Juliet Dunlop: Ohio community that saw no evil

Pedro Castro and Ariel Castro stand in the courtroom during Ariel's arraignment. Picture: Getty

Pedro Castro and Ariel Castro stand in the courtroom during Ariel's arraignment. Picture: Getty

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Ariel Castro’s neighbours are shocked and angry.

Shocked that three young women who vanished more than a decade ago have apparently been rescued from his home; shocked that a seemingly “ordinary guy” has been charged with the kidnap and rape of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight in a basement turned dungeon; shocked that one of the women, Amanda Berry, had given birth to a daughter; and angry that no-one knew, that no-one suspected that something was amiss at 2207 Seymour Avenue.

It is easy to understand the shock and the anger. Seymour Avenue is by all accounts an unremarkable street in a tightly-packed Cleveland suburb. Residents describe it as friendly but cautious; an area where people know their neighbours. No-one could have guessed that in the middle of the street, in a house owned by a school bus driver, where properties are separated by the narrowest of gaps, that three women and a six-year-old child were being held captive. Could they? But the horrific, bizarre events in Cleveland raise a recurring question: how could such a secret be kept hidden for so long?

Yet similar cases of young women imprisoned by their kidnappers show that in most instances neighbours fail to notice anything is wrong. Jaycee Dugard, who disappeared in California in 1991, lived in a shed in her abductor’s garden for 18 years.

Natasha Kampusch and Elisabeth Fritzl were also successfully hidden away. But a neighbour did come to the rescue of Amanda Berry. Charles Ramsey told reporters he heard a woman “going nuts” crying “help me get out, I’ve been here a long time.” Incredibly, Amanda Berry had been there since 2003. An astonished Mr Ramsey has since spoken of enjoying barbecues and listening to music with Ariel Castro, saying he had no idea the women were there. He said they were “hiding in plain sight” – a phrase that has been used over and over again to try to explain why no-one noticed that anything was wrong.

Other neighbours however, were less surprised.

Some have claimed that they had noticed that things were not right, that they had their suspicions about the house but when they alerted the police they weren’t taken seriously. One woman said she had called the police after seeing a naked woman crawling around in the back garden of the property. Another described seeing a young child looking out of a window in the attic. We now know the little girl was Amanda Berry’s daughter.

Yet whatever neighbours claim they saw or heard, the police say they have no record of calls or complaints about suspected criminal activity at the house. They insist they did not miss any opportunities to find the women.

But there are questions all the same. And as more facts emerge, it is inevitable that the role of the police – and the wider community – will fall under the spotlight. It is still unclear whether more could have been done but the thought that it perhaps could, that neighbours might have acted, that the police should have listened harder is unlikely to go unchallenged in the coming months.

The father of one of the women, 23-year-old Gina DeJesus, who disappeared nine years ago on her way home from school, is already searching for answers. Felix DeJesus told reporters: “People are asking ‘how come I didn’t see what happened to that kid?’ Why? Because we chose not to.”

And that must be the fear now nagging at the consciences of the steady stream of people coming forward to say “I knew something was not right”. The sense of shared guilt, that somehow something terrible was allowed to happen must be preying on minds. That and the sense of betrayal. Ariel Castro did not appear to be a monster – some of his neighbours were his friends; he socialised with the people on his street. Perhaps that makes it worse. He was normal, he was one of them. According to some reports, he had even joined in searches for the missing women, put up posters and comforted one mother. Now he is accused of committing dreadful crimes, of abducting and abusing the three women found in his home. Ariel Castro may have been the one “hiding in plain sight” all along.

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