The Cleveland Case And Missing Persons Investigations

Guests

Rachel Dissell, reporter, The Plain Dealer
Robert Lowery, executive director, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

Three women who disappeared almost a decade ago in Cleveland were found Monday night not far from where they had each been taken. They were discovered by a neighbor who heard screaming. Too often, cases like this unsolved indefinitely with no known crime scene, no witnesses, and no leads.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In Cleveland last night, a dramatic call for help.

(SOUNDBITE OF 911 CALL)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Cleveland 911. Do you need...?

AMANDA BERRY: I need police. Help me. I'm Amanda Berry.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Do you need police, fire or ambulance?

BERRY: I need police.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK, and what's going on there?

BERRY: I've been kidnapped, and I've been missing for 10 years. And I'm here, I'm free now.

CONAN: Amanda Berry last seen in 2003, and two other women who had long been missing, were rescued last night after a neighbor heard screaming coming from the house next door. While there's a great deal we still don't know about what happened to them and why, there is special joy and relief at their liberation because these kinds of cases don't usually end this way.

Too often, they just go cold, unsolved indefinitely with no known crime scene, no witnesses and no leads. To many others end with the discovery of a body. If you've working missions persons investigations, call and tell us about a case that illustrates the challenges. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the political risks of humanitarian intervention. But first to Cleveland, and we begin with Rachel Dissell, a reporter at The Plain Dealer, and good of you to be with us today.

RACHEL DISSELL: Hi Neal, nice to be with you, as well.

CONAN: And what have we learned? What's new?

DISSELL: Well, I mean, we're slowly getting more details, you know, about the way in which these women were held captive, and we're also learning more about the suspects, the three brothers who were arrested. Interestingly enough, one of the things that we've been looking into is that one of the teenagers at the time, who was Gina DeJesus' friend and who talked to the police and the FBI over the years and being the last person who saw her alive, has been connected to one of the suspects as being his daughter.

And so over the years she gave a number of interviews, you know, giving these last, you know, couple minutes that she saw Gina alive, and it was very shocking to connect the two together.

CONAN: Because two of these cases got a lot of publicity.

DISSELL: That's correct. The Amanda Berry case and the Gina DeJesus case have been written about and reported extensively in the Cleveland area, mostly because Gina DeJesus' parents and Amanda Berry's mother passed away, and her family, have continued to kind of try to keep these cases in the media and to get attention for them.

Neighborhood activists have kept stores and poles, you know, plastered with flyers for, you know, nearly a decade now with their pictures. You couldn't walk into a corner store without seeing Amanda's picture somewhere, or Gina's picture somewhere. And every year, you know, on the anniversary of these disappearances there would be vigils and other things.

And, you know, one of the things that always comes back to me is, you know, Gina DeJesus' mom, Nancy Ruiz, would always, always, always say, you know, I know she's still out there. And a lot of people would try to say, you know, they just need to let it go, and they were never - they were always resolute that there would be, you know, an ending to this that they would find their daughter.

CONAN: Have we heard anything from the family members today?

DISSELL: I have not personally. From what I've heard from some of the people who are close with them and have had contact with them, they really just want to spend some time with these family members. The family members also need to be interviewed by the police so that they can, you know, get the really vital information they need to make a case and get as much of it as they can quickly.

However, police are also - they said that they're really taking care in the way that they interview these women, you know, with understanding they've been through great traumas, and they don't want to push them too hard. They want to give them a little bit of time, as well, with their families first to celebrate this momentous, you know, occasion.

CONAN: Amazing occasion. The third woman, though, Michelle Knight, 20 at the time that she went missing, but she was never reported missing. She was, as I understand it, believed to have been a runaway.

DISSELL: Yeah, I mean, I do believe that her family did, you know, report her missing at some point, but her story is quite different. You know, she was an adult when she went missing. So the case didn't, you know, really get nearly as much attention as the other two, and was never really in any way publicly connected to them.

