May 20, 2013 12:00 PM

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.”

It’s an outcome the families of the missing girls had long prayed for, even as it raised dozens of new questions. Foremost among them: How did the three women go unnoticed by neighbors for so long? And how was Castro, a father and widower who posted “Miracles really do happen. God is good” on his Facebook page on May 2, able to mask his horrifying secret all that time? Many people close to Castro are hard-pressed to find answers. “He was a nice person, very outgoing,” says Jannette Gomez, 50, an acquaintance. “He would sit down on the porch, have some beers or coffee.” A bass guitar player in a local Latin band and a motorcycle enthusiast, “he would say, ‘It’s such a beautiful day out,’ ” recalls Gomez.

But others say a more sinister side emerged of Castro – who was charged with domestic violence in ’93, and whose daughter Emily is currently in prison for attempted murder of her own baby daughter – in recent years. “I grew up knowing him and he was always nice and friendly,” says Feliceonna Lopez, 16. “He would give us motorcycle rides. Out of nowhere he started acting crazy, and my mom told me to stay away from his house. He started boarding up his house about four years ago. He stopped talking to everyone when he used to come to all the parties—he just got weird. One time we saw him go by in his van, and I thought I saw a little girl, but his windows were tinted. There was a time when I was 12 and we were on the porch looking toward his house, and I saw girls in his backyard.” (Cleveland police have said they did not receive any tips regarding the house.)

Meanwhile, a mere five miles away, Berry’s family never stopped tying yellow ribbons around trees and plastering the neighborhood with missing posters. Each April brought a reminder of Amanda’s birthday, April 22, along with the terrible day that came right before it: April 21, 2003, when the almost 17-year-old vanished without a trace after calling her sister to say she’d gotten a ride home from her job at Burger King. “There would always be some kind of remembrance,” says Calabrese. “They wanted to keep her in the forefront of everybody’s minds.”

Tragically, Berry’s mother, Louwana Miller—who kept everything from Amanda’s hair conditioner to her mail in the bedroom she once occupied—died in 2006, never knowing her daughter was alive. “I don’t think my baby’s coming back home,” she told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 2003. “It gets harder and harder.” Although Louwana had been hospitalized with pancreatitis and other ailments, “she literally died of a broken heart,” local Councilwoman Dona Brady told the Associated Press. The families of DeJesus and Knight also suffered the anguish of not knowing what had happened to their daughters. “I know deep in my heart that my baby’s still out there,” Gina’s mother, Nancy Ruiz, told the Plain Dealer in 2006 of her outgoing daughter. (In a bizarre twist, Ariel’s son Anthony once interviewed Nancy Ruiz as a student journalist for the Plain Press. “It’s a shame that a tragedy had to happen for me to really know my neighbors,” she told him. “Bless their hearts, they’ve been great.” After his father’s arrest, Anthony told the Plain Dealer, “It’s unspeakable.”) As for Knight, whose photo had not been released at press time, her mother, Barbara, now lives in Florida and told the Plain Dealer, “So much has happened in these 10 years. She has a younger sister she still has not met. I missed her so much while she was gone.”

Now three women, along with their shattered families, must begin the work of coming together – and moving forward – after a decade of unimaginable torture. “The scars will never go away,” says Dr. Melvyn Lurie, a former Harvard professor and expert in abduction trauma. “They all will have elements of post-traumatic stress disorder. The family being supportive and around them is key.” In the meantime friends and relatives continue to question how the nightmare could have lasted so long, so very close to home. Just before she was spirited away by authorities, “Amanda said they could hear us—we were always out barbecuing, and she said they could hear us when we were cooking and could smell the food, but they couldn’t do anything about it,” says Garcia. “All of Cleveland is happy. For 10 years we’ve had parades with signs saying, ‘We love you! We wish you were alive!’ Just knowing they’re alive … we thank God for that.”

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