Shorty needed a ride home. She got confused sometimes, the result of some undefined mental condition, and wasn’t always sure where she’d wandered. Her family knew this about Michelle “Shorty” Knight, all 139 cm of her, and that’s why they worried.

She got in a car.

It begins there, with that simple act, a 21-year-old — in many ways still very much a girl — got in a car. Aug. 22, 2002. If she’d looked up in that last moment of freedom, she would have seen a church steeple.

Eight months later, another girl. Same road. Less than half a kilometer away.

Mandy had just finished her shift at Burger King, still wore her Burger King hat and shirt. Tomorrow would be Amanda “Mandy” Berry’s 17th birthday; a party was planned.

She got in a car.

The hunter of girls had found a rich hunting ground, a stretch of road clotted with used-automobile lots, discount jewelers, fast-food joints — and schoolgirls.

A year later, April, 2, 2004, the hunter was back. Gina, just 14, was walking home with friends from Wilbur Wright Middle School, a stately brick building set on a shaded street two blocks from Burger King. Georgina “Gina” DeJesus broke off on her own, steps away from the spot where Knight was taken.

A car pulled up. The driver was the father of one of her best friends. She got in the car.

For the next nine years, authorities say, Knight, Berry and DeJesus together endured an excruciating ordeal as captives in a seemingly normal house on a seemingly normal street in a busy residential neighborhood less than 7 km away. Until their remarkable rescue last week, authorities say, they were physically, sexually and psychologically abused by their captor, Ariel Castro, a school bus driver who played salsa music in nightclubs and harbored a dark past that foreshadowed the crimes he’s now accused of committing.

At Castro’s home on Seymour Avenue, he chained the young women in his basement, according to a police report. Eventually, investigators say, he moved them to the second floor of his house, a two-story place with a small back yard, a saggy porch, peeling paint and faded white siding. Most of the time, they were trapped inside, and on the rare occasions they were allowed to venture into the yard, Castro forced them to wear wigs and sunglasses, the report says. He told them to keep their heads down.

Castro, now 52, raped all his captives, authorities say. Five times he impregnated Knight, she told police, but he never let her have a baby. He’d starve her. He’d punch her in the stomach over and over until she miscarried, the police report says.

But if he didn’t want Knight to conceive, he seemed fixated on Berry fathering his child. Six years ago, Berry gave birth to a baby girl that DNA tests have confirmed was fathered by Castro. The baby was born with Knight’s help in an inflatable pool inside the house that had become their prison, the police report says.

Castro threatened to kill Knight if the baby died, police say. At one point, the newborn stopped breathing, but Knight “breathed for her,” the report says, presumably in a reference to some form of CPR.

Baby Jocelyn survived.

The hunter of girls now had four. And this one, he wasn’t going to hide.

‘Strange, domineering traits’

Yauco was home — that small colonial-era town in southwestern Puerto Rico, where the best that poor young men could hope for was another day of work stooped in the coffee fields. One after another, the Castros fled. First Julio Cesar “Cesi” Castro in the 1950s, then his brother, Pedro, the one everyone called “Nano.” Pedro brought with him a little boy named Ariel, Cesi Castro says.

In Cleveland, the Castro brothers found a universe of transplants. Neighbors erected poles in their yards to display the Puerto Rican flag; Spanish was the language of choice. There was such a concentration of people from Yauco that a social club would sprout in years to come: “The Spirit of Yauco.” The nearby park would be named for the Puerto Rican baseball star Roberto Clemente and a school for Luis Munoz Marin, the political legend often referred to as the “Father of Modern Puerto Rico.”

The Castro brothers achieved a version of the American dream. Nano opened his own business, a used-car lot. Cesi bought real estate and opened a grocery store more than four decades ago. It remains a social hub as much because of the green plantains that he stocks in the cooler as for the neighborhood gossip exchanged on the park benches out back.

“In a lot of ways Cesi is like a godfather over there,” says Edwin Nunez, a Puerto Rican musician. “Very respected by the community.”

But his brother’s family was troubled. Nano abandoned his three sons, including Ariel, when they were young, Cesi Castro says in an interview. “Their mother raised them all by herself.”