My colleague here at the Plain Dealer Leila Atassi, has spoken to many of her family members who are really trying to find a way to reach her. They themselves haven't even been able to get a hold of detectives to reach out to her because they're kind of scattered. They live in different states now.

And they, you know, they said that in their own ways, over the years, they would try to come back to the neighborhoods and canvas and ask about her, but it sounds like they didn't really have a lot of hope that they would see her again.

CONAN: Now back in 2004, and this is after Michelle Knight had vanished and after Amanda Berry had vanished, police visited the home where eventually they were found.

DISSELL: Yeah, and that was, you know, on a completely separate case, you know, involving a report of a child possibly left on a school bus and not dropped off at home. You know, Ariel Castro, the man who's been arrested along with his brothers, was a Cleveland Schools bus driver for a number of years. And police and Children Family Services were just checking out a report about whether a child had been left on the bus or not.

I believe that police, if I can remember correctly from the press conference, that police, you know, later made contact with him. They didn't believe there was any criminal act in the child being left on the bus. And so it wasn't like there was a huge investigation or a reason for them to attempt to get into this house. You know, there wasn't any other allegation other than a child had been left on a bus.

CONAN: What else do we know about the three brothers?

DISSELL: We know they are all pretty close in age. The family that they belong to, the Castro family, is pretty well-known on the west side of Cleveland. Family members own, you know, corner stores. I believe there's a music store. The father of some of these folks was very well-known in the neighborhood as, you know, being a guy who ran businesses and was very generous for community causes.

So most people in that neighborhood know the Castro family as well as most people know the DeJesus family. And the families had some, you know, connections over the years. You know, the uncle of Gina DeJesus, you know, owned a music club where people would come and dance, and Ariel Castro apparently would come play in bands in this club.

And he knew the family at least tangentially, if not even a little bit more. You know, some people said that when Gina went missing that Ariel Castro and members of his family helped canvas, helped raise money to look for her and to pay for flyers.

CONAN: And have they been charged as yet?

DISSELL: You know, I haven't seen the latest email. I know that their mug shots were just sent out. So I believe that I heard that they were going to be charged with rape and kidnapping, but I was making some other calls and working on another angle, so I'm not up to date on my email. Sorry.

CONAN: With rape, there was a young child, a six-year-old child. Do we know who the mother is? Do we know who the father is?

DISSELL: We do know, according to Cleveland police, that Amanda Berry is the mother of the child. They did not talk about who the father could be or possible was. They said that they were really going to wait until they were able to hear the stories from these young ladies before they started putting the information out there.

And they also really caution people who are getting, you know, information from, you know, anonymous sources or people who say they're family members and putting out some very specific and very upsetting information about maybe how these women were held captive. And the police and the detectives who have worked on this for years and are close with these families have really cautioned people to be careful.

These are very sensitive details about a trauma, and to rush to misreport them is really unfair to these women, who really have been free less than, you know, 24 hours or something. So...

CONAN: And obviously they - their access to the outside world was limited to where they - do we know anything about the way they were held? Were they able to watch TV, listen to the radio, read the newspaper?

DISSELL: You know, there was - you know, in Amanda Berry's own 911 tape that's been played widely, she seemed to indicate that she knew she was in the news. You know, and many people have reported, and we've also reported, that, you know, there was some physical restraint of these women up to a certain point.

From what we've gleaned, it wasn't an exclusively kind of physical restraint of them in the house, but they may have been locked in rooms or chained up at certain times but not completely all the time and they may have had some access to wander around the house. But there's really no indication that they were able to come and go or leave from the house at all.

CONAN: Now in 2009, Cleveland Police Department went through a complete review of the way it handled missing person cases, amongst others, because of, well, mistakes were made.

DISSELL: Sure, and that was based on the case of serial killer Anthony Sowell, and family who had reported their family members missing and felt like they weren't taken seriously by Cleveland police. In this case, none of the parents that we've talked to have ever said that the police weren't taking the cases seriously.

