Cleveland is reeling as more horrifying details continue to trickle out surrounding Ariel Castro, the 52-year-old former school bus driver accused of kidnapping and raping three women for nearly a decade.
This disturbing case has raised a number of unsettling questions. How could someone engage in such a heinous act? How is it possible no one knew the women were being held captive for 10 years? Could the crime have been prevented?
And in many ways, the tight-knit Latino community in Cleveland is struggling with these questions in deeply personal ways.
“Our community is in shock,” said Victor Ruiz, the executive director of Esperanza, an organization dedicated to improving educational opportunities for Hispanics in Cleveland. “There’s a sense of taking it personally because it happened within our community, but we do realize [any actions by the Castros] are not representative of the rest of us.”
Jose Feliciano, a Cleveland lawyer and head of Hispanic Roundtable, a group that aims to empower Latinos, added, “The whole community is just extraordinarily embarrassed by this event.” Feliciano also worries about the negative impact the crime could have on the Latino community.
Since 2000, the Latino population in Cuyahoga County—where Cleveland is located—has grown about 30%. According to the 2011 Census, more than 62,000 Latinos live in the county. In Cleveland, Puerto Ricans comprise about 77% of Cleveland’s total Latino population.
Ariel Castro was born in Puerto Rico and moved to Cleveland as a young child. He has owned the home on Seymour Avenue—where he allegedly held Amanda Berry, 27, Gina DeJesus, 23, and Michelle Knight, 32—since 1992. Authorities said the three women were bound with ropes and chains and never saw any other adults during their captivity. They were only allowed to leave twice, in disguise, on a brief sojourn to the garage. On Monday, Berry was able to make a break for freedom, kicking a door and screaming until a neighbor helped her escape. Berry called 911, which led authorities to find the two other women.
Castro’s brothers, Onil and Pedro, were also arrested but not charged. In a press conference Wednesday, Cleveland City Prosecutor Victor Perez said there was “no evidence” that Onil and Pedro Castro were involved in the kidnappings.
According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Castros were among the first Hispanic families to settle in the city, shortly after World War II. Edwin Castro, an uncle, started a record shop. Nona Castro, the deceased father, owned a used car lot, the paper reported. Nobert Castro, a cousin, has a hardware store. And Cesi Castro—known as the unofficial head of the Castro clan—has had a bodega that he has run for decades.
Feliciano said Cesi Castro is known as the “mayor of west 25th Street,” where his bodega is located—and a stone’s throw away from Ariel Castro’s home, where the crimes allegedly took place. He recounted how Cesi would always offer milk, bread, and even money to those in need. “The number of people helped by Cesi is innumerable. He’s distraught, absolutely distraught by this.”
Several leaders in the city’s Cleveland community expressed concern for the Castro family.
“We feel terrible for the family,” said Juan Molina Crespo, the executive director of the Hispanic Alliance in Cleveland. “They have been leaders, businesspeople, well respected by all.”
Julio Castro, the suspect’s uncle, told NBC10.com that “everyone is innocent until proven guilty, but according to the information from the girls that were held captive, it seems like it is true.” He added that he is furious that his nephew has disgraced the family name.
“You’re an animal,” Julio said of his nephew. “Look what you have done to our family. We can’t believe what you have done to our family.”
A ragged-looking Ariel made his first court appearance on Thursday morning and was arraigned on charges of four counts of kidnapping (one of the victim’s had a baby during captivity, allegedly by him) and three counts of rape. Bail has been set at $8 million.
Castro was a part-time jazz musician who lost a job as a school bus driver last year and had a few brushes with the law. He was arrested in December 1993 for domestic violence, but the case was later dismissed.
In January 2004, police came to Ariel’s home to talk to him after he left a child on a school bus while working as a driver for the city’s school district. The case was closed after it was determined there was no criminal intent. Neighbors have described him as someone who seemed pleasant and would even drop in on neighborhood barbeques. Others are questioning if they may have missed red flags.
Feliciano says his Hispanic Roundtable group is in the process of planning a community potluck and wants to start community training with law enforcement to be on the lookout for such cases. He also wants to possibly put together some type of scholarship fund for the women.
“They’ve been out of school for a decade, they’ve got a lot of catching up to do. We hope these nascent programs will help in the healing process and help to unify our community,” he said.