Emmanuel Dunand / AFP - Getty Images file
Police patrol cars are parked in front of the Seymour Avenue home of Ariel Castro on May 8 in Cleveland. Police were on this block more than a thousand times during the 10 years when women were missing.
During the more than a decade that Ariel Castro allegedly held kidnapped teenagers and young women captive in his home at 2207 Seymour Ave., police officers were within shouting distance of the house more than a thousand times, according to Cleveland Police Department records analyzed by NBC News.
From the time the first kidnap victim vanished in August 2002 until the three women and a 6-year-old girl emerged from the Castro house on May 6, 2013, police responded to calls on that block 1,099 times — or about once every three and a half days. Castro pleaded not guilty last week to 329 charges, including kidnapping and rape.
The records — police dispatch logs and a few follow-up reports – offer a clue to a central mystery of the case: How could the women have gone undiscovered for so long? Castro’s whitewashed home – despite its plywood-covered windows and padlocked front door — was one of the quietest on a chaotic block, one of the houses making the fewest reports to police.
Next door to the Castro house, at No. 2003 Seymour, residents called police 35 times. Two more doors down, at No. 2115, police fielded 37 calls. Across the street and a few doors down at No. 2120, police came 68 times.
The neighborhood emerges from the police records as a central character in the crime story, a declining neighborhood in social turmoil. Why would the quiet house on the block draw a second glance from officers who are responding to domestic abuse calls and flashers, to broken windows and prowlers, to a fight involving 20 people armed with baseball bats?
Google Maps / NBC News
Map shows street addresses on the block of Seymour Avenue where Ariel Castro lived
Khalid Samad, a community organizer in Cleveland who had worked with police and organized community searches for the missing women, described an incident that occurred the evening that Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, Michelle Knight and Berry’s 6-year-old daughter were freed. He said it painted a picture of the current state of the neighborhood.
"Not an hour after they're out, I'm standing on the street near the Castro house and a fight broke out a few doors down because a guy who was out there saw a guy who he recognized as having shot him on the street,” Samad said. “Dude took off running, and they're wrestling down in front of the church. That's the kind of thing that would go on there."
The stretch of Seymour Avenue extending from Scranton Road to West 25th Street has seven houses on the south side of the street, surrounding the whitewashed Castro house at 2207, and nine houses and two apartment buildings on the north side.
It's a tough neighborhood struggling with unemployment and poverty, with a few well-tended houses and just as many vacant lots. Several houses, including an apartment building down the block from Castro’s residence, are vacant and boarded up. While some residents described the neighborhood as close-knit, others said it has suffered from increasing drug use and violent crime.
Ariel Castro was arraigned on rape, aggravated murder and kidnapping charges at a June 12 hearing where he pleaded not guilty. NBC's Lester Holt reports.
Given the frequency with which police visited the block over the period, it’s not surprising that they were often present near milestones in the kidnapping cases.
Three days after 20-year-old Knight disappeared on Aug. 22, 2002, police were two houses away from the Castro house, responding to a call at 2221 Seymour about the theft of a cell phone. (The residents at these addresses were typically calling police to report illegal or suspicious activity -- not perpetrators but victims or witnesses.)
Nine days after 16-year-old Amanda Berry disappeared on April 21, 2003, police were at 2221 Seymour again, investigating a car with no plates that had been left on the street for months.
And the day after 14-year-old Georgina "Gina" DeJesus disappeared on April 2, 2004, police were at 2022 Seymour, investigating harassing telephone calls.
Some incidents would have placed officers right outside Castro’s front door. On April 6, 2007, for example, two cars collided almost directly in front of the home, which is set back from the street. Police were on scene for 78 minutes.
On the Fourth of July weekend in 2006, a street fight near 2115 Seymour involving 20 people with baseball bats sent a pregnant woman to the hospital and drew several police cars.
Officers came to the Castro house only twice during the 3,910 nights that Knight was missing, as police have said, and neither call had anything to do with the missing women.
David Duprey / AP file
Law enforcement officials gather evidence at the Cleveland home of Ariel Castro on May 9.
The first visit was on Jan. 26, 2004, as police investigated a complaint that Castro had left a child on the public school bus that he drove. The boy said Castro kept him on the bus while Castro went to a Wendy's restaurant for lunch. He was not charged. According to his school personnel file, Castro was fired in 2012 after a traffic violation and then leaving his bus unattended in a school fire lane while he went home to rest.
The second visit came on July 3, 2009, when Castro called police to complain about a fight in the street.
A third entry for the Castro address was marked in the records as a "test" on July 3, 2009; a police department spokeswoman said that would not have been a call from the address, and the records show no officer was dispatched.
The Cleveland police spokeswoman said officials would have no comment about the records, which were provided in response to a public records request by NBC News.
There is no indication in the records that police officers were inattentive or missed clues that could have led to the discovery of the women. Some of the calls they responded to were reports of unidentified women screaming, but there is no suggestion that the screams emanated from Castro’s home.
On Jan. 20, 2003, a visually-impaired woman at 2115 Seymour, three doors down the street from the Castro house, called to say she could hear a female "screaming out front." An officer arrived within five minutes, and was on the scene for 45 minutes. There's no indication in the records of what was found.
The same woman heard, on May 6, 2008, a female voice at the apartment building across the street from her house, yelling, "Get off me!" And, the report says, the caller said the voice sounded covered or muffled. She also said she heard a baby crying. Again, no report was filed, and the dispatch log doesn't indicate police found anything. The call was cleared 19 minutes after the officer arrived.
Nor is there any support in the records for statements by a few neighbors who said — after the women were rescued — that they had alerted police to strange goings-on at the Castro house. They included some accounts suggesting that witnesses had reported seeing women chained and naked in the back yard.
Police officials have said that those calls were never made, and the women themselves told investigators they were only allowed outside twice, and then forced to wear wigs and sunglasses and keep their heads down.
"There is no evidence to indicate that any of them were ever outside in the yard, in chains, without clothing, or any other manner," Martin Flask, Cleveland director of public safety, told reporters on May 8.
Police Chief Michael McGrath told NBC News the same day, "We have no record of anyone calling" to report anything suspicious about the Castro house.
While police came under criticism from both residents and armchair detectives after Castro’s arrest, department officials have consistently defended their investigation of the disappearances as thorough and focused.
“I can tell you personally that I busted my butt to find those girls,” Keith Sulzer, Cleveland police district commander, said at a community meeting on May 9. "Me and my guys searched every vacant lot, every vacant building, everywhere that we could legally go in and search."
Perhaps as telling as what is in the records is what isn’t: calls about the Castro house. That absence supports police accounts of the isolation in which the women were kept and their terrorized mental states after years of captivity.
After their release, the three women told police that they were chained in the basement for a time, then were allowed more freedom to spend time on the second floor of the Castro house, still behind locked doors and subject to beatings, according to a Cleveland police report. The women also said that Castro intimidated them by pretending to leave but would punish them if they tried to escape or call out for help.
Even so, Samad, the community organizer, said he believed the women might not have gone unnoticed in a different neighborhood.
"If this was an inner-ring suburban neighborhood," he said, "you'd have some nosy neighbors who would ask, ‘Why are your windows boarded up, why are you taking groceries in if you don't have family there?’"
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