August 19, 2013 12:00 PM

For Cleveland residents who live near the squalid 1,400- sq.-ft. chamber of horrors where Ariel Castro held three females hostage for more than a decade, the house at 2207 Seymour Ave. cannot be torn down soon enough. “I’ll be glad when the house is gone,” says Joel Tejeda, 22, who lives right across the street. “I’d like to see a park or something.” As Castro family members turned up recently to collect personal belongings and word circulated among neighbors that the city planned to soon raze the boarded-up house, the three women with the greatest reason to stay away showed up, one by one, to confront their grim past. Gina DeJesus, 23, pulled up with her father. Amanda Berry, 27, slipped in a visit to get drawings done by her daughter, without detection. And Michelle Knight, 32, imprisoned the longest behind those walls, summoned the strength not only to return to her prison of 11 years but, showing the inspirational feistiness that has become her calling card since the women’s miraculous escape three months ago, mingled with neighbors to offer a heartfelt “thank you” for their support.

Knight’s return to Seymour Ave. came one day after her courageous confrontation with Castro at his sentencing hearing, where she gave him a stern piece of her mind before he was taken away to begin serving a sentence of life without parole plus 1,000 years. “I worried about what might happen to the other girls and me every day,” Knight said. “The days never got shorter. The nights turned into days. The days turned into years. The years turned into eternity.” Standing just feet from the man who had chained her, beat her and induced miscarriages after raping her, the petite 4-ft. 7-in. Knight spoke deliberately. “Now your hell is just beginning,” she told Castro, 53. “I am not going to let you define me or affect who I am.”

Castro’s own statement, which followed a plea bargain that spared him the death penalty, included professions that he was “not a monster” and that the sex he’d had with his captives had been “consensual.” But his words were contradicted by the descriptions the three women had given police and doctors of their years of being subjected to physical and sexual abuse, temperature extremes and games of Russian roulette. Forensic evidence recovered from the house attested to their virtual enslavement: chains measuring 99 ft. in length, padlocks weighing a total of 92 lbs.

Hired by the prosecution to review the victims’ videotaped interviews, Dr. Frank Ochberg, a psychiatrist, told the court that the women had been “degraded, demeaned and diminished” as well as terrified by Castro. Even so, Ochberg tells PEOPLE, each “demonstrated remarkable qualities” and, when together, shared a bond that “showed the milk of human kindness, love, faith, optimism.” Particularly striking, he says, was the “sacrifice, compassion, imagination, [and] skill” shown by Knight, who not only delivered Berry’s baby under threat of death if she failed, but interceded when Castro sought to abuse DeJesus, by absorbing some of the physical and sexual trauma herself. “That’s a true, noble sacrifice,” says Ochberg.

Berry and DeJesus, who chose not to spend so much as another minute in Castro’s presence, addressed the court – and Castro – through relatives, whose statements reflected the women’s keen determination to reclaim their lives. Berry, who bore Castro’s daughter in captivity, stressed her hope that she and she alone would determine when her daughter Jocelyn, 6, would learn the truth about the man the child knows as her father. “Amanda did not control anything for a long time,” said her sister Beth Serrano. “Please let her have control over this.” Speaking for DeJesus, her cousin Sylvia Colon testified, “She lives not as a victim but as a survivor. Her insurmountable will to prevail is the only story worth discussing.” As if to prove that point, DeJesus appeared at Cleveland’s Puerto Rican Parade and Latino Fest three days later clad in blue tights, a red shirt and matching blue-and-red fingernails as she rode atop a silver Mercedes. Though she felt “overwhelmed” by the crowds, according to a person who knows her, she responded with waves and thumbs-ups to the ecstatic cries of “Gina! Gina!” For now, DeJesus and Berry continue to turn mostly inward, toward the comfort and shelter of their families. Knight, whose troubled family history has left her estranged from relatives and separated from the son she bore at age 17, is reaching outward just as she did in her first moment of freedom, when she launched herself into a policeman’s arms saying, “You saved us! You saved us!” Since then, she has penned notes of thanks that hint at her deep reservoir of strength. “Life is tough,” she wrote to a PEOPLE staffer. “But I’m tougher.”

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