Neighbours: Man in custody comforted missing girl’s mom, helped search for missing Ohio women

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By Thomas J. Sheeran and John Coyne - The Associated Press

CLEVELAND — In the years after his friend’s daughter vanished while walking home from school, Ariel Castro handed out fliers with the 14-year-old’s photo and performed music at a fundraiser held in her honour.

When neighbours gathered for a candlelight vigil just a year ago to remember the girl, Castro was there too, comforting the girl’s mother.

Castro, just like everyone else in the tight-knit, mostly Puerto Rican neighbourhood, seemed shaken by the 2004 disappearance of Gina DeJesus and another teenager who went missing the year before.

Now he and his brothers are in custody after a frantic 911 call led police to his run-down house, where authorities say DeJesus and two other women missing for about a decade were held captive. No charges have been filed against the men, but they could appear in court as early as Wednesday morning.

Amanda Berry, 27, Michelle Knight, 32, and DeJesus, about 23, had apparently been held captive in the house since their teens or early 20s, police said. A 6-year-old girl believed to be Berry’s daughter also was found in the home, police Deputy Chief Ed Tomba said. He would not say who the father was.

About a week ago, Castro took the 6-year-old girl to a nearby park, where they played in the grass, said Israel Lugo, a neighbour who lives down the street.

“I asked him whose kid was it, and he told me his girlfriend’s daughter,” Lugo said.

The women, who were reunited with joyous family members, remained in seclusion.

They were rescued after Berry kicked out the bottom portion of a locked screen door and used a neighbour’s telephone to call the 911 emergency number. An officer showed up minutes later and Berry ran out and threw her arms around the officer, a neighbour said.

Police identified the other two suspects as the 52-year-old Castro’s brothers, Pedro Castro, 54, and Onil Castro, 50. Calls to the jail went unanswered, and there was no response to interview requests sent to police, the jail and city officials.

Juan Alicea, a relative of the three brothers, said their family was “totally shocked.”

Alicea said the arrests of his wife’s brothers had left relatives “as blindsided as anyone else.”

He said he hadn’t been to the home of his brother-in-law Ariel Castro since the early 1990s but had eaten dinner with Castro at a different brother’s house shortly before the arrests were made Monday.

Police would not say how the women were taken captive or how they were hidden in the neighbourhood where they had vanished. Investigators also would not say whether they were kept in restraints inside the house or sexually assaulted.

Ariel Castro owned the home where the girls were found in a neighbourhood dotted with boarded-up houses just south of downtown. Most everyone in the neighbourhood knew Ariel Castro. Neighbors say he played bass guitar in salsa and merengue bands and gave neighbourhood children rides on his motorcycle.

Tito DeJesus, an uncle of Gina DeJesus, played in bands with Castro over the last 20 years. He recalled visiting Castro’s house but never noticing anything out of the ordinary.

Juan Perez, who lives two doors down from the house, said Castro was always happy and respectful.

“He gained trust with the kids and with the parents. You can only do that if you’re nice,” Perez said.

Castro was friends with the father of Gina DeJesus, one of the missing women, and helped search for her after she disappeared, said Khalid Samad, a friend of the family.

“When we went out to look for Gina, he helped pass out fliers,” said Samad, a community activist who was at the hospital with DeJesus and her family on Monday night.

Antony Quiros said he was at the vigil about a year ago and saw Castro comforting Gina DeJesus’ mother.

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Associated Press writers Andrew Welsh-Huggins, Jesse Washington, Mike Householder, Meghan Barr in Cleveland, Dan Sewell in Cincinnati, John Seewer in Toledo, Mitch Stacy and Kantele Franko in Columbus and Holly Ramer in Concord, N.H., contributed to this report.

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