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The Missing Women Were Seemingly In Plain Sight


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, we are going to talk about some controversies in hip hop recently that raise questions about just what crosses the line now between what's acceptable and what isn't and who decides that. That's coming up later in the program.

But first we are going to head to Cleveland, where details are still coming out about what exactly happened to three young women there. As you've no doubt heard by now, a woman who had been reported missing a decade ago escaped from a Cleveland house. That led to the discovery of two more women who had been missing for a very long time. Three men have now been arrested in connection with that disappearance.

But for a lot of people, this story is bringing up more questions than answers. Rachel Dissell is a reporter with the Cleveland Plain Dealer. She's been following this story. And Rachel, we know you're very busy so thank you much for taking the time to speak with us.

RACHEL DISSELL: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So after the initial euphoria of finding these young women alive, what I think a lot of people want to know now is how could something like this happen. Is there something special about this area that would allow somebody to hide three women, allegedly, for a decade and have no one discover it?

DISSELL: You know, I think the neighbors are asking themselves those same questions now. You know, what didn't we see? What should we have seen? But what we're really hearing too from investigators and police sources is that that Ariel Castro went to great lengths, you know, to keep these women hidden away.

And so I think that those are details that are going to take a little while to come out as these women are able to tell their stories and actually kind of breaking news right now - Amanda Berry, one of the women, is about to return home and she's actually expected to make a statement to the many people who are gathered at her house.

I'm doubting she'll go into a lot of detail, but I think that, you know, in time we will hear from these women what happened and some of it will make a little bit more sense. But one of the things that we've also encountered is, you know, for many years people have thought that these were maybe separate kidnappings. These women were snatched kind of off the street.

And the more reporting we do, the more we find out that there were connections between Ariel Castro and between his daughters. You know, we've learned that the one daughter knew Gina de Jesus and was friends with her, was actually the last person to see her. And then we also know that the other daughter, we're told, knew Amanda Berry and lived in a home very close to Amanda Berry's.

So he had an opportunity to know these girls when they were taken - now they're women - and maybe either gain their trust or be a person that at least they weren't afraid of getting in a car with.

MARTIN: For many people in Cleveland, I think this - or maybe really around the country - this may have brought back memories of the Anthony Sowell case, which you also covered. Back in 2009, the bodies of 11 women were found on this man's property in Cleveland. There were reports that the police missed a lot of chances to catch him early.

So I wanted to ask you, first of all, as a person who's covered both of these cases, do you see any parallels there? And are there any credible reports that there were chances to perhaps get access to this situation earlier that were missed?

DISSELL: Sure. While they both involve missing person cases, I do believe that this case is quite different. The Amanda Berry and the Gina de Jesus cases, at least, not maybe the Michelle Knight case, got a lot of attention from local media, people that followed the case for years. But also from police and the FBI.

I know a number of officers who literally have been working this case for 10 years, served numerous search warrants on houses of people that may have had information. They dug up one lot. They, you know, took one guy's house apart, pretty much dismantled it, based on tips. So they really were trying hard to make an investigation in this case, you know, come to a conclusion.

They really stayed close with the families. The Michelle Knight story is a little bit different. She was an adult when she went missing, and cases like that generally don't get as much attention. Also information from her family that went to the police, you know, led them to think she may have left on her own.

But I do think that looking at these cases always makes us go back and reflect and say, what can be done better? I mean just like the Sowell case did. And I'm sure that in many ways, though, this case, you know, is coming to a resolution that has a much, much better ending than that.

The police will still go back and look and the FBI is very good at going back at looking - you know, is there something that we should've done that we didn't or could've done better?

MARTIN: Is it true, though, that after the Sowell case, that the Cleveland police actually did go back and do a review of the way they handled missing persons cases?

DISSELL: Sure. There was a large, large review. The mayor appointed some independent people to a commission to really review all the things. And they made many recommendations about centralizing the process, about giving more information to family members about what they can do and what is being done.

And actually Gina de Jesus's parents were a part of that process. I mean, they came to meetings. They talked to police. They gave input on the brochures that parents could get to kind of let them know what was going on in their case. And they stayed involved in the missing persons issues and they've stayed involved in human trafficking issues.

You know, as recent as last month they were going and flyering around the issue of human trafficking, really believing that that probably had some connection to their daughter's case.

MARTIN: We're speaking with The Plain Dealer's Rachel Dissell about those apparent kidnappings in Cleveland. As you probably know by now, three women have recently escaped from a situation which they seem to have been held against their will for almost a decade, many of them living very close together.

You know, there have been some (unintelligible) reports of people saying that they saw suspicious activity at the house where these women were held over the years and that they called police but that there was not a response, or that the police never entered the house. Have any of those reports been substantiated?