You know, as the local newspaper here, you know, we're always the first ones to ask questions, and if there's a criticism that needs to be waged, we're going to, you know, ask the questions that probe that. In this case, there were constantly Cleveland police detectives working on this, constantly FBI agents, you know, leads every couple months.

You know, I know that the agents and the detectives who worked on this were very close to these families, always updating them. Any tip that they called in they would check out. They went into one house and, you know, really tore it up based on a tip a couple years back. They dug up a vacant lot based on a tip. So they were really doing anything that they could to run down at least those two cases.

We don't know as much about the investigation involving Michelle Knight yet. It seems like that was a little less of an intense investigation, possibly because she was an adult when she went missing, and her family members were unsure, you know, whether she was abducted or whether she possibly left on her own.

CONAN: What changes were instituted as a result of the review?

DISSELL: As a result of the review, they moved some of the information to a centralized place that they call a fusion center to make sure that they were bringing together all the resources not only for the city of Cleveland but for the surrounding area. They also instituted some rules on certain things that have to be done in a certain amount of time in missing person cases in terms of getting a picture out, when to put a release out.

And they also, they made some materials and some pamphlets that would be given out to families and some information so they knew what they were able to do to help find their loved one, as well, and how they could help police find their loved ones. And so that's been going on for a couple years now.

And we hear from people that it's gotten better. And there's a couple blips here and there where someone will call and say that the protocol wasn't followed, or there is an issue with a certain missing person, but by and large missing persons cases in Cleveland, since that happened, have been getting far more attention than they would have in the past.

CONAN: And the timeline critically important because in many cases if information is not acted on very quickly, it's too late. And 10 years afterwards is extraordinary. This is great news. Thank you so much for your time today.

DISSELL: Thanks.

CONAN: Rachel Dissell is a reporter for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and she joined us by phone from there. We want to hear from those of you who may have worked missing person investigations. Call and tell us about a case that illustrates the challenges that these kinds of cases can generate, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION; I'm Neal Conan. Part of the challenge of missing persons investigations is that they're not always crimes. Teenagers run away from home, and so sometimes do adults. In 2002, wife and mother Brenda Heist vanished. Her husband was investigated and cleared. He eventually got courts to declare her legally dead.

But then late last month she turned herself in to Florida police. She told them she left her family behind after some bad news. She was crying in a Lancaster, Pennsylvania, park when three homeless hitchhikers invited her to join them. She did, trading her life for one of sleeping under bridges, scavenging for food and begging for money. After 11 years, she'd had enough. She's now dealing with the emotional and legal fallout from her disappearance.

If you've worked missing persons investigations, call, tell us about a case that illustrates the challenges, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Joining us now for more on missing person cases after the discovery of three women in a Cleveland house is Robert Lowery, executive director of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. He's also former assistant chief of police for the Florissant, Missouri, police department and joins us by phone from his office in Alexandria, Virginia. Good of you to be with us today.

ROBERT LOWERY: Thank you for having me, and I appreciate being on.

CONAN: And how unusual is this case in Cleveland?

LOWERY: Well, it's highly unusual. It's the first time that I can tell you that we've found three women together that have been reported missing for this long a period of time. And additionally it's been the first time we've ever seen involving three abductors.

You know, it's not unprecedented that we find long-term missing children, as you know. You mentioned a couple of the cases, but of course we know Jaycee Dugard stands out as a very visible reminder, Elizabeth Smart, as well, Shawn Hornbeck from St. Louis, from my hometown, all show us that these children can be found and returned home. So we can't always assume the worst has happened.

CONAN: And the case - in this case they were hiding in plain sight, the abductors.

LOWERY: They sure were, and it's not unusual. You know, abductors and criminals, you know, they act within an area that they feel very comfortable and most - where they feel very safe, where they can move about rather unnoticed, which is what happened in this case.

