Who are Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight, the three West Cleveland-area women who disappeared as teenagers a decade ago and finally escaped yesterday (along with a 6-year-old believed to be Berry's daughter) from the clutches of the former school bus driver who was allegedly keeping them captive? Here's a rundown on the very strong survivors.
Cleveland police filed more than 2,700 missing-person reports in 2003, according to a September article in The Plain Dealer; the number was 3,716 in 2002 and 3,632 in 2001. 80 percent of those missing people were under 18, as were Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus, who were 17 and 14, respectively, when they vanished. Both girls were petite, both disappeared in the same five-block area on their way home, and neither had a history of running away. "They are all attractive, they are all between the ages of 14 and 17 and they are all gone," Cleveland police training instructor George Kwan told The Plain Dealer in a 2010 article on human trafficking, referring to Amanda, Gina, and Ashley Summers, who is still missing. (It's not yet known if her case is connected.) "Anyone think we have a shopper here?"
There are dozens of newspaper articles about Amanda and Gina — the two were even linked together by the FBI — but hardly any about Knight, who went missing when she was 20 after losing custody of her son and thus wasn't taken very seriously by police. We sifted through them all to piece together these women's unthinkable stories.
Amanda disappeared on April 21st, 2003, the day before her 17th birthday. She called home to say she had a ride from her job at a Burger King blocks from her home on West 110th street, but never showed up.
Around a week after she disappeared, someone used Amanda's cell phone to call her mother, Louwana Miller. According to FBI agent Robert Hawk (via a 2003 Plain Dealer article), the young-sounding male caller told Miller: "I have Amanda. She's fine and will be coming home in a couple of days." Miller initially thought it was a prank, according to The Plain Dealer:
About a week and a half after she vanished, one TV station showed Amanda's face on the 10 p.m. news. Minutes later, the phone rang at Louwanna's.
A man said he had Amanda and that she was OK. When Louwanna begged to speak to her, he hung up. He called back two minutes later and said Amanda was his wife, that she'd be home soon. Louwanna cried and asked to speak to her.
"Please let me hear her voice," she pleaded.
He hung up. The FBI called it a prank. Then, seven months later, the FBI told her the calls were made from Amanda's cell phone.
Despite the clear (and beyond chilling) evidence that Amanda was kidnapped, the police and FBI still thought she might've run away, according to a 2004 Plain Dealer report:
Louwanna believes she'd have more answers if the police and FBI hadn't initially assumed Amanda ran away. If they'd searched her room more thoroughly, if they'd interviewed her friends sooner, if they'd used special phone equipment to trace cell phone calls.
Louwanna doesn't believe "Mandy" ran away.
"No possible way," Louwanna says. "She was a home-girl. "
Amanda disappeared without the $100 she put on her dresser to buy birthday clothes and do her nails. She disappeared wearing her Burger King uniform. Disappeared the day before her 17th birthday party. Disappeared without taking her phone charger. Disappeared without a word to the two nieces she loved, girls now 4 and 5 who keep asking, "Who took her? Why?"
Investigators believed that Amanda got into a white, four-door sedan with three men before she vanished, according to the same article. Three 50something men — former school bus driver Ariel Castro, the owner of the home the women escaped from, and his two brothers — were arrested in connection with the case last night.
Amanda's disappearance received a fair amount of press for a few months, but then the media lost interest — until 14-year-old Gina DeJesus went missing five blocks from where Amanda disappeared. "Suddenly Amanda was back in the news," The Plain Dealer reported. "Fresh yellow ribbons cling to the chain-link fence around Amanda's house. New posters of Amanda smile from utility poles near the Burger King where she worked."
Almost exactly a year after Amanda vanished, 14-year-old Gina — like Amanda, a small girl with a cheerful disposition and unproblematic family life — disappeared as she was walking home from school, within the same five-block area as Amanda. She parted company with a girlfriend, walked eastbound on a heavily trafficked street, and "just kind of disappeared into thin air," officer Gary Gingell told FOX's Greta Van Susteren. "We are hoping it's a runaway but it could be an abduction," he said. "We're just treating it on both sides of the fence there."
“Normally Gina takes the bus down at 110th down there, but that day they walked down here, they used the phone right here in this area,” Gina's father, Felix DeJesus, told FOX in April 2012. It's still unknown whether Castro was ever Gina's bus driver, but still — a noteworthy detail.
The DeJesus family never received any mysterious phone calls, but Felix became obsessed with "leafing through a booklet of sexual offenders living in the area and hunting for missed clues that might bring Gina home," according to a Plain Dealer article from 2004. That May, he was accused of breaking down the apartment door of a sexual offender living nearby. "I'm not a bad person," DeJesus said, who denied that he had anything to do with the charge. "I'm not a vigilante. I'm desperate to find my daughter. It hurts so much."
DeJesus kept looking for Gina as the years passed. “My daughter’s been missing eight years. I’m still fighting,” Felix DeJesus told a crowd of nearly 100 people who gathered at the spot Gina went missing in April 2012. “I mean, are they sitting behind a desk or what are they doing for my daughter?" he said of the FBI. "I mean, if you don’t push nothing or stir something up, eight years are gonna go by again, I’m not gonna stand and wait for another eight years,” DeJesus said. According to FOX, the family believed she was a victim of human trafficking and forced to be a sex slave.
Both the DeJesus and Berry families received false tips about burial sites. From the AP:
In January, a prison inmate was sentenced to 4 1/2 years after admitting he provided a false burial tip in the disappearance of Berry... A judge in Cleveland sentenced Robert Wolford on his guilty plea to obstruction of justice, making a false report and making a false alarm.
Last summer, Wolford tipped authorities to look for Berry's remains in a Cleveland lot. He was taken to the location, which was dug up with backhoes.
Two men arrested for questioning in the disappearance of DeJesus in 2004 were released from the city jail in 2006 after officers did not find her body during a search of the men's house.
It's hard to find any newspaper, TV, or radio stories about Michelle Knight, the third woman discovered alive last night, who went missing on August 23, 2002. That's because few people believed that she was kidnapped; Michelle's son had recently been removed from her custody, and social workers and police convinced her family that Michelle likely left of her own angry accord.
"She was the focus of very few tips and leads that we got," Cleveland Deputy Police Chief Ed Tomba said at a news conference today. "Most of the media and the community awareness was…generated toward the [other] two young girls."
But Michelle's mother, Barbara Knight, told The Plain Dealer that she never believed her daughter would run away and thought she once spotted her with an older man:
[Knight] said she and Michelle were close, and she never believed that her daughter would disappear without a trace, without so much as an occasional phone call.
Knight said she believes she once saw her daughter walking with an older man at a shopping plaza on West 117th Street several years ago. When the woman trailed behind her companion, he would grab her by the arm and pull her along, Knight said. She said that she yelled Michelle's name, but the woman did not turn around.
Update: Knight also said she gave police a photo of her daughter when she filed the missing-persons report all those years ago and is "disheartened" that it's not being circulated around like those of Berry and DeJesus. Why not? We're looking into it.
We'll learn more about the three kidnapped women and how they survived the last decade in the weeks to come; the story has made international headlines, and Charles Ramsey, the neighbor who broke down Castro's door after he heard Amanda screaming for help, has already been meme-ified. What we certainly know for now: Amanda, Gina, and Michelle are the real heroes of this horrific story.