DISSELL: You know, police talked about two different reports in which they dealt with Ariel Castro over the years. One was involving a missing - a child that was on his school bus that didn't get delivered to school and then he took back home. They did go there and knock on the door. He wasn't there. But they later interviewed him somewhere else and came to the conclusion that it was a mistake rather than something that he did purposely.

And he was written up for it at work and got in some trouble. And then there was one other time that he called police to report a fight in front of the house. Now, other neighbors have told other media outlets and have told some of our reporters that there was calls about suspicious behavior, you know, women in the back yard that didn't have clothes on and other things like that.

Police have said that they have absolutely no record of those calls ever coming in. Not that reports weren't made, but they don't even have records of the calls coming in. So you know, it's kind of hard to tell right now, but I'm thinking that some of those people, are they remembering things later? I don't know. Police say there's just no truth to it.

MARTIN: One of the things that is noteworthy is the fact that you have been covering these cases for so long. I mean living in a big sort of urban area, you know, myself, there are still young people here who have been missing who have never been recovered, and I just wonder that the attention that your paper has given to this case, you know, all these years, the fact that the police stayed, seem to have stayed actually involved in trying to pursue leads in this case, I'm interested in that aspect of it.

Is it in part, you think, because the family members were aggressive about insisting that that happen?

DISSELL: Sure. These family members were tireless. And you know, before she died a number of years ago, Amanda Berry's mother, I mean she would call and talk to just any reporter in town, you know, newspaper, TV, anybody who would give any attention to the case, just repeating the details trying to spark some kind of memory, a witness, anything. And the same with Gina DeJesus' parents.

They would not only have a vigil, you know, once a year, but they would put flyers everywhere. I live pretty near to where, actually, this house on Seymour Avenue is, probably less than a minute. And the neighborhoods where the girls disappeared and this house are pretty close together. Within a couple miles. You could not walk into a corner store or a diner without seeing their pictures.

Fresh posters always with information, you know, age enhancements. So I think that their dedication definitely brought a lot of attention to it.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, in the time that we have left, I wanted to ask what's your sense of how the community is responding to this? I mean I've heard conflicting things.

On the one hand, I think there are some people who feel very proud. They feel very proud of the fact that, you know, at a moment of need, a person, a neighbor stepped up and aggressively responded and did the right thing. But I also see that there are two high-profile incidents of women going missing, and for a very long time. And there has to be a sense - in fact, I heard Mr. Ramsey - Charles Ramsey, who's the neighbor who came to the aid of Amanda Berry and kind of led to her - the rescuing the other two women, saying that he feels a sense of guilt and shame that he didn't know about this sooner, because he wished that he could have helped sooner.

And I just wonder, what's your sense of how - you know, I know it's a difficult question. But more broadly, how do you feel the community's reacting to all this?

DISSELL: You know, I think, as I said earlier, they're still in a sense of shock, and everybody wants to know if there was something that could have, you know, been done. There's always soul-searching after any incident like this. But I think two people are really rejoicing in the fact that they are actually alive. You know, they do appear to be at least physically OK, though, you know, many have cautioned that, mentally, this is going to be a really long journey for them. And I think the community is starting to shift focus to the ways in which they can support them and make sure that they have what they need, because they have been gone so long and, you know, they want them to know that people have missed them and that people looked for them and are willing to take care of them for as long as they need so that they can heal.

MARTIN: More broadly, thought, you think, though - we've talked about kind of an after-action review after that 2009 incident involving Anthony Sowell. Do you feel, or are any community leaders there feeling - from whatever sphere - feeling that there's some kind of community-wide discussion that might need to take place about the way we are accountable to each other as neighbors?

DISSELL: Sure. I think that conversation may be beginning, but I think that there's still so much information to come out, that it's hard to have, you know, a thorough conversation, a robust conversation until you really know the extent of what these guys apparently did, what the details are, how it happened, and then what we know or could have know. I mean, you just have to have a little bit more information, I think, before you can have a proper discussion on it.

MARTIN: And, finally, as a journalist yourself, what are you interested in right now? You know, if you don't mind my asking, it's interesting, you've covered - unfortunately, you've found it your responsibility to cover a number of cases involving missing people, young people. And I wonder, what questions do you have?

DISSELL: You know, I think that, like all of us, you know, I have many questions on, you know, how these women survived. I mean, it just had to be an incredible situation, from what we've heard, that they were, you know, being restrained, that - you know, how were they, you know, being fed? How did they have to interact with each other? I mean, I think they probably have some incredible stories of survival. But while I think those stories are incredible, I'm also the type of reporter that thinks we need to give them the space and allow them to tell the stories in their own way and in their own time.

MARTIN: Well, we'll be interested to hear as you report this story in the future. We'll be interested to hear more of your work. And thank you so much for your work, and thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.

DISSELL: Thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: Rachel Dissell is a reporter for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland. She joined us by phone from the newsroom. Rachel, thanks again.

DISSELL: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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