Officers recall ‘mind-blowing’ moment they found Cleveland kidnapping survivors after decade of torture – National News


ABC(CLEVELAND) — It started off as a pretty routine day in May 2013, albeit particularly warm for spring.

Cleveland Police Officers Anthony Espada and Michael Tracy were patrolling the city’s West Side Market area when the code 1 assignment — the highest priority — came out over the police radio.

The information from the dispatcher was almost unbelievable: A woman had just called and identified herself as Amanda Berry, the 16-year-old who had disappeared a decade ago as she was walking home from her work shift at Burger King.

“Help me, I’m Amanda Berry. I’ve been kidnapped and I’ve been missing for 10 years. … I’m here. I’m here,” the woman told 911. “I’m free now. … I’m Amanda Berry. I’ve been on the news.”

Espada told 20/20 that he and Tracy “kind of looked at each other like deer in headlights, like, ‘Is this for real?'”

When they arrived at the modest, white house on the 2200 block of Seymour Avenue on May 6, 2013, the two not only found Berry and Jocelyn, the daughter she’d birthed while in captivity, but they also discovered Michelle Knight and Gina DeJesus — two other women who had vanished more than nine years earlier.

The officers, as well as other investigators and first responders, detailed that emotional and fateful day in Cleveland history for 20/20. On that day, the three women once thought long gone emerged from a veritable house of horrors and their kidnapper and torturer, Ariel Castro, was finally arrested.

Knight had disappeared on Aug. 23, 2002, on her way to the local social services office to try to get custody of her young son back. Knight went into a dollar store to ask for directions when Castro, whom she recognized as her friend’s father, offered to give her a ride to the appointment, and she accepted.

Eight months later, on April 21, 2003, Berry, who was 16 and also knew Castro as the father of her friend, accepted a ride from him after finishing her shift at Burger King. It was the day before she was going to turn 17.

Both women said Castro, a well-known school bus driver and bass player in the community, had brought them to his home, tied them up and raped them repeatedly before locking them in separate rooms.

Gina DeJesus was kidnapped a year after Berry. At 14 years old, she was walking home when he asked her to help find his daughter, who was also her friend, and she stepped into Castro’s car.

In the years that passed, Castro beat the girls, kept them locked inside their rooms, denied them food and other basic necessities, and raped and tortured them physically and mentally.

Meanwhile, Berry’s and DeJesus’ families, the community and the authorities had made valiant efforts to search for them. They put up flyers and made desperate pleas for their safe return. The duo, however, remained missing.

“Missing person cases are probably the most difficult cases that we work,” said FBI agent Tim Kolonick. “It really is a needle in a haystack. … You’re looking for that piece of evidence, some unusual person walking down the street, an unusual vehicle.”

While Knight’s family had initially filed a missing persons report with police, it was eventually presumed she had run away because she was an adult at the time of her disappearance.

On May 6, 2013, Jocelyn, then 6, realized that Castro, her father, had left the house. Berry then noticed that Castro had also, for the first time, left her bedroom door unlocked. She said that she decided to try to run.

“I went down the stairs, finally, and I ran to the front door. It had wires and stuff but it actually opened,” she recalled. “Now, I just gotta fly out this front screen door and I’m free, and that didn’t happen.”

The storm door was padlocked shut, but Berry was able to stick an arm out.

Charles Ramsey, Castro’s next-door neighbor, heard her yelling and helped kick out a section of the door, which allowed her to crawl out of the house. Both Ramsey and Berry called 911 for help. Espada and Tracy were the first officers to arrive.

“We pulled onto Seymour,” Tracy said. “This female holding the child started walking out toward us.”

Tracy said the woman looked like the teenager identified as Berry on the missing-person flyers that they’d seen over the years, only older. Espada recognized Berry by her eyebrow piercing, which had been prominent in the flyers.

“I think this is for real,” Espada said on the radio call.

“Only way you can describe it is mind-blowing,” Tracy said.

Espada said Berry told him that two other women were inside the house. Tracy reached the door of the home and tried to pull it open, he said, but it was chained shut from the inside. Finally, after Tracy kicked it a few times, the door came off and officers rushed into the house.

“Officer Espada went up first and then I went up,” Officer Barbara Johnson told 20/20. “I just remember it was very dark in that house.”

Espada said he had his gun out as he walked up the steps slowly, yelling, “Cleveland Police! Cleveland Police!”

Knight, who had been the first woman abducted, in 2002, said she heard noises in the hallway and stuck her head out.

“I see a badge,” she told 20/20. “[I] ran up and jumped into their arms and said, ‘Never let me go.'”

Espada said he thought Knight, who was 32 at the time, was a child because of how small she was.

Espada said Knight told him her name and that she’d been in the house for 11 years.

“You saved us,” he said she told him.

“I said, ‘Honey … you’re OK now. It’s OK. You’re safe,'” Johnson said. “And she kind of jumped out of Officer Espada’s arms and then jumped up into mine.”

It took DeJesus a while to leave the room she’d been held captive in. She said she was in shock and didn’t initially believe that the people in the hallway were actually police officers.