But it's also, you know, a lot of folks were asking us today is how could this have happened, and how could they have kept this a secret. Well, I think we're going to find that out in days to come, but certainly they went to great lengths to conceal their crime, to conceal these women.

I can only imagine what these women endured for the last decade.

CONAN: You mentioned a case in St. Louis. Did you work that case?

LOWERY: I did and very peripherally. Shawn Hornbeck, when he was taken, you know, he was missing from a very rural county, taken by a pedophile. All we had to work with was his bicycle that was found laying out in the street, which is really a challenge that law enforcement faces when we have an abducted child is that there's an absence of facts.

There's - rarely do we find a credible witness or a witness that can be helpful. There's no real crime scene to work on. So all the things that we depend on as criminal investigators when we're in the field is just absence and that you have to go out there and develop your own leads, your own information and to try to find these children. That's what then makes it a very, very difficult investigation.

CONAN: And we're told on TV that the first 24, 48 hours are critical.

LOWERY: Oh absolutely. You know, I think the last statistics we had was if the child were to be murdered, it would be in the first two to three hours, according to the Washington State study. But I also want to preface this as saying that not all children that are abducted are murdered, as we've seen here in this instance.

CONAN: In fact in many cases, abductions of children are custody cases.

LOWERY: Well, you know, yes in some cases, and children go missing for a variety of reasons. Child custody cases are one, but I wouldn't minimize those because there's an awful lot of emotion tied to those cases and a lot of violence against those children. But we also have a lot of runaway children and often dismissed as just a behavioral problem, when in fact we see many of these children are running away from a situation, say an abusive home, or maybe even in other cases they're being lured by a predator.

So we don't minimize any missing child case, and we want to remind everyone that we consider all these child endangered, and we've got to get them found and get them returned home as quickly as we can.

CONAN: And what can you tell us about the demographics of the abducted? Are they mostly young people, or are they - what can you tell us?

LOWERY: Well, it depends on the type of scenario, but when you have a case like what we had last night, you know, those generally are females, generally the school age. We said that the children on abductions are most vulnerable, according to our analysis, either going to or coming from school or a school-related event.

You know, it's a time that they're oftentimes alone. They're walking. And what we tell parents is that we don't want children frightened to the point that they don't leave home, but empower your kids and tell them it's OK to say no if someone tries to lure them into a car. It's OK to run. And if someone grabs them, we urge the children - the parents to tell the children kick, scream, bring as much attention to that situation as they possibly can.

CONAN: We're talking about missing cases, cases of missing persons. If you're an investigator who's worked one of those cases, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. And we're going to start with John(ph), John's on the line with us from the Upper Peninsula in Michigan.

JOHN: Hi, good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

JOHN: I was just listening to your person, I don't know who it was exactly because I turned my radio off, and I worked in child protection for over 20 years in Michigan. And we used to discuss that really safeguarding children or young people is a community responsibility. And I looked at my job as responsibly to investigate complaints or situations where a child might be in danger or in harm.

And it's real clear to me that we could only do so much, by we I mean authorities through child protection, police and court. I recall several instances where - in fact this is a remarkable situation where you have stranger abduction and 10 years of confinement.

What we typically were involved in was children who are hurt by family members. And I can recall a couple situations that might be similar to what you're looking at, where young women who, in Michigan at the time I was working, there was a limbo area of between 17 and 18 where courts did not have authority, and parents really did not have authority through the courts or police, to make that 17-year-old live with them or go to school or do things that we would normally expect of younger children.

And a number of young women would put themselves in dangerous situations. One I recall was I had worked with a family whose 16-year-old daughter was rebelling, and a mother asked for some assistance because of some things that the stepfather was threatening to do to the child. And we resolved that somewhat, and then about - some time later, maybe within a year, that child had turned 17.

