Millsapps, 50, of Cleveland, was among the well-wishers. Her brother used to live nearby years ago, she said. She said she was working Monday night when she’d heard the news, and felt compelled to stop by with a balloon.
“This was a community sadness when it happened,” Millsapps said. “Now everybody is so happy that she’s home … after 10 years. My God.”
She brought with her her 6-year old granddaughter, Daniela Jones to see.
“I want her to know there’s always hope,” Millsaps said.
Staff Writer Jim Otte contributed to this report.