Ariel was his favorite, Cesi Castro says, his “special nephew.” Ariel was the one with the smarts. “There are very few people who can teach themselves how to play the bass,” Cesi Castro says.

As a young man, Ariel Castro mastered “the plena,” a folkloric style of Puerto Rican music. But he could do it all, “definitely a pro,” recalls Alberto Fermin, who played in a band with Castro for two years. Salsa, merengue, jazz. He evolved into one of the top three Latin bass players in the city, says Nunez, who played plena with Castro at cultural events in the 1990s. It wasn’t just a hobby. Castro may have worked factory jobs, but he also saw music as a way to make extra income, Fermin says.

The young bass player had an eye for women, and one day in the early 1990s, he called over a little boy, Ismael Figueroa Jr., who lived in the apartment across the street to ask about his teenage sister. This was someone he wanted to meet.

In the beginning, the romance between the 20-something Ariel Castro and Grimilda Figueroa went fine. But it quickly deteriorated.

In the early 1990s, the unmarried couple lived on the second floor of the home of Figueroa’s parents. Once, Castro shoved Figueroa down a steep flight of stairs, family members recall. Her father, aided by a pack of neighbors and relatives, beat Castro in retaliation. He didn’t fight back. “He didn’t fight no man,” Figueroa Jr. says.

Things only got worse when the couple moved to their own place; Castro’s beatings of his common-law wife became more frequent and more severe, Figueroa’s relatives say.

He exhibited strange, domineering traits. Grimilda Figueroa became a near prisoner in her home, a sister, Elida Caraballo, says. Castro padlocked doors from the outside when he left. One day, Caraballo went into their house and saw Castro shoving Figueroa into a cardboard box and closing the lid.

“You’re not going to get out of that box until I tell you to get out of that box!” Castro yelled, according to Caraballo.

He liked to play power games, Caraballo says. He’d act as if he were leaving, then sneak back into the house and monitor the phone line from an extension in the basement. If Figueroa called anyone, he’d be furious and beat her. As far back as 1993, Ariel Castro was charged with domestic violence against Figueroa, but a grand jury declined to indict him, and the case was dropped.

Figueroa was in and out of domestic violence shelters, her sister says. But she always went back to Castro; she did it for their four kids, relatives say. It was a cycle. Beatings. Fleeings. Returnings.

Relatives lost track of how many times the police were called. “Vienen y se van (They come, and then they leave),” Figuero’s father, Ismael Figueroa Sr., says with a wave of his hand.

The couple separated for good sometime in the mid- to late-1990s, but that was not the end of the violence. As late as 2005, Figueroa got a protective order after Castro broke her nose, fractured her ribs, dislocated both her shoulders and struck her so viciously that a blood clot formed in her brain, according to court records. She said Castro had threatened to kill her and her children, but the order was rescinded three months later for reasons that are unclear from court records.

Violence also spread into the next generation. The daughter of Castro and Figueroa — Emily Castro — is serving a 25-year prison sentence in Indiana after being convicted of stabbing her baby with a knife in 2007. Emily Castro thought she’d succeeded in killing the child, telling her mother, “She’s gone,” according to court records. But the 11-month-old survived.

In the years before and after Castro and Figueroa split up, relatives would occasionally go over to the house on Seymour Avenue. And it was a place that made them uneasy.

Sometimes Castro wouldn’t let them go beyond the kitchen, as if he was hiding something. And there was Castro’s creepy, flesh-colored mannequin. It had unruly hair and long eyelashes, and sometimes Castro would dress it up to make it look more realistic. He would leap out from behind closed doors with the mannequin, startling his nephew, Angel Caraballo, to the point of tears when he was less than 10 years old. “I hated it,” Caraballo says.

Windows in the house were nailed shut. Long before police believe that Castro began kidnapping girls and chaining them in his basement, relatives were beginning to call his place the “prison house.”

The hunter roams free

It did not take long for Louwana Miller to get a signal that her daughter, her Mandy, might be alive. A man called Miller’s house a few days after Amanda Berry’s April 21, 2003, abduction. As Miller would recount over and over for interviewers, she begged to speak to her daughter. The caller refused, but he promised he’d bring her home safely in a few days.

He told her something else, too: He wanted Mandy to be his wife.

