May 27, 2013 12:00 PM

Though each was young and vulnerable, all three of Ariel Castro’s kidnap victims came armed with strengths that would help them endure the years of horror ahead. Gina Dejesus, 14, had the buoyancy and affection of a well-loved child who knew that home and family were worth fighting for. Strong-willed Amanda Berry, 16, was, to her family, “the glue that kept everyone calm,” says childhood friend Lisha Jacome, who lived briefly in the Berry home. A frequent babysitter for her sister’s two daughters, Berry had child-care skills when she bore Castro’s child in 2007. For that birth Castro designated his oldest captive, Michelle Knight, as midwife – and threatened to kill her if the baby died. The mother of a 2-year-old son when she was kidnapped at age 21, Knight not only had experienced childbirth, she had helped perform a delivery of the family dog’s puppies as a kid. Says her mother, Barbara Knight: “She watched, she learned.”

For now, the three women are talking to no one but family members about what went on behind the sealed doors and windows at 2207 Seymour Ave. in Cleveland. Through an attorney they pleaded for privacy and stated that the details of their ordeal will remain closely guarded “until Castro’s criminal case is over.” But even as they adjusted to starkly different welcomes, a picture began to emerge of the deep bonds they developed during captivity. “They are like sisters,” says Matt Zone, a city councilman close to the DeJesus family. “They were a family.” That caring was on display last week when Gina visited Michelle in the hospital. Michelle’s brother Freddie Knight, who was in the room, describes the get-together as that of “two best friends.” A DeJesus family friend says that Gina’s parents, concerned about Michelle’s uncertain future, may “take her into their house.”

During their time locked – and sometimes chained – inside Castro’s squalid 1,400-sq.-ft house, Gina and Michelle spent the most time together. They occupied the upper floor; Amanda and her child Jocelyn were kept separately. “Amanda was kind of by herself because she had this horrible man’s daughter,” says a source close to the investigation. “They all bonded when they could. But I do know the other two girls had the stronger bond than Amanda. The other two leaned on each other, and Amanda had the daughter to lean on. All three would look out for each other.” This source says Amanda was held apart “because he took [Jocelyn] out. That’s the only thing he did right.”

Now as Castro, 52, sits in a Cleveland jail cell, held on $8 million bond, facing charges of rape and kidnapping, he is very much alone. His two brothers, who were initially arrested, then released after investigators determined they had no involvement in the kidnappings, denounced Ariel on CNN. “Monster, hateful,” Onil Castro, 51, said. “I hope he rots in jail.” “If I knew that my brother was doing this,” Pedro Castro, 54, said, “I would call the cops.” So how did Ariel hide the sordid goings-on when his sibs dropped by? “He would let me in not past the kitchen,” Pedro said. Instead he quickly handed off alcohol and food, then guided Pedro back out to the stoop. If the captives made any noises, Pedro said, they were masked by the radio.

While relatives of all three women say the survivors look remarkably healthy, the road ahead will not be easy. The greatest challenges will likely fall to Michelle, who, according to a source familiar with the investigation, “will need additional medical care.” Kidnapped in 2002 – 8 months before Amanda and 19 months before Gina – Michelle, now 32, not only had the longest ordeal but she was seemingly subjected to the worst abuse by Castro. She told investigators that he repeatedly got her pregnant, then would starve her and punch her in the stomach until she miscarried. (Cuyahoga County prosecutor Timothy McGinty is now seeking aggravated murder charges in connection with those miscarriages.)

The last of the three to leave the hospital, Michelle was released on May 10, destination unknown, but clearly not home to her mother. After permitting Freddie and an aunt to drop by on her first night in the hospital, she cut off all family visits. The news of her escape was also the first time Freddie and other relatives heard that Michelle had been missing; they thought she’d run away after losing custody of her 2-year-old son Joey. Only her mother, Barbara, 50, who filed a missing-persons report at the time, offers a different view. The police, she says, didn’t take her seriously. “They just said that she was of age and they couldn’t look for her because she wasn’t a child,” Barbara says. “It just sucks that I can’t see her.” Last week, as reports circulated that Gina’s parents, Felix and Nancy, planned to take Michelle in, Barbara turned up at the DeJesus home. “Nancy told her, ‘I want to get the girls together soon,’ ” says Zone. But one friend says Michelle does not want to see Barbara.

She does, however, want to see her son Joey, now 13 and in foster care. Freddie says that during his hospital visit, Michelle showed him a notebook of drawings that she made while in captivity, many of them of Joey. “For sure,” he says, “I know she wants to get her baby back.”

Gina’s homecoming, by contrast, has been a joyous affair. “Gina had a smile from ear to ear,” says Zone. “I had a sense the family picked up right where they left off.” Her first words to her father as she embraced him were, “Dad, are you still smoking?” to which he responded that “Dad” was the most beautiful word he’s ever heard. At their home Zone walked in on a slumber party: A brother and cousins crashed on the couches, and Gina and her sister curled up together on an air mattress. At one point when family members were speaking Spanish, Gina, now 23, interjected, “Mami, what did you say?” “I’m going to teach you to speak Spanish again,” Nancy responded.

When Ashley Fritz, 24, dropped by to see her childhood friend, she encountered a Gina she recognized. “She’s just the same old Gina,” says Fritz. “She wants to enjoy her life.” On Gina’s agenda: going to school, getting her driver’s license and trying to master her first touch-screen phone. Still, “she has a long road ahead,” says a family friend. “I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture.”

For Amanda, 27, the homecoming has been quieter and more cocoon-like. Her heartbroken mother, Louwana, had honored Amanda’s neatnik streak and left undisturbed her Eminem posters, magazines and clothes. Her cousin Tina Miller, who describes the Amanda she used to know as a “girlie girl,” says that back before her abduction, she wanted to be a fashion designer and “refused to cross-contaminate Tommy Hilfiger with Nautica.” After Louwana’s death in 2006, many of her possessions migrated to the home of her sister Beth Serrano, where Amanda and Jocelyn, 6, are now staying.

The little girl, too, needs extensive care. “She will need to get caught up on being a child,” says a law-enforcement source. “She hasn’t had any of her shots, the well-baby visits, the school checkups.” She’ll also have to get to know her relatives. “Amanda’s little girl is going to be loved by each and every one of our family members,” says Miller.

In the months ahead, it will be critical that all three survivors regain a sense of freedom and safety. “They escaped,” says Vicki Anderson, who worked the kidnappings as an FBI special agent. “Now they’re captive again. They can’t do anything or go anywhere without the world wanting to know their every move. They need time to adjust.” Toward that end Guardian Angels and police are staked outside the DeJesus home to keep intruders away. Inside the house the family is taking it slow. “They waited nine years,” says Lydia Esparra, a family friend. “Now that they have Gina, the patience is going to continue.”

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