Insight: The story of Cleveland captive Michelle

IN A life defined by torment, Michelle Knight has seldom had cause for celebration.
Michelle Knight was one of three women held captive by Ariel CastroMichelle Knight was one of three women held captive by Ariel Castro
Michelle Knight was one of three women held captive by Ariel Castro

When she bore her only child, it was a moment of light which followed one dark chapter and preceded others to come. Her son, according to relatives, was the legacy of a brutal gang rape at the age of 17, which led the student to drop out of high school and embark on an uncertain parenthood under the roof of her mother, Barbara, in Cleveland’s West 60th Street. The student, a keen artist, had grown up in the archetypal suburban street, where she tended the vegetable patch and fed the neighbour’s pet pony. Where once she harboured ambitions of becoming a firefighter or a veterinarian, she imbued hope in little Joey, resolving to one day complete her education and provide for him.

It was a simple, universal ambition, but one unrealised. Barbara Knight became involved in an abusive relationship with a man called David Feckley, who was convicted of child endangerment after breaking the infant’s arm. Amid concerns for Joey’s safety, he was taken into care. On 22 August 2002, around the time she was scheduled to attend a custody hearing into her son’s fate, Michelle Knight was spotted near her cousin’s house at the nearby West 106th Street and Lorain Avenue when a Hispanic man offered her a ride home. She was not seen again until last Monday, when she ran out of a darkened room on the second floor of 2207 Seymour Avenue and threw herself into the arms of Anthony Espada, a patrol officer with Cleveland Police, reportedly shouting over and over, “You saved me!”

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Six days have passed since, and despite the innumerable harrowing details which have informed a shocked world of Ariel Castro and those he kept prisoner for more than a decade, Michelle Knight is the spectre of this American tragedy. Her fellow captives, Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus, have returned home from their scarcely believable ordeal, embraced by relatives on the steps of front porches festooned with stuffed toys, cards and flowers as they begin the long, arduous journey to convalescence.

Knight, however, remained in Cleveland’s MetroHealth Medical Centre until Friday evening, as medics assessed her facial injuries and a loss of hearing in one of her ears. Throughout it all, she shunned requests from her mother and grandmother to visit.

Instead, it has fallen to strangers to embrace her. Late on Thursday evening, a group of community activists gathered outside the Immanuel Evangelical ­Lutheran church in her honour. Gathered barely a block away from Seymour Avenue, those assembled released 80 ­balloons in a flurry of bright colours, some bearing messages such as “Congratulations!” and “I Love You”. How else, they perhaps wondered, could they articulate what Knight has been through? She is now a woman of 32, but in the public realm, remains the youngster captured in an undated, grainy photograph taken in the years before her abduction, the only picture of her the family had. Even after the suffering has come to an end, her ­narrative does not allow for the happy ending her nation yearns for.

During those 11 long years, Knight, together with Berry and DeJesus, was forced into an existence of Castro’s base machinations which stripped away the thin veneer of civilisation. The women’s birthdays were replaced with anniversaries marking their respective abductions, when it is alleged Castro marked the dates courtesy of a taunting, macabre ritual of cake and dinner. On Christmas Day 2006, meanwhile, long after Joey had been taken into foster care, a new family was forged in inexplicable ways. A leaked police report claims Knight, then aged 25, was forced to help deliver Berry’s child by Castro in a plastic children’s paddling pool. She told police that Castro threatened her life if the baby did not survive childbirth, and had to resuscitate the ­infant after it stopped breathing.

Knight herself claims she was left pregnant by Castro on no fewer than five ­occasions. Each time, the report states, he “starved her for at least two weeks, then repeatedly punched her in the stomach until she miscarried”. All the while, Castro maintained a banal facade, tinkering with his motorcycle, cutting the grass or cooking ribs on the grill.

In the world beyond the ropes, padlocks and shackles of his dilapidated two-storey white clapboard home, other rituals were taking place, the most visible of which were carried out by Berry’s mother, Louwana Miller. In a half-life consumed by the mystery of what happened to her 16-year-old daughter after she left her job at Burger King on the corner of ­Lorain Avenue and West 110th Street on 21 April 2003, she strove to keep her plight in the spotlight, holding prayer rallies and candlelight vigils or posting flyers as she retraced what should have been Berry’s two-mile route home. One journalist in Cleveland, Regina Brett, was telephoned every few months by Miller, who would address her as honey, and plead for ­another story in print. “Louwana was ­angry,” Brett recalled. “She didn’t trust the police so she put her own phone number on the flyers.”

Nancy Ruiz, the mother, of DeJesus – kidnapped on 2 April 2004, three months before her 14th birthday – waged her own tireless campaign, often joining forces with Berry’s relatives to distribute flyers together, and speaking extensively to the media. In private, every night at dusk she would retreat to her porch and light candles in honour of her daughter. For a time, Barbara Knight too conducted her own observances, periodically venturing alone through the blue-collar streets of Cleveland’s West Side, posting missing person flyers bearing Michelle’s details. However, she later moved to Florida, and some relatives believed Michelle had disappeared of her own volition. Her grandmother, Deborah, said there was a belief that the young mother had absconded after being upset at losing custody of Joey, and was living with friends.