Miller would learn that the phone call was placed on Amanda Berry’s cellphone. But the promised return of the teenager — whom a middle-school friend, Amber Paukner, recalls as a “friendly” and “popular” classmate — never happened.

Investigators chased hundreds of leads. They found an apron. Maybe, just maybe, it was Amanda’s. They circled back to the Burger King where she worked, says a Cleveland police spokesman, Sgt. Sammy Morris, but figured out that the fast-food restaurant used a different type of apron. Another time, they heard about a boy who had a crush on Berry, a pretty sandy blonde with twinkling eyes. The boy had been flirting with her at the drive-through window. But, Morris says, the kid was cleared. In coming years, two yards would be excavated after tips that one or more of the young women had been buried there.

In November 2003, Miller, desperate to try anything, consulted a well-known psychic, Sylvia Browne, on the Montel Williams television show. “She’s not alive, honey,” Browne told her.

“So you don’t think I’ll ever get to see her again?” Miller asked.

“Yeah, in Heaven. On the other side,” Browne responded.

Miller did not live to see Browne proved wrong. She died in 2006.

The saga of Castro and his alleged crimes is peppered with what-ifs. During the period that he is accused of holding the young women captive, authorities appeared at his home several times, but never discovered the abducted women.

In 2004, officers went to the house after Castro left a child alone on a school bus while he went to a Wendy’s restaurant for lunch. A Cleveland police report quoted the girl as saying that when Castro arrived at the fast-food restaurant, he told her, “Lay down, bitch,” and left her alone. After he returned, he “drove around awhile” before he returned her to her home-care provider. Officers made sure the girl was not sexually assaulted, and no charges were filed. (Castro lost his job in November after receiving a fourth disciplinary writeup; some were for relatively minor issues involving parking and an illegal U-turn.) In 2009, officers went to the home again, though police records do not indicate why, noting that they were there only briefly.

More recently, neighbors say police have been contacted at least twice in the past two years because of suspicious activity. The first time, neighbor Elsie Cintron says she called police after spotting a child’s face in an attic window and hearing banging. Officers responded, Cintron says, but left when no one answered the knocks at Castro’s door. The next time, her son Israel Lugo says, a group of elderly women who were exercising in the area called police. According to Lugo, the women and his sister had all seen a naked woman on all fours with a dog leash around her neck in Castro’s backyard. Cleveland police say they have no record of the calls.

Few can fathom how the women could have been held for so long without anyone knowing. One theory is that Castro’s shabby home might have been in a kind of physical and virtual blind spot. The parking lot of a small business that has been downsizing lies behind his house. Three of four adjacent houses are vacant, says Brian Cummins, the City Council member who represents the area. There’s an extremely high turn over of rental properties, he says. The area is one of the poorest in the city, Cummins says, and has struggled to recover from the long economic tumble exemplified by the downturn in Cleveland’s steel industry.

Cummins says there are active neighborhood groups on many of the surrounding blocks. But Castro’s house sits in a stretch of homes with no such organizations.

Mistrust and suspicion of police and government are common, many residents say. “If the community had more communication with the police, we would have found them sooner,” said Juan Garcia, who lives down the block from DeJesus’ parents. “We are afraid of the police. They frighten us.”

Castro certainly gave the impression, at times, that he felt free to roam. Friends saw him taking Berry’s daughter — the child he fathered — to play at the park named for Roberto Clemente. Moises Cintron, who lives across the street from the park, would often see Castro walking affectionately with the little girl, holding her hand. He never asked about the girl; he was afraid he’d be labeled a gossip. The child was never told the names of the other women kept captive in the house, so she would not slip and mention them in public, her mother later told police.

A final test or at freedom’s door?

Amanda Berry thought Castro was testing her. It had to be that.

The door at the house on Seymour Avenue was left open when he left the house May 6, she later told police. Only a storm door separated her from the outside world.

She saw neighbors on their porches, sitting and chatting. She made what had to have been the most important decision of her young life. She started screaming, and a neighbor — Charles Ramsey — came to her rescue, smashing through the door to free her.

She called 911. “Help me, I’m Amanda Berry,” said this voice that had been absent for so long. “I need police. I’ve been kidnapped, and I’ve been missing for 10 years, and I’m here. I’m free now.”

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