And the mother was calling me asking for help because the child had run away with her biological father. And I said, well, there's really not much we could do. And then she let me know that it wasn't just a father-daughter relationship, that this man, who had been in prison, or not in the child's life, had taken his daughter in a sexual way, also, so, you know, really coerced her emotionally and physically to be subject to him.

We often dealt with young women who would attach themselves to young men, anywhere from 16 to 17 years of age. I think I heard somebody talking earlier on the radio about somebody living under a bridge.

CONAN: Yes.

JOHN: We had a young woman who was adopted by very well-to-do, upstanding citizens, the father was a college professor. She ran away from home at age 16, late 16 years of age. The courts tried to deal with it. By the time she was 17, the courts could no longer have authority over her, and she had attached herself to a young man who - in fact they were living under a bridge, scavenging for food and trying to survive.

I later dealt with that family in a child protection situation where this woman, this young girl and then - or older girl and then young woman, had children with this young man. And they were neglectful. There was issues of sexual assault and physical abuse towards the children. And unfortunately the community has had to deal with not just the harm to that child, the original mother and teenager, but also the harm to her children.

And it's again a very large persistent problem that the community has, really, difficulty grappling with in many ways.

CONAN: Thanks, John, for the call. It's a very sad situation so many times.

JOHN: Yeah, it is distressing, and I think our hearts go out to all young people who are hurting. And again this is a very dramatic situation that came out through the news in Cleveland, and again I would just emphasize that as difficult and as dangerous as those situations are, more commonly it's a family, inter-family issues that cause harm to children.

CONAN: John, thanks very much.

JOHN: You're welcome.

CONAN: And let's see if we can get another caller in. Let's go to Dave, and Dave's on the line with us from Miami.

DAVE: Hey, how are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

DAVE: Yes, I had a case that was up in Atlanta some years back. One of the biggest issues that we bring (technical difficulties) missing person case is, of course, (technical difficulties) child. We did finally recover a body in the general area. Of course, it's so decomposed. What we had to do is try to reconstruct the way that person may have looked at the time. And, you know, based on bone structure, based on several other factors, and it made really difficult to identify this person, but, fortunately, the reconstruction was good enough to get a decent composite of what that person looked like.

We were able to then go back and check through the cases and match up the DNA and so forth. But once you finally have that person, you know, identified, well, then you have a whole other issue, and that's trying to figure out, OK, well, who did this? And I think if there's one thing that if I could, you know, make a suggestion, you know, on the air, we have a major issue with putting sex offenders right back in the community. If a person goes to their local state and types in the sex offender registry, puts in their address, they would be dumbfounded how many of these people live right within, you know, walking distance of their home.

But I think if there's some new legislation to, you know, put these people behind bars and really keep them back there, we would see missing cases drop significantly. And I know in states where they take a harder stance against some of the sex offenders instead of just treatment (technical difficulties) we've seemed those numbers drop significantly.

CONAN: Well, I understand what you're saying. Of course, not every sex offender reoffends. But, Robert Lowery, what do you think of that suggestion?

LOWERY: Well, I agree. I mean, not everyone does reoffend, but we do keep an eye on the ones that - that are out there (unintelligible) there are high rates of recidivism among sex offenders. But he - this gentleman does bring up another topic that we work on every day here is that remains of children that are found, and they're not been identified. And right now, we're - we - here at the National Center, we're assisting on over 650 such cases that we believe to be long-term missing children.

Your caller is correct. It's very difficult to start a homicide investigation on those cases until we can identify those children, put a name to them because that's where that investigation really starts in earnest, so we could track where they've been and the activity and who they may have been with. But it is a dilemma. And it's one that we are addressing here at the National Center.

CONAN: Dave, did you ever find out who did the murder that you're talking about?

DAVE: The family was - the child's murderer was never identified. However, there were a couple of people that were picked up in related cases that more than likely that was the killer. But it's something we may never know. It's kind of like the Ann Walsh case. I mean, that is one where there are some pretty good speculation but we're probably never going truly know. But, you know, that's the tragedy of this is, you know, the gentleman mentioned the recidivism rate is extremely high among sex offenders.

