CLEVELAND // Euphoria over the rescue of three Ohio women from a decade-long kidnapping ordeal gave way to questions of how their captivity inside a house on a residential street in Cleveland went undetected for so long.
The women, freed when a neighbour was alerted to their presence by screams for help, huddled privately with family under FBI protection on Tuesday as investigators combed through the house, seeking evidence against the accused captors.
Cleveland's police chief said yesterday that the three women were restrained with ropes and chains and allowed out into the back yard occasionally. Chief Michael McGrath said in an interview on NBC's Today show that the physical condition of the women was "very good considering the circumstances". Chief McGrath says he was "absolutely" sure police did everything they could to find the women over the years and disputed claims by neighbours that officers had been called to the house before for suspicious circumstances. Three brothers were arrested as suspects Monday evening just after the women escaped and are expected to be formally charged. One of them, Ariel Castro, a former school bus driver and the owner of the house, was thought to have lived there alone.
Mayor Frank Johnson confirmed on Tuesday that child welfare officials had paid a visit to the house in early 2004 because Castro was reported to have left a child on a school bus while he stopped for lunch at a fast-food restaurant. But the ensuing inquiry found no criminal intent, officials said.
Contrary to unconfirmed accounts of several neighbours, the mayor denied that authorities had overlooked or failed to respond to suspicious activity at the modest, two-storey home.
The women's imprisonment came to a dramatic end after a neighbour, drawn by the sound of screams, broke through the door to rescue Amanda Berry, whose 2003 disappearance as a teenager was widely publicised in the local media. He helped her place an emergency call to authorities.
"Help me! I'm Amanda Berry. ... I've been kidnapped and I've been missing for 10 years and I'm here. I'm free now," a frantic Ms Berry can be heard saying in a recording of the call released by police.
Ms Berry, now 27, was found with her 6-year-old daughter, conceived and born during her captivity, and two other women - Gina DeJesus, 23, who vanished aged 14 in 2004, and Michelle Knight, 32, who was 20 when she went missing in 2002.
Ariel Castro, 52, fired from his bus job last November after school officials cited him for a "lack of judgment," was arrested almost immediately. Two brothers, Pedro Castro, 54, and Onil Castro, 50, were arrested a short time later.
Police have not said what role each man is suspected of playing in the case, but Ms Berry named Ariel Castro in her 911 call as the man from whom she was trying to escape.
Questions have mounted about why the women's captivity escaped notice, despite what neighbours said were a number of suspicious or disturbing incidents at the house in the low-income community on Cleveland's West Side.
"We didn't search hard enough. She was right under our nose the whole time," said Angel Arroyo, a church pastor who had handed out flyers of DeJesus in the neighbourhood.
Aside from the school bus incident in 2004, city officials said a database search found no records of calls to the house or reports of anything amiss during the years in question.
"We have no indication that any of the neighbours, bystanders, witnesses or anyone else has ever called regarding any information, regarding activity that occurred at that house on Seymour Avenue," mayor Johnson told reporters on Tuesday.
Israel Lugo, a neighbour, said he called police in November 2011 after his sister saw a girl at the house holding a baby and crying for help. He said police came and banged on the door several times but left when no one answered.
More recently, about eight months ago, Lugo said, his sister saw Ariel Castro park his school bus outside and take a large bag of fast food and several drinks inside.
"My sister said something's wrong ... That's when my mom called the police," he said. Mr Lugo said police came and warned Mr Castro not to park the bus in front of his house.
Another neighbour, Anthony Westry, said a little girl could often be seen peering from the attic window of the Castro house.
"She was always looking out the window," he said. Mr Castro would take her to the park to play very early in the morning, "not around the time you would take kids to play," he said.
Cleveland police, who have said they believe Ms Berry, Ms DeJesus and Ms Knight were confined to the Castro house for their entire time missing, did not immediately respond to repeated requests for comment about reported calls from neighbours.
In the one acknowledged visit to the house by Cuyahoga county children and family services department officers in January 2004, more than a year after Ms Knight disappeared and eight months after Ms Berry went missing, no one answered the door, the mayor said.
Police said Mr Castro was interviewed extensively during the investigation regarding the child left on the bus, and that no criminal wrongdoing was found. A witness had reported Mr Castro telling the child to "lay down, bitch," but child welfare officials concluded the complaint was unsubstantiated.
After their rescue, the three women were taken to a local hospital, reunited with family and friends and released. Cleveland FBI special agent Vicki Anderson said that federal agents were "taking care of the victims" to help shield them from a global media onslaught.
Ms DeJesus' aunt Sandra Ruiz emerged from the home of Ms DeJesus' father on Tuesday to appeal to a throng of reporters to respect the family's privacy, saying: "Give us some breathing room."
Born in Puerto Rico, Ariel Castro played bass in Latin music bands in the area. Records show he was divorced more than a decade ago and his ex-wife had since died. He is known to have at least one adult daughter and son.
On a Facebook page believed to be his, Mr Castro said last month that he had just become a grandfather for a fifth time. Court records show he was arrested in 1993 on a domestic violence charge that was subsequently dismissed.