Visiting his mother’s house in working-class Cleveland on May 6 around 4:30 in the afternoon, a gregarious Ariel Castro greeted his family warmly.
“The first thing he said was ‘Familia!’ ” his brother-in-law Juan Alicea, 63, tells PEOPLE.
After a meal of rice and beans and pork chops, “He and I were in the yard breaking up dirt in the garden with his two grandchildren,” says Alicea. “He was talking about how he wanted to get it done because he didn’t want to have to come back and do it tomorrow. Then he kissed his mom goodbye and said, ‘I love you, Mom. The food was good.’ Just like normal.”
Little did the 52-year-old Castro realize that his carefully constructed, shockingly concealed world was about to implode. Just a few miles away, across the street from the white clapboard house Castro has lived in since 1992, a young woman was frantically calling 911 after several neighbors had helped her break down the door upon hearing her screams for help.
“I’m Amanda Berry,” she urgently told the operator. “I’ve been kidnapped, and I’ve been missing for 10 years.” And then, three simple words: “I’m free now.”
With that joyful declaration, a mystery that had haunted much of Cleveland – and tormented three families for a decade – was finally solved.
Along with Berry, now 27, and a 6-year-old child whom authorities believe to be Berry’s daughter, two other missing women were rescued from the home: Gina DeJesus, just 14 when she vanished on her way home from Wilbur Wright Middle School in April 2004, and Michelle Knight, who was 21 when she disappeared in 2002.
Of the dramatic escape, says neighbor Angie Garcia, “The screen door had glass at the bottom with wood. My friend helped break down the door. [Amanda] had half her body out. The little girl kept saying, ‘Mommy! Mommy!’ ” The three women “were so scared,” adds Garcia. “They were very dirty. Real bad-looking. They hadn’t showered. Their teeth were yellow.”
Then, as police and neighbors converged on the house, Castro “was coming around the corner,” says Garcia. “As soon as he saw the police, he turned and left.”
But within moments the former school bus driver was arrested; later that day his brothers Pedro, 54, and Onil, 50, were also arrested. The women and child were whisked to a nearby hospital before being released in fair condition.
“It’s unbelievable,” says neighbor Frank Calabrese, who lives next door to Berry’s sister Beth Serrano. “I’m thankful to God for finding them alive.”