“I thought they were people in costumes,” she said.

When she finally emerged from the room, Espada said he recognized her from the missing posters.

“She was thin, pale,” he said. “I needed confirmation so I asked her name. She told me her name was Georgina DeJesus and then I told her, ‘We’ve been looking for you for a long time.'”

DeJesus said the officers looked at her like they’d seen a ghost.

“Their face completely dropped,” she said of the officers.

“It was just like getting smacked in the face, like, ‘Holy cow. She’s still alive, you know, after all these years,'” Johnson said.

On the radio, officers could be heard saying: “We found them. We found them.”

Espada said that upstairs, where the women had been kept by Castro, he saw mattresses or sheets on the floors of the rooms as well as chains in the closets. Every room the women were in, he said, had a hole where Castro would shove food through.

Knight said the first thing she did after her rescue was drop to the ground and kiss it.

“I didn’t care how dirty it was,” she said. “I kissed that ground and thanked God that He helped us get out of there.”

In the ambulance, all three women, as well as Berry’s daughter Jocelyn, reached out to each other. Berry told 20/20 in that moment after being rescued, she felt finally safe.

“It was like, ‘It’s real,'” Berry said. “We’re going home.”

“Once I saw them, I’m like, ‘This is it,'” she continued. “I think we’re free now.”

As the women were being treated, authorities sought to find Castro. Knight had given police a picture of him from off the refrigerator and officers began searching for the blue Mazda Miata convertible he was believed to be driving.

As news of the women’s escape and subsequent rescue rippled through the neighborhood, Espada and other officers worked to secure the scene.

“It was controlled chaos,” he said. “We put yellow tape up. We pretty much blocked [off] the whole street of Seymour. … [Residents] were emotional, crying. This was happy cries because these girls were found. They were alive.”

“For 10 years, to just want to find them, and to go there and to see them standing there,” said the FBI’s Kolonick. “I mean it really was a miracle.”

Nancy Ruiz, DeJesus’ mother, was three blocks from the scene when she saw one of the FBI agents involved in her daughter’s missing-person case.

“I ran to him and I just asked him, ‘Just tell me if it’s her,'” she said. “And he told me, ‘Yes.'”

Andrew Burke, the FBI agent who confirmed to Ruiz that DeJesus had been found, said that he and Ruiz hugged and cried together.

“Being able to tell her, ‘Yes,’ that I saw her — that was one of those moments that I say was unforgettable and the best moment of my career,” Burke said.

Police found Castro in his Miata, pulled the car over, and arrested him. Johnson said she was the one to tell the three women that Castro had been arrested.

“They were all very like, ‘oh, thank God,'” she said. “You could see the relief in their eyes.”

The women were taken to the hospital to be treated and reunited with family.

“It was like a dream. I needed somebody to wake me up,” said Felix DeJesus, Gina DeJesus’ father, of the moment he finally saw his daughter after nine years.

“I’m hugging everybody,” recalled Gina DeJesus. “Then, the first thing I pulled out was this flyer and I showed my mom.”

It was a missing flyer of her that Castro had taken from Ruiz years earlier when she was searching for Gina DeJesus, which he had then handed over to her daughter. Gina DeJesus had held onto it and had routinely smelled it because it reminded her of her mother.

“I remember Amanda Berry and her sister,” said emergency room nurse Betsy Martinez. “They hugged each other so, so, so tight.”

“She was just really skinny and had short hair,” said Beth Serrano, Berry’s sister. “But she was still beautiful. She had the biggest smile that she always had.”

Berry said Jocelyn, who’d only lived in captivity, hugged her family members “like she knew them forever.”

“Jocelyn was full of life. She was running back and forth. She’s telling me jokes. ‘Why the chicken crossed the road?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ She goes, ‘So it gets to the other side.’ And she starts cracking up,” Martinez said.

Knight was in the worst medical condition of the three women and needed special medical care. Doctors gave her just days to live. Knight said it was difficult to get that news but she didn’t let it get her down.

“I really didn’t. I was singing. I was dancing. I was trying to make the best of the life that I had left,” she said. “They put me on 14 different medications before I was actually better.”

She told me her name was Georgina DeJesus and then I told her, ‘We’ve been looking for you for a long time.’

Less than three months after his arrest, Castro pleaded guilty to 937 criminal counts of rape, kidnapping, aggravated murder and other charges, and was sentenced to life in prison without parole, plus a thousand years.

He spent one month and one day in prison before killing himself, according to authorities. By then, the house on Seymour Avenue had already been demolished and the land was cultivated into a garden.

Espada, who has since retired from the police force, said he’d seen the three women since that May 2013 rescue.

“It’s a beautiful thing. It’s like I always say, ‘I couldn’t even imagine what they went through,'” he said. “That just tells you the strength that they had to be able to survive all those years, going through all that trauma. And then, you run into them somewhere, at a party or whatever, and they’re living life, loving life like nothing had never happened.”

“They’re my heroes,” he added. “They’re the true heroes here, and I love all of them. They’re always are going to be a part of me. A part of my life, forever. I mean, we’re connected.”

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