On Wednesday, the disconnect at the heart of the Knight family was laid bare when Michelle’s twin brother Freddie, who was estranged from his parents as a teenager, revealed he was unaware his sibling was missing. “I didn’t know my sister was kidnapped,” he revealed. “My mother never tells me anything.”

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For years, Knight’s life was in stasis, existing in an abject hinterland between abductee and runaway which, coupled with her legal status as an adult, meant her fate was not subject to the same level of scrutiny from authorities as her fellow captives. A cursory missing person’s report filed by her mother the day after she was last seen made reference to an undisclosed mental condition that caused her to become confused by her surroundings, and told how she went by the nickname, “Shorty”. To no avail, Cleveland Police checked a ­local hospital, the morgue and a relative’s house, before conducting follow-ups in May and then November of 2003, when a detective noted: “No new info available at this time. This report will remain invalid until new leads develop.”

The same month, 15 months after she dropped out of sight, the force removed her name from an FBI database because they were unable to contact her mother to verify the then 22-year-old was still unaccounted for. Doubts have since emerged that the force’s policy on such matters at the time stipulated that an officer must make sure that a missing person had been found before removing them from the National Crime Information Centre files. Whereas the circumstances of the Berry and DeJesus were being given the oxygen of publicity – relayed via major national television programmes such as America’s Most Wanted and the ­Oprah Winfrey Show – investigations into Knight’s whereabouts proved scattershot from thereon in.

In one instance, on 1 December 2004, an unnamed officer attempted to reach her personally by telephone. “I tried to reach Michelle Knight… with negative ­results,” he wrote in the case file. In the grisly hindsight afforded by events of the last week, Ed Tomba, Cleveland Police’s deputy chief acknowledged that his force’s ­efforts had been “geared toward” Berry and DeJesus. Knight, he added, “was the focus of very few tips”.

Judy Martin, the founder of Victims of Tragedy, a Cleveland-based support group for people who have lost a loved one through murder, and one of the activists who let balloons soar in Knight’s honour, believes wide-ranging institutional faults are to blame, saying: “She fell through some big, huge crack in whatever the ­system was 12 years ago.”

The pain meted out by Castro was not, of course, borne exclusively by the Knight family. In 2006, the parents of DeJesus endured further anguish when police dug up the garage floor of a residence after receiving a false tip that their daughter was buried there. The same year, meanwhile, Berry’s mother succumbed to heart failure at the age of 44. Bret Vinocur, the founder of a child advocacy organisation set up to help trace missing youngsters, worked with Miller on her case, producing handmade buttons featuring the girl’s photograph in the hope of sparking a fresh line of inquiry. Although Miller’s desperation would later lead her to a television psychic who informed her Berry was dead, Vinocur is in no doubt she never lost faith in the cause. He said: “She died of a ­broken heart because she lost her daughter but I don’t think she died because she lost hope… she never lost hope.”

For the women themselves – “the ultimate definition of survivors,” according to Stephen Anthony, the FBI special agent in charge of the investigation – the vast gulf left in their lives by Castro is manifesting itself in all kinds of ways. Berry has returned to her family not just ten years older, but as the mother to Jocelyn, a six-year-old who has spent her entire life in captivity. Lydia Esparra, a longstanding family friend of DeJesus, revealed how in the hours which followed her homecoming on Wednesday, one relative engaged her in her second language. Confused, DeJesus turned to her mother, and quietly explained: “I don’t understand Spanish anymore.” There are other forgotten victims, not least Castro’s other children, such as Angie Gregg. A childhood friend of DeJesus, she said she would never speak to her father again after learning of what he had done. “They definitely are not a reflection of myself or my children,” she said of his actions. “We don’t have monster in our blood”.

As for Knight, who has a younger sister she has never met, there is speculation she will begin a new life in the DeJesus household, living with the woman who has become her surrogate sister in the most loathsome circumstances. The world heard from her for the first time on Friday, just before she was discharged from hospital. The statement issued by the MetroHealth Medical Centre, just three sentences long, was most notable for what it omitted to mention. “Michelle Knight is in good spirits and would like the community to know that she is extremely grateful for the outpouring of flowers and gifts,” it read. “She is especially thankful for the Cleveland Courage Fund. She asks that everyone please continue to respect her privacy at this time.”

Later the same day, it emerged Barbara Knight had retained a lawyer in order to try to obtain access to her daughter. “Barbara just wants to be a part of the healing process,” explained her attorney Jay Milano. Grandmother Deborah Knight is hoping for a similar role. Her house, ­located a few miles away from where ­Castro made his prison, has been decked out with balloons, flowers and stuffed toys. Only time will tell if her granddaughter will visit, let alone move in. She alone will discover if reconciliation and atonement warrant a place in her recovery from a ­tyranny of evil. The present is not the time for celebration, but the darkness that has claimed her son and the last ­decade of her life has lifted. There is a faint light ahead. «

Twitter: @martynmcl