CLEVELAND – Ariel Castro, the former school bus driver who is a suspect in the kidnapping of three women who escaped years of incarceration, was a friendly man who befriended area children and gave no hint of what was happening behind the locked doors of his Seymour Avenue house, his neighbors say.
“If a kid didn’t have a father, they would look up to him. There was no flaw,” said Juan Perez, 27, who lives two doors down from the house from where the three abducted women escaped on Monday. “I guess he had a great mask to cover a monster.”
Castro was known for giving children rides in his four-wheeler. He attended neighborhood parties and would have a beer.
A day after the three women – Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight – escaped and called police, officials and neighbors were trying to make sense of the kidnappings that go back to when the women were in their teens or early 20s. The three women had been held captive for about a decade and Berry gave birth to a daughter, now 6 years old, police said Tuesday morning.
PHOTOS: Kidnapping victims found
Because he was the owner of the house, much of the attention has focused on Castro, 52. He and his brothers Pedro, 54, and Onil, 50, have been arrested in connection with the abductions, but have not yet been formally charged, officials said at a nationally televised news conference.
According to Martin Flask, Cleveland director of public safety, police had twice responded and neither time found anything amiss at Castro’s house.
In March 2000, police responded to a call from Ariel Castro who reported a fight in the street. There is no record of any arrest, Flask told reporters.
In January 2004, Cleveland police went to the Seymour Avenue address in response to an investigation by Children and Family Services. Castro had left a child on the school bus when he returned to the depot, Flask said. Police visited the house, knocked on the door but there was no answer. Police eventually determined there was no criminal intent in leaving the child on the bus.
Photos: Long-term abductions
Castro’s house, a white two-story home with an American flag hanging out front, is slightly dilapidated, like many on the block about two miles from downtown. Many of the other homes are abandoned, including one next door, which has boards on the windows. The area is littered with glass and weeds push up out of vacant lots. Neighbors complain that the police rarely patrol the area.
Every Saturday, Castro would take his four-wheeler out in the neighborhood and give kids rides. He’d teach them to ride a bike and show up at neighborhood barbecues to say hello.
Hector Lugo, 31, who lives on the same street, said he still can’t believe the friendly guy who would give his nieces rides was allegedly the perpetrator behind kidnappings that have baffled this city for a decade.
“He used to drive my nieces on his four-wheeler. That’s what threw me off,” Lugo said. “They always thought of him as a cool person -- a cool person to kick it with. He was an outgoing person, he never messed with anyone. He was always cool.”
MAP: Cleveland kidnappings
Castro always talked about a girlfriend, but Lugo said he never saw her. About a month ago, Lugo said, Castro brought a little girl to a nearby park, describing her as his girlfriend’s child. The girl looked exactly like Castro, Lugo says.
Like other neighbors, Lugo wondered if Castro changed somehow when his wife left him a decade ago.
“I guess after the divorce, he flipped after that,” he said.
Julio Castro, the uncle of the three men arrested Tuesday, has owned a corner store down the street from the house where the women were found for 44 years. He even had photos of the missing girls up in his store for years. He said he was “stunned” to hear the allegations about one of his favorite nephews, Ariel.
On Monday, “someone told me there was a commotion – that they had found Gina DeJesus,” said Julion Castro on Tuesday in his small store where Spanish is frequently spoken. “I ran over there, happy, only to find they were taking the people out of my nephew’s house.”
Castro had lost touch with Ariel over the last few years, but remembers him as a “happy-go-lucky” man who played bass in the local band. Pedro Castro, who was also arrested, drove by the store a few weeks ago but didn’t stop, Julio Castro said.
For many in the neighborhood, the good news comes with a feeling of guilt and outrage over imprisonment.
“I’m excited the girls are safe,” said Perez, who described Ariel as charismatic. “But I feel a slight guilt, I think everyone should in the street.”
That same feeling of excitement about the women’s escape was evident among law enforcement officials as well.
“For Amanda's family, for Gina's family, for Michelle's family, prayers have finally been answered. The nightmare is over,” Stephen Anthony, head of the FBI office in Cleveland, said at the news conference. “These three young ladies have provided us with the ultimate definition of survival and perseverance. The healing can now begin.”
“Words can't describe the emotions being felt by all,” Anthony said. “Yes, law enforcement professionals do cry.”
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Semuels reported from Cleveland, Muskal from Los Angeles.