CLEVELAND — To most of his neighbors, Ariel Castro was an upbeat presence on a rundown street, a cheerful school bus driver who befriended local kids and popped into barbecues to say hello and have a beer.
On Tuesday, they sought to reconcile that image with accusations that Castro had imprisoned three young women, abducted in 2002, 2003 and 2004, inside his slightly dilapidated house with the American flag out front.
"I guess he had a great mask to cover a monster," Juan Perez, who lives two doors down from Castro, said Tuesday.
PHOTOS: Kidnapping victims found
Balloons flew outside nearby homes to celebrate the release of the three women, who were rescued Monday when one of them escaped and summoned help. On the stretch of Seymour Avenue where Castro, 52, lived, police tape blocked access. Investigators in white scrubs and protective booties removed items from the house and towed away vehicles as police and the FBI gathered evidence in anticipation of filing charges against Castro and his brothers, Pedro, 54, and Onil, 50. That was expected to happen Wednesday.
As the three men remained in custody, the three women — Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight — began adjusting to freedom with family and friends who had fought to keep them from being forgotten as the years slipped by.
Berry's sister, Beth Serrano, had held a vigil for her sister just a few weeks ago at the Burger King where she was last seen. "She never gave up," said Eva Fonseca, 27, who brought balloons to Serrano's house Tuesday. Berry's mother, Louwana Miller, died in 2006, never knowing what had become of her daughter, who was 16 when she vanished on April 21, 2003.
Photos: Long-term abductions
Every few months, Serrano would put fresh yellow ribbons on her porch and attach a new one to the "missing" poster tacked to a tree outside her home.
DeJesus' family kept a banner outside their home with her description, right down to her birthmarks and pierced ears, and a picture of Gina, who was 14 when she disappeared on April 2, 2004.
"If you don't believe in miracles, I suggest you think again," DeJesus' aunt, Sandra Ruiz, told reporters outside the family home, where the banner was joined by bouquets of colorful flowers, balloons and a "Welcome home Gina" sign. "It's like a dream," her older brother Ricardo said. "It was nine years. Nine long years."
The family held a vigil every Friday after Gina went missing, walking the route that she would have walked. As time went by, the frequency of the vigils dropped to twice a month, then once a year on the anniversary of her disappearance. Most of the vigils would list both DeJesus and Berry, who became household names in a city haunted by the disappearance of the teenagers.
MAP: Cleveland kidnappings
Knight, who was 20 when she was last seen on Aug. 23, 2002, did not capture the same level of attention as the younger girls. Her grandmother, Deborah Knight, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that family members assumed Michelle had left on her own after losing custody of a young son. But Knight's mother, Barbara Knight, who now lives in Florida, told the paper she never gave up looking for her daughter and would return to Cleveland long after police had given up the search to post fliers on her own.
All three were on or near busy Lorain Avenue when they were abducted, a few miles from Castro's house and even closer to their own homes. Berry fled Castro's home Monday with a 6-year-old girl, who police believe was born to her during her captivity.
After being hospitalized overnight, the three were released Tuesday but remained out of sight of the crowds who spilled into the streets and erupted in cheers after Berry's startling 911 call Monday evening set off the chain of events that culminated in the Castro brothers' arrests.
"Help me! I'm Amanda Berry!" the young woman, her voice shaking, said in a breathless call at 5:52 p.m., after she bolted from Castro's house and ran to a neighbor's. "I've been kidnapped and been missing for 10 years. I am here, I'm free now," she told the dispatcher.
At the same time, neighbor Charles Ramsey, who had heard Berry's cries from the Castro home and kicked in the front door to free her, made his own call to 911. "She needs everything," the astonished Ramsey told the dispatcher when asked if Berry needed an ambulance. "She's in a panic. I think she's been kidnapped."
Within hours, the Castros were arrested at a McDonald's and the victims' families had been notified, but the mystery of the last decade was far from resolved. Among questions police and the FBI have to answer are whether the Castros can shed light on other missing-person cases, whether police who went to the Castro home over the years missed opportunities to rescue the women and whether neighbors attempted to alert police of a naked woman in Castro's yard years ago and were ignored.