And when we talk about, hey, we keep track of them, well, it depends on what you define as keeping track. I mean, we know where they live, but we don't have the manpower to be watching a hundred people in one small community at the same time. And if there's one another message, I guess, I can really get across to parents is watch your kids, never let them out of your sight, you know? I don't think kids should ride to, you know, school on their bike by themselves or walk to school by themselves, even if it's only a block or, you know, two blocks away.

It is really amazing to me how many times I'm just out and about, and I have kids too. And I see some little child just walking around by themselves, you know, completely unsupervised. And it's no wonder that we have some many missing today. And I think as parents, we're a little more proactive about keeping their eyes on their kids at all times whether it's in a store, whether it's, you know, different, you know, places, you know, going to and from school.

That would reduce the number of missing kids significantly. But, you know, like I say, I think we definitely need to have some new laws at least structure how many - how we track these folks and whether we should let them out at all depending on the crime.

CONAN: Well, that's a pretty sobering recommendation to be - and in any case, a lot of people would argue and - well, thank you very much for the call, Dave. A lot of people would argue that at least in the cases that people have served their sentences or they've done their time, and then they're still being serving - being punished for crimes for which they've already served their time. And if they're going to change that, you need to change the laws, as you suggest. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Our guest is Robert Lowery, executive director of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Let's go next to Olin(ph), and Olin with us from Topeka.

OLIN: People do come and pump the oil.

CONAN: Olin?

OLIN: Yes. Hello?

CONAN: You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

OLIN: Yes. I've had a 5-year-old went missing in 1981.

CONAN: You've had a 5-year-old of yours?

OLIN: Yes.

CONAN: I'm sorry to hear that. Was there any investigation? They did find any leads?

OLIN: Oh, yeah. They had investigations and leads, and one of the Topeka Police Department had a - like a local cold case show, and then they've got some more leads off of that and - but as far as I know, they haven't come up with anything yet.

CONAN: And then you hear about a situation like the one from Cleveland, and you must have mixed emotions.

OLIN: I'm just terribly happy for them people.

CONAN: Of course, you are. Of course, you are.

OLIN: Thanks.

LOWERY: Well, Neal, if I could add, is that there are a lot of parents like Olin in our country today that are desperately looking for their children that need answers to what happened. And it's important that the public stays engaged as reminders that we are still looking for Olin's son or his daughter, that there's someone out there that has information that might help find the child, and that they need to call police or call us here at the National Center with that information because, like I say, not all - and I think it's important for Olin to know that we can't always assume the worst, although I think we face the same harsh realities when children are gone this long a period of time. But I think these children last night, they are proof that things do happen. There are miracles out there, and we can't let go of that hope.

CONAN: And you can't let go of that hope, Olin. Thank you so much.

OLIN: Yeah. Yeah. She's listed with the National Center, and I appreciate everything they're doing.

LOWERY: Thank you, Olin. We'll keep working.

OLIN: Thank you.

CONAN: And one last question, Robert Lowery. We used to famously see children's pictures on milk cartons. Where is the information posted today?

LOWERY: Well, you know, that's funny that you mentioned it. That actually was a program of many years ago. It wasn't very successful, unfortunately, but it seems to be the thing that most people seemed to remember about missing children posters. But now, today, we have, you know, the ability to engage the public through 24-hour news stations, smartphones have been a blessing for us when the missing children - when we're looking for missing children because we can engage the public real time.

And one of your early callers just say something that's important is that it's important that the public stay engaged when we're looking for children because they are the eyes and ears of law enforcement. When they see something or they see a child that resembles a missing child, they need to not hesitate. They need to report as quickly as they can because that's how we find these kids.

CONAN: Thanks very much. We appreciate your time today.

LOWERY: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Robert Lowery. This is NPR News.

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